Bohemian National Cemetery

Project Name
Bohemian National Cemetry

Location
5255 North Pulaski Road
Chicago, Illinois 60630

Project Status
Portions visible by appointment.

Project Date/s
Multiple from 1918-1947

The Bohemian National Cemetery (BNC) was established in 1877, in what was then Jefferson Township, several miles north of Chicago. By 1892, Chicago had expanded to include the BNC in the city limits. The BNC was established by Freethinkers, partially in response to the refusal of a Catholic priest to bury a Czech parishioner at St. Adalbert cemetery because she had not made a confession before she died. This priest had often denied burial at this Bohemian-Polish Catholic cemetery to those he disliked. Mr. Frank Zdrubek, a leader of the Freethinkers in Chicago, led the movement to establish the cemetery, which had its first official burial on July 1, 1877. To quote from the “The Semi-centennial jubilee of the Bohemian National Cemetery Association in Chicago, Illinois: English version of J. J. Jelínek’s Bohemian Historical Sketch, 1927” at the Internet Archive.

“The Bohemian National Cemetery owes its existence to regrettable circumstances which arose in the seventies of the last century. Some Catholic priests so far forgot the charitable teachings of the founder of their religion as to refuse to permit burial of Bohemain freethinkers in the ground of their cemeteries. But as James Thomson said, ‘from seeming evil still educing good,’ the Bohemian freethinkers who in those days, just as today, formed about 75 percent
of the Bohemian population of Chicago, joined together and founded their own cemetery which grew so successfully from such small beginnings that the present Bohemian National Cemetery is the pride not only of the Bohemians of Chicago, but of the Bohemians of the whole United States.”

In 1913, construction of a crematorium/columbarium building at the cemetery began. The building included a main ceremony hall, a small ceremony hall on the lower level, and a columbarium which includes niches that hold the ashes of the deceased. In 1918, John A Mallin was awarded a contract to decorate the main chapel (also referred to as ceremony hall) including the dome. The contract was authorized and signed by the BNC trustees on November 2, 1918, for the amount of $3,000.00. Additional work for painting and decorating of the lobby, front and rear stairwells, and organ room was also authorized to Mr. Mallin in the amount of $700.00. This was only the beginning of a series of additional decorations done in the Crematorium and other buildings by Mallin.

The cemetery added a Gatehouse in 1893, with significant renovations and the addition of a waiting room and restrooms in 1906. In the Spring of 1923, Mallin did painting, wood finishing and decorations of the Men’s and Women’s Waiting Rooms and Cemetery office in the Gate House, and the Crematorium building lower chapel.

In 1926 a new office building was constructed. The ceiling decorations were painted by Mallin sometime after that. In 1936 Mallin was given a contract to touch up the ceiling and walls in the office. At some point a dropped ceiling was put in place in the office due to heating and other problems. The decorations now are only visible in the attic of the office which is inaccessible to the public.

In 1929 Mallin was awarded a contract to redecorate the columbarium and ceremony hall. Specifications for fresco painting, decorating and gilding of the interior of the chapel, were included in the 1929 contract. The decoration of the dome specified a “center relief ornament…richly decorated in genuine XX gold leaf. The flat space in the circle frame is to be done in Italian Renaissance, highlighted and shaded by hand. The background of this is to be of genuine XX gold leaf…All of the panels will be blended in three shades of colors and stippled with a sponge. ‘ Descriptions of the wall decorations include stippling in fine colors to imitate a silk effect…it is a five color effect but it show only one.’

The walls and ceiling of the vestibule, were decorated with aluminum leaf, lacquered in to an Old Roman gold and decorated in a pilaster effect. Of note, a sample was to be put up before proceeding with the actual work, and the work ‘is to be executed into a harmonious ensemble in the most artistic manner and workmanship to the full satisfaction of the Trustees. I am figuring on only first class work.’ Mallin was also commissioned to redecorate the lower chapel.

In 1931, a new Columbarium wing in the East Wing of the Crematory was planned, including the creation of emblems in windows and Chapel. The Czechoslovak Society of America (CSA) emblems were placed above the speaker’s podium in the Chapel, and emblems of various veterans’ organizations were added.

A November 9, 1931 John Mallin contract specifies two emblems to be designed and painted in oil colors, in the chapel, a Spanish American Veteran’s emblem, layered with XX gold leaf, and a C.S.J emblem (Czecho Slovak Unity Supreme Lodge) to be done with silver leaf. Other emblems in the Chapel, were also designed and painted by Mr. Mallin, Alterations in the columbarium in 1940 were followed by decoration of the lobby and hallway of the Columbarium by Mr. Mallin in the amount of $3,400.

In 1945, as more niches were required to meet demand, additional niches were added in the entry way of the Columbarium. The decorations done by Mr. Mallin in 1940 were thus either destroyed or covered. However, a new contract was awarded to Mr. Mallin in 1946 for decorating the Upper Hallway Columbarium. After the reconstruction of the hallway niches in 1947, redecoration of the main and lower chapels was awarded to Mr. Mallin. It is believed that many of the emblems were added at this time.

In 2011, the organization Friends of the Bohemian National Cemetery (FBNC) launched a campaign to restore the art work in ceremony hall, which had not been altered or cleaned for at least 65 years. A matching grant was obtained to restore one section of the hall and was awarded to Tony Kartsonas, founder of Historic Surfaces LLC. Fund raising continues to not only restore the rest of the hall but also make repairs to the roof and other parts of the building. Additional information about the restoration and repairs can be found at the Friends of BNC website. Details about the restoration are found on this page as well.

Information in this history were obtained from original Mallin contracts and documents, BNC anniversary books, the BNC and Friends of BNC websites at http://www.friendsofbnc.org/ and http://www.bohemiannationalcemeterychicago.org/index.html, and from the book A Dear and Precious Heritage: Bohemian National Cemetery Chicago, Illinois, by Carol Jean Smetana, Editor, Published by Friends of Bohemian National Cemetery, 2012.

Project Specifications