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Houston's Historic Cemetery
Ever heard the tales of eccentric billionaire businessman and filmmaker Howard R. Hughes? Or traveled out of former Texas Governor William P. Hobby’s namesake airport? Texas and its characters seem to be both bigger and bolder, and Houston is no exception.
Located on Washington Avenue, just one mile west of Houston’s bustling downtown, history meets serenity at Houston’s historic Glenwood Cemetery. The 85-acre grounds serve as a memorial to the men and women who shaped Houston (and Texas), while providing a scenic place to pay respects and find shade on a warm spring afternoon.
An active, operating cemetery since 1871, when it opened as a private establishment, Glenwood is the burial site of many well-known Houstonians and has served six generations of Texans. Giving visitors a reverent view into the stories of the state’s most notable movers and shakers, the cemetery is modeled after 19th century romantic gardens, and still has 18 acres dedicated to future development.
A glimpse into Texas history
One of the most visited gravesites is Howard Hughes, one of the state’s most eclectic and well-known businessmen. One of the wealthiest people in the world in his lifetime, Hughes pursued his love of filmmaking to create controversial and well-known movies, such as Hell’s Angels and Scarface. He was also a pioneering aviator who set numerous world air speed records. Another popular Hollywood figure at the cemetery is Gene Tierney Lee, a 1940s actress nominated for an Oscar for her role in Leave Her to Heaven. Her grave remains one of the most visited sites for tourists, who come from all over the state and country.
Houston has always lead the business world in advancements from oil to engineering, so it’s no wonder many of those interred at Glenwood Cemetery are respected leaders both present and past. R.L. Humble, a co-founder of Humble Oil, now part of Exxon Mobil, and Walter B. Sharp, who originated the use of drilling mud, paved the way for today’s likeminded business innovators. Both are laid to rest at Glenwood.
Beyond business, Houston has a rich history of philanthropists, including another notable interred at Glenwood, George Hermann. Hermann left his entire fortune for the benefit of future Houston generations and created notable institutions, like the Hermann Hospital and Hermann Park.
The gravesites of the prominent interred can be found on the cemetery map with descriptions of their contributions to the state and country. Visitors can wander through the curving pathways or take in the fresh air after a day of shopping and dining in Houston’s nearby downtown.
Preserving the past for future generations
Some visitors may think of Texas as flat and vast, and although that is more than correct when spanning the West Texas prairies or visiting the Panhandle Plains of Amarillo, Houston is home to lush, hilly landscapes and a rolling topography; Glenwood Cemetery is no exception.
A landscape park, as it was coined by architectural historian Stephen Fox, the cemetery hosts more species of trees than the Houston Arboretum, making it the perfect afternoon getaway to retreat from the city streets and find solace in the pristine statues and monuments among naturalistic pathways.
Richard Ambrus, executive director for more than 30 years, said the cemetery has recently undergone an extensive monument restoration program, fixing marble and stone that have weathered away over the years. The monuments, he said, are historical in themselves and showcase the impressive architecture over the decades.
In the late 1890s, the cemetery was neglected and the grounds were unkempt, until a group of prominent Houstonians filed suits against the current management and eventually brought the park back to its original condition. Since then, the park has remained a time capsule to Texas history.
By 1903, the cemetery was handed over to the newly created Glenwood Cemetery Association to protect the park, and in 1969, the association became a non-profit cemetery corporation, Glenwood Cemetery, Inc., which it remains today.
Decades of visitors
With its park-like welcoming atmosphere, Glenwood Cemetery is also known as Houston’s first park. Ambrus said newspaper accounts from the 1880s share stories of nearly 4,000 visitors coming to the park on one spring weekend.
The cemetery is open 365 days a year from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., but on nice summer evenings, the park remains open a little later. With a staff of 24 people, the cemetery is monitored 24 hours a day to ensure that the grounds remain unharmed and in perfect condition.
Walking through downtown, be sure to take notice of the city’s street names before strolling through Glenwood; you may notice a few similarities. These early innovators helped build the city surrounding the historic park, and continue to inspire future generations.