I would be hard pressed to top this most recently-visited Midwestern rural cemetery (MRC). The Cemetery of Spring Grove, established in 1845, is truly the grand-daddy of the MRC's. Mount Auburn, Laurel Hill, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, all 'rural cemeteries' on the east coast, would be incredible to experience, so I am told. But the early landscape architects and designers were drawn to this particular Cemetery of Spring Grove after Adolph Strauch became its superintendent in the 1850's. Frederick Law Olmsted, OC Simonds, and, yes, Horace Cleveland visited this cemetery for inspiration, for consultation and advice, for that same experience I was seeking when I decided to get in the MINI and road trip this past month.
As I traveled back toward Iowa across Ohio, then Indiana, I headed into north central Illinois to scout out a few cemeteries that I had google-earthed. I wondered what my reaction would be to these sites after spending the morning at Spring Grove. Anything I visited would pale in comparison, or so I thought. Spring Grove Cemetery had it all. The winding avenues hugged the ridges, then dipped into ravines, circled 'round ponds and thru old growth stands of native trees. This designed, historic landscape offered variety with its water features, the specimen trees of its arboretum, the sculptural monuments, the stately designed mausoleums, the "long view". Even the graves were blanketed with a vinca groundcover that added a unique, textural quality to the layout of each section of the cemetery. It was picture perfect.....the "lawn" or park-like aesthetic of the rural cemetery.
My destination for this day was Lincoln, Illinois, a small Midwestern town that promised the Union Cemetery, designed in 1881 by HWS Cleveland. This might be a unique experience in that Lincoln was not the size of Chicago, or even Cedar Rapids. I wondered how it came to be that Cleveland received word from this small town that they wanted him to design their cemetery. And who was it in this town's history that knew of his skills in cemetery design? Had they visited Oak Hill in Cedar Rapids, IA, or Graceland in Chicago? Cleveland's skilled hand would have been evident in both of those cemeteries by then. Did he stop along the way as he traveled the railroad to another destination, leaving his card? Perhaps a cold call? Was there a mass mailing to all towns along the railroad line? Did a relative, or friend, live in Lincoln and know of his work? Was his name given to the townspeople by the Olmsted office as they did for Junction City, KS?
All these questions swirled in my head as I got closer to my destination. I was excited to see what Union Cemetery had to offer. The google image looked promising. This aerial foto revealed Cleveland's signature tear drop cemetery sections (they jump off the map/page/plan/aerial foto after months of study!). I refer to this design as the flower. It resembled the petals of a flower pressed into the landscape.
When I drove into the entrance, I did not pick up on the vibe I was hoping for. This did not feel like a Cleveland cemetery. I wanted to re-check my sources! I felt I had misread, or misunderstood; this was not what I expected. As I made a pass thru looking for evidence, I could maybe see the characteristic winding drives, but something was off. Trees had been removed, gridded sections had been laid around the edges and cut into his design, and there were few monuments of any kind marking the family plots. It was too busy and brightly colored with artificial flowers; there was not enough vegetation to be one of Horace's, altho the central ground and those sections further back carried some magnificent oaks. I was so disappointed. Everything that I thought I had learned through experience over the last few days...that sense of place... flew out the window of the MINI. Dam. Even the name was wrong. His landscaped cemeteries were Oak Hill, Oakland, Lakewood, Sleepy Hollow, Hillside...named after the site. Where was the HWS Cleveland-designed Midwestern rural cemetery?
As I pulled out of the west gate onto the highway, I noticed some grave markers across the way. What the heck. I had to check it out. The sign indicated that this was a Catholic Cemetery, but off to the right of that entrance there was another road... another cemetery and it was nestled back in a heavily-canopied forest of Oak and Shagbark Hickory. I had found it. This was Old Union Cemetery; the other across the highway was New Union. Same designer, but brought into use at a different time in history; therefore, it gave off a different vibe. This Old Union Cemetery was Lincoln, Illinois' answer to the Cemetery of Spring Grove back in Ohio. I was mesmerized. I was speechless.
Cleveland's designs were site specific. When he was confronted with the flat plains around Lake Michigan, his design for Graceland offered grading that was subtle, mounding. The man loved trees and he embraced their presence on site; he left them where they grew. When a gash of ravine cut thru the property, he showcased it. The contrast offered balance and variety. His views opened up to a river down below or off in the distance. He recognized the natural drainage of the site and captured that water with built lakes and ponds in low-lying ground that could not be sold for burials plots. A 1907 Linn County plat map shows a small pond at the bottom of a long swale draining Oak Hill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids, IA. There is a storm drain there now, but Cleveland utilized what some thought to be constraints of a site as opportunities to build unique features into the design of his cemeteries.
Old Union Cemetery reminded me of Cleveland's approach in his design work, in his laying out of the grounds of Midwestern rural cemeteries. Here was a perfectly level piece of ground. The roads followed the topography which was flat, flat, and flat. No subtle grading, no water features, no up and down, curve around in this design. But it was truly breathtaking. He was commissioned to design a cemetery on this piece of ground back in the late 1800's and it still carried his magic 130 years later. He had lots of trees to work with, so he let them grow. He had lots of flat ground on which those trees thrived...and he left that ground ungraded. His design showcased these magnificent trees of central Illinois. His roads wove around and thru the stands of oaks and hickories, enormous guardians for the dead. He knew their dense canopy would offer a cool respite from the warm June afternoon sun. He also allowed for openings in their cover so a shaft of sunlight could penetrate into a dark corner. As I worked my way back into the nether regions of Old Union, I found little clearings off the drive...private rooms where families gathered one last time. It was here in these secret places that I found my ravines, and the view of the river, and the sharp topography that balanced the expanse of green lawn up over the rise. He nailed this one. Plain and simple, hands down, Old Union is my favorite Midwestern rural cemetery.