Spooky Architecture: Cities of the Living, Parks of the Dead


image credit: Emily Torem

This Friday on October 31st, young and old alike will take part in a holiday as American as apple pie—oh wait, we mean as Irish as Shepherd’s pie and as Roman as a Fraternity.

Halloween, a holiday that from its inception has been tied to the spiritual, supernatural and undead, is as inseparable from spooky cemeteries as a child from a pillowcase full of candy corn. Both have a rich history, well woven into architecture and urban planning, before becoming the American institutions we know today.


The Cemetery: spooky, somber and certainly no place anyone would want to gather for a picnic, right? Actually, the cemetery was once barely distinguishable from the public park of today, replete with screaming toddlers and neighborhood barbeques (or whatever Puritans did for fun—like blaming food poisoning on witchcraft). The American cemetery has had an interesting trajectory: from recreational milieu to something grim, ghastly, and almost synonymous with October 31st. As a matter of fact, we’d be hard pressed to find a Halloween movie that doesn’t have some poor soul dodging around a house sited on an “old indian burial ground” or tiptoeing through a cemetery, doubtlessly about to have her brain feasted on by zombie/vampire/werewolf/#trendychildoftheunderworld.

Today we’ll explore the cemeteries past and present in a global context, by looking at some of the world’s approaches to dealing with the dead, from France to Cahokia and back to Chicago, as well as what modern design practices take cues from this past.


Next time you soak up some sunshine in Millennium Park, consider this: the sprawling, green and bench-bedecked public park owes its origins to the modern American cemetery. Maybe you should run screaming instead?

 Before 1831, most American burials occurred in the local churchyard, but as urban populations grew (and with them, the populations of the dead) fears compounded about the spread of disease given the close proximity of overstuffed grave plots to everyday life. Dr. Jacob Bigelow, a Harvard professor and doctor, came up with the idea to relocate family burial plots outside of the city, and together with a band of civic leaders, he founded the very first “rural” Cemetery: Mount Auburn in Cambridge, MA.

mt auburn

Still fully operational today, Mount Auburn was established on a 72-acre farm on, what was then, the outskirts of Cambridge and Watertown, which Bigelow selected not only for its breadth, but for its 125-ft hill which provided gorgeous views of Boston and Cambridge. This hill is now home to the Washington Tower, whose Rapunzel-esque charm is rendered in gothic windows, a winding stone staircase and battlements (spaced parapets intended to allow soldiers to surreptitiously fire their cannons). The sprawling cemetery is the resting place of nearly 100,000, including famous poet and doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes.

source: http://www.thebostoncalendar.com/system/events/photos/000/001/740/original/mount-auburn-cemetery.jpg?1375227039

Mount Auburn was dreamed up not just as a solemn graveyard, but as a place for recreation, communion with nature and a stage for wildlife and exotic plants. This dream was realized when Massachusetts Horticultural Society President Henry S. Dearborn took the reigns on most of the design. Influenced by European cemeteries and English Landscape Gardens, which emulated (and tried to improve on) rural landscapes of rolling hills, winding footpaths and agrarian life, Dearborn aimed to bring a space of romantic natural beauty to the American public. Before long, other rural cemeteries, like Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, were popping up around city limits all over the country. Mount Auburn continues to honor land conservancy today, with an active community of birds and birdwatchers, and a year-round tended exhibition of flora. 


The same principles which inspired the first rural cemetery—recreational, natural space; land conserved from development—spurred movements for the first public parks, and culminated in the iconic Central Park in New York, designed by prolific landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a huge advocate of tranquilizing natural “scenery”, especially in the context of urban space. In “Olmstead—His Essential Theory,” Charles E. Beveridge summarizes Olmstead’s attitude toward green space: “…Scenery, [Olmstead] decided, worked by an unconscious process to produce relaxing and “unbending” of faculties made tense by the strain noise and artificial surroundings of urban life.” One of Olmstead’s biggest influences was Andrew Jackson Downing, a prominent advocate for public parks for reasons both aesthetic and democratic—Jackson believed strongly in a green space that could be enjoyed by all classes of society. Cemeteries, and later the public parks which now dot American cities allowed the public to enjoy nature, sculptures and events, previously only available to the wealthy who owned private land.


Grave sites were originally tended by visiting family members but eventually plot maintenance shifted from the bereaved to cemetery staff who were naturally interested in a more efficient system. The now-typical “lawn plan system” was proposed in 1855 by superintendent Adolph Straunch, working at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. It emphasized uniformity and unbroken lawn space, which allowed for full-time cemetery care staff to efficiently maintain large swaths of land. The ground needed to be level to permit machines to mow and maintain these lawns on a large scale, so grave markers were pared down in height and design. By 1900, the more naturalistic and rural approach to cemeteries was supplanted with buildings and landscapes absent of ornamentation. This spare approach is present in most contemporary cemeteries and public parks alike.


We’ve covered the history of the cemetery in America, but other societies around the world have been approaching storage of the dead in different ways since the dawn of humanity. Differing on matters of philosophy and religion, cultures have carved monuments, interred in earth and even moved below boulevards. While these are just a fraction of the methods in which people have sought to honor the dead, each has a fascinating history and continuity in some element of modern design.

source: http://hindiprincess.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/imgp4794.jpg

Photo credit: Nicole Choudhary 


Like parks, tombs and mausoleums (freestanding buildings with or without burial chambers) provide an interactive space for the public (now) to honor the past through living history. The design of a mausoleum records not only the popular architectural style at the time of construction, but also reflects the preferences of the person interred there. Indian emperor Humayun, for example, gave his favorite barber a special tomb within his royal mausoleum—the only one of its kind in the entire 300 ft wide structure and among the over 150 people buried there (many of whom were immediate or extended family.) That guy must have given really good haircuts.

Although lesser known than the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s tomb is significant because it was the first distinctly Mughal building, an architectural style which combined Persian, Islamic and Rajasthani influences to form a distinctive aesthetic. The Taj Mahal, built some 60 years later, is considered to be the finest example of Mughal architecture in all of India. Mughal architecture represented a shift toward more organic and curving shapes and lines, including domes, arches and minarets heavily present in Islamic architecture, which was a contrast to the beam and pillar-heavy linearity that prevailed prior.


The Mughal style was born in India because Emperor Humayun lost his throne and drifted around Iran for some 15 years. When he returned, he brought with him additional influences from Persia, including the traditional Persian garden, or Char Baah, which made his tomb India’s first garden tomb. This style of garden is divided into four parts with paths that conjoin at the garden’s center. It was Humayun’s father who first brought about the tradition and ideal of being buried in a “paradise garden,” although his tomb was much more spare than his son’s.  He may not have meant his burial place to become a beautiful tourist spot … but that fact remains that it now is one.


The inhabitants of Cahokia, the most advanced Mississippian city, also constructed stunning monuments for the dead, with the aim to convey stories as they passed into the afterlife. The some 12,000 people who lived in Cahokia in 1150 CE were the producers of an incredible array of earthen mounds,  (“packed earth pyramids,” according to Timothy R. Pauketat, author of Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi). The mounds served a variety of purposes: some as temple grounds and many as burial chambers.  These burial sites were absolutely central to the community.  Unlike Mount Auburn, shunted off to the edge of civilization, they were essentially the center of the town square … and dotted throughout the urban landscape.


One excavated mound contained a single man lain to rest over 25,000 marine shell beads, arranged in the shape of a falcon. Archaeologists assume that he was a man of royal or elite status. Another mound contains 24 young women, assumed to be village people used for mass sacrifice. Yet another contains several men that have been beheaded and had their hands removed. Although Cahokia is the most famous site for its earthen mounds, these structures can be traced back to the Hopewell Indians, way before Cahokia was established. 

The architecture of the Cahokia mounds, especially for a society with so little technology, is truly impressive. The city itself is built 5 degrees off cardinal (True North), an angle recently discovered to correspond with a moon cycle that occurs every 18.6 years, explains Professor Pauketat. Even the bodies within the burial mounds are oriented to that alignment. Monk’s Mound, one of the site’s most famous, is the largest earthen mound not just in Cahokia, but in all of North America. The mound measures an incredible ¼ mile from the Northern to Southern end. Beyond its size, another interesting feature of Monk’s Mound is its flat top. Ridge-top mounds, the type associated with burials, were special occasion monuments to either people of great import, or mass sacrifices, which appeared to have been a unifying event within the city’s life, possibly to retell creation stories. In this sense, although no happy fate for its captives, death and burial was a prominent part of Cahokia’s culture, and not the least bit hushed or enshrouded in mystery.


Around the 17th century, the most romantic city on earth found itself with a not-so-seductive problem: endless cycles of poets, painters and everyday Jéan-schmos had overstuffed its cemeteries and churchyards, which were buckling at the seams. Residents began to complain: dead bodies were bursting forth from the soft earth and tumbling into neighboring buildings on rainy days; Parfumeries urged someone to do something; sales were dragging because not even the precursor to Chanel No. 5 could mask the stench of rotting corpses. 

source: http://ifyouwannasingoutsingout.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/img_0471.jpg

Under the direction of King Louis XIV, The Quarry Inspection Department came up with a rather brilliant solution: out of sight, out of mind! He commanded the displaced dead bodies to be moved into miles of tunnels below Paris, the location of former limestone quarries from which the very walls of the city had been built. At the time of the last burial in the catacombs, over 6 million Parisian bones were artfully displayed along the tunnel walls. The entire process took 12 years. People can currently visit the catacombs legally, taking a rather creepy tour of the underbelly of the city—but many (known as Cataphiles) also visit it illegally, holding raves and painting murals in the catacomb’s restricted areas.


Although the catacombs may have solved one problem in Paris during the 18th and 19th centuries, it soon became apparent that they were part of another: the cavernous tunnels that make up the substrata of Paris were created by quarrying out the limestone for the city’s buildings.  Now, however, they prevent the city from erecting any buildings over 10 stories high. The approximately 300 kilometers (186 miles) of quarries that snake below the city’s 5th, 6th, 8th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 20th Arrondissements (districts) make it too risky to build deep enough foundations to sustain anything even close to a skyscraper. To illustrate, the 108-story Sears Tower (ahem) has a foundation of 100 feet deep. 

Although the entire network of tunnels under Paris are referred to colloquially as “the catacombs” not all of them are plastered with bones of the city’s long dead. The particular area most people mean when they refer to these ossuaries runs underneath the 14th arrondissement of Paris, flanking the famed Montparnasse neighborhood where writers and artists like Henry Miller drank one cup of coffee without tipping swilled cappuccinos in the 1920s and 30s.

These tunnels have caused catastrophic collapses in the past. In 1879, six streets and a soccer field collapsed into a chalk quarry in the Parisian suburbs, killing 21 people. Despite the advancing of the years, such collapses are not all that rare. It’s estimated about 10 streets crack annually, revealing the city’s honeycomb-like underside.

source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-4oR2VTXfzuQ/Ua9Ebs6hOuI/AAAAAAAAB1g/yNQEJPmDWuo/s1600/005+-+tomb+of+ira+couch+in+lincoln+park+-+photo+by+author.jpg


Speaking of bones and buildings, here’s one way not to do things: The legacy of the Chicago City Cemetery haunts the baseball diamonds and marshes of Lincoln Park all the way up to present day. Established in the 1840s, the Chicago City Cemetery was a large burial ground built on the far edge of the City, stretching from beyond North Avenue to the southernmost point of Lincoln Park Zoo.

Unfortunately for those attempting to rest in peace in the Chicago City Cemetery, no such thing was to take place. The soil quality was extremely poor, so bodies were constantly shifting around, even making cameos in Lake Michigan, much to the chagrin of sunbathers. In 1866, over fear of disease and contamination given the cemeteries proximity to the Lake, it was declared illegal to bury any additional bodies there, and the ones that remained were to be dug up and relocated elsewhere. Of course, in typical Chicago fashion, both a lack of money and general corruption prevented this from happening, and many of the unfortunate corpses were forgotten. To make matters worse, as the property value of Lincoln Park soared, someone decided the cemetery would be a great place for a public park (although Olmstead would have applauded). Even today, it’s not uncommon to run into the odd femur. In Kyla Gardner’s 2013 article entitled “Human Bones Uncovered During Construction Reveal Gold Coast’s Haunting Past,” researcher Pamela Bannos said, “It’s almost safe to say that if you dig on Dearborn or State Street you’ll find something.” Bannos is the founder of comprehensive website Hidden Truths, which maps the history of the Chicago City Cemetary. While working on a construction site last year, Gardner reported that worker Gerardo Munoz found, ‘Human bones— it was the ribs and the leg bones’ just 6 inches below the soil.

Cemeteries certainly have had a compelling history, transforming from unsanitary resting places to picturesque parks, until settling squarely among the ranks of plain, landscaped lawns, losing not a few bones in the move. Somehow, we don’t think we can look at those subterranean skeleton decorations in quite in the same way. Now that we’ve reviewed some of the ways societies around the world have dealt with their dead, we’re inspired to take a closer look at our own approach here in Chicago. Our proposal is in PART II right here.