Restoring, repurposing & reviving a historic cemetery estate in Philadelphia

That historic site is so relevant,” said hardly anyone ever. But that’s just what The Woodlands has become.

The more common narrative in the world of house museums and standalone historic places is closer to existential crisis. Too many (and we may have too many) are adrift, struggling to find community connections, contemporary resonance, and financial support.

That bleak backdrop makes signs of revival at The Woodlands in West Philadelphia all the more remarkable.

The Woodlands, an 18th century estate-turned-rural cemetery and designated National Historic Landmark District, limped along in near obscurity for large parts of the 20th century. But lately it has turned a corner, aiming to balance its high historic values with contemporary uses, matching stewardship with approachability and creativity. It is as though a breath of fresh air has swept through.

The focus has turned from the hereafter to an emphasis on the here and now. A 2012 strategic plan enabled The Woodlands to pivot from its old school focus on burial plot sales (a literally dying industry) and toward other means to sustain operations. That was followed by the development of a master plan for the site informed by a survey of users, which confirmed diverse connections to the site, and historic features to inform the future.

The master plan, funded by the William Penn Foundation, has three goals – to increase visibility and access, restoration of the historic buildings and landscape features, and finding new opportunities for revenue generation.

The plan uses historic site features to guide future growth, envisions different circulation patterns throughout the site, identifies ways to create more welcoming and improved points of connectivity to the site, a cremation garden that will enable burials to continue but not dominate future land uses, and enabling mansion and carriage shed spaces to be used for private events.

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