Betty Johnson Ewart was at the Knights of Pythias Greenwood Cemetery two weeks ago, recalling her history with the property at 930 Adams Ave. in Northwood.
As a newborn in 1919, she spent a year living in the property’s main house with her parents and grandparents. Willie Hamill, her grandfather, was an immigrant from County Antrim, Northern Ireland. In the 1880s, he became a gravedigger, walking from Kensington to Northwood to work.
Owners of the cemetery liked Hamill so much that they made him the superintendent, a job he held for about a half-century, until his death in 1939.
Over the years, Ewart developed many memories of the cemetery, having spent summers with her grandparents.
Family weddings took place on-site. Memorial Day was always busy but somber because so many soldiers had been buried there.
Visitors would sit on benches under trees, taking in the solitude. Ewart recalled how her grandfather would ring a bell to alert staff at the cemetery that a funeral procession was on its way. And she would attend some of the services.
Ewart’s aunt took over as superintendent for a short time, continuing to keep the site immaculate. However, management changed following the death of the head of the cemetery’s board of directors.
In later years, Ewart would visit the cemetery, where members of her immediate family are buried. She became “very sad” during her visits, dismayed by the deteriorating conditions around her.
The cemetery was littered with debris. Trees and weeds had grown so large that it was hard for families to visit the graves of loved ones. Headstones were overturned; the house she’d known so well was deteriorating. Some funeral directors refused to enter the cemetery, fearful of damage to their vehicles, she said.
ELATED BY CEMETERY’S REVIVAL
Now 92, Ewart described her June 10 return visit as emotional but happy. Thanks to an effort spearheaded by Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the cemetery is in a lot better condition and the home — known as the Greenwood Estate at Rush Farm — is fully restored.
“I’m calling this a resurrection day,” Ewart said.
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, owned the cemetery site for several years in the late 1700s. Rush died in 1813. The Philadelphia Historical Commission has determined that the existing home was built between 1830 and 1850. The site became a cemetery in about 1869. It is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
The 44-acre cemetery was acquired in late 2008 by Greenwood Holdings, a sister company of Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s property manager, the International Capital & Management Company.
Work crews improved the entrance and removed the overgrowth and debris.
Ewart — who has contributed a bunch of old-time photos that are displayed on the Internet at www.kpgreenwoodcemetery.org — also thanked archaeologists for the care they showed when moving more than 2,400 graves from a decaying section of the property to a more suitable location in the front, an area that will also feature a monument and contemplation space. The move enabled Cancer Treatment Centers of America to expand its facility at the rear of the cemetery property.
MOMENTS OF HONOR AND DISHONOR
Among those buried at Greenwood are the parents of W.C. Fields; Thomas Prendergast, a U.S. Marine who received the Medal of Honor in 1901 for his service during the Philippine-American War; and some of the children of Marie Noe, the Kensington woman who pleaded guilty in 1999 to killing eight of her young children decades earlier.
As for the house, one of the first steps was to remove the windows and seal the building to let it dry because of years of absorbing water. Work crews also dealt with broken glass, graffiti and raccoons, along with a roof and doors that were in bad shape.
“The house was in pretty tough shape,” said John Goodchild, director of marketing and public relations for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America location at 1331 E. Wyoming Ave.
Longtime Northwood resident Robin Mellbourne spoke up during the ceremony to remind people that it was the late neighborhood activist Len Williams who, “way back in the beginning,” pointed out what a “cesspool” the cemetery had become.
State Rep. John Taylor, who lives on Haworth Street in Northwood, recalled that wild rumors swirled of the presence of werewolves and zombies.
Joanne Clare, whose parents and grandparents are buried in the cemetery, recalled a 2003 meeting with Gloria Boyd, a Greenwood lot owner who helped wage a legal battle against the site’s acquisition by a company that wanted to build a funeral home and crematory.
Clare noted that cemetery records were covered in mold and mildew, there was a hole in the ceiling of the house, and there was evidence of past visits by rats, drug addicts and prostitutes.
“It looked like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie,” said Clare, now chief director of the organization Friends of Greenwood Cemetery.
A WORTHY INVESTMENT
More than $1 million in improvements, overseen by Philadelphia Healthcare Properties, were made to the house. The building was painted, decorated and furnished. There are new windows, floors, roof, ceilings, walls, fireplaces, ceiling fans and central air conditioning. The first floor serves as an office for the cemetery and the Friends of Greenwood Cemetery and includes a conference room and records room. The second floor is rented to an individual whose duties include opening and closing the cemetery gate. The third floor is used for the storage of old records.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing,” Taylor said.
During the ceremony, Ewart, Taylor, Cancer Treatment Centers of America president and CEO John McNeil and Philadelphia Healthcare Properties manager Cornel Williams cut the ribbon to the restored house.
“Our work is not done,” said Williams, explaining that there would be additional beautification and restoration efforts to be able to market Greenwood as an active cemetery.
The ceremony also featured military anthems and people dressed in 19th-century clothing.
Howard Linde, a World War II veteran and Friends of Greenwood Cemetery director in charge of computerizing old records, joined cemetery president Michelle Mardenborough in unveiling a monument that reads, “In remembrance and with gratitude to all U.S. veterans who served and fought for our freedom.” ••
Knights of Pythias Greenwood Cemetery is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The office is open by appointment. To buy a lot, conduct genealogical research or for more information, call 215-533-2967.
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org