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Graceland Cemetery

A Design History

Christopher Vernon

Publication Year: 2011

Graceland Cemetery in Chicago was founded in 1860 and developed over several decades by a series of landscape gardeners whose reputations today figure among the most important in the field. An exemplar of the rural cemetery type, Graceland was Chicago’s answer to its eastern counterparts, Mount Auburn in Cambridge and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia. While the initial layout of the cemetery was the work of William Saunders, designer of Laurel Hill, the cemetery is most often associated with a later style of design that featured exclusive use of native plants. Graceland was considered one of the most perfect expressions of this design approach, hailed as the most “modern” cemetery in existence and “the admiration of the world.” In this book, Christopher Vernon carefully recovers the history of Graceland and the many hands that helped to shape its influential layout. Following Saunders’s work, a succession of individuals contributed to the long evolution of Graceland’s landscape, including H. W. S. Cleveland, William Le Baron Jenney, and O. C. Simonds. In recent years, renewed interest in native plants and principles associated with the Prairie School of landscape design has led to a focus on Simonds’s contributions. While Vernon discusses Simonds’s work, he also considers the work of the cemetery’s other designers. Known as the “Cemetery of Architects” because so many notable ones are buried there, Graceland remains a heavily visited attraction. This richly illustrated book helps readers understand how the influential and still beautiful landscape was developed over many generations, casting new light on the careers of several important landscape architects.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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p. v-v

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pp. vii-ix

This book can be traced back to the efforts of three individuals who have long had an interest in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery putting its best foot forward to the public. Robert T. Isham Jr., John K. Notz Jr., and Frederick G. Wacker III, Trustees of the Graceland Cemetery Improvement Fund, all shared the belief that the cemetery would be well served by paying far greater attention to the history of its landscape than had been case for many years, at least since the 1920s. Although widely considered a pivotal design in the history of American landscape studies, Graceland had never before been the subject of a book-length study, and these individuals persisted in their belief that such a document would aid immeasurably in the pursuit...

Gallery of Color Plates by Carol Betsch Follows Page

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pp. 12-22

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pp. 3-13

Graceland Cemetery, laid out over several decades on a sandy ridge in northern Chicago, eventually became one of the best known landscapes in the world. In 1915, more than fifty years after its dedication, the parklike setting was identified by the horticulturist Wilhelm Miller as “perhaps the most famous example of landscape gardening designed by a western man.” Miller rhapsodically continued: “It is more than a mere cemetery, for it is full of spiritual suggestion, and its wonderful effects produced by trees and shrubs native to Illinois have profoundly influenced the planting of home grounds.”1 Graceland’s naturelike planting compositions also influenced the design of parks, campuses, and institutional grounds throughout the Midwest and beyond, bolstering an indigenous...

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Chapter 1. Thomas Barbour Bryan and the Genesis of Graceland

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pp. 15-31

The idea of Graceland Cemetery originated with the Virginiaborn attorney Thomas Barbour Bryan (1828–1906), whom contemporaries remembered as a “brisk, energetic little man, capable in affairs” and “widely erudite in language and literature.”1 (Fig. 1.1) Graduating from Harvard in 1848, Bryan wed Jane Byrd Page two years later, and he established a law practice in Cincinnati, where he remained for two years. Attracted by prospects of “a more lucrative practice” and “financial opportunities in real estate,” Bryan moved to Chicago in 1852.2 By the mid-nineteenth century, railroads had quickly put the fledgling city on the map, and it now was poised to become, perhaps even more than St. Louis...

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Chapter 2. The First Designers: Swain Nelson and William Saunders

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pp. 33-47

Reflecting on Graceland’s origins, Thomas Bryan noted that after identifying a site, he next began investigating cemetery design and “obtained from abroad the best works which had been published on the subject.”1 Though he identified neither the titles of the texts he consulted nor how long he spent studying them, we do know which works were available in the mid-1850s. The most prominent and directly relevant was John Claudius Loudon’s On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries and on the Improvement of Churchyards (1843). The Scottish landscape gardener, as his biographer Melanie Simo writes, “believed that cemeteries should...

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Chapter 3. The Earliest Designs

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pp. 49-63

No firsthand textual descriptions of William Saunders’s Graceland design have survived, but two reports he wrote around the time he obtained the Graceland commission suggest his design approach. The first, an account of his plan of Hunting Park, appeared in the October 1858 Horticulturist, only a few months after his Chicago stay with Bryan at Bird’s Nest. In his layout for this park in Philadelphia, Saunders noted, he had “not attempted to produce intricacy by an arrangement of tortuous or abrupt curving walks, but the various groups will be planted sufficiently thick, and intermixed with appropriate undergrowing plants, so as to produce a fresh change of scenery at every step, and thus avoid tameness of

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Chapter 4. A Decade of Expansion

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pp. 65-85

In April 1865, back east in Thomas Bryan’s native Virginia, Robert E. Lee surrendered on behalf of the Confederate forces after four long years of war. Only six days after peace descended, however, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination violently replaced jubilation with grief. The nation had lost its leader, Illinois its adopted son, and Bryan a personal friend. So close was their friendship that he was awarded the privilege of serving as a pallbearer both in the Chicago funerary procession on May 1 and at the martyred president’s final funeral service in Springfield on May 4. Lincoln was interred at the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, designed in the late 1850s by William Saunders, one of Graceland’s first landscape...

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Chapter 5. Bryan Lathrop and William Le Baron Jenney

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pp. 87-107

In 1877 Thomas Bryan, a consummate politician who was also renowned for his civic stewardship, was called to take a post in the Rutherford Hayes administration as one of the three commissioners of the District of Columbia.1 Just before his nearly twenty-year tenure with Graceland came to an end, he hired the architect and landscape gardener William Le Baron Jenney (1832–1907) for what would prove to be one of the cemetery’s last major landscape initiatives. (Fig. 5.1)
In the spring of 1877, as the financial effects of the Panic of 1873 began to abate, the cemetery’s board of managers decided to begin draining Graceland’s undeveloped land, low-lying and to the east, in order to create new burial sites.2 They were perhaps anticipating a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court...

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Chapter 6. Final Expansion

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pp. 109-131

In April 1879, after more than a decade of conflict, Bryan Lathrop at last resolved Graceland’s long-standing dispute with Lake View. In January, the cemetery’s decision to convert about 190 acres of its undeveloped land to burial sites had triggered a new episode in the adjoining town’s continuing opposition.1 The next month Lake View amended its charter to “forbid the use, save with the Town’s consent, for Cemetery purposes, of grounds not already enclosed and platted for such uses.”2 As we have seen, the town had similarly amended its charter in 1867 and 1869. Graceland, relying on the state-sanctioned charter that permitted it to expand to up to five hundred acres, now apparently threatened to challenge the town in the Illinois Supreme Court.3 Such legal action was likely to be protracted...

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Chapter 7. The Era of Bryan Lathrop and O. C. Simonds

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pp. 133-161

William Le Baron Jenney’s decision to involve O. C. Simonds with the Graceland project would have profound and unforeseen consequences for both men. (Fig. 7.1) Indeed, apart from Graceland, it is unclear whether Jenney involved him with any other work in the office. In January 1880, nearly two years into the project, the cemetery’s development had apparently reached a new crossroads. That month, Graceland resolved “to do the work described in the estimates of the Company’s engineer,” adding that it hoped the job would completed that year.1 Although the document detailing the precise nature of this project is now lost, it was presumably the implementation of Jenney’s layout of the cemetery’s unimproved eastern lands. The expense of the work, nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars, confirms...

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pp. 163-185

Graceland’s ongoing development was not limited to planting. By the mid-1880s a network of drives and paths, an entry gate structure, and a railroad station had been constructed. Around this time, the cemetery’s landscape infrastructure gained a new addition: an extensive irrigation system. A steam pump directed water, drawn from a natural spring, through a network of underground pipes to irrigate the lawns and plantings and also to feed lakes Willowmere and Hazelmere and Lotus Pond. “Thus,” a contemporary history of the area wrote, Graceland’s “wide and beautiful lawns are always cool, sparkling and green...

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pp. 189-192

In 1991 the chairman of the Graceland Cemetery Trustees’ Buildings and Grounds Committee, Robert Isham Jr., embarked on a lengthy inquiry into the archives—including lot cards, correspondence, drawings, blueprints, and photographs—and the resulting comparison of the historical record and the cemetery’s present condition made it clear that the historic landscape had been largely lost. In fact, it had been missing for so long that it was likely no one living had seen it in its days of glory. Isham discussed the situation with the architect Robert D. Douglass, and a preliminary professional review of the archival materials ensued. Conducted by the firm Douglass worked for, Eifler & Associates, this initial review led to an in-depth investigation to develop recommendations for restoration and improvement...

Gallery of Photographs from “Graceland Cemetery” 1904 Folio Follows Page

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pp. 205-208


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pp. 209-236


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pp. 237-248


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pp. 249-254

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761878
E-ISBN-10: 1613761872
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499263
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499261

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 125 historic photos, plans, drawings + 8-12 new color photos (from Carol Betsch)
Publication Year: 2011

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Subject Headings

  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Buildings, structures, etc.
  • Cemeteries -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Designs and plans.
  • Graceland Cemetery (Chicago, Ill.).
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