On the summit of a hill in the neighborhood of Georgetown, the Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel serenely weaves the urban history of Washington, D.C. with the national history of the United States.
This under-visited gem was designed by notable architect James Renwick Jr., whom The Encyclopedia of American Architecture listed as “one of the most successful American architects of his time.” Renwick is much better known for an impressive list of iconic secular and sacral buildings, such as the Smithsonian Institution Building, colloquially known as the Smithsonian Castle, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and, perhaps most notably, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan, which is the largest Gothic Revival Catholic cathedral building in North America.
The Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel, also known as the James Renwick Chapel, is another example of the Gothic Revival style, and was added to the cemetery shortly after its establishment by an Act of Congress. The effort was organized and spearheaded by William Wilson Corcoran, who was the son of Lewis Washington and a direct descendant of George Washington.
Aside from its notable architectural design, the chapel was also a site of the temporary interment of William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s third son. Contemporary newspaper accounts offer evidence for the story that Willie, who the Lincolns lost to typhoid during Abraham’s presidency, was briefly placed in the chapel while awaiting his burial. Local residents claimed to notice that President Lincoln had quietly visited the chapel a number of times in the same day, repeatedly going to hold his deceased son’s body. This story became the subject of George Saunders’ 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in the year of its release.
Know Before You Go
Entrance is free. Check the cemetery website for hours.