If you’ve wandered around Lincoln Park behind the Chicago History Museum, you’ve seen the stone structure in the picture. Some people think it’s part of the museum. But don’t be fooled by the location. This is a real mausoleum.
The south end of today’s Lincoln Park was once the Chicago City Cemetery. In 1837 the area was far removed from the little settlement near the mouth of the Chicago River, making it a good place to put the deceased. Later the Catholic Cemetery was established nearby.
Thousands of bodies were interred in Chicago City Cemetery over the next three decades. The more prosperous Chicagoans constructed mausoleums. The Couch Tomb was built in 1858, at a cost of $7.000. The first occupant was businessman Ira Couch, who’d died in Cuba the year before.
By 1865 Chicago was having problems with its municipal cemetery. Some of the dead didn’t stay fully buried in the sandy ground near the lake. Besides, the city was growing up around the site. Unlike Boston, having an old burial ground nearby didn’t increase property values.
In 1869 Chicago City Cemetery was taken over by the Lincoln Park Commissioners for conversion to a park. The bodies were transferred to Graceland, Rosehill, and other graveyards. The Catholics also vacated their cemetery, using the land for a new archbishop’s residence.
Transforming Chicago City Cemetery into Lincoln Park took over twenty years. With the dawn of the new century, all remnants of the graveyard were gone. All except the Couch Tomb.
One story says that the Couch family fought removal of the tomb all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won its case. However, nobody has found any documentary evidence of such a decision. Perhaps the mausoleum is still there because neither the park commissioners nor the Couch family wanted to pay for tearing it down. That’s the kind of explanation that makes sense in Chicago.
When I first started visiting Lincoln Park in the 1960s, the mausoleum was barely visible behind a massive growth of shrubbery. Officials were trying to hide it from the public. There was concern that park-goers might not want to go picnicking in a onetime graveyard.
After decades of neglect, the park district renovated the Couch tomb in the 1990s. The shrubs were cut down and the limestone structure itself was repaired. Now a spotlight illuminates it at night. The civic embarrassment has become a point of civic pride.
The next step will probably be to open the Couch tomb to the public, and charge admission.