Seven miles north of the city limits lived a stubborn farmer named Hiram Roe. Atop the highest point in the area, his farm was commonly known as “Roe’s Hill.” One of the reasons his land thrived was because, when it rained, it was one of the few farms that didn’t turn into a swamp.
A group of investors led by Chicago’s first mayor, William B. Ogden, had already bought up many of the farms and tree nurseries surrounding Roe’s Hill. But Hiram wasn’t about to sell his farm to a bunch of politicians and big shots from the city. It wasn’t until Ogden promised the farmer that the cemetery would be named in his honor that Roe finally relinquished and sold his land.
By the late 1850s, the death rate of Chicagoans was taxing the capacity of the municipal cemetery, which was located on the lakeshore at the south end of Lincoln Park. In the wake of typhoid and cholera epidemics, it was also determined that using the site for burials presented a danger to the growing population of the city. Because of the high water table, diseased bodies buried there were transmitting disease through the city’s drinking water, which was then taken directly from the lake. A petition by concerned citizens and the testimony of Doctor John Rauch led to a decision to relocate the graves outside the city limits which, at that time, ended at Fullerton Avenue.
Rosehill, dedicated in 1859, is one of the oldest private cemeteries in Chicago. Its site is the highest elevation in the city and the second highest in all of Cook County. It is one of only three cemeteries near Chicago organized under a perpetual charter, granted by the Illinois Legislature, which guarantees its absolute permanency.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, cemeteries were generally seen as seedy dreary places which were neglected by their caretakers. But Rosehill’s incorporators, including William Ogden, the city’s first mayor, and Major John H. Kinzie, whose father was the first white settler in Chicago, envisioned something different. The cemetery was planned as a state-of-the-art landscaped memorial park. Complete with miles of winding roads and walkways, shimmering lakes, stately oaks and sprawling lawns, it would be a place where people could escape from the city and picnic in a pastoral, idyllic atmosphere. It was a concept that had come into vogue in Victorian England, when crowded churchyard cemeteries there failed to accommodate ensuing generations.
In 1864, the remarkable East Gatehouse was built on Ravenswood to house the cemetery administration building. The architect was William W. Boyington and the style was “Castellated Gothic.” At that time, the cemetery owned Rosehill Drive, which extended from Ashland Avenue to the East Gate. The entrance to the cemetery was marked at Ashland. The cemetery also owned land along Ashland Avenue, from Rosehill Drive to Granville, and another strip connecting it to the Chicago & North Western tracks. All this land was later sold and subdivided.
The East Gatehouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The National Register Report noted: “Examples of Castellated Gothic are rare in the Midwest and this stone structure by Boyington, in being an exceedingly well designed example of the style, ranks among those few that still exist.” Castellated Gothic is a style of architecture easily recognized by Chicagoans familiar with another landmark - the old Water Tower and pumping Station at Michigan and Chicago Avenues. Designed by Boyington five years after Rosehill’s Gatehouse, the Water Tower was the only building to survive the Chicago Fire in 1871. Castellation refers to the parapet design with alternating indentations and raised stonework, reminiscent of a medieval castle. This Victorian Gothic style was a revival of medieval English architecture and was used for its picturesque effect. The building material chosen for the gatehouse was a buff colored limestone that came from the Joliet area. This same stone masonry construction can be seen in some early Chicago churches and in the foundations of the older homes in Edgewater.
According to the custom of the time, visiting Rosehill in the second half of the 19th Century was a day-long social event. Families and friends gathered to perform customary cemetery rituals, but also to visit, picnic and party in the park’s beautifully landscaped setting. A trolley car transported people around the grounds.
Burial at Rosehill was considered a status symbol. Interments included industrial giants, mercantile moguls, fiery evangelists and politicians a’plenty, who erected magnificent monuments as testimony to their life achievements.