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Site Seeing: tales from the crypts

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In the days after the bloody confrontation between labor and police at Haymarket Square in 1886, John V. Farwell and his brother Charles B. were reminded of their return home from a hunting trip out west during a railroad strike nine years earlier. They were traveling on a troop train bringing federal soldiers from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to Chicago to quell any further disturbance. It took several days for the train to reach the city, long enough for the brothers to decide that Chicago needed its own federal military post. They knew exactly where it should be located too--along the lakeshore just south of Lake Forest, where John, the dry-goods king, and C.B., the senator, both lived. A post at that site would provide ready access to Chicago and, in a worst-case situation, would act as a barrier between Lake Forest and the city's rabble. In the aftermath of Haymarket, they formed a committee with other business leaders, raised money, found land donors, and offered the government a deal it couldn't refuse: 632 acres for $10. The first soldiers arrived at Camp Highwood--soon renamed Fort Sheridan--the next year, a few days before the Haymarket defendants were scheduled to be hung.

The town of Lake Forest had been devised as a means to an end 30 years earlier. In 1856, around the time that the Methodists established Northwestern University and the Baptists made plans for the University of Chicago, a group of Presbyterian clergy and businessmen set out to find a site for their own institution of higher learning. They boarded the brand-new Chicago and North Western Railroad, which hauled passengers from Chicago to Waukegan in three hours, and got off at a point about three-quarters of the way up, in the middle of an oak and pine forest. As they walked eastward they found deep ravines and high bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan. With the lake in front of them and the forest behind, so the story goes, they coined the name and agreed this was where they would build.

They formed the Lake Forest Association, raised enough money to buy 1,300 acres, and developed a business plan. They would create a village on part of the land, sell residential plots, and use the proceeds to build Lake Forest College. They hired Jedd Hotchkiss, a young engineer from Saint Louis (recommended by Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead), to design the town. Instead of plotting the city on a grid, like Chicago, he let the streets follow the natural flow and curve of the landscape. He was told to set aside 30 acres for the college, 10 for a boys' academy, 10 for a girls' seminary, and 25 for a cemetery. The cemetery was to be located at the northeast corner of the village, on a lakeside bluff.

Lake Forest developed as an estate community. Wealthy Chicago families started with summer places there and soon began to make it their home year-round. In 1869 John V. Farwell built a concrete castle on Deerpath, the first cement home in America (importing both the cement and the contractor from England); C.B. Farwell built his estate, Fairlawn (designed by Olmstead), across the street. Their eventual neighbors were the meatpacking and lumber magnates, the wholesale grocers and railroad barons, the founders of the Board of Trade. They lived in palaces with names like the Lilacs, Glen Rowan, Arcady, Elsinore, and Havenwood. They sent their daughters to Ferry Hall and their sons to Lake Forest Academy, played golf and polo at the Onwentsia Club (started by C.B.'s son-in-law), and when they passed on, if they hadn't fancied Graceland or Rosehill, they made their way to the Lake Forest Cemetery.

Chicago Architecture Foundation docent Benita Myles, who will lead a two-hour walk through the cemetery this weekend, says it's not what you would call grand. "If you seek the monuments of these families you'll have to look at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, or Rush Presbyterian, or Lake Forest College," she says. "This is a beautiful cemetery, laid out around ravines and the lake, but it's more"--she searches, her eye passing over the familiar names: Swift, Wacker, Ryerson, Jehlke, Pullman, Donnelley, Dick--"humble." Even so, 11 families have mausoleums here and two family plots are marked with soaring obelisks. The largest, a red granite finger jutting skyward, belongs to the Farwells.

Now that labor is no longer a force to be reckoned with, the yellow brick barracks and officers' quarters of Fort Sheridan are being converted into luxury homes. Some will no doubt be purchased by affluent descendants of those Irish-German-eastern European-what-have-you immigrants who went to Haymarket Square on a rainy evening more than 100 years ago to rally for better working conditions and a decent share of the riches earned from their labor. Their great-great-grandchildren will romp in the shadow of the fort's great tower while John V. Farwell sleeps under his obelisk not far away.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation walking tour of Lake Forest Cemetery begins at 11 AM Saturday. Cost is $5. Meet at the cemetery entrance at the north end of Lake Road, under the Gothic gate Grace Barrell built as a memorial to her son John, who drowned in 1916--but that's another story. Call 312-922-3432 for more information. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.

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