Established in 1863 in a part of Westchester County later annexed by the city of New York, the cemetery is situated on 400 acres of undulating topography overlooking the Bronx River. Woodlawn was designed by James C. Sidney as a rural cemetery, with curvilinear, tree-lined roads that worked around existing mature trees and took advantage of views to a picturesque natural lake. In 1867, the cemetery trustees moved towards a lawn cemetery style that could accommodate larger centralized family monuments. In keeping with the style no fences or hedges were allowed and grave markers were kept low, creating the effect of continuous rolling lawn with elegant stone monuments punctuating the landscape. Circular lots edged by pedestrian paths distinguish the cemetery’s most active period of growth, from 1880 to 1930, and provide a unique monument setting for some of the nation’s leading families who are buried there. Canopy and ornamental trees were planted selectively to accentuate views and enhance the overall romantic quality of the place.
The cemetery is noted for its almost 1,300 private mausolea, many designed by notable American architects, including McKim Mead & White, John Russell Pope, Edwin Lutyens and Carrére and Hastings, with plots designed by Olmsted Brothers, Beatrix Farrand, and Ellen Shipman. The cemetery encompasses over 300,000 gravesites, including those reinterred in 1905 from a seventeenth-century Dutch burial ground. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011.