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Historic Elmwood Cemetery: One of Detroit's Best Parks

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[Photography by Chris and Michelle Gerard]

Belle Isle is commonly viewed as Frederick Law Olmsted's mark on Detroit, but the legendary landscape architect had one other design: Elmwood Cemetery. The city's most famous cemetery was founded in 1846, but Olmsted was brought in 50 years later to give the expanded grounds a cohesive design.
And he did. Olmsted envisioned a "rural" cemetery, with a natural landscape full of huge trees, wandering paths, and vine-covered fences. He wanted it to resemble Detroit's virgin landscape as closely as possible. But this wasn't just a peaceful setting for the dead. Olmsted designed the cemetery with us, the Detroiters of the future, in mind.

Olmsted laid out his plan to Elmwood's trustees in a long letter, which can be found here. Basically, he knew that Detroit was rapidly growing and industrializing. To keep Elmwood from being swallowed up by development, he wanted it maintained as a beautiful escape from the city, so that "many people of Detroit in the future" (even those who "know nothing of its dead") would value the site, preserving it as a "grateful retreat from the town."

Elmwood was meant to serve as an enjoyable park, not just a solemn, purposeful cemetery.

Beyond Olmsted's influence, the Elmwood has another layer of historical significance beyond those buried there. The cemetery ground also contain the only visible stretch of Parents Creek, the site of the Battle of Bloody Run 1763. The rest of the creek now runs underground through the city's sewers.