By the early 1850s it became apparent that due to the rapid growth of Portland and the diminishing space available in the two primary burial grounds, Eastern and Western Cemteries, it was necessary for the city to look outside of the bounds of the city for added burial space. In 1852, 55 acres was purchased in Westbrook, an area now known as Deering Center and within the city limits. The city’s Annual Report described the site as, “…covered with timber, and an evergreen growth and the whole may easily be made pleasant and attractive, as cities of the dead should be…” (PAR 1852).
Charles H. Howe, a civil engineer was commissioned to design the new cemetery. Howe laid out a plan that responded not only to the existing topography of the site through curving and rectilinear roads, but also to the growing rural cemetery movement. This movement sought to create ‘cities of the dead’ that were both serene and sacred places for memorializing the dead, but were at the same time park-like recreational destinations.
Drawing upon the inspiration of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built in the 1830s, Howe’s distinctive design created long sight lines with an allee of trees at the main entrance for a formal transition into this special landscape. There were central circles as focal points, fountains, carriage roadways and walking paths, a series of ponds with swans, gazebos, and bridges. The concept of family burial lots with a central monument and surrounded by iron fencing or granite curbing was a key feature that had grown in popularity in many rural cemeteries. Also included was a central receiving tomb for the winter months and a cemetery office.
Howe’s plan for the cemetery was mostly conceptual with many construction details left unaddressed. However, by 1869, once the primary roadways were laid out and the general organization established a second plan was published by John Russell which showed the new cemetery as it actually had been built. The Russell plan clearly shows how closely the design adhered to the original Howe plan. Details such as the ponds were more clearly delineated in the later layout.