Westminster Hall and Burying Ground

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The “Westminster Hall and Burying Ground” is a graveyard and former church located at 519 West Fayette Street (at North Greene Street) in Baltimore, Maryland, United States. Occupying the southeast corner of West Fayette and North Greene Street on the west side of downtown Baltimore, the site is probably most famous as the burial site of Edgar Allan Poe, (1809-1849). The complex was declared a national historic district in 1974.

The graveyard was established in 1786 by the First Presbyterian Church, a congregation of socially and economically elite local Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants, then located in downtown Baltimore since founding in 1761 at the northwest corner of East Fayette Street at North Street (later Guilford Avenue) in a landmark twin-spired Georgian/Federal structure from 1790-95. Over the next 60 years, the “Burying Grounds” (or cemetery) became the final resting place for many important and influential merchants, politicians, statesmen, and dozens of veterans (officers and soldiers) of the American Revolutionary War and War of 1812 who were citizens of the burgeoning and soon-to-be, the third largest city in America – Baltimore.

Today, this “who’s who” of early Baltimore is overshadowed by the later presence of the promising writer, poet and author Edgar Allan Poe, who was buried here in October 1849, following his sudden and mysterious death after being found on the street near East Lombard Street in a sick and semi-conscious state wearing unfamiliar clothes. Taken to the Church Home and Infirmary on Broadway (between East Fayette and Baltimore Streets on “Washington Hill”), where he subsequently died four days later. Because of his subsequent growing literary fame and acclaim following his unfortunate death, a subscription was taken up in the early 1870s by several professors of English and Literature at the city’s Western Female High School, Eastern Female High School and the male public high school at the Baltimore City College and several other public schools, colleges and institutions to erect a more suitable memorial stone at a more prominent location, later sited at the northwest entrance gate which was done and the body exhumed, moved to the new site and re-interred with public and elaborate ceremonies in 1875?. Annual observances on his birth and death dates at his grave side are still conducted to this day, attended by the WHT officials, Presbyterian Church clergy and members, literary, educational and historical societies, representatives of the several Baltimore City public high schools whose predecessors sponsored the Monuments and the general public and media. There is also additionally, very popular tours and activities on the festival of “Halloween” in late October.

In 1852, a church was erected overtop the graveyard, its brick piers straddling gravestones and burial vaults to create what later Baltimoreans referred to as the “catacombs.” For years, it was thought that the Gothic Revival-style Westminster Presbyterian Church was built in response to a new city ordinance prohibiting cemeteries that were not adjacent to a religious structure. Research in the early 1980s by historian Michael Franch found no such ordinance—and revealed a more complex motive: The congregation hoped that the new expansion church would serve Baltimore’s growing “West End”—new churches were then springing up in every corner of the city in response to a dramatic increase in population—and provide protection to an aging, old-fashioned, 18th Century-style “burying ground” that few saw as an appropriate resting place for the more up-to-date 19th Century.

Westminster Presbyterian Church lived up to its promise and ministry for several decades, but suffered a dramatic loss of congregants by the early 1900s who were moving to the outer city and its suburbs and joining additional Presbyterian and other congregations there. Revived in the 1920s by a number of new active members, the congregation continued until 1977 when the Westminster Presbyterian congregation was disbanded and historical assets were reverted to the local Presbytery of Baltimore and arrangements were made when care of the church building and premises was assumed by the University of Maryland’s School of Law, which occupies the rest of the square block to the south, southeast and east bounded by West Baltimore, North Paca, West Fayette and North Greene streets. The School of Law’s city block campus is also surrounded by the urban neighborhood of the other buildings, facilities, medical center, parking garages and public squares of the various graduate schools of the University of Maryland at Baltimore’s westside/downtown campus, founded in 1807. Under the auspices of the newly organized, non-profit “Westminster Preservation Trust”, the “burying grounds” were cleaned up and the church was renovated for secular public use, now known as “Westminster Hall”. Support and a listing has also been obtained from the Maryland Historical Trust and other heritage and tourism organizations such as the newly established efforts of the Baltimore National Heritage Area, with the National Park Service, with cooperation from the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore City Historical Society, Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland, and the Office of Promotion and the Arts in the Mayor’s Office of the City of Baltimore plus the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. In 2006, the Westminster Preservation Trust installed more than 20 interpretive signs around the burying ground and catacombs to provide historical and biographical information on the area.

INFO COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA

 

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