4001 North Clark Street
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
If we had to choose a single word to describe Chicago's Graceland, it would definitely be, "elegant." The well-manicured lawns and gardens hearken to a time sadly passed when ladies and gentleman strolled the lush grounds of summer homes conversing about literature, fox hunts, trips to exotic destinations and the next fantastic social gathering. The cemetery is aptly named, too, for it is filled with grace and a beauty so intense it is strangely heartbreaking. During our visit, we had to stop from time to time and wonder if we hadn't somehow wandered into Shangri-La!
At each bend in the gently turning roadways a new, more delicious, vista awaits. Powerfully-winged angels point the way to the next world. Soaring obelisks pierce the azure fabric of the sky. A shrouded figure, face obscured in the deep recesses of his voluminous hooded robe, stands in perpetual stillness and a young Victorian girl gazes across the tombs of her neighbors from the confines of her Plexiglas prison. Yes, this cemetery is truly a land filled with graces both dazzling and strange.
Harvard-educated attorney Thomas Bryan purchased the cemetery's first 80-acre parcel in 1859. In 1860 he established Graceland and the State of Illinois granted a perpetual charter to the cemetery in 1861. As part of the charter, Graceland was given the right to purchase 500 additional acres, but efforts to act on this were thwarted by residents of the adjacent town of Lake View. They feared the presence of decaying corpses so near their land would corrupt the water supply, spread disease and wreak all manor of havoc. Mr. Bryan disputed the claims and invoked the charter as evidence of his right to the land; however, Lake View protests were vehement and, in the end, he settled for a compromise which saw the cemetery expand only to its current 200 acre size. Happily included with the acquired land was a lake which now occupies space in the northern part of Graceland.
Bryan was soon joined in his venture by other members of Chicago's upper class and Graceland was off to its glorious birth. Landscape architect Ossian Simonds was retained to design the grounds and, under his direction, the cemetery took on the naturally integrated appearance that has been maintained to this day.
It would be impossible to do justice to all of the sublime memorials contained within the borders of this, our favourite, Chicago cemetery. Instead, we will focus on a handful and leave the remainder for you to discover on your own.
One of the more unique monuments we encountered is distinguished not so much by the stones which record the names of the ground's occupants (though these, too, merit comment) but its simple, ravishing location. We are referring to Burnham Island. This idyllic little oasis rises like an exquisite opium-dream from the crystalline waters of Graceland's Lake Willomere. Architect and City Planner, Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912), best remembered for almost single-handedly reviving the neo-classical style, was the man behind this grand design. Upon his death in 1921, his company was the world's largest architectural firm. Burnham and his family now rest forever on their own private island, each grave marked by a boulder of glacial granite. [Note: Thankfully, Burnham Island is not accessible only to swimmers or anyone who happens to have a small boat! A concrete footbridge affords a scenic and most pleasant path to the oasis].
A single, imposing Corinthian column anchored by curved stone benches stands in memory of George Pullman (1831-97). It is hardly the dramatic edifice he or his family would have hoped for. But there is good reason for this...
When his new railroad sleeping car was chosen to bear the body of slain President Lincoln from Washington D.C. to Springfield, IL. in 1865, Pullman was catapulted into the limelight. Despite the exorbitant cost of the cars, demand could hardly be met and thus it was that George Pullman made his fortune. By 1894, however, his lucrative business was in decline. He slashed wages but refused to lower charges imposed on those employees who lived in company-owned dwellings. The resulting Pullman Strike was bitter indeed. So bitter, in fact, that when Pullman died in 1897 his family feared malcontents would defile his grave and hold the corpse for ransom. To prevent such ghoulish goings-on, they took drastic measures. One story claims they had him buried in one of his own sleepers which was then weighted down with steel rails and encased in cement. Another, more plausible, version suggests his casket was wrapped in tarpaper, sealed with asphalt, covered with railroad ties and then encased in concrete. Either way, it's certain Mr. Pullman's corpse won't be going anywhere anytime soon! No fan of Pullman, journalist Ambrose Bierce made this wry quip regarding the grim measures taken on behalf of the deceased: "It is clear the family, in their bereavement, was making sure the son-of-a-bitch wasn't going to get up and come back!"
Next, we come to the meticulously rendered sculpture of little Inez Clarke (1873-1880). As the story goes, the child was struck by lightning whilst frolicking at a family picnic on 1 August, 1880. The bolt claimed her life, but, we are told, that hardly stopped the precocious 6-year old! Locals and even some cemetery employees swear the life-sized marble replica of the child vanishes from its protective Plexiglas case when fierce thunderstorms shatter the silence of the necropolis. Yet, she dutifully returns to her post once the storm is passed. At least one night watchman has resigned after encountering this unsettling phenomenon. Others have reported seeing a small girl in Victorian garb skipping amidst the tombstones.
Be that as it may, Inez was present when we made our visit to her grave. She sits in a rough-hewn wooden chair, ankles delicately crossed. In one hand she clasps a rose which appears to have withered in her lap. In the other, she holds an umbrella, perhaps representing the storm which took her life. Her long hair is drawn back from her pleasantly rounded face and, on her left shoulder a wide-brimmed hat (held by ribbon tied in a bow) seems to have been blown off her head. She also wears a beatific smile which belies tales of her fright-inspiring antics. Suspended from a delicate necklace, a locket hangs mid-chest...the detail so fine one can see the clasp which has slipped almost to the point where Inez could make a wish. Perhaps she could have wished herself back to life. Or maybe she prefers the afterworld where her childish pranks may continue unabated without fear of ever growing old. Whether she walks the lawns of Graceland, we couldn't say, but the thought of standing in this stone garden at the Witching Hour and hearing the dull "rustle" of a marble petticoat drawing nigh is intriguing...to say the least.
Far stranger than Inez' otherworldly reputation is the story of a creature rumoured to lurk near the underground vault of one Ludwig Wolff. We are uncertain if Mr. Wolff has any "claim to fame," other than this ghost story. We do know he lost a daughter and three grandchildren to the infamous Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903. The conflagration took the lives of 600 theatre patrons in less than 15 minutes--this, in a building which was said to be fireproof. In any case, the green-eyed beast (said to resemble a dog) reputedly howls at the moon in the vicinity of Wolff's tomb. To our minds, the similarity between the creature's behaviour and the family name is hardly subtle and, thus, we find ourselves nearly crushed under the weight of the "grain" of salt that should be taken with this haunting fable. Yet, while the story instills little trepidation, we could readily understand how the tomb itself might cause unease on a dark, moonlit night. With stairs that lead down to its yawning metal gates and an enormous stack shoving up from the earth in order to eliminate certain...unpleasant...odours from the burial chamber, the Wolff crypt certainly invites that "creeped out" feeling.
A Bella Morte favourite is the Fisher Columbarium which stands on the serene shores of Lake Willomere. Designed by American sculptor, Richard Bock (who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright) the columbarium houses the cremains of architect & Chicago paper company magnate, Lucius George Fisher Jr. (1843 - 1916). The five-sided pink & black granite monument features a stunning veiled female figure rendered in bronze. In her hands she holds an urn, possibly representing the vessel in which Mr. Fisher's "ashes" had been placed. Aside from the gift of her disarming beauty, this lovely lady also serves as the door to the columbarium.
For sheer magnificence, Bella Morte's vote goes to the Palmer monument. Erected in 1921 to honor the memories of Potter Palmer (1826-1902) and Bertha Honoré Palmer (1850-1918), it is Graceland's largest tomb. Mr. Palmer made his fortune selling dry goods with Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. In 1871, he built the $3,500,000 Palmer House Hotel as a wedding present for his new wife, Bertha Palmer, a wealthy woman famed for her patronage of the Impressionists. Sadly, the hotel had just opened when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed it, along with various other properties owned by Potter. Undaunted, he rebuilt his fortune while barely skipping a beat and in 1885 the couple moved into a Gothic "castle" they had constructed to their specifications. Potter died in 1902 and was interred in an unremarkable grave in Graceland until a more suitable tribute could be created. In 1918, Bertha was in Florida when the Grim Reaper came to call. Her body was blanketed with exotic and costly orchids and brought back to the couple's "castle." From there she was moved to the astonishing Doric Temple which had just been completed to serve as the family tomb. Situated on the crest of a hill and shaded by stands of mature honey locust and maple trees, the white colonnaded structure overlooks Lake Willomere. Beneath the ornately-carved roof, two peerlessly hewn sarcophagi hold the mortal remains of Potter and Bertha in their cold, stone embrace. Today, in an underground crypt located beneath the enormous edifice, three generations of Palmers lie in splendour.
One final note about this tomb. On our pilgrimage up the hill to pay our respects, we couldn't help but notice an unassuming stone engraved with the name, James Woods. Our curiosity piqued, we inquired after his relationship with the family in the cemetery office where we were informed Mr. Woods was the family's butler. Obviously highly regarded by the Palmer's, he was, nevertheless, deemed unworthy of a spot in the crypt. Still, we're certain Mr. Woods would not be displeased with the edenic setting wherein he lies.
Also of note is the gravestone of artist and architect, Bruce Goff (1904-1982). Known as a pioneer in the field of “organic architecture,” Goff excelled at integrating his buildings with their surrounding environment. In this respect, and many others, he showed himself to be a man ahead of his time. He garnered recognition in artistic circles (including high praise from Frank Lloyd Wright) and eventually took the position of Chair at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Architecture. Sadly, Goff lived at a time in American history when being homosexual was often a career-ending “revelation.” He kept his orientation as a gay man hidden but, in 1955, was arrested on trumped up charges of “corrupting the morals of a minor.” The result was the loss of his job in Oklahoma as well as expulsion from the city in which he resided. His life ended in 1982 in the town of Tyler, Texas. His body was cremated…but, sadly, with no family or loved ones to claim them, his cremains became part of a lot of the artist’s work which fell into the hand’s of one of his greatest patrons, Mr. Joe Price, a resident of California. And there they stayed until one of Goff’s former students, Grant Gustafson, determined to erect a fitting monument to his fallen teacher. Accordingly, he launched an effort that, at last, culminated in the decision to bury the remains in Graceland where a number of other noted architects are interred. The marker consists of a bronze triangle set into a black granite base which bears the artist’s name and the title of “architect.” The most remarkable thing about the piece is the large, blue-green glass fragment affixed to the apex of the triangle. This is actually a “relic” taken from the ruins of Goff-designed Price House and Studio (Bartlesville, OK) which was destroyed by arson in 1996. Goff’s cremains were buried, and the memorial placed, on 7 October, 2000, ending, at last, their nearly 20-year journey to sweet rest.
At last, we come to a monument that is nothing if not a Gothic delight. When we write "Gothic," we intend it in the sense of "dark and stormy nights," castles, vampires and things that go bump in the night--not 12th century architecture. Standing before awed visitors, an eight foot bronze monolithic figure appears to be, at any moment, ready to take a heavy, halting step towards those who would dare disturb his solitude. This is "Eternal Silence," sculpted by Larado Taft in 1909 to stand watch at the tomb of Dexter...Graves (we kid you not). Mr. Graves (1789-1844), was one of the early settlers of Chicago and an enormously successful hotelier. After his death, his son commissioned Taft to create a fitting monument to his father's legacy.
The exact meaning of the figure has never been disclosed. Some believe it represents Time and that its inspiration derives from these lines in Henry Austin Dobson's poem, "The Paradox of Time:"
Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go;
Or else, were this not so,
What need to chain the hours,
For Youth were always ours?
Time goes, you say?- ah no!
Others, and we count ourselves among this number, prefer to think of the mysterious cloaked figure as Death Himself. Offerings of coins are often left at his feet, perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that, sooner or later, he will exact his dues from each and every one of us.
And this is where we will leave you, for we ourselves are lost in reverie thinking of this extraordinary cemetery where time truly does seem to hold its breath.