Monday, March 2, 2015

Couch Mausoleum
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Couch Mausoleum (1858) John M. Van Osdel, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

As we sit here in the thirteenth year of the 21st first century, it's hard to imagine that 155 years ago the built-up portions of the north side of the city of Chicago were just edging toward Division Street. Standing today at the intersection of, say, Division and Dearborn you'd have to summon-up all your imaginative powers to try and visualize what the sparsely populated area looked like on a dreary March day in 1857 when the family of Ira Couch traveled all the way up to North Avenue on the outskirts of town and deposited their loved one in the City Cemetery.

  [Couch Mausoleum, North LaSalle Drive, Lincoln Park, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

This northernmost version of the municipally-owned-and-operated city of the dead was created in 1842 when the burgeoning borough of Chicago began to encroach on the borders of the old cemetery located at Chicago Avenue and the lake. The Common Council, fearful that decomposing body vapors would contaminate the expanding residential community, decided to set aside a triangle of land at North Avenue and the lake as the location of a more remote, and hopefully less befouling burial ground. The parcel was located at the far northeast corner of the city map that looked like a small triangular-shaped bump which had broken free of the municipality's perfect 90-degreed-cornered corporate border, and seemed like the perfect place for a new graveyard.

  [Couch Mausoleum, Lincoln Park, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Ira Couch came to Chicago in 1836 the year before the town was officially incorporated as a city. Ira's tailor shop was located next door to the Tremont House, one of the few hotels in town which he bought the year after his arrival, with the intent to create the city's finest hostelry. Couch's luxuriously branded lodging place burned to the ground in 1839 and he rebuilt across the street on the southeast corner of Lake and Dearborn Streets. That building was destroyed by a fire in 1849, and Couch's third edition of the Tremont House would be the grandest of them all. The large five-story, "fire-proof" brick structure designed by architect John M. Van Osdel contained 250 of the finest hotel rooms the city had to offer, and was open for business the year after the fire. In 1855 Couch decided to divest himself of a share of the hotel and he and his brother James brought in John Drake as a partner. Couch used the capital to increase the size of his ever expanding portfolio of Chicago real estate, and was considered to be the city's first millionaire. He didn't get to enjoy his good fortune for very long. While on a vacation in Cuba the hotel/real estate magnate died after coming down with what was thought to be a cold. His body was brought back to Chicago, and on March 5, 1857 he was interred in the City Cemetery.

  [Couch Mausoleum, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1858 Couch's remains were placed into a mausoleum designed by Van Osdel - a final tribute to his former client. But even before Couch's body had arrived at the cemetery gates, there were stirrings about moving the city's funerary grounds once again. In 1855 business owners following the old Green Bay Road (Clark Street) on its diagonal march past the southwest corner of the cemetery, petitioned the city to have the graveyard moved. By 1865 the Common Council agreed, stopped burials in 1866, and in 1869, with the enforcement power of an act of the Illinois legislature establishing a new park on the site, ordered the removal of over 20,000 interred remains overseen by the newly empowered Lincoln Park Commissioners. With an allotment of legislatively appropriated funds the Commissioners first had to purchase privately owned plots of land within the park's boundaries, then use any remaining funds to assist in the removal of the dearly departed. It was a long drawn-out process. Most families were willing to move, some were not, and some simply couldn't afford to. By the early 1890s when the area had been cleared of gravesites, the Couch mausoleum was still standing and the family, who had fallen on hard economic times, couldn't afford the $3,000 price tag for the removal of the 50-ton structure to another cemetery. The Commissioners weren't willing to pony-up the cash and decided, temporarily, to mask the tomb with greenery. By the 1980s decades of temporarily placed shrubbery had overtaken the neglected stone burial chamber which many passersby assumed was an abandoned park comfort station. In the late 1990s the city undertook a restoration of the tomb and reinstalled a replica of the original fence, but apparently no one opened the door to find out just how many people were at rest inside. So although Ira Couch is not alone, just how not alone remains a mystery.

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