Hoerr Schaudt’s revamped entry to Graceland Cemetery helps visitors slow down.
By Zach Mortice
“If there’s a street named after someone in Chicago, they are likely buried at Graceland,” says Joshua Bauman, ASLA, a senior associate at Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects in Chicago. Founded in 1860 and the eternal home to many of the city’s greatest heroes, scoundrels, industrialists, and politicians, Graceland Cemetery also hosts national figures, such as the first Black champion heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, and a concentration of architects (Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) that makes it a pilgrimage for design mavens.
Its 121 acres on the far north side of Chicago are “the keeper of a tremendous historical record,” says Stephanie Sloane, the vice president of L. F. Sloane Consulting Group, which manages historic cemeteries, including Graceland. “However, people haven’t always felt welcome to come in and explore that history.”
An example of the 19th-century rural cemetery movement that posited outdoor spaces for grieving in nature as a precursor to the contemporary conception of parks, Graceland is nearly as renowned for its landscape design by O. C. Simonds, a founding member of ASLA, as it is for its honorable interred. But the cemetery’s entry sequence wasn’t doing it any favors. Visitors would pull off the road from a busy intersection, onto narrow slips of asphalt, and immediately park in two small lots. Bordered by a gas station and an elevated train line, there was nothing to ease you into this historical landscape—no place to congregate or contemplate in the entry area, and no separation for pedestrians and cars, which often blocked views to the landscape.
It was a clumsy introduction to one of the city’s cherished green spaces, where Simonds’s design connects a series of outdoor rooms through carefully coordinated view corridors, especially across Lake Willowmere and Burnham Island, on which Daniel Burnham and his family rest. Here and elsewhere, buildings and grave markers are subservient to the landscape, disappearing through the cascade of tree canopies.
Bauman and Hoerr Schaudt principal Shawn Weidner created a plan to slow down the entry sequence, creating a public plaza and new planting arrangements that encourage visitors—who could be tourists with an eye for Chicago history, neighborhood joggers, or mourners for whom quiet meditation in Graceland is a somber ritual—to gather and linger. Hoerr Schaudt’s plan consolidates the two small parking lots into one larger (but still modest) 13-space site. The former northern lot becomes a 4,500-square-foot plaza with café tables. New paths separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic. When it’s done later this year, it should create a transitional zone for active programming (tours, book talks, receptions) before one enters the open-air history museum and still-active cemetery.
“Our intention with this design is to create [an] antechamber; space where you can get off the street and you can gather and collect—a tour group, a family—before passing through this new archway to act as an interstitial space before [you enter] the cemetery,” Bauman says.
The plan leans heavily on texture and patina to signal this transition. Cobblestones reclaimed locally and from New England pave the driveway and plaza, which slows down circulation and the eye as it looks over what used to be an expanse of asphalt. This material change is an “immediate indicator that you’re in a historic space,” Bauman says. The border between this transitory zone and the cemetery’s grave markers and meandering paths is marked by red granite archway piers that match the cemetery’s outer gate; a civic-scaled monument that can “bring the grandeur back” to Graceland, Bauman says, complete with delicate floral ironwork, distressed to add more patina.
This new entry area adds clusters of shrubs often with a tree at their center: a sugar maple surrounded by juniper; on the outside of the inner gate, London plane trees surrounded by cranberry cotoneaster. Two thick bands of Chicago Lustre arrowwood viburnum mark the inside of the inner gate. The plantings favor natives, just as Simonds did, who pulled plants from local farms and opted for blooming, deciduous trees.
“There couldn’t be a more transformative experience in the city from outside the gates to being in the middle of the cemetery,” says William Bickford, a member of the Graceland Cemetery Board of Trustees. With Hoerr Schaudt’s redesigned entry, this transition will likely happen with more stage direction, less speed, and more awe.