Before there was Geasey, there were tombstones

Monument Cemetery was located to the west of Main Campus until it was excavated in 1953.

A tombstone sits on the banks of the Delaware River near the Betsy Ross Bridge. Several former grave markers from Monument Cemetery were used as foundation for the bridge. Kate McCann | TTN
A tombstone sits on the banks of the Delaware River near the Betsy Ross Bridge. Several former grave markers from Monument Cemetery were used as foundation for the bridge. Kate McCann | TTN

Thomas H. Keels wrote in “Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries” about the city’s struggle to balance glorifying the dead and maintaining the needs of the living.

Oftentimes, he wrote, it’s the living who win this battle.

Philadelphia has long struggled with the desire to honor its rich history while still using its land for needs of today. Monument Cemetery, a Victorian cemetery which housed between 26,000 and 28,000 bodies including Temple’s founder Russell Conwell and his wife Sarah Conwell.

The diamond-shaped chunk of land which once held Monument was bounded by Fontain Street on the north, Montgomery Avenue on the south, 17th Street on the west and Broad Street on the east. Geasey Field, the track, the tennis courts, the Student Pavilion and the 15th Street Parking lot now sit on the land.

The plan for the future of the area is “much the same as it is now,” said Jim Creedon, senior vice president for construction, facilities and operations.

While not included in the initial five-year scope of the campus master plan Visualize Temple, Creedon said Temple may eventually enclose a portion of the field for indoor use. This would feature a recreation building behind Pearson and McGonigle halls which would house free weight space and multipurpose rooms and courts. This would overlay the area where the track is and cut into the edge of the former Monument Cemetery land.

The only tangible signs left of the cemetery are the headstones and the tall obelisk that stood in the center of the cemetery. Most were used as founding stones for the Betsy Ross Bridge and are visible during low tide. Others are strewn around the banks of the Delaware River near the bridge.

Dr. Stephen Nepa, a professor in the department of history, said Monument is an example of an area which slowly deteriorated and was overtaken as Temple expanded.

“Some say it’s part of that larger conversation that this university has between itself and the neighborhood surrounding it,” Nepa said. “This neighborhood is changing, and Temple’s driving so much of that.”

Temple purchased William Penn High School on Broad and Master streets, along with acquiring property on the 1500 block of North Broad Street. Monument Cemetery was one of the first acquisitions which marked the university’s growth.

Monument Cemetery opened in 1837 as the second garden-style cemetery in Philadelphia, originally called Père-Lachaise after the first rural cemetery in Paris, Keels wrote in his book.

Nepa said cemeteries of its kind were exquisite – guests would visit the well landscaped and ornately decorated ground simply for leisure.

“Some people would literally just go to these cemeteries, maybe not even having any relatives or friends buried there, just to kind of get lost in tranquility,” Nepa said.

In 1929, the cemetery was filled and stopped accepting burials.

“With no more money coming in, the cemetery could not maintain the gravesites, the landscaping,” Nepa said. “The place had been neglected; a lot of graffiti, apparently there was a rat problem.”

In a 1953 copy of the Philadelphia Bulletin, resident Effie Bulmer described Monument Cemetery, where her parents and grandparents were buried, as “the most deplorable place in the city.”

Nepa said the place existed in the shadows; there was a great deal of crime and vandalism which took place in the cemetery around the 1940s and 1950s.

“At the same time, Temple is growing,” Nepa said. The cemetery represented an area into which the university could expand and potentially use for the increasing commuter traffic.

“Extensively the idea was, ‘Take this cemetery, pave it over, we have a parking lot,’” Nepa said.

“Temple is able to make the case to the city, it’s in disrepair, it’s in neglect and if we get it we can at least create some use out of it,” Nepa said. “Oh, and by the way, it will generate money.”

After World War II, there was a need to remake the city, update it and find new investments, Nepa said. Monument was part of this change.

The Philadelphia Bulletin reported that Councilman Raymond Pace Alexander lobbied for the condemnation of the cemetery for Temple. He saw it as an opportunity to gain revenue from revitalizing the neglected land.

After legal proceedings and debates over where the dead would be moved, Temple eventually received the majority of the land in 1956. The Philadelphia Bulletin reported that year that the plans were for playing fields, physical and recreational classes, a field house and parking facilities.

The portion of the cemetery that spanned from 16th to 17th streets was bought by the Philadelphia School District to hold a playground for those at George Washington Carver High School.

Out of 26,000 to 28,000 bodies buried over there during the cemetery’s 115 years of existence, 748 relatives were contacted and about 400 responded.

The majority of the bodies were moved to Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge, Pennsylvania.

Nepa said there remains speculation about whether all the bodies were really removed.

“In a city of this age there are bodies everywhere under the street,” Nepa said.

Monument Cemetery is one of many cemeteries which were overtaken. Keels listed nine others which were removed throughout the mid-1900s.

Nepa highlighted the Bethel burying ground, an African American Cemetery in Queen Village, which was turned into a playground. The area has recently become the center of great deal of controversy as many fight for those whom are still buried beneath.

The future of Geasey Field remains uncertain, with administrators saying the lacrosse and field hockey teams may soon relocate to the newly-acquired property of William Penn High School, which is slated to be the future home of the men’s and women’s soccer teams.

The tombstones that once stood on top of Geasey Field, however, remain scattered on the shores of the Delaware.

Mariam Dembele can be reached at and on twitter @Mariam_Dembele

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