Oak Hill Cemetery, an idea first put forward by notable Washington, DC, banker William Wilson Corcoran, is an example of picturesque landscape architecture – first popularized in early 18th century England. The cemetery sits just south of the Rock Creek Valley, between Montrose Park and Mount Zion Cemetery in the Georgetown Historic District. In 1848, Corcoran bought 15 acres of land from then resident of Dumbarton Oaks and relative of George Washington, George Corbin Washington, to be the site of a new cemetery. There, the Oak Hill Cemetery Company, which was chartered by an Act of Congress in 1849, began the work of designing the grounds of the cemetery.
The sloping hills and manicured footpaths of the cemetery were surveyed and designed by civil engineer George Frederick Frank de la Roche. His plan was based in the English Romantic school of landscape design, popularized in America by Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing is responsible for many notable sites in the district including Lafayette Square and some of the grounds around the Smithsonian Castle. La Roche is also presumed to have been the designer of the Italian Villa style Gate House, which fronts R Street NW, though no official record of its architect exists.
The cemetery’s grounds feature two structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, George Hadfield’s Van Ness Mausoleum and James Renwick, Jr.’s Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel. The Van Ness Mausoleum, situated at the east end of the cemetery, houses the remains of local politician John Peter Van Ness and his family. The Mausoleum was moved to Oak Hill in 1872 or 1873 from its original site on H Street NW, between 9th and 10th streets. Renwick’s Chapel is a small example of the Gothic Revival designs that made the architect famous, particularly through his designs for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church in New York City.
In addition to the Van Ness family, many notable figures of local and national importance from many walks of life are buried at Oak Hill. Some of the individuals buried on the grounds include philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran, writer John Howard Payne, President Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson, President Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, among numerous others.