9.13. CLEANING UP THE CITY’S CEMETERIES

Another possible cause for the cholera problem was thought to have been the insufficient burial of dead bodies in the city cemeteries.  Two cemeteries, one in the North and one in the South, had been established by the city in 1835.  The north cemetery had originally been located near Chicago Avenue, east of Clark Street, but as the city grew outwards, it was relocated in 1842 to a plot of 80 swampy acres along the lakefront centered around North Avenue that at the time was thought to have been sufficiently removed from the city limits for health concerns.  This was divided into a Protestant burial ground in the northern half, and the southern portion that contained a Catholic cemetery (that had been originally purchased in 1843 by Rev. de St. Palais), a Jewish cemetery, a general city cemetery, and a potter’s field.  The south cemetery had been originally located near the lakeshore at 23rd Street. Following the 1852 reappearance of cholera, a group of nine business leaders, including J. Young Scammon, Norman B. Judd, and Ebenezer Peck, sensing the opportunity in this type of real estate investment, purchased 183 acres at what is now 67th and S. Cottage Grove Avenue and incorporated the non-sectarian Oak Woods Cemetery on February 12, 1853.

In 1857, Dr. John H. Rauch had been brought to Chicago in 1857 from Iowa to be a professor at the Rush Medical College, of which Ogden was its primary benefactor and the president of its Board of Trustees. Beginning in the Fall of 1858, Rauck had embarked on an unceasing campaign railing against the health hazards posed by the City Cemetery, that was reinforced with a petition to Common Council signed by “prominent citizens who resided on the north side.” That November, Common Council appointed a special commission to study the cemetery issue.  Ogden wasted precious little time in duplicating his partner Scammon’s new cemetery on the northside.  He partnered with John H. Kinzie in obtaining 350 acres at what is today the southwest corner of Ravenswood and Peterson, planning to build the city’s second private cemetery, Rosehill Cemetery. In less than three months after Council had appointed the Cemetery Commission, Ogden formally incorporated Rosehill Cemetery on February 11, 1859.  Four days later the commission recommended to Council that burials in the current City Cemetery be halted and negotiations with the Rosehill trustees take place to coordinate the transfer of burials.  On March 8, Council approved the commission’s recommendation, Ogden by that time had already managed to have the country’s leading botanist, William Saunders of Philadelphia, whom he had chosen to design the cemetery’s landscape, travel to Chicago to inspect the land so he could start designing a plan for its new function.  The cemetery was consecrated on July 28, 1859, thus the entire process from Dr. Rauck’s initial speeches to the cemetery’s consecration took less than nine months: a prime example of the “efficiency” with which Ogden ran his business operations. Curiously, Ogden had offered the presidency of the cemetery to local attorney, Thomas Barbour Bryan, who was known to be interested in improving the city’s cemeteries ever since his son had died in 1855 but had graciously declined Ogden’s offer.

Bryan had been born in Alexandria, VA, had studied law at Harvard, and upon graduation had migrated to the burgeoning metropolis of Cincinnati to establish his law practice.  He recognized the investment potential that Chicago offered, however, and moved to Chicago in 1852, establishing the firm of Bryan & Hatch, and began to expand his investments into real estate and banking.  Following the 1854 cholera epidemic, over 2000 bodies had been temporary disinterred in 1855 in the hope that this might impede the return of the disease.  One of these bodies had been Bryan’s recently deceased son, who was aghast that his son’s body had been disturbed. Following the emotional upset caused by the disinterment of his son’s body, Bryan began to appreciate the need for a better burial option than what the city currently offered.  Coincidently at this point in time, Cincinnati, Bryan’s former residence, was making news with the announcement that it was undertaking a complete redesign of its non-sectarian cemetery, Spring Grove.

Cincinnati had established its reputation as the horticultural center of the West with its many landscaped estates in suburban Clifton, Nicholas Longworth’s famous Catawba grape vineyard on Mt. Adams that would become Eden Park in 1869, and the publication of the magazine Western Horticultural Review.  A group of Cincinnati’s business leaders had established Spring Grove Cemetery in 1845 that was the largest cemetery in the world at this time.  In the same year that Bryan had left Cincinnati, Prussian immigrant landscape architect Adolph Strauch, who had learned his art under the gardeners at Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace and would soon become America’s leading landscape designer following the premature death of Alexander Jackson Downing in 1852, had moved into town and established his practice.  Two years later, in late 1854 he had been contracted to redesign the grounds of Spring Grove.  He would transform it into a veritable Garden of Eden and America’s premiere cemetery employing his theory of a “landscape lawn plan,” and in the process change the nature of American cemeteries from one of fenced in plots sporting a crushing number of monuments and statues, to an open, parklike arboretum that minimized the number of monuments placed within the landscape. Strauch had been brought to Chicago by the Board of Oak Woods Cemetery on the southside to design its landscape in time for the first burial to take place in 1860.

While Bryan was accessing his options regarding a new cemetery in Chicago, he had also bought a tract of land of over 1000 acres to the west of Chicago in an area that at the time was known as Cottage Hill, whose name would be changed in 1869 to Elmhurst.  Choosing not to live in the city proper, but to commute to this suburban location via Ogden’s G&CU, Bryan set out to replicate the landscaped estates he had seen in Cincinnati, naming his estate “Bird’s Nest.”  The following year, his good friend, painter George P. A. Healy purchased some of Bryan’s property and moved in next door.  Healy, who had been born and raised in Boston, had travelled to London and Paris at the age of twenty-one in 1834 to study painting, where, over the course of the next two decades, he had become quite famous at portrait painting, Louis-Phillippe, then the King of France, being among his subjects and admirers.  He had been brought to Chicago in the fall of 1855 through the invitation of Ogden who had made his acquaintance in Paris during his visit to the World’s Fair while on his European excursion. Promising a bright future with a number of commissions, Ogden had invited him to stay over the winter of 1855-6 at Ogden Grove, hoping to entice a renowned artist to grace the streets and salons of Chicago.

With the precedent of Spring Grove and other major cemeteries back in the east, Bryan, sensing the possible profit to be had from this type of real estate business, purchased sometime between late 1858 and early 1860, some 86 acres in the North Division, centered around what is today’s intersection of Clark Street and Irving Park Road. In early 1860, he invited Healy, Ogden, Ogden’s brother-in-law and partner, Edwin Sheldon (Sheldon had married William’s sister Francis in 1846, and was a partner, along with Mahlon Ogden, in Ogden, Jones, and Co. in 1850), and Sidney Sawyer to join him in incorporating Graceland Cemetery on June 27, 1860, in what would become Chicago’s premiere cemetery.  During his initial planning of Graceland, Bryan had engaged the services of Swain Nelson, a Swedish immigrant landscape gardener who had moved to Chicago in 1852, to assist with the necessary preliminary road and grading issues. Once the cemetery was formally incorporated, the Board followed Ogden’s precedent in Rosehill and commissioned William Saunders to also design Graceland’s overall plan, placing Nelson in charge of overseeing its actual construction. Now, all that was left to do was to have Common Council actually enforce the ban on new burials in the City Cemetery and the demand for burial plots in the new cemeteries would skyrocket.  The ever-faithful Ezra McCagg, Ogden’s partner and brother-in-law, was sent out to innocently start a petition campaign to have the city stop burials in the City Cemetery and to dedicate it as a city park.  Unfortunately, with the start of the Civil War this issue was pushed to the backburner.

FURTHER READING:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Cropsey, Eugene H. Crosby’s Opera House: Symbol of Chicago’s Cultural Awakening. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1999.

Harpster, Jack. A Biography of William B. Ogden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2009.

Funigiello, Philip J.,  Florence Lathrop Page,  Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1994. 

Tishler, William H., Midwestern Landscape Architecture, Urbana: University of Illinois, 2000.

Vernon, Christopher, Graceland Cemetery: A Design History, Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2011.

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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