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Hidden Histories: Laurel Hill Cemetery

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Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden History, where Curbed Contributor Alex Bevk highlights a San Francisco location with a secret past. Maybe it’s no longer there, maybe it’s been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in SF history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.

Laurel Hill Cemetery [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Long before the Inner Richmond was home to shops, restaurants, single-family houses and apartment buildings, it's neighboring Lone Mountain housed a different type of occupant. The area was home to four large cemeteries, including Laurel Hill Cemetery, originally located between California, Geary, Parker and Presidio Streets.

The site opened as Lone Mountain Cemetery June 28, 1854 and was renamed Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1867. Before the creation of Golden Gate Park, the cemetery was a favorite spot for family outings and picnics, with its rambling pathways, grassy knolls, and gardens. It was so successful that during the 1860's three other cemeteries were opened in the area - Odd Fellows', Masonic, and Calvary - but Laurel Hill was known for its prestigious burials, including civic and military leaders, inventors, artists, and eleven United States Senators.

Marble tombs at Laurel Hill Cemetery, 1946 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Due to overcrowding and vandalism, Mayor Phelan signed an order prohibiting the burial of the dead within city limits in 1900. As development in the city expanded, the Inner Richmond was also seen as a prime spot for new housing. In 1913 the Board of Supervisors ordered all cemeteries closed and bodies removed, but voters overturned the orders. Nonetheless, the City of Lawndale (now Colma) was incorporated by the Associated Cemeteries in 1924, and the other three cemeteries began to relocate south. Laurel Hill burials were eventually relocated to Colma after 1937, when the Supervisors successfully passed their ordinance. WWII slowed the relocation efforts, which weren’t completed until 1948.

The vast majority of bodies were moved to mass gravesites, and anyone wanting to have decedents privately reburied had to pay for it themselves. Laurel Hill's site is located in Cypress Lawn Cemetery, and called Laurel Hill Mound. Anyone who wanted to preserve a loved one’s tombstone had to pay for it themselves, and those left more than 90 days after the relocation were turned over to the Department of Public Works. They were repurposed for sea wall construction at Aquatic Park, creation of a breakwater in the Marina, lining for rain gutters in Buena Vista Park, and erosion control at Ocean Beach.

UCSF Laurel Heights campus [Photo: Bing]

In 1953, Firemen's Fund Insurance Company bought the land and constructed a four-story International-style office building. Today the building is used as the Laurel Hill campus of UCSF.

· Laurel Hill Cemetery [Western Neighborhoods Project]
· Laurel Heights [FoundSF]
· San Francisco Cemeteries: A Brief History [FoundSF]
· History of SF Cemeteries [Trina Lopez]