Among the bustling build-up in the center of Towson, where bigger and brighter seems to take the lead in the development of multiplex cinemas and popular restaurants, a quiet but significant restoration is happening in an unlikely place — Prospect Hill Cemetery.
The area surrounding the graves was recently given a complete makeover, with boxwoods and sedge planting framing the perimeter, the knotty grass replaced with bluestone dust, and bollards with a link chain provide additional protection.
Just to the left of the narrow, winding road that circles the 6-acre cemetery, with Towson City Center looming nearby, are the five headstones of the Hillens, a family entrenched in Towson's history, including brothers John Hillen and Solomon Hillen, who helped defend Baltimore.
The restoration is timely as Baltimore gets ready to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of its defense at North Point against the British on Sept. 12, 1814. And to that end, Prospect Hill will hold an open house on Sept. 12.
"Few people realize the historical significance of our local residents buried right here at Prospect Hill," said Carolyn Parker Knott, president of Prospect Hill's board.
In addition to the brothers, their father, also Solomon Hillen, is buried with wives Martha Wheeler and Martha Clements.
John Hillen took part in the American Revolution, then served as a lieutenant in the fifth Maryland militia in the War of 1812.
The younger Solomon Hillen served as a private in Capt. Richard Magruder's company of American Artillerists, battled with the Maryland Fifth Regiment at Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 1814, and then participated in the Battle of North Point three weeks later on Sept. 12.
Cemetery officials believe members of the Hillen family, about 20 in all, were at one time interred on family property, and were moved to Prospect Hill in 1902.
"The Hillen plot contains the oldest grave monuments in Prospect Hill. The bicentennial of the War of 1812, plus their extremely fragile condition, made them the priority area to protect," Knott said. "Their physical location also makes them vulnerable to damage, and once those markers are gone, we will have lost a piece of early Towson history."
In addition to their service in defending Baltimore in 1814, the Hillens have ties to other area history. Loch Raven was named in honor of the mother of the older Solomon, Elizabeth Raven, and the family helped establish the Baltimore Basilica downtown.
The Hillens join 422 other confirmed veterans buried at Prospect Hill, with the likelihood that there are other veterans unconfirmed as such. This year, military burials have included veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Another notable veteran buried at Prospect Hill is Dr. James Jarrett, a Civil War soldier. Jarrett was appointed surgeon of the 7th Maryland Infantry Regiment in August 1863 and supported the soldiers of the Union Army on several campaigns. The town of Jarrettsville was named for the family in 1835.
Elinor Mays, also buried at the cemetery, served in World War II in the Women's Army Corps or WACs, then joined the Air Force and served for another 30 years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
Maintaining 'Victorian feel' of cemetery
The Hillen project construction was begun in early August and overall cost for the project is about $11,000, Knott said. The project was funded in part by an $800 grant from the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County, which provides grants to groups who are striving to restore, repair, maintain or improve historic properties in the county.
The board raised other funds through a capital gift from a board member with significant matching support from the Towson Rotary Foundation, in addition to other donations. Pinehurst Landscape Co. of Long Green, Md., and G. Krug & Son Ironworks, of Baltimore, did the restoration.
Knott said the board is working to raise an additional $3,000 to install an informative marker and complete the project.
The gravesites restoration is one element of a larger capital campaign launching this fall to raise funds for capital improvements, one of which will be an upgrade to the entrance to make it more prominent "that is in keeping with the overall Victorian feel of the cemetery," Knott said.
"We hope to overcome the frequent comment, 'I have driven by there for years and never noticed the cemetery,'" Knott said.
Knott said other capital projects include planting the evergreen screen fence along the cemetery's border with Towson City Center, and an Eagle Scout project unearthing two stone paths in 2013. Also planned is an upgrade and landscaping of the cremation area, she said.
Knott has served as Prospect Hill's president of the board since 2000, when she succeeded her father, Dr. Robert Parker, one of three Towson residents who restructured the cemetery as a nonprofit corporation over 30 years ago. Many members of Knott's family are buried at Prospect Hill, including her grandfather, Joseph Parker, who owned Towson's landmark grocery, her great-great grandmother, a Civil War widow, and her own parents.
"Volunteering at Prospect Hill is very fulfilling," Knott said. "It is a way to utilize my degree in American studies, learn the history of my family, and delve into local history. I can help preserve this large green space as a lovely reminder of 'old Towson' and help families find their history, too."
Knott continued, "Prospect Hill Cemetery will never be the typical large-scale, commercial cemetery business.This is very much a labor of love for the all-volunteer board, all of which either have family members buried at PHC or close ties to Towson and its history. Our corporate charter mandates that we are to be a cemetery and nothing else — for always."
Carol Allen, immediate past chair of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission and former executive director and then president of Historic Towson Inc., sees Prospect Hill as an essential part of Towson.
"It is not unusual to have a cemetery in the middle of development," Allen said. "It has become a sanctuary in the midst of the local hubbub. [Prospect Hill] is a local equivalent to the City's Greenmount Cemetery in that it is the final resting place of many of the county's notable movers and shakers."
Prospect Hill's board will host an open house at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 12 to commemorate brothers Solomon Hillen and John Hillen, and their valor serving among the defenders in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Visitors can view the refurbished Hillen gravesites and learn more about the family's local and national history. Public tours will be offered in spring 2015. Private tours can be arranged. For more information, call Prospect Hill Cemetery at 410-252-8462.