For 65 years the Baptist Temple at Broad and Berks streets had the quietest neighbor you could ask for.
Directly across the street from the Romanesque church was the Monument Cemetery, the final home for thousands of Philadelphia-area residents of the early 19th century.
The cemetery, built in 1836, covered 14 acres of land bordered by Broad and 17th streets to the east and west and Norris and Berks streets to the north and south.
The 28,000-plot cemetery held more than 700 Civil War veterans and many well-known people, including Russell Conwell, founder of Temple University.
The cemetery stored bodies in vaults, encased them in heavy concrete or buried them in wooden coffins. The cemetery’s last burial was held in 1929.
During the late 1930s the area around the cemetery became more densely populated and neighborhood youths used the cemetery as a playground because of the lack of local recreational facilities.
The youths broke the cemetery’s iron fence in many places and over time many of the cemetery’s 20,000 grave markers were broken.
For many years the grass was not cut and weeds grew free.
Philadelphia City Council members blasted the cemetery’s caretakers throughout the 1940s for the site’s poor maintenance and the dilapidated condition.
Temple University officials eyed the deteriorating cemetery for campus expansion and unveiled a plan in May 1953 to make use of the cemetery land.
At the same time, Raymond Alexander, then the councilman for the district, launched an effort to acquire the cemetery for city recreational purposes.
He introduced a resolution in City Council that declared the cemetery a public nuisance and called for the respectful removal of the bodies and renovation for other purposes.
Alexander suggested in his resolution “that part of the ground would provide a wonderful opportunity for Temple in its expansion program.”
A court order in 1954 took control of the cemetery from its owners and a second court ruling in 1955 ordered the bodies to be relocated to Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge, Pa.
The removal of 26,500 bodies began in January 1956 and continued late into that summer.
A team of 25 workers armed with charts showing the location of each body used a large bulldozer and crane to remove the bodies.
After the bulldozer removed the grave’s concrete marking slab, the men carefully dug with shovels to recover the remains.
Corpses encased in concrete were lifted from the grave by a crane.
Bodies whose caskets had deteriorated were placed in a white pine box.
After the bodies were reburied in the Lawnview Cemetery, relatives were notified and told exactly where each body was placed.
On March 7, 1956 the Board of Education announced that they had purchased three acres of the cemetery for $137,500 to convert it into a school playground.
Within a week, the University announced that it had purchased of the remaining 11 acres for $700,000.
The City bought one-quarter of the property from Temple for $237,000 to construct a recreation center.
“In Temple’s long range plans, this acquisition guarantees us at least 22 acres of land in the area between 12th and 16th Streets and between Columbia Ave. (now Cecil B. Moore Ave.) and Diamond Street,” said the president of the University, Robert Johnson.
“It is vitally needed for Temple to meet its rapidly growing enrollment and its responsibility to the city and the state.”
Today, athletic fields, playgrounds and the Student Pavilion cover the old cemetery grounds.
Temple University Director of Engineering and Construction Andrew Riccardi, remembers finding marble casket handles and fragments of tombstones during the construction of the Student Pavilion.
“If we had gone deeper, we probably would have found a lot more,” he said.
The large stone wall along Broad Street and cobblestone driveway of West Berks Street serve as the only visible reminders that a cemetery that once stood there.
Chris Powell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org