This is Providence’s first dedicated, common open space. Providence’s separation of church and state from its very beginning militated against the creation of a Common, typical to Massachusetts and Connecticut settlements. Early settlers buried their dead at the backs of their individual house lots. In 1700, the town meeting set aside forty-five acres of land considerably north of the “Compact Part of Town” as a militia-training field, with ten acres dedicated to a burying ground. The site was selected because of its remoteness and the poor quality of its soil. The first interment, however, did not occur until 1710-11, and generalized use became common only in the 1720s and continues today. North Burial Ground was complemented after 1785 by the West Burial Ground, located in today’s Upper South Providence and deactivated gradually between 1848 and 1888 to this and Swan Point Cemetery. North Burial Grounds comprises 150 acres of varying topography and includes more than 100,000 graves. For the enthusiastic of landscape design and funerary sculpture, the southern and central sections are the most deserving of attention.
The main entrance is located at the burial ground’s southern end with the 1883 entrance lodge and office located just inside. The gently rising plateau beyond is the site both of the earliest markers and, because of the prominence, a number of monuments dedicated to specific groups. To the northeast of the entrance lodge is the most recent, a large grey-granite memorial, dedicated in 1977 to victims of the 1915 Genocide of 1,500,000 Armenians; this hierarchal monument, vivid with Armenian symbolism and imagery and bearing a powerful quotation by countryman William Saroyan, is an appropriate reminder of the significant Armenian population that gathered in Providence during the early twentieth century, refugees from that same holocaust. Several visually striking monuments are located slightly farther north: the life-size bronze elk (1905; Eli Harvey) at Elk’s Rest, the group burial lot of Benevolent Protective Order of Elks; a life-sized granite statue of a fireman (1885; Frank Foster Tingley), posed in preparation for action, for the Providence Fire Department lot; and erect cannon atop a granite plinth (1875) for the Prescott Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. Issues of maintenance are abundantly clear for the markers of some of the town’s most prominent citizens, including members of the Brown family, northeast of the group’s lots. The early stones in this section include fine examples of colonial stone-worker’s art, among them several by Newport’s John Stevens Shop, still active after almost three centuries. The best concentration of early eighteenth-century stones is in the Harris lot. Intermingled with the rich and prominent are the graves of members of Providence’s free black community, including the exceptionally poignant stones of Charles Haskell “man of colour, A soldier of the Revolution” and his wife, Lucy, “A professed disciple of Jesus Christ,…[who] died in hope of reaping the rewards of grace in his kingdom where every complexion will unite in praising Him who has washed their robes and made them white in his own Blood.”
The desolation of the city’s burying grounds by the early 1840s prompted public outcry. A group of citizens, led by Zachariah Allen (1795-1882), petitioned City Council in 1844 to appoint a committee to create a plan for improving North Burial Ground. Clearly the example of the garden cemeteries becoming popular in major cities had an impact, especially that of Mount Auburn (1831) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By 1845, surveyors Atwater & Schubarth had begun construction on the curvilinear system of roads and paths that extend west and north of the original section. The topography of this section, enfolding the rectilinear-plan plateau, beautifully complements the picturesque design. The plan had obvious appeal, for among those purchasing lots in this section are Providence’s first three mayors (collectively serving from 1832 to 1855); Zachariah Allen, whose circular family plot embraced the view of the family-owned print works across Branch Avenue; and members of the Brown Family, who built a handsome Gothic chapel for Nicholas Brown (1792-1859) picturesquely sited on knoll near the center of the burial ground. This section includes a number of typical nineteenth-century funerary markers, many conceived and produced locally, representing designs by architect Thomas A. Tefft and carving by the Tingley Shop.
Despite the somewhat shabby state reminding the visitor that this burial ground enjoys neither the maintenance nor security it deserves, it nevertheless continues to be impressive. Nowhere else in Providence, and few places anywhere, can one see and understand the evolution of colonial English and American burial practices and funerary sculpture across more than three centuries.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
When included in 2000 on the Most Endangered Properties list, the 300-year-old North Burial Ground had become a target of vandalism and theft and a victim of deferred maintenance. At the time the City was considering plans to repair 2,200 gravestones throughout the 150-acre cemetery. Over the intervening years, despite efforts by the city to maintain the cemetery, the North Burial Ground spiraled into further disrepair. Many of the gravestones and sculptures were broken and crumbling as a result of neglect and vandalism. Towards the center of the cemetery, overgrown vegetation has all but overtaken the grounds.
As of February, 2019, excellent management of the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation has ensured better maintenance of the North Burial Ground. It appears to be in excellent condition.