Friday, June 18, 2010

Sacred Vacation of 2010 - Day 2

This road trip was laid out so I could visit Midwestern rural cemeteries that were designed in the late 19th century. This leg of the trip took me to Graceland Cemetery, situated on the northern edge of downtown Chicago. At the time of its establishment in 1860, it was two miles from Chicago's city limits, thus a "rural" cemetery.

Looking back over my earlier post, Day 2 was a long, but productive day. I drove into Chicago to visit Graceland Cemetery, then headed out to Indianapolis via South Lakeshore Drive. The drive followed the shoreline of Lake Michigan, Chicago's greatest landscape. The traffic was fast on a road with lots of twisties for the MINI. The shimmering water offered a spectacular backdrop on this beautiful summer afternoon.

Two landscape architects were responsible for the design and the natural beauty of this cemetery. HWS Cleveland (1814-1900) was the first prominent LA hired to design the original 80 acres of Graceland Cemetery in 1870. His plan laid out the paths and plots in his signature design style. OC Simonds (1855-1931) followed Cleveland when he was hired to help with drainage at Graceland. In 1881, he became superintendent of the cemetery and held that position for the next 18 years.

Rural cemeteries seem to be all the rage these days, or perhaps I am just becoming more focused on my thesis topic, which happens to be a smaller rural cemetery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Oak Hill Cemetery was designed by both of these prominent landscape architects as it grew in size over the decades - Cleveland in 1869, and again in 1880, then Simonds in 1910. Because of the connection to Graceland through these two men, and the fact that so much has been written about Graceland Cemetery, I had to visit this designed landscape and experience it for myself.

Simonds devoted an entire chapter to cemetery design in his 1920 book Landscape Gardening. Wilhelm Miller (1869-1938) praised OC Simonds and "his landscaped cemetery as an American phenomenon" in his 1915 book The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening. Miller used fotos of Graceland Cemetery to make his case for the "prairie style", the unique, regional landscape design style of the Midwest with its use of hardy, native vegetation and the "long view". Christopher Vernon's forthcoming book Graceland Cemetery explores the layers of designed landscapes within this rural cemetery. The 2010 annual issue of View, a journal of the Library of American Landscape History, carries three articles pertaining to, or referencing, Graceland Cemetery. And finally, this month's Landscape Architecture magazine features an article on cemeteries.
Graceland is a beautifully designed historic landscape, known as the "Cemetery of Architects". The monuments are truly works of art. I was most captivated by the effects of the morning sun shining through stained-glass windows set into the back wall of many of the mausoleums. Walking by each of these structures in the cool morning air, I experienced these fiery explosions of color lighting the interior of these funerary structures.

The landscaping crew was out enforce and they were meticulous in their tasks. Every blade of grass was cropped to exacting length. Groundcovers never strayed. Shrubbery held its perfect form. OC Simonds' most famous landscape in this cemetery is Lake Willowmere. The plantings around the lake and on the Island in Lake Willowmere are stunning. The Willows at water's edge are dramatic in their effect to suggest bereavement. As I walked, then drove, the major pathways, I could sense the design of HWS Cleveland in his layout of the curving drives. The elegant, paramecium-shaped plots reminded me of the layout of Oak Hill Cemetery back home in Iowa.

It was a beautiful morning in a majestic landscape, but it was time to head out to Indianapolis. I got on the road about 12:30 and drove for three hours to the city that had the most stops on my Sacred Vacation of 2010 checklist...Crown Hill Cemetery, of course; Indianapolis River Promenade, designed by Angela Danadjieva; and Brookside Addition, designed by HWS Cleveland with business partner "Dear French". I checked into the hotel situated along the river, unloaded my fold-able Dahon bike from the MINI, and headed east to find the Promenade. I learned of this designed landscape in the November 2008 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine...ICONS Revisited.

A quote from the article, "Danadjieva has given us an enduring lesson in the simple, repetitive use of materials, durable and organic." For me, this place has given new meaning to the term Indiana Limestone, a native stone I often find mentioned in a variety of design work. The Promenade is elegant beyond all words; a simple landscape that evokes "quiet wonder".

Crossing the pedestrian bridge spanning the river, I happened upon a celebrity baseball game at Victory Field. Life doesn't get much better than a night at the ballpark with a cold beer and a bag of salted peanuts. I stayed through the 4th inning, then headed back to my hotel, riding along the White River, into the glow of the setting sun.

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