Roe's Hill Revisited

Vol. VI No. 2 - SPRING 1995

By: Kathy Gemperle and Sandee Remis

Rosehill Cemetery, on the western outskirts of Edgewater at 5800 N. Ravenswood, is one of Chicago’s oldest nonsectarian cemeteries. The 330-acre property is bordered by Western, Peterson, Ravenswood and Bryn Mawr/ Damen/ Bowmanville Avenues. The cemetery will be the starting point for EHS’s Seventh Annual Home Tour on Sunday, September 17, 1995.

By the late 1850s, the death rate of Chicagoans was taxing the capacity of the municipal cemetery located on the lakeshore at the south end of what is now 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 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 then ended at Fullerton Avenue.

Seven miles north of the city limits lived a stubborn farmer by the name of 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.

The City Clerk’s office, however, mistakenly spelled the name "Rosehill," at least according to one version of the story. Another version insists that Ogden and Roe finally agreed to drop the apostrophe and flip-flop the "e" and "s", yielding a softer, more appropriate appellation for a cemetery..

[Editor’s note:  Since this was written additional research by others have questioned the story that Rose Hill was named for the hill of Hiram Roe and that Ogden promised to name the cemetery after him if he sold his land to the cemetery company.   See:]

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 in or near Chicago organized under a perpetual charter, granted by the Illinois Legislature, which guarantees its absolute permanency. Per the State constitution, all cemeteries organized since 1870 do not and cannot possess a perpetual charter, and are liable to interference at any time.

At the beginning of the 19th century, cemeteries were generally reputed as seedy, dreary places, neglected by caretakers. But Rosehill’s incorporators, which included William Ogden, the city’s first mayor, and Major John H. Kinzie, whose father was the first white settler in Chicago, envisioned something quite 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; the style was "castellated Gothic."

At that time, the cemetery privately 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 allemating 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 some of the older homes in Edgewater.

Adjacent to the cemetery’s East Gate, and built of the same stone, once stood Rosehill’s Chicago & North Western Railway Station. It was very important in the days before autos allowed easy access to outlying cemeteries, when periodic cemetery visits were still part of the social pattern. Bodies of the rich were transported from the city on special funeral trains; bodies of the middle, working and indigent classes rode on the baggage cars of regular trains. The stop was demolished 25 years ago. All that remains is a stairway and the elevator once used to lower coffins from track-side to ground level.

According to the custom of the time, visiting Rosehill in the second half of the 19th century was a daylong 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 aplenty, who erected magnificent monuments as testaments to their life achievements.

The cemetery boasts numerous Egyptian obelisks, symbolic of rays of light shooting up from the earth. The largest belongs to colorful "Long John" Wentworth, Congressman, Chicago mayor and flamboyant editor of the Chicago Democrat.

At six feet six and weighing 300 pounds, size alone would have made Wentworth a giant among men. He is usually associated with the city’s South Side when he owned real estate and had a street named after him. But he left his mark on the North Side when his monument was floated by barge down the Chicago River, pulled from the water at Robey Street (now Damen Avenue) and tugged three miles north to Rosehill.

Made of solid granite, the obelisk measured 72 feet, weighed 50 tons, and cost $38,000. Wentworth purposely left the stone blank so he would be remembered when future generations asked who was buried beneath the impressive monument. But an inscription was added after his death, despite his wishes.

Less pretentious, but a superb example of 19th century funerary art, is the sculpture of a reclining woman with child which rests under glass, protected from the elements. It stands over the grave of Frances Pearce and her child.

Rosehill’s first permanent resident, buried on July 11, 1859, was a Bowmanville neighbor, Dr. Jacob W. Ludlam, Jr., who had sold acreage to William Ogden’s cemetery company. Rosehill’s ranks swelled a few years later with the outbreak of the Civil War. Cook County carries the distinction of providing more Union soldiers to fight that war than any other county or large urban area in the nation.

Rosehill’s Civil War section, just inside the Ravenswood entrance, is one of the most highly touted in Illinois. Several hundred Union veterans, including 16 generals, and at least three Confederates, who gave their lives in service, are buried there. Last January, Rosehill opened Chicago’s only museum devoted exclusively to the Civil War, housed in the East Gatehouse administration building (see article on page 9).

By 1894, 25,000 people had been interred at Rosehill. Three thousand of those had been exhumed from the old municipal cemetery on the lakefront and reburied at Rosehill, although records of exactly who had been moved were lost in the Chicago Fire. Numerous large tracts were sold to fraternal organizations, labor unions, lodges, churches and synagogues, which, in turn, sold plots to their members and buried their poor.

Rosehill is and always has been open to persons of all faiths and ethnic origins. This burial policy was "enlightened" for its time, making Rosehill popular with groups often excluded from other public and private cemeteries. The evolution of Chicago’s cultural diversity can thus be traced simply by reading the headstones at Rosehill. While European immigrants of Judeo-Christian background predominated during the cemetery’s first 100 years, about 30 Asian churches and organizations have purchased tracts in the past decade.

The cemetery’s community Chapel Mausoleum is the largest and first of its kind in Illinois. The building has gone through various additions since its grand Greek revival entrance was completed in 1914. Over the last 81 years, 10,000 Chicagoans have chosen this once novel alternative to "individual" subterranean interment; Rosehill’s capacity is 13,000.

The Mausoleum’s exterior is encased in granite; its luxurious interior is polished white marble and bronze. It houses 30 Tiffany stained glass windows, custom designed and signed by their master - the largest non-ecclesiastic collection of Tiffanies in the world.

Walls of the Mausoleum are lined with elegant French and Italian marble crypts and its floors with Roman Travertine. Many of the private rooms have intricately sculptured bronze and brass doors. The crypts read like a "Who’s Who" of fame and fortune: Milton Florsheim, Charles A. Stevens, Maurice L. Rothschild, John G. Shedd, Richard W. Sears and A. Montgomery Ward, to name a few.

The Horatio N. May Chapel was built in 1899 as an eternal memorial to one of Chicago’s first paid firefighters, who was also a major grocery and dry goods supplier. Mr. May died while on retreat in his hometown of Manheim, Germany. His wife, Anna, was so inspired by the German cathedrals that she bequeathed $75,000 for the construction of the chapel at Rosehill.

Joseph Lyman Silsbee, the chapel’s architect, was commissioned because he had designed the May home on Astor Street. Silsbee was the chief architect for J.L. Cochran’s Edgewater Development Company from 1886 into the 1890s. He is credited with bringing the shingle style of home architecture to Chicago.

The style of the May Chapel is Romanesque (or English) Gothic, its hallmark being the use of heavy stones and massive form. The portico’s heavy Gothic arches, made of Minnesota gray granite, bid entry through two massive, carved wooden doors. The flooring is a beautiful hand whorled tile mosaic in a floriate design by Silsbee. Wainscoting of green tile below and walnut above adorns the walls, creating a rich, dark atmosphere, perfect for final interment ceremonies.

Another massive, hand carved door opens into a temporary holding area. This vault was once used to receive up to 100 departed during winter months, until ground could be broken in the spring. No longer needed, it is nonetheless a fascinating part of Rosehill history.

William Boyington, architect of Rosehill’s East Gatehouse and Chicago’s Water Tower and the first president of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, was buried at Rosehill in 1875. The cemetery is also the final resting place of several well known Edgewater architects:

  • George Washington Maher, a Prairie School architect and associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, built more than 40 homes in Edgewater. He was engaged by John L. Cochran’s Edgewater Development Company prior to starting his own firm.
  • J.E.O. Pridmore lived in an area near the Church of the Atonement at Ardmore and Kenmore. He is credited with several buildings, the most well known of which is the Manor House on Bryn Mawr, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pridmore was also the remodeling architect for the Church of the Atonement.
  • Benjamin Marshall was the architect of the world famous Edgewater Beach Hotel complex, as well as several other buildings in Chicago. His Edgewater Beach Apartments still stands and was recently named to the National Register.

No less important are Edgewater’s Rosehill residents, who hired these architects and took part in the building of our community:

  • Catherine Dalton, Edgewater socialite, was the wife of Samuel Dalton, builder of the Manor House on Bryn Mawr. The Dalton were also instrumental in building the Stickney School on Hollywood.
  • John Gauler was the builder of what came to be known as the Gauler House, by architect Walter Burley Griffin. This house and its mirror image next door, on north Magnolia, were shown on EHS’s very first Home Tour in 1989.
  • Charles Peters, builder of the Peters Residence and Chester Crandall, builder of the Crandall Residence, shared a common architect - George Washington Maher.
  • Both Oscar Mayer, Sr. and Jr. now reside at Rosehill. The family lived on Sheridan Road at Hollywood before the Lake Shore Drive extension brought about the lakefront redesign and extension of Lincoln Park.
  • More recently, Kathy Osterman, Edgewater community activist, past president of the Edgewater Community Council, former 48th Ward Alderman and City of Chicago Director of Special Events under Mayor Richard M. Daley, was buried at Rosehill in 1992.

In January of 1991, Potter Palmer sold the Rosehill Cemetery Company to Service Corporation International, the largest funeral service corporation in North America. Mr. Palmer had owned Rosehill since 1983. His forebearers, famous for the Palmer House downtown and recognized as the creme de la creme of Chicago society in the last quarter of the 19th century, are buried at Graceland Cemetery.

More than 170,000 interments have taken place at Rosehill since its opening in 1859. Interments continue at a rate of 800 annually. With the 21st century on the horizon, Rosehill remains a sanctuary for remembrance and contemplation that offers a quiet respite with nature. Pheasant, duck and other wildlife still share this unique parkland with twelve Chicago mayors, two Illinois governors, the 13th vice president of the U.S., famous forefathers and contemporaries alike, veterans of the Revolutionary to the Vietnam Wars and citizens of every era in Chicago history.

On Sunday, September 17, 1995, the Edgewater Historical Society will offer its Seventh Annual Home Tour between 12:00 and 5:00 p.m. The tour will begin at the Ravenswood entrance of Rosehill Cemetery, covering ONLY the East Gatehouse, Civil War Museum and the Horatio N. May Chapel there, in addition to the four or five homes featured in the adjoining neighborhood. The Rosehill area is a patchwork quilt of houses, with one type of house construction being unique to every block or two-block segment. Various types will be visited, spanning several decades of architecture from the 1890s on.

Rosehill Cemetery affords visitors an excellent opportunity to learn more about the history of Edgewater and the people who built it, as well as Chicago, national and global history. Because of space and time limitations, this article and the Rosehill portion of the Home Tour can cover only a small part of the wealth of information available.

David Wendell, Rosehill’s official historian and director of the museum, invites interested parties to "get the rest of the story by taking not only a walk back in time, but a walk around the world" with him on the first and third Saturdays of each month, year round. Wendell is gregarious and glib and a walking encyclopedia on the facts and fictions regarding Rosehill. His regular tours begin at 10:00 a.m., are approximately two hours and are free to the public. Special tours can be customized by calling him in advance.