Article Category: Pillars | Places | SC26

Joseph Gawler’s Sons | Funeral Home of the Presidents

Posted Sunday, Dec 01
Written By Alice Adams
Photography by Bobby Carlsen
Southern Calls, Vol. 26, December 2019

It’s difficult to know what 5-year-old Joseph Gawler was thinking as the ship bringing his family from Bristol, England, steamed into Alexandria, Virginia, that day in 1832. One can only imagine the wonder – and possibly the fear – he felt coming to this new land, a place that would become his home for the rest of his life.

Along with his sister and two brothers, Joseph’s parents also made the voyage. It is possible that his mother died aboard ship because archival materials indicate Joseph and his siblings were settled in Alexandria with their father, an Episcopal priest.

At some point soon after their arrival in Virginia, Rev. Gawler died, leaving his five children in the care of a family in Alexandria, perhaps a member of the same parish in which the Gawler family had settled originally. During this era in America, it was customary for most boys to learn a trade, and this training was provided through an apprenticeship with a tradesman. Typically, the apprenticeship began when the boy was 14 and continued until approximately 21. However, for orphaned boys, as was the case of Joseph Gawler, the adoptive family could enter an orphan into an apprenticeship as early as 9 or 10 years of age.

Ad from Baltimore Sun, 1841
Ad from Baltimore Sun, 1841

This may have been the fate of young Joseph Gawler, for he was apprenticed at some point to a local tailor, and, for whatever reason, at about age 13, he ran away to Baltimore on Aug. 29, 1841. The tradesman for whom he apprenticed, J. S. Emerson of Alexandria, ran several ads, beginning Sept. 11, 1841, in The Baltimore Sun.

There is little to document the teenager’s activities in the ensuing years, but, because he became a skilled cabinetmaker, we may assume he indentured himself to a tradesman who taught him these skills.

At some point during his time away from Alexandria, Gawler met and married Annie Louisa Bekner. In 1850, they moved to Washington and settled in a modest house in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. Twelve children were born, six surviving to adulthood: Joseph Gawler Jr., 1851-1909; Clara Louisa Gawler, 1854-1909; Charles J. Gawler, 1855-1919; Annie E. Gawler Monroe, 1862-1947; Ferdinand Gawler, 1866-1904; and Alfred Benjamin Gawler,1873-1954.

Early one Sunday morning in December 1853, the Gawler family miraculously escaped certain death when a raging storm weakened the walls of a nearby home. Bricks and heavy timbers showered the adjacent frame house where Annie Gawler and her children were asleep on the second floor. Trapped by debris, they eventually had to be extricated by passing strangers who heard their cries. A report of the harrowing experience was carried in The Washington Sentinel’s Dec. 20, 1853, edition. In the article, a word of thanks from the family was offered to two rescuers – Capt. Sanger and Mr. James Kelly.

Alfred, Charles and Ferdinand all became undertakers. Joseph Gawler Jr., interred at Oak Hill Cemetery with his family, lies in an unmarked grave.

While Joseph made furniture, cabinetry and European-style toe-pincher coffins on the ground floor of their home, Annie reared their children in the cramped family quarters on the second floor. At the same time, in 1850, a fledgling undertaking business began to take shape. The name of the funeral parlor: Joseph Gawler’s.

Twenty years later, the mortuary’s business reputation had grown, as had the Gawler reputation for outstanding service and merchandise at affordable prices. Growth required larger spaces, so the Gawler family and funeral directors moved across the street in 1870. Their new location included two buildings made up of three conjoined row houses. 

Joseph Gawler’s success may be attributed in part to the high standards of service he demanded from himself, his two sons – Alfred and Charles – and their assistants, but another element of Joseph Gawler’s Sons’ success was his confidence in his ideas and his belief in innovation.

Gawler’s, for example, was the first funeral parlor in Washington, D.C., to introduce a motorized hearse into their stable of traditional horse-drawn conveyances. As was the tradition when they first went into business, funerals were typically held in the home of the decedent. If the funeral service or interment was delayed, Gawler’s would maintain the deceased in a giant ice chest before transporting the body to the church or, later, to the cemetery.

“When embalming came into practice following the end of the Civil War, more funeral and burial merchandise became available and more of the Gawlers’ business was devoted to undertaking,” current President Duane Hills pointed out. 

The Gawler heirs sold one of the Pennsylvania Avenue properties and with the proceeds constructed a stately building to use as a funeral home, making space available for a large preparation room, reposing rooms and a chapel, all within the same building. As the business continued to grow, along with the demand for embalming, Joseph Gawler and his sons dedicated space in their new building for a chapel and a modern prep room.

But perhaps the most significant contributor to the Gawlers’ success was the community involvement of Joseph Gawler and his sons, particularly as members of the Masonic Lodge – The Friendship Lodge – where Joseph and A.H. Gawler were past grand masters, supporters of Washington’s Franklin Fire Company’s annual fundraiser, “The Grand Birth-Night Ball” and The Odd Fellowship.

From all indications, Joseph and Annie Gawler provided a religious family life for their children, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. Their son Charles was a vestryman at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square across from the White House.

Early Joseph Gawler’s Sons Hearses | The White House
Early Joseph Gawler’s Sons Hearses | The White House
The Founder’s Room, Joseph Gawler
Left: The Founder’s Room, where visitors can browse the display cases filled with items from Gawler’s history as they enjoy
a cup of coffee and become better acquainted with the cabinetmaker who built Washington’s premier funeral home.  
Right: Joseph Gawler, Founder of Joseph Gawler’s Sons, 1827-1910, Photo by Hilary Schwab
The Eisenhower Room
On March 28, 1969 General O’Malley and Armed Forces Police escorted General Eisenhower’s body from the hospital to Gawler’s.
The body of the former President was placed in the Jefferson Room, Army guards took station at each of the three entrances to the room, and a joint honor guard kept vigil at the casket until late morning of March 29.

On the 29th, General Eisenhower’s casket was taken from the funeral establishment to the Washington National Cathedral. Mortuary attendants brought the casket to the rear entrance of the establishment at 10:45 and a joint body bearer team carried it to a hearse with no ceremony. A small cortege formed for the short drive to the cathedral. The room was renamed The Eisenhower Room. | U.S. Army Center of Military History

After a full life of service to his fellow man, Joseph Gawler – called “the Boss” by his sons, brothers and co-workers – died. His obituary was published in The Baltimore Sun, April 20, 1910. It read: 

“MR. JOSEPH GAWLER DEAD. Special dispatch to the Baltimore Sun. Washington, April 19. The oldest subscriber of The Sun in Washington is dead. He was Joseph Gawler, 1734 Pennsylvania Ave. Northwest, and was also a pioneer in the undertaking business in this city. He died at 10 o’clock this morning. “Mr. Gawler was 83 years old. He was native of Bristol, England, but came to this country when about 5 years old. His father settled in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1832.

In 1850, Joseph Gawler came to this city where, with his sons, and have been in business ever since.

Gawler’s payroll ledger | April, May and June, 1919
Gawler’s payroll ledger | April, May and June, 1919

“He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Louisa A. Gawler; two sons – Charles and Alfred B. Gawler; and two daughters, Mrs. D. M. Howe of Belleone, Pennsylvania and Miss Annie M. Gawler of Washington.”

Well-known for his business acumen, Gawler had planned the succession of the firm before his death. His will, published in the April 30, 1910, issue of The Baltimore Sun, outlined his strategy:

“WILL OF JOSEPH GAWLER: Washington Undertaker Leaves His Namesake But $25 A Month. Special Dispatch to the Baltimore Sun.

Washington. April 29 – Joseph Gawler Jr., deceased in 1909, was to have only an annuity for life of $25 a month from the estate of his father, Joseph Gawler.

Mr. Gawler’s will, dated July 27, 1905, was filed today for probate. To Mrs. Annie L. Gawler, the widow, is left a $50-a-month annuity for life. A bequest of $500 is made to Peter Taltavull, a loyal employee. 

All moneys in bank and notes secured on real estate are left equally to his two sons, Charles J. Gawler and Alfred B. Gawler: The son Alfred is to have the premises at 1734 Pennsylvania Ave. and the son Charles the house 2100 H St. Northwest. In the proportions of two-thirds to Charles and one-third to Alfred, they are to have the undertaking business, the properties 1730 and 1732 Pennsylvania Ave. Northwest, with the stable property in square 126. Premises at 2206 P St. Northwest are left to the two brothers equally. 

The remainder of the estate is to be converted into cash by the National Savings and Trust Company, the executor, and the proceeds equally distributed among the widow and three daughters – Clara L. Gawler, Annie E. Gawler and Marion C. Howe.

Spiral Stairway | Foyer
Spiral Stairway | Foyer

After Joseph’s death, his grandson Walter “Monk” Gawler, took the helm of the business. A visionary like his grandfather and Uncle Alfred, he did much to promote cremation as the future of funeral service. 

A staunchly religious man, Walter was a member of the vestry of his church. He was traditional, believing women should not be involved in matters of business, nor should they own property. His sons – John and William – and Alfred’s son – Joseph, ran Gawler’s with Walter until 1958.  

The last property on Pennsylvania Avenue was sold and a new three-story funeral home with a full basement was completed in 1962. Joseph Hagan, a funeral director with all the Southern charm one might expect from an individual born and raised in Alabama, became president of Gawler’s in 1975.

Casket Display
Casket Display

In 1970, the Gawler heirs sold the funeral home to Service Corporation International.

About three years ago, Tom Ryan – the president of SCI – presided over a town hall meeting at one of the corporation’s funeral home-cemetery combinations in the Washington, D.C area.

“Tom invited managers of area SCI firms to dinner following the program, and I invited him to visit Gawler’s before he returned to Houston,” Hills remembered. “During that visit, I gave him my ‘impassioned tour’ of the facility, pointing out where significant history had transpired, and shared stories that had been passed along to me, like how President Harry Truman was accustomed to ‘hiding out’ in our chapel on Pennsylvania Avenue, a quiet place where he came to read – or think. Often his security detail would phone the funeral home to see if the President indeed was there. The answer would come back yes and within a few minutes they would arrive at the facility and escort him home.

Not long after this meeting, Hills had the occasion to meet and speak with Jay Waring, a Senior Vice President with SCI and had an opportunity to once again share his passion for this flagship firm. 

“Some weeks later,” the firm’s president remembered, “my manager called, saying the company was ready to renovate Gawler’s and asked if I had a list of suggested improvements. I sent the list, and my manager got back to me, saying it wasn’t enough, that SCI wanted to invest some serious money. I went back to the drawing board, remembering Jay Waring saying it was a beautiful building, but it now seemed tired and dated. So I began with flooring and included new wallpaper, window treatments and many elements of my vision for the building.”

“An architect was brought in, plans were drawn, estimates were made and, after the decisions came the permitting process – and in D.C., that’s a time-consuming process,” Hills continued. “After months, the renovations began, and somehow we managed to schedule appointments for arrangements and chapel services around the work as it commenced.”

Hills said he increased his capacity for patience through the process which, from start to finish, took about three years and included the creation of a large stained-glass window depicting all the monuments on the National Mall: the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials along with the Capitol Building. 

The Lincoln Board Room
The Lincoln Board Room

“We also added portraits of famous Americans buried by Gawler’s and the hospitality room is now “The Sequoia Room,” named after the yacht used by several presidents,” Hills pointed out. “We transformed the former Red Room, which served as headquarters for JFK’s pallbearers, into “The Kennedy Room” and spiffed up the Eisenhower Room, which features the beautiful burled/wormwood chestnut paneling suggested by former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.”

He continued: “When people walk in, they’ll immediately be awed by a fresh, new elegance which starts with the spiral stairway, highlighted by an impressive chandelier. From the foyer, visitors will come to one of the elevators, embellished with the Gawler’s logo.”

Mt. Vernon Casket
Mt. Vernon Casket (Cupronickel)
J.J. Meany Casket Company | Built between 1987-1992

Another must-see from the renovation was donated by a Gawler heir – an oil portrait of Joseph Gawler that hangs in the Founder’s Room, where visitors can browse the display cases filled with items from Gawler’s history as they enjoy a cup of coffee and become better acquainted with the cabinetmaker who built Washington’s premier funeral home.

“This is my contribution to the Gawler’s legacy in this century,” the firm’s president offered. “This renovation returns this funeral home to relevancy – for the District of Columbia, for our families and for the nation. Gawler’s has always been the name people from all walks of life wanted, particularly those seeking privacy and confidentiality.”

Selection Room | Joseph Gawler’s Sons
Selection Room | Joseph Gawler’s Sons
Personal letters
Joseph Gawler’s Sons donated the $450 payment for services provided for FDR
FDR | Photograph by Margaret Suckley

Gawler’s was nationally recognized after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. After the president’s body was flown from Dallas to Washington, Hagan and embalmers Edwin Stroble and Thomas Robinson were summoned to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where they embalmed the president’s body, post-autopsy, and performed restorative work with a platoon of onlookers watching their every move. Working tirelessly, the three men may have assumed there would be a public viewing because they spent hours preparing and then dressing and casketing his body in a Marsellus 710 Mahogany. Once their work was complete, they accompanied the body from Bethesda to the White House and into the East Room, where Mrs. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy viewed the body and decided to close the casket for the last time. 

Later, a private viewing was held for family members, who were allowed to place notes and mementos into the casket before it was sealed in the vault at Arlington National Cemetery.

Stroble later voiced his disappointment with the decision to keep the casket closed because of all the restorative work done by the three embalmers.

JFK Dallas Casket
The JFK Dallas Casket
The casket that President John F. Kennedy was transported in from Dallas, Texas to Washington, D.C. was stored in a crypt in the basement of Joseph Gawler’s Sons until the National Archives picked it up on March 3, 1964. The casket, an Elgin Handley with a Brittania brushed finish had been provided by Oneal Funeral Home of Dallas. It was eventually sunk in 9,000 feet of water in the Atlantic Ocean several miles off the Maryland/Delaware coast. The President was interred in a Marsellus 710 mahogany casket provided by Joseph Gawler’s Sons and was built in Syracuse, New York. The 710 was renamed the Marsellus President.
The Sequoia Room
The Sequoia Room
Named for the former presidential yacht, the room serves as a hospitality and reception area. Lacyn Barton,
funeral director and artist, was commissioned to paint 34 notable persons served by Gawler’s.

When Hills visited Joseph Gawler’s Sons for the first time, he was deeply impressed. However, he noticed that something important was missing.

Yes, the décor was elegant. The art on the walls also was impressive, but there was little to reflect the rich and meaningful history of Gawler’s’ 160 years of funeral service and its tradition of service to the community.

Quite by happenstance – during the early planning stages of how to tastefully and meaningfully present the firm’s history – a visitor named Gretchen Gawler Schick from San Antonio, Texas, introduced herself as a 6th generation descendent of Joseph Gawler. 

“I truly didn’t think there were any Gawlers still living,” Hills confessed, so this meeting was not only a pleasant surprise, but it also marked the beginning of receiving additional information about the Gawler generations.”

Stained Glass Window
By Washington Art Glass Studio
Photo by Hilary Schwab
Stained Glass Window | By Washington Art Glass Studio | Photo by Hilary Schwab

Over the next almost two years, the president’s knowledge of the firm’s history and his appreciation for its heritage and the integrity of its founder created an idea that had to be included in the renovations.

“I had begun planning a space for a museum when Gretchen Schick visited,” Hills said. “She told me about some original items from the funeral home she had in her possession, saying, ‘My dad always said I was the sentimental one in the family, so I should have them.’”

“When SCI started talking to me about remodeling, I saw the perfect space for the museum, and I had collected some items,” Hills said. “And when former Gawler’s President Joe Hagan’s widow, Mary, passed away, her family honored us with some of Joe’s letters from JFK’s funeral.

“With the plans now in place, I wrote Gretchen again, telling her about the Founder’s Room and our plans to feature Gawler’s history. She thanked me and said maybe I should talk to her father,” Hills remembered.

Hills spoke with another Gawler heir, this time in Florida. Hills and Lt. Col. (ret.) William Gawler soon came to an agreement.

“We drew up papers, thanks to an attorney friend. I have received several boxes of archival materials, including photographs, correspondence, documents, clippings and several artifacts,” he said.

Joseph Gawler’s descendants
Joseph Gawler’s descendants attend open house on Sunday, October 13, 2019 (Photo by Hilary Schwab)

In the meantime, Bob Gawler in Gaithersburg, Maryland, brought two scrapbooks – collected from 1932 to 1963 by his mother – containing clippings of all high-profile funerals directed by Gawler’s. 

Duane Gawler from Minnesota donated a gilded mantle mirror and an oil painting of Joseph Gawler both treasurers to the firm.

“Her husband was Joseph Alfred Gawler and, before his death, said he wanted his ashes kept in a Joseph Gawler-crafted wooden ornamental box,” Hills said.

Hills recently accompanied the family to the Gawler family plot in Oak Hill Cemetery, where the ashes were buried as the deceased Gawler descendant had requested.

Sequoia Room
Sequoia Room

Some of the woodworking tools the Gawlers used are now on display, and in the process, Hills learned that Joseph Gawler also specialized in putting fringes on women’s petticoats – a talent he might have picked up during his early apprenticeship to the tailor in Alexandria. 

“As I have gone through the shared items from the Gawler descendants, I have felt honored to learn more about this visionary and hardworking family of funeral directors,” Hills said. “I am humbled to be able to carry on their work almost two centuries later.”


Gawler's chalkboard from 1850
One of the most interesting artifacts in the new Founder’s Room is an original chalkboard Joseph Gawler hung on the door of their first location from 1850 to 1870. People who had a death overnight would write on the chalkboard the name of the deceased and place of death, and, in the morning, the Gawlers would build a coffin and deliver it to the home.
Joseph Gawler with sons
Joseph Gawler with sons | Alfred Gawler, Joseph Gawler, and Charles Gawler | Early Pennsylvania Avenue Location

Joseph Gawler’s Sons – Notable Families Served

1924  •  President Woodrow Wilson
28th President of the United States (1913-1921). Died: February 3, 1924

1930  •  President William Howard Taft
27th President of the United States and the tenth Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, the only person to have held both offices. Died: March 8, 1930

1945  •  President Franklin D. Roosevelt
32nd President of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. Died: April 12, 1945

1957  •  Senator Joseph R. McCarthy
U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin from 1947 until his death. Died May 2, 1957

1959  •  Senator John Foster Dulles
Senator from New York from July 7, 1949 to November 8, 1949. Dulles also served as the 52nd U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1959. Died: May 24, 1959

1963  •  President John F. Kennedy
35th President of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination. Died: November 22, 1963

1969  •  Senator Everett Dirkson
Republican politician from Illinois that served in the House of Representatives (1933–1949) and the Senate (1951–1969). Died: September 7, 1969

1969  •  President Dwight D. Eisenhower
34th President of the United States (1953-1961). Died March 28, 1969

1970  •  Vince Lombardi
American football player, coach, and executive in the National Football League. Died: September 3, 1970

1972  •  J. Edgar Hoover
First Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Appointed as the fifth director of the Bureau of Investigation — the FBI’s predecessor — in 1924 and was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972 at the age of 77. Died: May 2, 1972

1977  •  Francis Gary Powers
Pilot whose Central Intelligence Agency U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet Union airspace, causing the 1960 U-2 incident. Aug. 1, 1977

1978  •  Vice President Hubert Humphrey
38th Vice President of the United States (1965-1969) under President Lyndon B. Johnson and 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, losing to Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon. Died: January 13, 1978

1983  •  Frank Reynolds
Television journalist and anchor of ABC Evening News (1968-1970), and co-anchor of World News Tonight from 1978 until his death. Died: July 20, 1983

1988  •  John N. Mitchell
Attorney General of the United States (1969–1972) under President Richard Nixon. Died: November 9, 1988

1993  •  Justice Thurgood Marshall
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1967-1991). Marshall was the first African-American justice. Died: January 24, 1993

1995  •  Margaret Cahill
First Miss America -1921. Died: October 1, 1995

2004  •  President Ronald Reagan
40th President of the United States (1981-1989). Before his presidency, Regan was the 33rd Governor of California (1967- 1975) after a career as a Hollywood actor and union leader. Died: June 5, 2004

2005  •  Chief Justice William H. Renquist
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court where he served for 33 years. Died: September 3, 2005

2006  •  President Gerald Ford
38th President of the United States (1974-1977) following the resignation of Richard M. Nixon and served eight months as the 40th Vice President of the United States. Died: December 26, 2006

2007  •  Jack Joseph Valenti
President of the Motion Picture Association of America and special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Valenti was in the motorcade in Dallas when Kennedy was shot and was aboard Air Force One when LBJ was sworn into office. Died: April 27, 2007

2008  •  Timothy J. Russert
Television journalist and lawyer who appeared for more than 16 years as the longest-serving moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press. Died: June 13, 2008

2009  •  Senator Edward Kennedy
US Senator from Massachusetts from 1962 until his death in 2009. Kennedy was the youngest brother of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Died: August 25, 2009

2010  •  General Alexander Haig
US Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan and White House Chief of Staff under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Died February 20, 2010

2011  •  Frank Woodruff Buckles
Last surviving American veteran of World War I. Buckles lived to age 110. Died: February 27, 2011

2018  •  Rev. Dr. Billy Graham
American evangelist, a prominent evangelical Christian figure, and ordained Southern Baptist minister who became well known internationally. Died: February 21, 2018

2018  •  Senator John McCain
American politician, Vietnam War POW and military officer who served as a US Senator from Arizona from January 1987 until his death in August 2018. Previously served two terms in the US House of Representatives and was Republican nominee for President in the 2008 election in which he was defeated by Barack Obama. Died: August 25, 2018

2018  •  President George Herbert Walker Bush
41st President of the United States (1989-1993) and the 43rd Vice President (1981-1989). Died November 30, 2018

2019  •  Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs “Cokie” Roberts
Broadcast journalist and author. Died: September 17, 2019

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