Chicago Gardens: The Early History

Five Legacy Gardens

from Chicago Gardens: The Early History

by Cathy Jean Maloney

Very few, if any, early Chicago area gardens remain in their original design. Plants die and are replaced, styles change, and properties themselves are divided. Even fewer properties are open to the public. Those that are described below contain bits and pieces of heritage landscapes, both residential and public.

Graceland Cemetery
4001 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois
Web site

Graceland Cemetery brought together some of Chicago’s best architects and landscape gardeners in this celebrated “garden of the dead.” Representing Chicago’s foray into the landscaped cemetery, Graceland’s roads, pathways, ponds, and naturalistic plantings surround monuments to some of Chicago’s leading figures. The cemetery design was influenced by a host of landscape luminaries, with O. C. Simonds having the longest tenure.

Ragdale garden
This map of Graceland shows the curving streets and open spaces in the "modern" American cemetery. 1922. Reproduced by permission of the Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Today, with landscape-design ideas readily accessible through the plethora of consumer magazines, television shows, and Web sites, it is hard to appreciate that cemeteries were once major showcases of design talent. Yet in Chicago, as well as other major cities in America and Europe, cemeteries predated city parks as sites for pastoral strolls and quiet contemplation. According to early historian Andreas Simon, until 1835, Chicago had no designated cemetery; families buried their deceased relatives in a “convenient spot near their home.” In 1835, two cemeteries were mapped out, one at South 23rd Street and the lake, and one on the near North Side. In the 1850s and 1860s, more cemeteries were created on the far outskirts of the city, in response to increasing public health concerns. Cemeteries were good business for Chicago’s nursery and greenhouse industry, which supplied cut and potted flowers as funeral decorations.

Graceland Cemetery is a fascinating time capsule of historic landscaping. Here, on about 120 acres of land surrounded by the bustling city, saint and sinner alike rest in perpetual silence. In life, they were friends or foes, artists or patrons; in death, fellow tenants of God’s green acre. Here is the monument to railroad-car magnate George Pullman, whose labor practices prompted widespread unrest and strikes. Here is the marker for John Altgeld, Illinois’s governor during the Pullman strike, whose sympathetic ear labeled him an anarchist. Exquisite monuments were crafted for Chicago’s leading family names such as Ryerson, Getty, and Goodman, by equally renowned architects such as Louis Sullivan and Howard Van Doren Shaw, who later were themselves laid to rest at Graceland.

Thomas B. Bryan, a wealthy Chicago businessman and avid horticulturist, was the major force behind the creation of Graceland in 1860. Along with other investors including Chicago’s first mayor, William B. Ogden, his brother-in-law Edwin H. Sheldon, Sidney Sawyer, and portraitist G. P. A. Healy, Bryan formed the Graceland Cemetery Company. Graceland’s location was ideal: readily accessible from Green Bay Road (now Clark Street) and later the Chicago and Evanston Railroad, yet far enough removed from the city to avoid health and sanitation issues. The company chose the high ridge area along what is now Clark Street, which was once an old Indian trail. The site offered good drainage with its strong drop-off to the east and slightly to the west. In the sandy soil here, plants thrive better than in Chicago’s typical clay soil.

Site location was an important element in Bryan’s vision for Graceland, but landscaping also played an early and continuing role. Bryan’s journal of Graceland expenses prominently enumerated the landscape gardener’s salary, trees, and plants. A star-studded cast of landscape gardeners helped configure the space of the early cemetery. Philadelphian William Saunders and local landscaper Swain Nelson developed some of the first plans in the early 1860s. Swain Nelson, recently arrived from Sweden and hungry for work, told how he approached Bryan about Graceland’s landscaping. Nelson had been asked by his client, James Waller, a concerned neighbor near the proposed Graceland site, to scout out Bryan’s plans for the cemetery—a project that did not enthuse Waller. “I called on Mr. Bryan the next day and gave him my card, and told him that I had heard that he was intending to lay out a cemetary [sic] and I came to solicit the work . . . He was much astonished he said he had not bought the land yet, he kept me in his office talking on various subjects.”

Nelson apparently made a good impression on Bryan, for he not only loaned him some money but also called him back once the Graceland property was purchased. Bryan and Nelson together rode around the property on horseback, and Bryan indicated where he wanted the entrance, office, and a main straight road. The next day, Nelson returned with a worker and team of horses, and marked the road, then the center road in the cemetery. After reviewing and approving the work, Bryan asked Nelson for his bid to grub out the oak trees, grade, and make the road bed. “I made a low bide [sic],” Nelson recounted, “for I needed the work and labor was very cheap. And to be paid in gold.” Bryan then gave instructions for a second road, which Nelson completed, and was about to suggest a third, when Nelson said, “I could not work any longer without a plan, well he said make a plan.”

Nelson then commenced to design the grounds. “I started to work out the whole ground in fifty feet squares and marked out the roads I had already made on the plan, and also the one I suggested to make.” Bryan, a very hands-on manager, approved the plan and then had Nelson mark out the main features on the property. Again with Bryan’s oversight, Nelson implemented the plan over the course of the next two to three years.

In the 1870s, H. W. S. Cleveland was retained to work on the design, as was William Le Baron Jenney. These early landscapers improved the major drives and pathways that can be seen today in Graceland. Both Jenney and Cleveland had associations with Frederick Law Olmsted and shared many of his design principles. Among other affiliations, Cleveland worked with Olmsted on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and Jenney collaborated with Olmsted in the Chicago suburb of Riverside. In fact, in comparing the 1869 general plan of Riverside and early maps of Graceland, the curving drives and elegantly fitted paramecium-shaped plots are not all that dissimilar.

Jenney brought O. C. Simonds to Graceland, and therein began an affiliation that was to last several decades. Simonds flourished under two mentors—Jenney and businessman and horticulture aficionado Bryan Lathrop. Simonds had studied architecture and civil engineering under Jenney at the University of Michigan, and later joined his architectural practice. Bryan Lathrop, Thomas B. Bryan’s nephew and president of the cemetery’s board of managers, also strongly influenced Simonds. Lathrop had both the means and interest to study landscape design, and was active in such far-flung interests as a bamboo plantation in the south and the parks movement in Chicago. As Simonds’s employer, he was a strong proponent of ongoing landscape improvements.

With this support, Simonds was able to study national examples of cemetery landscaping, such as Cincinnati’s Spring Grove, and develop his own design style. Cemetery design was challenging, however, as Simonds himself noted: “The great diversity of tastes, opinions, superstitions and prejudices that must be consulted or controlled make cemetery landscape-gardening the most difficult branch of the art.” The design conundrum is readily apparent: how to create a cohesive design when multiple property owners have autonomy over small, contiguous plots. Although Graceland Cemetery Company did have rules governing plot design, individual taste could not be completely legislated.

Simonds developed his own set of principles governing cemetery design. Examining two of his writings on cemetery landscaping, dated several decades apart, it is remarkable how consistent his design precepts remained. He emphasized

  • The contour of the land and arrangement of shrubs should afford privacy for visitors and mourners.

  • The site should be gently graded with slopes not exceeding a rise of 6 feet per 100 feet.

  • There should be a minimal number of driveways. Roads should be made of macadam, gently curved, and should pass within 150“200 feet of each lot. (His later 1920 writing, modified for the increase in automobile traffic and new technologies, suggested the use of bitulithic concrete, or bitulithic macadam.)

  • Water features such as lakes and ponds provide restful vistas.

  • Open lawns offer “cheerful effects,” and can be achieved by grouping large plots together.

Much has been written about Simonds’s penchant for native plants. His early prescription for cemetery planting notes, “In making selection for planting, we should seek those things which give cheerfulness.” For example, he recommended deciduous blossoming trees over somber Norway spruces. He also noted, “Natural beauty is not expensive. Usually in country places, all the trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants really necessary to produce the effects desired can be had for the labor of digging them. The best things supplied by nurseries—that is, the things that are hardy and will usually take care of themselves—can be had for very little money.” Nonetheless, Simonds was not a purist when it came to native plants. In an 1887 essay entitled “Mr. Simonds’ List of Shrubs,” Simonds listed the shrubs and vines successfully tried at Graceland—many of which were nonnative species (all spellings below as originally written).

Serviceberry (Amelanchier vulgaris, A. Botryapium), Aralia Japonica, Japan Quince (Prunus Japonica flore albo pleno and P. Japonica flore rubro pleno), Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginica), Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora), Honeysuckle (Lonicera), Mock Orange Syringa (Philadelphus coronaries, P. coronaries flore pleno, P. foliis aureis, P. Gordonianus and P. grandiflorus), Current (Ribes sureum, R. gordonianum and R. sanguineum), Sassafras, Spirea, Snowberry (Symphoricarpus racemosus and S. vulgaris), Lilac (Syringa Josekoea, S. Persica, S. rothomagensis, S. Siberica, S. Sinensis, S. vulgaris), Arrow-wood (Viburnum), Wild Barberry (Berberis Canadensis) and Common Barberry (B. vulgaris and B. vulgaris purpurea), Wild Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus), Button-bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Dogwood (Cornus Siberica foliis albo-marginatis), American Hazelnut/Filbert (Corylus Americana), Cotoneaster, American Strawberry bush (Euonymus Americanus), St. John’s wort (Hypericum).

Perhaps more importantly, Simonds espoused a naturalistic planting effect whereby plants were arranged artfully, yet in a way that imitated nature. He suggested that common bedding plants (typically brightly colored annuals) were less attractive than naturally growing trees and shrubs, which also provided winter interest in our bleak Chicago January and February months. He eschewed “dreary” spruce and weeping willows in favor of “bright cheerful effects [achieved] by the selection of all kinds of flowering happy-looking plants.” Noting that “cemeteries, indeed, rank with parks in preserving open spaces and in the growth of foliage which purifies the air,” Simonds even went so far as to suggest that “the modern cemetery becomes, in fact, a sort of arboretum.”

Simonds, and other cemetery designers of his time, preferred that manmade buildings or structures be sublimated to natural views. Office buildings were to be discreetly located, and other structures should be covered by vines. Grave markers and monuments were to be low to the ground and subtle. Simonds, in fact, supported cremation and helped design the first oil-burning crematorium, making Graceland a pioneer in this field. In the aesthetic aim for discreet monuments, Simonds and other cemetery designers had their largest struggle with individual plot owners. Particularly in the western portion of Graceland, the older part, elaborate monuments reflect Victorian fashion with ornamentation, grandeur, and exotic art such as Egyptian symbols and statues. Interestingly, two of Chicago’s major architects’ monuments are most sympathetic to the scaled-down ideal: Daniel Burnham’s monument is a simple, rough-hewn stone placed on a little peninsula surrounded by Lake Willowmere, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe proves less is more with his simple, rectangular stone set flush into the ground.

Landscape Integrity

As the city has grown around Graceland, adjustments have been necessary. Many of the shrubs and understory plantings had been removed over the years, possibly due to maintenance costs, the effects of the great Depression, the lack of maintenance personnel during World War II, and personal safety and security issues in the postwar period, when massed plantings were considered potential hiding places for unwelcome intruders. The cemetery is currently bounded by walls, whereas Simonds would have preferred a naturalistic massing of trees and shrubs or, at least, a fence disguised by plantings or vines. (Given the three-foot right-of-way adjacent to the perimeter walls and the clearance requirements of modern maintenance equipment, it is a challenge to include camouflage plantings to hide the walls.)

Nonetheless, the landscape retains intriguing glimpses into Simonds’s work and that of his predecessors. The curving drives and overall layout reflect the thinking of Jenney, Cleveland, and Nelson. The western part of the cemetery is older, and even in 1894, author Andreas Simon noted, “It was still the fashion to surround the family-lots with low stone walls or fence them in with iron railings or natural hedges and then to adorn them with monuments and grave-stones, more or less gorgeous, as the means of the owners would permit. About 50 acres of the grounds were disfigured in this way. Of course at that time this ancient system had not as yet been recognized as a mistake.” Today, we can admire the older headstones as works of outdoor art.

The landscaping of the southeast portion of the cemetery has been described as being in the style of the American lawn. It is a low area, with few plantings, and feels rather empty. Andreas Simon identified the area in 1894 as a recent advancement, and “one worthy of imitation.” Apparently many of the plots in this area had been neglected, and so “these graves, forgotten by the living … have now been cleared of the weeds and grass covering them by the management; the mounds have been leveled and the whole has been changed into a beautiful lawn, on which appear here and there the tops of small numbered stones, marking the resting-places of the dead.”

The best area to see Simonds’s aesthetic ideal realized, both in 1894 and today, is around Lake Willowmere. Willowmere was one of two lakes created both for artistic effect and to improve the site’s drainage. (The other lake, near the property’s east side, has been filled in.) Large family plots of five thousand to twelve thousand square feet surround the lake, and were given evocative names such as Lakeside, Bellevue, and Fair Lawn. Priced at $1.00 to $1.25 per square foot in the 1890s, Andreas Simon observed that “only persons blessed abundantly with this world’s goods can think of buying.” Simon temporized that this privileged spot, with its natural beauty, nonetheless benefits all who visit Graceland. As he describes this eastern portion of the cemetery, “The principal charm of ‘new Graceland’ is found in the large rolling lawns, which appear as grand velvety green carpets, from which the blooming decorations of the low mounds dotting the lawns here and there stand out like many-colored embroideries.”

The Wolff-Clements firm rehabilitated the landscape around Lake Willowmere, particularly in the section known as Ridgeland, just west of the lake, which includes the Marshall Field, McCormick, and Armour family plots. Research using old photographs and planting plans helped ensure historical accuracy, although some changes were needed, such as substituting shade-loving plants for sun lovers in recognition of changed sun patterns, or preserving old trees that, while not on original planting plans, added maturity to the landscape.


Book details:

Cathy Jean Maloney
Chicago Gardens: The Early History
©2008 464 pages, 11 color plates, 166 halftones, 7×10
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-50234-2 (ISBN-10: 0-226-50234-1)
Co-published with Center for American Places

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Chicago Gardens: The Early History.

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