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Culture / Real Estate

The River Oaks of the Dead

Houston’s Most Famous and Unknown Cemeteries Haunt With History

BY // 10.28.16

Pivoting from our deep dive into allegedly haunted Houston hotspots, this year the ghost-hunters have a different plan in mind: In a city with as much history as Houston, where do its legends rest for eternity?

While Donald Barthelme, whose earthly remains reside in Earthman Resthaven Cemetery on the north side of town near Spring, Marvin Zindler who reposes at the Woodlawn Garden of Memories cemetery in Spring Branch, and DJ Screw, who rests in Smithville near Bastrop, were slightly too far to reach on a Friday afternoon, a bevy of others worthy grave sites were reachable. Blues legend Lightin’ Hopkins, entrepreneur Howard Hughes, firefighter Red Adair, and figures from families whose last names are immediately recognizable as Houston royalty — names like Blaffer, Hobby, Jones, Hermann, Cullinan, Cullen, Beck, Allen, Law, Brown, and Hirsch — all rest peacefully (or not) inside the Loop.

Houston is notorious for erasing its history. Its most famous piece of architecture has sat unused for a decade-plus in near-ruin while a steady stream of mayors and judges ponder what to do with it. (Judge Ed Emmett recently began plans to turn the Astrodome into — what else? — an elaborate parking lot.) But scratch the surface and nearly 200 years of history sings.

Off Washington, Glenwood Cemetery is as known as the tiny, historical Olivewood Cemetery just blocks away (we investigated its supernatural goings-on last year), as a hot spot for haunted activity. But on a picture-perfect, 70 degree day in the fall, ghosts are hard to come by.

Instead, when one visits Glenwood, one is taken aback by its size — thick trees line its modest entry way but deceive the casual commuter making their way down busy Washington. The cemetery extends from the urban thoroughfare all the way to Allen Parkway, rubbing against the Buffalo Bayou from which the city rose. Its most famous names pop — the cemetery has been dubbed “The River Oaks of the Dead.”

Dating from 1871, Glenwood Cemetery testifies to the beauty of the afterlife for the Victorians and later generations.
Dating from 1871, Glenwood Cemetery testifies to the beauty of the afterlife for the Victorians and later generations.

Arriving about an hour before Glenwood closed its gates left us scant time to track down its most famous resident: Howard Hughes, whose grave rises flanked by grand arches. But making our way through the immaculately landscaped grounds, one couldn’t help but notice the array of blue-blood Houston last names laying eternally off Washington. We found patrons like the Blaffers and Cullinans, famously important names who helped brand this city as a top-tier hub for the arts nearly a century ago. Their monikers and contributions are memorialized in the Blaffer Art Museum and Cullinan Hall of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The place where the city’s art history intersects with its actual history is fascinating, and inseparable — a large part of Houston’s charm and greatness is its storied legacy in art, music, literature, that mostly goes unnoticed. But strolling through resting places of famous names — strolling through The River Oaks of the Dead — one gains a new appreciation for the unsung names (at least outside the city limits) who worked tirelessly throughout their lives to elevate an oil town into the do-everything city it is today.

Only fitting that mere miles from the bayou that birthed Houston lies the eternal resting place of some of its most influential citizens — we end where we began, at the center of the country’s fourth largest city.

Crossing over to the east side is Forest Park Lawndale cemetery. Going from spiffy Washington — a street long-since gentrified, its brief time as the Mecca for yuppies giving way good restaurants, good bars, and a generally more laidback atmosphere (said yuppies just ended up relocating to Midtown) — through the east side is an incredible moment, as it is to witness the slow evolution of Houston’s Inner Loop.

If gentrification spreads from the inside out, then Washington, the Heights, Midtown, 6th Ward, have already been claimed. This leaves the East End, home of Ninfa’s and little else to the minds of many, as a final frontier of sorts. Past BBVA Compass Stadium, past new breweries, past the light rail off Harrisburg, past all signs of “progress,” is Forest Park Lawndale, inconspicuous in the sense it looks like just any other cemetery, but belies the fact that people such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, the de Menil family, a member of the disgraced 1919 Black Sox (Richard Kerr) and Red Adair claim it as their eternal home.

In fact, I never knew that the de Menil family is buried in the same section as my grandfather and great-grandmother. The de Menil markers are less conspicuous than my family members, even — they don’t have stand-alone tombstones, just headstones on the ground, a far cry from the lavish graves of other Houston luminaries. Further, the headstones are so common-looking we were unable to find them.

As the sun set and we tried to search for my most wanted stone, Third Ward blues forefather Lightnin’ Hopkins (again with no luck), and we also had to give up our search for perhaps the city’s most revered arts family.

However we stumbled upon the large plots for Jesse Holman Jones and the Jones family, including granddaughter Audrey Jones Beck (grand patroness of the MFAH, as in the museum’s Beck Building). While Forest Park Lawndale isn’t as opulent as Glenwood, its 360 acres and 200,000 plots on the city’s far east side (still safe from the area’s rapid expansion …for now) are a marker of Houston’s long history.

That the de Menil’s can rest forever feet away from my grandfather is a reflection of Houston’s history as a melting pot, a grand cauldron.

We found no spooky haunts, heard no paranormal tales, saw no ghosts. We only witnessed the ghosts of a city turning 200 very soon, from the vantage point of a dining room table of a 100-year-old pharmacy where one can find brand new 21-year-old championship tees of the only major sports team to win it all for Houston to a rapidly changing epicenter, where art royalty lays with the hardworking people who define the city’s history as an always-evolving center for growth.

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