Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Potter & Bertha Honore Palmer Mausoleum
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Potter & Bertha Honoré Palmer Mausoleum (1921) McKim, Mead & White, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1921, on a small rise in a relatively flat landscape, there rose a temple of Greco/Roman proportions, honoring the memory of one of Chicago's gods of commerce and wealth - Potter Palmer and his formidable wife Bertha Honoré Palmer. The pioneering merchant and real estate magnate had died in May 1902, followed by his wife in 1918, and were interred in a smaller Greek-temple-version of a resting place before this majestic structure was erected in 1921, designed by New York architects McKim, Mead & White. In a cemetery packed to the gills with some of the city's most prominent citizenry, the Palmer mausoleum may not have been the most architecturally significant tomb ever built, but it was certainly the most awe-inspiring.

  [Potter & Bertha Honoré Palmer Mausoleum, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Twenty-six year-old Potter Palmer came to Chicago from Albany, New York in 1852 because he saw potential in the prairie outpost. He opened a dry goods store, made a fortune catering to the needs of the city's female social elite, sold it, bought-up as much wool and cotton fabric he could get his hands on at the start of the Civil War, made a killing when the Union was looking for material to make uniforms, then invested in real estate, and made another fortune. In 1871, the 44-year-old bachelor married Bertha Honoré the the 21-year-old daughter of a prosperous Chicago businessman, and by 1875, two children had joined the Palmer household. When he died, Palmer left an estate valued in the neighborhood of $8 million, left in trust to his wife and their two sons Honoré and Potter, Jr. And for decades afterwards, a story made the rounds that went something like this: when Palmer was drawing-up his will leaving his wife in charge of the estate, his lawyer said that if Bertha were to remarry her next husband would get his hands on all of Palmer's money. The multi-millionaire said that whomever Bertha's new husband might be, he'd need the cash.

 [Potter & Bertha Honoré Palmer Mausoleum, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago, Graceland Cemetery /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Bertha Honoré Palmer was a force of nature whose affect on the world around her impacted peoples lives for generations to come. The Queen of Chicago society wasn't the kind of woman who just sat around collecting gowns and jewelry, she was a political activist and a feminist - a word that didn't exist at the end of the 19th century. She was a founding member of the politically progressive Chicago Women's Club; a vocal supporter of the right of women to vote; and a member of the Women's Trade Union League. As the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition, Bertha made sure that the Women's Pavilion was designed by a woman, Sophia Hayden, the only female architect represented at the Fair. She collected the work of avant garde artists like Monet, Degas and Renoir, which laid the foundation of the Art Institute's impressive Impressionist collection. Mrs. Palmer was as good at business as her husband had been, and by the time she died in 1918 the value of the Palmer trust had grown by over $20 million dollars in the 16 years under her stewardship. Unlike other vast family fortunes, the Palmer sons didn't squander their parents largess and built an even greater family fortune.

 [Potter & Bertha Honoré Palmer Mausoleum /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Unlike Potter's small private burial service 16 years before, Bertha's ceremony was a much more crowded affair. As she was laid to rest over 1,000 members of the general public stood behind a quickly erected line of rope to see her off. Bertha's sons, Honoré known in the family as "Cappy" and Potter, Jr. nicknamed "Min," had intended the service to be a family affair, but the morning of the funeral crowds began gathering early and waited until dusk to watch a handful of masons seal Bertha's orchid covered coffin into its resting place. Her sons, their wives, and Bertha's six grandchildren inherited the expanded Palmer fortune, and the Palmer boys managed money as well as their parents. The trust's value grew to a reported $100 million as the next generation was coming of age, although by that time there were fewer grandchildren left to inherit.

  [Henry Hamilton Honoré Mausoleum, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Honoré and Grace Palmer's two sons, 34-year-old Honoré, Jr. died in 1938 and 33-year-old Potter D'Orsay Palmer died in 1939. Then Potter, Jr. and Pauline's 37-year-old son Potter III died in 1946 - two years after the death of his father. Min and Pauline's son Gordon died in 1964, the same year as his 90-year-old uncle Honoré. As one Palmer after another left this life, they joined their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents under the canopy of the many columned Palmer mausoleum. Bertha had always remained very close to her Honoré relatives, her husband had even designated Bertha's brother Adrian as a co-trustee of the Palmer trust in 1902. And in death, as in life, Bertha insured that her clan would be close-by building a mausoleum for them directly across the road from her final resting place. 

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