Chain buying Loudon Park Cemetery Local owners also selling Druid Ridge

June 26, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Loudon Park Cemetery, the 139-year-old resting place of H. L. Mencken, and more than 200,000 other Baltimoreans, is passing from local control and becoming part of a national chain.

Stewart Enterprises Inc., a New Orleans-based company that describes itself as "the third-largest provider of cemetery and funeral home services in the United States," announced yesterday that it has signed a letter of intent to buy the historic burial ground, along with Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville. Both are owned by the Primrose family, which founded Loudon Park in 1853 and acquired the 96-year-old Druid Ridge in 1913.

Publicly traded Stewart said it also intends to buy Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery in Annapolis in a separate transaction.

The Maryland cemeteries are part of a trend toward chain ownership of cemeteries and funeral homes, said William E. Rowe, executive vice president of Stewart. "It does seem to be the wave of the future in our industry," he said. "You have owners retiring and children not interested in taking over the family business."

Loudon Park will be one of the oldest cemeteries in the Stewart chain.

The 250-acre cemetery on Frederick Avenue is so big that from 1905 to 1931 it operated its own streetcar system to transport visitors around the grounds, according to a 1979 history written by Mary Ellen Thomsen. Caskets often would arrive at the cemetery gates by city trolley, carried by a special funeral car named Dolores, Spanish for "Sorrows."

Loudon Park is home to the remains of an estimated 650 Marylanders who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War, most interred in a section known as Confederate Hill. They include two generals and Lt. Col. Harry Gilmor, a cavalryman who led numerous raids behind Union lines in Maryland.

An estimated 2,300 Union veterans are interred there, most in a five-acre parcel acquired by the government in 1903 and now known as Loudon National Cemetery, which was not part of the transaction.

Among the prominent people buried there are Ottmar Mergenthaler, inventor of the Linotype machine, and Mary Pickersgill, who is credited with making the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during its bombardment by the British in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

In 1902, early in his newspaper career, H. L. Mencken moonlighted by writing a pamphlet for the cemetery's upcoming 50th anniversary. When he died in 1956, his ashes were deposited in the family plot at Loudon Park, where his father and mother are buried.

The 220-acre Druid Ridge Cemetery is the burial place of Union Gen. Felix Agnus, whose grave attracted pranksters and scare-seekers for decades because of a haunting statue over his grave that was dubbed "Black Aggie." The statue, said to have all manner of sinister powers, was removed to the Smithsonian Institution in 1967 after repeated vandalism.

Mr. Rowe said his company projects that Loudon Park and Druid Ridge have so much undeveloped real estate that it will be "certainly 100 years" before they reach capacity.

He added that his 82-year-old company probably will add high-density mausoleum space to conserve land at the two cemeteries, which together perform more than 1,200 burials a year.

"We manage our space very frugally," he said. "If you buy a plot there, your great-grandchildren should be able to rest there with their family."

Stewart plans to build funeral homes at both cemeteries to make them "full-service facilities," Mr. Rowe said.

"One of the hallmarks of our company is that we're committed to total service," he said.

Stewart Enterprises is no stranger to the Maryland market. It owns Cedar Hill Cemetery off Ritchie Highway, Crestlawn Memorial Gardens in Marriottsville and Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Bladensburg.

Ken Budde, Stewart's senior vice president for finance, said Stewart will depend on sales of new plots for its revenues but also is assuming responsibility for the upkeep of the Baltimore cemeteries.

Together, Loudon Park and Druid Ridge employ an estimated 60 maintenance workers and an administrative staff of about 25.

Stewart, which owns 45 funeral homes and 31 cemeteries in eight states, reported revenue of $75.6 million during its last fiscal year.

No price was disclosed for the Loudon Park and Druid Ridge purchases, but Mr. Rowe said that together they account for the bulk of the proposed $22 million tab for four purchases Stewart announced yesterday, including the Hillcrest deal and a funeral home in Falls Church, Va.

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