In the nineteenth century, growing and congested cities both in Europe and America developed on their outskirts beautifully landscaped cemeteries that included varied topography, natural plantings, and curving roadways on sites that also served as public parks. Glenwood Cemetery chose this style and stands out for its exceptional beauty, both in Houston and nationwide. Its hilly topography, meandering roads, exquisite grave sculptures, historical markers, and magnificent long views all lie beneath some of the largest oaks in Harris County.
With other Houston cemeteries filling up from yellow fever and infectious diseases, Glenwood, located at 2525 Washington Avenue, opened as a for-profit business by the Houston Cemetery Company in 1872. Sited at the west end of one of Houston’s earliest streetcar lines, Glenwood effectively served as the first city park. Heralded as the first Houston cemetery to be professionally designed, Glenwood was planned by English horticulturalist Alfred Whitaker, who used the features of the natural terrain and referenced Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn as design models. Located at the edge of town until the early 1900s, the cemetery still dealt with the problem of roaming cattle in the 1870s. Glenwood also exerted an irresistible attraction for disreputable activities such as gambling, dueling, robberies, and prostitution.
The cemetery was initially operated by a board of directors headed by W. B. Botts. J. C. Hutcheson was elected president of the board in 1886, and by the late 1880s crews had installed an irrigation system, fountains, a greenhouse, and an office cottage. In 1893 Thomas Tinsley, a New York lawyer and speculator, gained majority control of the cemetery. Under the guise of financial tightening and reform, Tinsley neglected maintenance and systematically looted the cemetery until disgruntled lot owners had him ejected in 1896. To avoid such incidents, the cemetery became a nonprofit as the Glenwood Cemetery Association in 1903 and also reversed Tinsley’s refusal to bury any “descendent of the African Race.”
The 1847 Masonic Cemetery lay on land where Sam Houston Park (acquired in 1899) and the 1959 City Hall Annex stand today. In 1959 to 1960, when Sam Houston Park was developed, remains from the Masonic Cemetery were reinterred in Glenwood Cemetery at the west end of Glenwood. A memorial monument lists their names.
In 1999 Glenwood assumed operation of the adjacent Washington Cemetery (originally opened as the German Society Cemetery in 1887). In 1918 its name changed to Washington Cemetery in response to anti-German sentiment during World War I.
In both Washington and Glenwood cemeteries, ninety-one graves of the citizens of the Republic of Texas (from 1836 to 1846) bear Republic of Texas medallions installed by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas starting in 2007. The numerous Confederate veterans’ graves sport easily-recognized “CSA” headstones. In contrast to the rounded tops of Union headstones, the tops of Confederate headstones are apocryphally said to be pointed to “prevent ‘Yankees’ from sitting on Confederate headstones”. The National Cemetery Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides both the Union and Confederate headstones.
Both Glenwood and Washington cemeteries have “Strangers Rest” sections, a nineteenth-century term for single grave spaces, as distinguished from family lots, in most cases neither transients nor paupers. Graves are marked with anonymous headstones about the size of a brick with a three-digit number on top. Immediately to the east of the Glenwood entrance, a small old Strangers Rest section contains a handful of numbered marble headstones scattered among larger grave sites. A much larger Strangers Rest section with terra cotta headstones lies to the west and south of the Washington Cemetery entrance road. A project to identify the dead in the Strangers Rest section took place in the 1990s.
Beautiful monuments, many by stone carver and sculptor Frank Teich, fill Glenwood, among them the exquisite angel figures for the Fredericks, Dunn, Hill, Dunovant, and Sternenberg families. Since the beginning Glenwood Cemetery has been regarded as a premier resting place for Houston’s elite and has been called “The River Oaks of the Dead.”
Numerous prominent Houston historical figures lie in Glenwood, including billionaire Howard Hughes, Jr.; Republic of Texas president Anson Jones; Texas governors William P. Hobby and Ross Sterling; and actress Gene Tierney. Additionally, the Glenwood Cemetery office provides a brochure giving biographical information and burial locations of some prominent historical figures. Historical figures include people from every walk of life throughout Houston’s entire history: Republic of Texas and Houston founders; numerous soldiers from both sides of the Civil War and from every other American war; politicians; legendary entrepreneurs, including founders of Houston’s oil industry, rail industry, ship channel, cotton business, medical industry, and aerospace industry; entertainment figures; architects; philanthropists; religious leaders; every type of professional, and murder victims. Glenwood Cemetery received Historic Texas Cemetery designation in 2010.