Feature photo by sscornelius
Dotted with winding paths, a serene lake, incredible architecture, and bending willow trees, Graceland is arguably one of the most beautiful parks in Chicago. It’s a quiet place, a haven that, once inside its brick walls, shuts out the clamor from the rumbling red line L trains and the busy Irving Park traffic. Not that most of Graceland’s residents will be complaining about the noise any time soon- Graceland is a cemetery.
Located on the edge of Wrigleyville and Uptown, Graceland Cemetery is one of my all-time favorite Chicago spots. Right up there with deep dish pizza and the Millennium Park Bean, Graceland is a can’t-miss-it tourist stop.
I’ve never been one to shy away from graveyards in the first place. I come from sensible, New Englander ilk and grew up where most towns are centuries old. Back home, its common place to have old pilgrim burial grounds deep in your own backyard. They’re not treated as spooky, untouchable place, but as historical totems and reminders of our way back past. As young as elementary school I remember taking field trips to Salem, Boston, and Newport where my tween self made grave stone rubbings from huge sheets of paper and waxy black crayons. When I first moved to Chicago, I used to take long, meandering walks through Graceland marveling at the unbelievable mausoleums. Each seemed more beautiful, more richly detailed than the last.
Graceland has been a private cemetery since it’s founding in 1860. Thomas Bryan, a Chicago lawyer, purchased 80 acres and hired landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland to set to work planning a Victorian-style, pastoral cemetery. Graceland was eventually extended to 119 acres and became the final home to many local heroes and prominent families.
One of my favorite places in Graceland is the tomb of wealthy brewmaster Peter Schoenhofen. His unexpected pyramid mausoleum is guarded by an Egyptian sphinx and a Victorian angel. Another star of Graceland is Potter and Bertha Palmer’s tomb. They are buried under a lavish Greek temple in twin sarcophagi. In life, the Potters sold their successful dry goods business to another Graceland resident: Marshall Field. His gravestone is an enormous sculpture of a woman in mourning titled, “Memory”.
Graceland is often referred to as “The Cemetery of Architects” since several important names are carved into tombs there. The “Father of the Chicago School of Architecture” (so boasts his headstone) Louis Sullivan is buried here as are business partners John Root and Daniel Burnham (buried with his family on a small island on the lake) who worked tireless to bring the 1893 Columbian Exposition to Chicago. Sadly, Root passed before he could see the Exposition surpass his high expectations. “Father of the Skyscraper” William Le Baron Jenney calls Graceland home as well as Fazlur Khan who counts the 100 story John Hancock Center and the 110 story Sears Tower amongst his masterworks.
Besides architects, Graceland has its fair share of heroes. Alan Pinkerton, outspoken abolitionist and founder of the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency, is buried here under a memorial that reads, “A friend to honesty and a foe to crime.” His employee, Kate Warn, was laid to rest nearby. She was the country’s first female detective. Jack Johnson, the first African American boxer to win the World Heavyweight championship, is buried here as well as Chicago Daily News publisher Victor Lawson who rests beneath an enormous sculpture of a Crusader bearing the phrase, “Above all things truth beareth away the victory.”
Graceland does have its share of ghost stories. Dexter Graves commissioned a shrouded, menacing bronze figure named “Eternal Silence” to mark his final resting place. Urban legend dictates that if you stare into the statute’s eyes, you’ll see your own death.
Inez Clarke’s memorial is also supposedly haunted. A statute of the six year old girl encased in a glass box marks her resting place. According to local legend, the girl was killed in a lightning storm while picnicking with her family. During particularly awful thunderstorms, Inez’s statue disappears from the glass box to roam the grounds only to reappear in the morning, much to the surprise of cemetery guards.
Graceland Cemetery is free and open to the public Monday through Sunday from 8 am until 4:30 pm. It is located at 4001 N. Clark Street and, of course, asks that visitors remain respectful (no food, drink, lawn chairs, pets, or Frisbee is permitted). Visit their website for more information.