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Swan Point Cemetery

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1847 and later. 1847–1863, original southeast quarter, Atwater and Schubarth. 1894–1913, landscaping, Frederick Law Olmsted and Olmsted Brothers. 585 Blackstone Blvd.

Swan Point Cemetery adjoins Butler Hospital. Quiet contemplation in a picturesque, rural landscape was considered appropriate for cemeteries as well as mental hospitals in the mid-nineteenth century. Before Swan Point, leading families in Providence tended to have their burial plots in the North Burial Ground, which, when established in 1700, was in open country, well beyond the effective end of building on North Main Street. Typical for its time, it was essentially a field with minimal landscaping and with geometric regularity as the basic scheme for its drives. Swan Point evolved as a reaction, led by members of an active intellectual circle sympathetic to progressive early-nineteenth-century romantic ideas as to the proper setting for bereavement and commemoration. It is an early and distinguished rural landscaped cemetery—the handsomest of its type and scale in the state and among the finest in the country. At its principal gate, through a tumbled wall of cyclopean boulders completed in 1899–1900, Stone, Carpenter and Willson erected a simple trolley shelter (1904). This, too, is a pile of boulders pierced with ragged openings, under a low, shingled roof which is at once hipped and cross-gabled with deep, flaring eaves.

The 210-acre cemetery is composed of two distinct parts: the eastern section, acquired and developed between 1847 and 1870 (along the river), and the western section (toward the entrance gate), developed during the mid-twentieth century. The undulating eastern section, along the Seekonk, is heavily planted and laced with curving roads, which, with vegetation and monuments, reinforce the picturesque landscape. The western section is flatter, more simply arranged, and designed for lower maintenance. The northwest quarter of the cemetery is undeveloped woods. Several important structures by Providence architects serve the cemetery itself. Thomas Tefft's round-arched receiving tomb (1847) remains on Forest Avenue. The Neo-Gothic office and chapel was built in three stages, by Stone, Carpenter and Willson (1905) and John Hutchins Cady (1932 and 1945). Monuments in the older section of the cemetery are of fine quality. They include many by Thomas Tefft, a number by Alpheus Morse, and a wealth by the prominent local stonecutting firm, Tingley Brothers. Although some funerary sculpture exists—a fine example is the Sprague gisants, carved by Charles Hemenway, close to the original entrance road toward the middle of the cemetery—Swan Point's monuments are generally geometric in quality. Of special interest to the architectural pilgrim will be the mausoleum for Marsden Perry, onetime resident of the John Brown House. This is located at the cemetery's northeasternmost corner, and nearly as close to the river as it can be, its precinct surrounded by evergreens. His hillside mausoleum is fronted by an elevation of a two-story Georgian brick house which replicates as its entrance, at full scale, the portico of his Power Street mansion—as he commissioned Edmund Willson to remodel it. Scattered through the cemetery are the burial sites of many of the Providence architects whose work we have seen, mingled with grander monuments to their clients.

Cemetery, asylum, park, and parkway all are characterized by effulgent landscape in the naturalistic mode. Few places offer in such proximity the experience of four such handsome exemplars of the Victorian conviction of the beneficent effect for the city dweller of escape to nature. Together they induce “repose”—that nirvana for Victorian aesthetics, psychology, and redemption.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


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William H. Jordy et al., "Swan Point Cemetery", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 121-122.

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