Monday, October 29, 2007

ChicagoRound: Graceland Cemetery

We took the Chicago Architecture Foundation's two-hour walking tour of Chicago's pastoral Graceland Cemetery on Sunday afternoon. The tour is only ten bucks for non-members, and it gives you a sweeping overview of Chicago history, politics, architecture and society. The cemetery, founded in 1860, was designed by landscape architects H.W.S. Cleveland and Ossian Simonds in the Victorian park style, with winding roads, lush native foliage and man-made lakes that work to create a serene, inviting space for visitors. Everyone who's anyone in Chicago history is buried at Graceland, and many of the monuments and mausolea are architectural icons designed by the city's most famous architects. Here's a mere sample of the architecture and the stories the cemetery contains:

This heavenward-facing angel welcomes visitors to the cemetery. In true Victorian fashion, she's the embodiment of lyric Romanticism, and she becomes so entangled in vines that she has to be hacked free at least once a year.

Lorado Taft's iconic "Eternal Silence" is perhaps the cemetery's most famous monument. Built in 1909 for the family of Chicago pioneer, hotelier and spooky-boneyard-name titleholder Dexter Graves, it features a hooded figure whose dark receded face stands in arresting contrast to the bright patina of its robes. The monument was recently cleaned and restored, but the face was left dark, presumably to freak out little children who wander too close:

Taft's 1931 "Crusader" was erected to honor newspaper publisher and philanthropist Victor Lawson. The figure is as solitary and heroic as "Eternal Silence," but it features the smoother surfaces and sleeker lines of the Art Deco movement, in contrast to the overwrought turn-of-the-century emotion of "Eternal Silence."

Potter Palmer, proprietor of Chicago's iconic Palmer House hotel, is entombed next to his wife, Bertha Honoré Palmer, in a pair of sarcophagi under an austere 1902 Greek revival temple featuring a stately colonnade of pillars. The Honoré family monument, in a Gothic splendor reminiscent of Notre Dame Cathedral, sits just below the Palmer monument. But apparently I forgot to take a picture of it.

Marshall Field's 1906 family plot features a seated figure holding oak leaves, a traditional symbol of strength, in front of a private reflecting pool in a grotto of foliage. The twin caducei on the front of the base are the traditional symbol of the medical profession, but our docent on Sunday said they're also a traditional symbol of commerce. My attempts to confirm this via and only confuse the matter further.

I'm afraid I can't remember whom this monument—featuring the traditional Victorian figures of faith, hope and charity—was built for. But what struck me (and everyone else in our group) was a line of five small headstones at its base marking the remains of an entire family—two parents and three children—who were killed in the Iroquois Theater fire on December 30, 1903. The fire, which started when a lighting fixture ignited a curtain and quickly exploded into a giant fireball, killed 602 people during a matinée of the popular musical Mr. Bluebeard, starring Eddie Foy. The deaths were attributed to corrupt fire inspectors in combination with fire exits that opened inward, trapping everyone inside as bodies piled up against them. This disaster is the reason that all fire doors open outward to this day.

Louis Sullivan is often credited as the creator of the modern skyscraper. The development of cheap, available steel in the last half of the 19th century suddenly allowed buildings to rise higher than architects had ever imagined. And since their outside walls didn't have to bear the weight of the extra floors, they were suddenly free to be ornamental. Sullivan helped define a graceful visual vocabulary for buildings that soared into the outer reaches of perspective, and the mighty skyscraper was born. While Sullivan coined the phrase "form follows function"—meaning a building's practical use should trump superfluous aesthetics—he often gave his buildings lush Art Nouveau or Celtic Revival ornamentation ... like the intricate cast-iron latticework that graces his Carson, Pirie, Scott Building in Chicago and the terra cotta detailing on the Peoples Savings Bank in my hometown. Despite Sullivan's epic achievements in architecture—including some of the most notable monuments at Graceland Cemetery—he died penniless and alone due to his alcoholism and his uneven temperament. And his gravestone is little more than a rock with an ornament bearing his silhouette.

Architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham was the director of works for the 1893 World's Fair (read all about it in Devil in the White City) and the architect of such notable structures as Chicago's Reliance Building, Washington D.C.'s Union Station and New York City's Flatiron Building. He also created the great 1909 Chicago Plan, the first comprehensive blueprint for controlled growth of an American city. Despite his vast, ornate architectural oeuvre, his grave marker is a simple plaque on a rough-hewn stone. But his family plot occupies a private island in the cemetery's Lake Willowmere. Interesting fact: When Lincoln Park Cemetery was deconsecrated in the 1800s and its bodies were reinterred at Graceland, the broken headstones were used to line Lake Willowmere. You can still see etchings on the stones that border the lake.

Ruth Page, the first American ballerina to dance with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, was also the first American choreographer to employ Rudolf Nureyev after his defection from the Kirov Ballet. She helped bring modern dance to the masses, and she worked with some of the early 20th century's most influential artists, including Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland and Anna Pavlova. She's interred in a grotto surrounded by some of Graceland Cemetery's most avant-garde and unusual grave markers, an apt tribute to her life and her work.

Architect Mies van der Rohe founded the International Style, the fabled "less is more" school that eschewed ornament over sleek dark facades and pure functionality. Dirk Lohan's polished granite slab marking his grave echoes the austere aesthetic of van der Rohe's architecture, which includes Chicago's IBM Building and New York City's Seagram Building.

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