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Located in Georgetown adjacent to Rock Creek and Rock Creek Park, the 15-acre cemetery was founded on steep, wooded land purchased by Washington banker and art collector William Wilson Corcoran from George Corbin Washington, a great-nephew of the first U.S. President. Corcoran donated the land to the Oak Hill Cemetery Company, incorporated in 1848 by an act of Congress.
The cemetery was graded and plotted by Captain George F. de la Roche, an engineer, with a naturalistic design of winding paths lined with crypts, mature deciduous trees and flowering shrubs, and terraces that step down towards Rock Creek below. Rock Creek Park’s rugged landscape of woodland and boulders serves as a picturesque backdrop to the cemetery. In 1849, architect James Renwick, Jr. designed the brick and iron enclosure and the cemetery’s stone chapel in an English Gothic idiom, his only such commission in the city. The chapel looks out onto a gracious ellipse, planted with trees until the 1930s but today composed of an open lawn, with an ornamental fountain at its center and a bust of John Howard Payne on its east side. In 1872 the cemetery received the Van Ness Mausoleum, designed in 1833 by George Hadfield as a replica of the Roman Temple of Vesta and moved here from H Street. Oak Hill Cemetery now encompasses 22 acres. The stone chapel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972; the Van Ness Mausoleum was listed in 1982.