Historic Preservation

Posted October 10, 2016
  • A historic map of Philadlephia indicates the site of the Bethel Burial Ground

  • A playground on the site, as envisioned at the time of the city's purchase of the lot in the late 19th century

  • Renovations to the playground will leave historically significant areas of the site untouched

  • A drawing of the park's shelter building, which dates to 1924.

The Layered History of a Queen Village Site Newly Listed on the Register of Historic Places

In exploring pastoral sites such as Laurel Hill and Woodlands cemeteries for his 2009 dissertation, Parceling the Picturesque: “Rural” Cemeteries and Urban Context in Nineteenth- Century Philadelphia, Aaron Wunsch, Assistant Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, didn’t include the more urban-focused heritage of African-American burial grounds.
Still, because of his expertise in the field, it was to him that several interested parties turned for help in nominating Bethel Burial Ground to the National Register of Historic Places. 
Earlier this year, Wunsch and the team received the good news: the site, located in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood, would indeed be added to the register. 
The case was a clear one: the early 19th-century burial ground marks the final resting place of thousands of parishioners of Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1810, itself a national historic landmark. 
“Its development also tells an independent story of African-Amerian burial trends in Philadelphia,” Wunsch wrote in his nomination. “It represents the culmination of a decades-long effort by that community to secure a burial space of its own – a matter of great importance to a populace whose dead were generally relegated to potters fields and left vulnerable to vandals and bodysnatchers.
But, as Wunsch discovered while conducting his research, the story was more complicated and featured additional layers buried not only under the surface — but also on top of it. 
“When the city bought the site from Bethel Church in 1889, they bought it as a way of bringing light and air into the neighborhood and created a playground, which is a use that continues to this day,” he explains. “The small urban park movement is often viewed as beginning in Boston — but this shows that Philadelphians were talking about it in the 1880s.  That this site was an experimental ground for urban reform struck me as something that should be addressed.”  
And then there were the layers of the designation itself, given sudden urgency by the city giving the green light to a long-delayed renovation of the playground. 
“The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission [the state agency responsible for reviewing national register nominations] determined that our document had to be bulletproof.” Concerned about moving ahead quickly and succinctly, the nominating team balked at Wunsch’s suggestions that the park’s history as a playground be included.
A “compromise of sorts” was reached, he says. The playground made it into the historical narrative, but its significance wasn't highlighted. This “left the door open to an amended nomination down the line,” Wunsch explains.
For now, Wunsch counts it as a victory that the “debate about protecting the burial ground has gotten more serious and Mayor Jim Kenney has assured those concerned that the playground’s refurbishments will not impact its historical features.” (Indeed, as work progresses on the park this year, its southwestern corner — which includes tennis courts and a recreation building — remains untouched. It’s in this section where the remains of those buried lie.)
The history and conservation of the site would make a “great interpretative studio project,” Wunsch believes. “I would love to see landscape, architecture and preservation students involved in taking apart the different layers of history and thinking about doing justice to all of them. It’d be an incredibly interesting exercise and would make the case for including preservation in the School of Design.”