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Envisioning a Community Visitor's Center

A design grant to Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery resulted in plans for a visitor's center that can meet the needs of the community too.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, established in 1836, is one of America’s first rural garden cemeteries.  Its elaborate marble mausoleums and monumental tombstones house many of Philadelphia’s most influential citizens.  Once surrounded by farmland and located five miles from a rapidly industrializing Philadelphia, the bucolic cemetery and its scenic vistas of the Schuylkill River attracted visitors from all over. During the Great Depression, Laurel Hill Cemetery lost a significant amount of its endowment and went into a decades-long decline.

In 1978, the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded to restore the cemetery to its original grandeur. The nonprofit re-envisioned the cemetery as a place for the living—with a full calendar of fascinating programs and events. Laurel Hill’s first responsibility is to “the people who have bought property here and the people who have passed away,” says Clifford David, Jr., a member of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery board of directors. “But a key focus of our programs and services is the general public.”

The Need for a New Visitor’s and Community Center
The Friends group’s business model for the cemetery has been a great success. Its success has brought the need for more space and a new visitor’s and community center to support their programming. The current visitor’s center and offices for the Friends group are housed in the cemetery’s gatehouse on Ridge Avenue. “We’re running out of room,” says Cliff. “We need more space for archives. We need more space for displays. We need much more space for programs and events.”

We’re running out of room.  We need more space for archives. We need more space for displays. We need much more space for programs and events.

Before doing the conceptual design for the visitor’s center, the Collaborative provided the Friends group with a programming study to identify space needs and weigh the pros and cons of several sites inside and outside the cemetery. That study led to a decision to develop the center on a vacant property across from the gatehouse.

Engaging the Community
The Collaborative provided an opportunity for the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery to bring all stakeholders to the table. The Friends group reached out to city agencies, elected officials, foundations, and local civic organizations to participate—including Ridge-Allegheny-Hunting Park Civic Association, Strawberry Mansion Civic Association, Historic Strawberry Mansion, and East Falls Development Corporation. 

The task force meetings, says Cliff, led to “an expanded exposure and involvement with the community. The community groups said, ‘We need a space where we can have 100 people meet… there’s really nothing in this area for that to take place.”

The conceptual design developed by the Collaborative provides expanded office, exhibition, and archive space. It could also bring new amenities: a chapel, café, catering kitchen, and a large multi-purpose room with a stage and a separate community entrance for after-hours use.

Redevelopment scenarios were created for the visitor’s center for a site that Laurel Hill already owns and for an expanded site that includes an adjacent parcel.

The design process was instrumental in several ways. “We knew what we wanted, but we didn’t know how to interpret that and put it into a building,” says Cliff. Through two community task force meetings to guide the conceptual design, “We learned a lot about what the community was looking for. When we started this project, we were focusing on what was needed by the cemetery: ‘What do we need, what do we want to build?’ We evolved to more of a consensus. Okay, here’s something we can do together... We’re now calling it a community visitor’s center,” says Cliff.

Through the community task force meetings, we learned a lot about what the community was looking for.

Finally, the conceptual design process changed perceptions about Laurel Hill as a community amenity. “What they learned from us is what is here. That it’s safe to come in… we want you to come in," says Cliff. “One of the community members told us, ‘I never wanted to come in here, I was scared.’ After she came on a tour she loved it, she said ‘I’m going to bring my friends, I’m going to bring my relatives!’ She was overwhelmed with how nice the place is.”

Community feedback indicated the need for a large multi-purpose room in the center.
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