For 160 years, Graceland Cemetery has low-key been one of Chicago’s great green spaces.
Scratch the low-key part.
The cemetery’s trustees are now leaning into Graceland’s use as a public park — a use that came to the forefront in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic — and are literally throwing open the gates, debuting a new entryway designed to draw people in rather than keep people out.
The uninviting asphalt driveway and parking areas that formerly discouraged curious passersby have been replaced with a cheery pedestrian plaza, plantings and a soaring iron gateway arch.
“It was cars first, not people. Now it’s more like a college campus,” said Doug Hoerr, founding partner of Hoerr Schaudt, the firm tapped to design the entrance.
“I see this as the foyer or forecourt. It’s a portal. You take a deep breath coming out of the city and you go in,” Hoerr said of the plaza. “People decompress, they start to walk slower. You get centered.”
In many ways, Graceland is returning to its Victorian roots, when cemeteries were as much for the living as the dead, said Jensen Allen, Graceland’s executive director.
“The idea of cemeteries and death shifted to ‘you only come to mourn,’ but the original idea was a place to celebrate life. We’re going back to that,” Allen said.
Because even historic treasures like Graceland need to make a case for continued relevance.
“When you are a cemetery as old as us, how do you connect with the community? When you may need help, you need the community to feel invested,” Allen said. “You have to invite them in.”
It’s a delicate balance for a cemetery, she said.
“People don’t know what they can do here,” Allen said. “The No. 1 thing we ask is to be mindful of your surroundings.”
Bringing a book and reading under a tree, enjoying a picnic or jogging through Graceland’s pathways are all encouraged; tossing a football among the gravestones is not.
Staff address inappropriate behavior with a soft touch, and “9.5 times out of 10,” people get it, Allen said. “I don’t think people expect to be given grace and just educated, but we let them know it’s OK to come back.”
The task set for Hoerr and his team was to devise a way to signal Graceland’s more open-arms approach.
The trick would be to create a new, welcoming threshold that would blend seamlessly with the historic property, and for that, Hoerr didn’t need to look far for inspiration.
Video: Exploring the details highlighting Chicago history in Graceland Cemetery’s new entryway. (Produced by Nicole Cardos)
Some of the most towering names in architecture are buried at Graceland: among them, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.
It could have been tempting for Hoerr, who views Graceland as a “legacy project,” to flex a bit in front of these giants and erect a showy statement of his own talents. Instead, Hoerr, who’s already left his stamp on Chicago in the form of Michigan Avenue’s median planters, went in the opposite direction.
“You check your ego at the door,” he said. “This is built for forever, you’re just part of a long line of custodians.”
Between the cemetery’s monuments and mausoleums, Graceland is already home to a trove of architectural treasures, something of a free, open-air outdoor museum, Allen said.
For the entry, Hoerr didn’t want to compete for attention but rather envisioned something that would seem like it had always been there. To achieve this, he took his cues from Ossian “O.C.” Simonds, the person who arguably knew Graceland better than anyone.
Though Simonds may not have the same name recognition among Chicagoans as the titans mentioned above, to landscape architects like Hoerr, Simonds is as revered as they come.
It was Simonds who transformed Graceland’s sprawling 120 acres into a pastoral retreat, first as its primary landscape designer and eventually as its superintendent in the late 1800s. (Simonds isn’t buried at Graceland, but his name is featured on a marker honoring the landscape designers who were instrumental in shaping the grounds.)
“O.C. Simonds is in there with Jens Jensen” as creators of the Prairie Style, said Hoerr, a self-described “Indiana farm boy” who lives in Lincoln Park. “They honored the Midwest landscape as opposed to wishing it was the East Coast.”
With Simonds as his North Star, Hoerr conceived of a design that transitions visitors from the urban to the natural.
The plaza is laid with street pavers salvaged from Ashland Avenue as well as slabs of reclaimed granite curbstone from Vermont. The rose-colored granite framing the arch is the same stone that was used in Graceland’s existing historic structures — though the original quarry in Wisconsin is now closed and Hoerr had to source the rock from Canada.
Challenges included an absolute hard stop in terms of the plaza’s footprint: Not a single grave was disturbed, much less moved, in the renovation. And Hoerr also had to allow space for a hearse to turn around because, yes, contrary to common assumptions, burials still occur at Graceland (roughly 100 per year, according to Allen).
Softening the hardscape are several groupings of plants, some of them more formally designed than others. Natives share space with non-natives in the forecourt, but on the backside of the arch natives dominate, in keeping with Simonds’ incorporation of natives in his design, which was unusual for the time.
Though the plantings are new, Hoerr can already envision how they will grow together — the yews and the witch-hazel, the bottlebrush buckeye and the hawthorn —and the ways their textures and colors will play off each other.
The London planetrees that flank the archway, for example, have a bark, he said, that glows white like the obelisks behind them, and their big coarse leaves contrast against the finer foliage of neighbors like the honey locust.
And the arch itself is loaded with decorative references to Chicago’s natural environment, from bur oak leaves to cattails that pay homage to the land’s marshy origins to endangered red slider eastern turtles propping up on the bases. At each endpoint of the arch, keen observers will find wrought-iron owls, acting as guardians, Hoerr said.
“I think it will be cool for kids to come and have a scavenger hunt,” he said of the arch’s Easter eggs.
Having only officially opened in October, the plaza is already having its desired effect.
People are coming to say “hi” to the turtles, Allen said, and on a recent visit, Hoerr saw a group of mourners gather in the plaza after a burial service for a champagne toast to the dearly departed, all the validation he needed of his design.
For Hoerr, who’s worked on marquee projects across the globe, the opportunity to have a hand in Graceland’s ongoing history was the job of a lifetime.
“This should last for centuries. I just pinch myself I got to do this,” he said, and the same was true for every person who worked on the site, he added. “Every tradesman we brought on considered it a huge honor.”
But while construction on the entrance may be complete, Hoerr’s involvement at Graceland remains ongoing.
He’s been named the cemetery’s landscape architect of record, working with the board of trustees to develop a 20- to 30-year vision for Graceland. There are multiple ideas for improvements on the table, including perhaps eliminating some of the cemetery’s access roads in order to free up additional space for new burials.
Hoerr will also have a hand in directing new plantings, including selecting species to replace the more than 60 trees Graceland lost during the 2020 derecho, a 200-year-old oak among the casualties. As a certified arboretum, Graceland takes its trees seriously and succession planting — making sure there’s a diversity of ages among the cemetery’s trees — is part of Hoerr’s charge.
Apart from visits in an official capacity, Hoerr plans to swing by to see how the plants chosen for the forecourt change with the seasons. Thousands of bulbs were planted this fall and will have their first bloom next spring. Asked which species guests can expect, Hoerr demurred.
“You’ll have to see,” he said. “It will be a surprise.”