By John Flink. Special to the Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Apr 06, 1997 at 12:00 am

For more than 80 years, the lot on the north side of Grand Avenue just east of Green Bay Road in Waukegan was the site of the Union Mausoleum. Although intended to stand forever, the mausoleum met the wrecker’s ball late last year, and the once-sacred ground is now used to sell cars.

It’s not every day that a burial ground makes way for urban renewal, but, according to the City of Waukegan, the mausoleum’s time had come.

A combination of neglect, natural deterioration and vandalism had over the years turned the structure into an eyesore. The mausoleum crumbled from within and without. The grounds, though regularly mowed, lost their manicured appeal. Worst of all, vandals often broke into the building to desecrate the crypts inside. What was supposed to be a final resting place wasn’t very restful at all.

Resolving the myriad moral and legal questions took the better part of three years, but the decision was finally made in late 1996 to tear down the mausoleum and bury the bodies inside in the adjacent Union Cemetery.

“It wasn’t an easy decision by any means, but that just made me sick,” said Russ Tomlin, the city’s zoning administrator. “I went in there and saw a casket ripped out of the wall and lying open on the floor. That’s what had become of their final resting place.”

Nobody would have been more shocked by the condition of the mausoleum than the 92 people interred in it. In 1912 a group of well-to-do Waukegan residents pooled their money to build the mausoleum, a final resting place worthy of the status they had achieved in life. No pine boxes and public cemeteries for them.

Their communal tomb would impress future generations just as surely as their achievements in life had made their mark upon their own.

Thus, the Union Mausoleum arose west of the city. Then a pastoral setting surrounded by the Spaulding family farm and the Union Cemetery in unincorporated Lake County, the site was appropriately serene but still pleasant enough to draw family members out of the city on weekends to picnic and pay visits to their esteemed ancestors.

“Family members used to have keys to the mausoleum,” said Bessie Schlung, 92. “When you went inside. there was a long hallway with a little chapel at the north end. It was quite pretty.”

Schlung’s brother-in-law George Schlung and his wife, Agnes, were interred in the Union Mausoleum in 1919 and 1929, respectively. Bessie Schlung attended the latter funeral, only a year after she moved to Waukegan, where she has lived ever since.

“They would have a ceremony in front of the main door, which was made of beautiful stained glass,” Schlung recalled. “But the door was broken out long ago, and so were the stained glass windows. It’s too bad they had to tear it down, but I guess it was the right thing to do.”

The plan for the building started out well enough, though. The classically inspired building was constructed of marble and poured concrete reinforced with steel, materials well known for their durability. A trust fund and board of trustees were established to manage the mausoleum in perpetuity.

This was the standard formula: build a sturdy building and establish equally sturdy institutions to run it. “It was the place to be buried,” said Anne Linn, the attorney from the city’s building department who spent three years sorting out the status of the mausoleum.

The names of the people interred in the mausoleum read like a map of Waukegan and the surrounding area. Spaulding Elementary School in Gurnee was named after the Spaulding family, many of whom were interred in the mausoleum. There are a few Hinkstons, who gave their name to Hinkston Park. The Judge family was immortalized by Judge Avenue, and the Moultons provided the inspiration for Moulton Avenue.

But sometime in the 1950s, the plan started to fail. The grounds around the mausoleum began to look tattered. The building, although still structurally sound, didn’t get the tender loving care it once did. Most of the people who had worked to establish the mausoleum had died and were already interred in it, taking with them their enthusiasm for the project. The last of the mausoleum’s trustees moved to Florida in the 1950s and died there in 1973, leaving the mausoleum with neither management nor money. From then on, nobody really knew who ran it.

The board of trustees responsible for the adjacent but legally separate Union Cemetery was kind enough to have the lawn mowed.

The City of Waukegan made sure the mausoleum was boarded up. “It was connected to the cemetery, and you couldn’t expect the cemetery to look respectable if the mausoleum didn’t look respectable,” said Neola Hartman, 85, officially secretary and treasurer of the Union Cemetery’s board of trustees but, through attrition, the cemetery’s de facto administrator and bookkeeper.

“My son-in-law mowed the lawn (of the cemetery and mausoleum) until last year, when the city took over. Nobody else would take care of it because there was never any money,” she said.

And so, it sat. Even as the sturdy walls held fast against the elements, the wooden roof weakened over time, allowing a variety of mischief-makers inside. Pigeons just loved the place, and thousands of them set up housekeeping in the relative security of the mausoleum.

“Everything was covered in pigeon droppings,” said Waukegan Ald. Lawrence TenPas, one of the first city officials to call for the mausoleum to be torn down. “There were rotting pigeon corpses everywhere, too.”

But it was the desecration that was most disturbing. From time to time, usually around Halloween, vandals broke into the mausoleum. If the only attraction had been to spend time in a spooky place on the spookiest day of the year, the break-ins would have been more of an annoyance than anything else.

Unfortunately, some of the vandals who violated the Union Mausoleum proved to be far less respectful of the dead. Caskets were torn from crypts and opened. Bones were stolen. One man’s skull was stolen and, thankfully, returned. Police found it wrapped in a blanket in a cardboard box placed neatly at the mausoleum’s entrance.

“It was more of a desecration to keep (the mausoleum) as it was than to tear it down,” Linn said.

The nature of the corner had changed dramatically since 1912, too. No longer country lanes, Grand Avenue and Green Bay Road have become important commercial strips vital to the economic health of Waukegan. Their intersection was classified as one of several “gateways” to the city because it is one of the first things people see when they drive into Waukegan from the west.

“When we started our Gateway Program last year, the mausoleum was one of our priorities because it looked terrible coming into the city,” Tomlin said, referring to the city rehab program that targeted several gateways around Waukegan. “That intersection is an important one for us.”

Burial grounds aren’t like most other places, though. By law, city officials had to make an earnest attempt to track down descendants of every person interred in the mausoleum in order to give them an opportunity to claim their ancestors’ remains. Advertisements explaining the situation and listing the names of all people interred in the mausoleum were run in early 1995. The response, however, was underwhelming.

“I would have been delighted if somebody had called me and volunteered to put together something to rehabilitate the mausoleum, but that didn’t happen,” Linn said. “We couldn’t find anybody.”

The city filed suit in 1995 to take over the mausoleum. In 1996 another suit had to be filed to officially transfer responsibility for it from Waukegan Township to the City of Waukegan. Apparently, the mausoleum should have become the township’s responsibility when it was abandoned, but nobody noticed. Because the city already had been taking care of the place for more than two decades, it was an amicable transfer of property.

The city found a helpful partner in the Reed-Randle Ford auto dealership. Situated one door west of the mausoleum on Grand Avenue, the dealership’s management was acutely aware of the state of the mausoleum and eager to help. Reed-Randle agreed to pay about $100,000 to demolish the mausoleum, rebury the bodies and pave the half-acre lot. The dealership paid another $100,000 to buy the property, which is now used to sell new and used cars. No public money entered the equation.

“We’re happy we were able to work with the community to put an end to the desecration and the eyesore that the mausoleum had become,” said Donna Mandziara, general manager of the dealership. “We’re also happy to get some extra land to use because it allows us to move around our inventory some more.”

The Marsh Funeral Home of Waukegan handled the reburial. All 92 caskets were removed from the mausoleum and buried along the western edge of the Union Cemetery. There are no plans to mark individual graves with headstones, but a map is available for people interested in looking up a particular grave.

“It was a very unusual job,” said Terry Marsh, president of the funeral home. “Some crypts had several sets of remains in them. Some were marked but empty. Some were unmarked but filled. It was sad. There’s no question that it needed to be torn down.”