The City fathers did not have a cemetery in mind when they acquired part of the old farm that the Johnston family called Cave Hill. The farm had a good spring emanating from a cave, but its stone quarries were of principal interest, particularly because the proposed Louisville and Frankfort Railroad was to run through the property.
Years went by, and it became evident that the railroad would skirt the quarries. The fields were farmed by lessees and the old brick house built by the Johnston’s became the City Pest House- an isolated home for patients displaced and suffering from eruptive, contagious diseases.
Death was an all-to-frequent visitor to the Pest House. But, this death was in a different guise. It had not the finality and disgust that the earlier Puritan concept had associated with it. Death was not to be abhorred and feared. It was full of promise, hope, and rejuvenation; and, the sorrow associated with it was accompanied by joy and revelation. Death was merely a transition, and as such, a natural setting for burials became desirable. Asleep in nature elicited a much different feeling than being confined and neglected in shabby plots and yards that many times themselves spread diseases and compounded the problem. Their only saving grace was as sources of cadavers for medical schools.
When it came time in late 1846 to add the graveyard component to Cave Hill, the mayor and city council apparently did not consciously set out to make a garden cemetery, which by then was a concept gaining popularity in major cities of America. But, propitiously, they appointed a committee that selected a civil engineer who had firsthand experience of this new and emerging cemetery concept that began in Europe under the guise of John Claudius Loudon.
Edmund Francis Lee (1811-1857) convinced the city fathers to utilize the natural features of Cave Hill, which previously had been considered quite undesirable for burying purposes. To Lee, the old Cave Hill farm was perfectly suited for cemetery purposes. Its promontories would become the primary burial sites, and roads to these hilltop circles would curve gently, following the natural contours of the land. The intervening basins would become ponds or be planted with trees and maintained as reserves. The garden setting would be a natural backdrop for the lots and monuments, and the cemetery would receive perpetual attention. Furthermore, it could never be violated- stipulations never before provided. Here then was a place not to be shunned, but a park to be sought out for its beauty and the spiritual elevation gained from contemplating the collective accomplishments of its inhabitants.
In the Victorian period, personal wealth increased, as did family aggrandizement. The garden cemetery became the repository of symbols of success in the form of true monumental art. The landscape gardeners embellished the natural setting with exotic trees and shrubs while the marble sculptors and granite fabricators erected elaborate memorials to individuals and families. Cave Hill has been blessed by a succession of competent and innovative landscape gardeners, and Louisville has been a regional center for monument makers. The result is a rural, garden-style cemetery which has always been considered a model to emulate.