Friday, October 25, 2013


Anyone who is familiar with Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago has seen the May Chapel.  It is right near the main lake in the center of the cemetery - nestled into a hillside:

Amazing how the color of the stone changes depending on the light.

If you were lucky enough to get a look inside, you could see the following plaque over the door at the back of the room leading to the receiving vault:

A. D. 1899
This Chapel
Erected in Memory
Who Died
September 30, 1898
at Nauheim

Horatio Nelson May

So, who was Horatio N. May and why is a chapel named for him in Rosehill Cemetery?  Let's find out what we can "dig up" about Horatio May and his wife Anna.

Horatio Nelson May was born in Canada in 1839 to Horatio Nelson May MD (1801-1848), the distinguished physician from St. Armand, Canada, and his wife Sarah, nee Humphreys (1806-1863).  Young Horatio joined his siblings Mary L. (b. 1833), Calvin D. (b. 1835), and Emily E. (b. 1837).  The Mays were direct descendants of Col. Ezra May, a commander of the 2nd MA Regiment in the Revolutionary War.

Horatio's father died in 1848, and the 1850 Census shows the 11 year-old Horatio living with his uncle Ezra May and Aunt Lovisa in Belvidere, Illinois where Ezra listed his occupation as "Merchant."  Horatio first came to Chicago in 1856, and was one of the early settlers who took an active interest in the city's growth and development.  

Soon after his arrival in Chicago he joined the Volunteer Fire Department.  In January of 1860 May was elected the 1st Lieutenant of Fire Company No. 2.  and served until the volunteers were replaced by a paid fire department.

The 1860 Census shows 21 year-old Horatio May living in Chicago's 2nd Ward at the home of Calvin Fitch, Physician, where May listed his occupation as "Clerk".  

In the early days of his business career, May was engaged in the Commission business with John C. Neely, and made his start in a small store on River Street.  Later he became identified with McKindley and Ingraham, grocers.  The Chicago Daily Tribune of March 11, 1864 carried a Notice that Horatio N. May had been admitted as a Partner to McKindley, Ingraham and Company, wholesale grocers.

On August 7, 1882 Horatio Nelson May married Miss Anna Lush Wilson in Chicago:

Anna Lush Wilson was born on November 20, 1849 in Chicago to the well-known Chicago pioneer and newspaper editor John Lush Wilson (1812-1888) and Mary, nee Whipple (1823-1868).  Anna had six sisters: Laura (1845-1876), Caroline Gilbert (1848-1912), Alice (1855-1863), Mary Blackstone (1857-1927), Gertrude Quintard (1859-1943), and Frances H. (1863-1950) and one brother Richard L. Wilson (1851-1937) 

On December 1, 1886, Horatio N. May joined C.B. Farwell, Joseph Stockton, and Andrew E. Leicht in being appointed Lincoln Park Commissioners.

Lincoln Park Commissioner Horatio N. May

From the very beginning of their marriage, Anna Wilson May used her social position and her money for the betterment of Chicago.  Mrs. May was also quite the innovative thinker and planner.  She lived north of the river on Astor Street and all of her shopping was done south of the river in the central retail district.  The bridges crossing the river were ugly and crowded and Anna had an idea that there was a better way to traverse the dividing waterway by building a boulevard that would travel under the river bed.  As early as November of 1890, Mrs. May was speaking out for a tunnel from Ohio street to Monroe street, effectively linking the North Side to the Loop, tunneling under the Chicago River.  

Chicago Mayor DeWitt Cregier had proposed building an expansive bridge at a wide point in the river connecting Michigan Avenue with the north side at a cost of $5,000,000.  Anna believed the bridge idea was old school and proposed constructing a 50-foot-wide, 3,200-foot-long, slowly-receding, road and pedestrian boulevard tunnel just east of today's Rush Street, that would burrow under the river and rise again on Michigan Avenue at Randolph Street.  She hired noted architect Joseph Silsbee to work with her on the plan which included Corinthian-capped columns supports, white glazed tile walls and electric lighting, all coming in at a much less costly $1,500,000.  Not only did Mrs. May want the tunnel, she proposed it be done in time for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1892 - and she had a name:  "The Columbian Tunnel." Mrs. May also suggested that the tunnel be financed with a bond issue, which bonds would, she said, immediately be snapped up by her and her friends.  Unfortunately Mrs. May's great tunnel project never got off (or under) the ground.

The municipal election of April 1891 brought a new mayor to Chicago, Hempstead Washburne, and with him, a new city Controller:  Horatio N. May.

Chicago City Controller, Horatio N. May

At the time of May's appointment, the Chicago Daily Tribune said:  "...It is only necessary to say that Mr. May, named for the Controller, is a member of the firm of Corbin, May & Co., wholesale tea merchants.  He is a director of one of the national banks and proprietor of the Commercial Hotel Building.  In later years, Mayor Washburne was quoted as saying, "(May) took control of the Controller's Office when the City was in financial straits, and systemized the office and carried the government through in first-class shape.  The City's finances were in good shape at the close of my administration, and this was due to Mr. May's careful and able management."    

While City Controller, May also retained his position on the Lincoln Park Board.  The Tribune said: "In the growth of Lincoln Park (May's) hand was to be plainly seen.  He wanted to make it the most beautiful park in the world.  When the park was in its infancy he was always planning for improvements.  He spent a great deal of time in the park, and was instrumental in the development of the beach drive which has become such a striking feature of the park."  Although Horatio May lost his Controller's job when Mayor Washburne was voted out of office in 1893 (in those days, Chicago mayors were only elected for two-year terms), he retained his Lincoln Park Commissioner position until his death.

Horatio N. May died on October 1, 1898 in Bad Nauheim, Germany. He had a bad case of  "La Grippe" (what we would now call the flu) in the Spring of 1898.  As the year continued he was unable to shake off the illness, so on July 28, 1898 he left Chicago for Bad Nauheim, Germany. Bad Nauheim  is a world-famous resort, noted for its salt springs, which are used to treat heart and nerve diseases.  A Nauheim or "effervescent" bath, named after Bad Nauheim, is a type of spa bath through which carbon dioxide is bubbled.  In September May was said to be doing better, and Mrs. May had written to relatives that her husband was doing so well that they would probably soon be returning to Chicago.  Then on October 1, May's business partner Calvin Corbin received a terse cable from Mrs. May reporting her husband's death and that funeral arrangements would be cabled later.  Mrs. May asked Corbin to inform May's two sisters in Canada of his passing.

Here is the official notice of Horatio May's death outside the United States:

Here's Horatio N. May's obituary from the New York Times of October 2, 1898:

After May's death, Anna Wilson May immediately made arrangements to return to Chicago with her husband's body.  The funeral was held October 17, 1898:

Readers of this blog will be interested to see that David B. Forgan was one of May's honorary pallbearers, as was Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. 

After her husband's death and funeral, Anna Wilson May wanted to leave a perpetual memorial to her husband that was more than an elaborate tombstone.  Because of the great love both she and her husband had for Chicago she wanted to leave a memorial that could be used and enjoyed by Chicagoans for years to come.  But what to do?

Mrs. May was already familiar with the life and works of noted architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee (1848-1913),

and in fact, the May's had hired Silsbee to design their home at 147 (now 1443 N.) Astor Street.

Horatio and Anna May Home, 1443 N. Astor Street, Chicago

After consultation with Silsbee, Anna May decided on a memorial chapel to honor her husband in Rosehill Cemetery that would be designed by Silsbee.  This is from the Chicago Daily Tribune of June 14, 1899:

Construction of the chapel had been scheduled for the summer of 1899, but there were delays, and the Chicago Daily Tribune carried an article on September 17th that the cornerstone would be laid the next day:

The Tribune, in an article titled "Costly Tombs of the Rich" from August 19, 1900 gave the final specifics of the May Chapel:

"A memorial chapel and mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the late Horatio N. May was recently erected in Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, at a cost of $30,000.00.  It is built of light-colored granite, and in general dimensions is 35 x 70 feet.  There is a carriage porch extending the full width of the front, so that entrance and exit may be had in stormy weather without discomfort.  Immediately inside the entrance are robing rooms, with stairrooms on either side.  The nave contains all the seats except those formed by the gallery.  At the rear is the opening to the receiving vault.  The roof is of oak, with hammer-beam trusses and curved brackets.  The floor is of mosaic, and the walls are of fine terra cotta material." 

Most people who have been to Rosehill Cemetery are familiar with the outside of the May Chapel, but few people have ever been inside it. The chapel is kept locked as a rule, and the cemetery uses the Hennig Chapel in the mausoleum for services these days as opposed to the May Chapel.  When my aunt died in 2004, we had to specifically ask for the May Chapel for her service.  I didn't even think to take pictures at that time; however, now I am going to take you inside the Horatio N. May Memorial Chapel now so you can see its beauty for yourself:

Photo by Doug McGoldrick Photography

Photo by Doug McGoldrick Photography

Photo by Doug McGoldrick Photography

Photo by Doug McGoldrick Photography

Photo by Doug McGoldrick Photography

Photo by Doug McGoldrick Photography

Mosaic tile on ceiling of carriage porch

In the back of the chapel is the Receiving Vault for Rosehill.  In the old days, bodies were stored here when the ground was too frozen to dig graves, or when a family mausoleum was being built but had not been completed in time to receive the remains.  It was also used to house bodies when the Rosehill Community Mausoleum was being built, so that people who had purchased space in the yet-to-be-completed mausoleum would not have to go through reinterment.

Photo by Lenka Reznicek

Photo by Lenka Reznicek

Anna Wilson May died on March 20, 1907 of cancer in Chicago.

Anna Wilson May

Here is her obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune:

She is buried next to her husband, and the chapel she built as a memorial to her husband at Rosehill Cemetery.

Several people have indicated that the May Chapel was also a mausoleum, and that Horatio and Anna May were interred there.  That is incorrect.  Horatio and Anna May are interred under a simple concrete slab to the right of the carriage porch as you face the front door:

So, now you know the story of the chapel Anna Wilson May built as a memorial to her late husband, Horatio Nelson May - and you have been able to see the inside of this Silsbee-created jewel for yourself. What a wonderful memorial to Mrs. May's husband, and what a wonderful gift to us to still be enjoying over 100 years later.

Photo by Karen Gordon

Photo by Tim Nafziger

Horatio Nelson May and Anna Wilson May - may they rest in peace.

Acknowledgements:  It is almost impossible to find photos of the inside of the May Chapel.  In my research I was very lucky to come upon the work of Doug McGoldrick, of Doug McGoldrick Photography in Chicago. Doug was hired to photograph a wedding in the May Chapel in October of 2007.  He very graciously allowed me to use his fantastic photos for this article. Please check out his website: 

Also a thank you to Karen Gordon for graciously allowing me to use her wonderful photograph of the May Chapel in the snow.  Check out her website for some other fantastic photos: 

And another thank you to Tim Nafziger, who graciously allowed me to use his dramatic photo of the May Chapel at sunset.  Check out his website:

And yet another thank you - to Lenka Reznicek, who graciously allowed me to use her photos of the Rosehill Receiving Vault.

Any photos not taken by Doug, Karen, Tim, or Lenka are from the author's collection.

1 comment:

  1. I know I'm late to commenting (catching up on reading today) - but this is a fascinating post. I spent a bit of time at Rosehill and am eager to go back. The day I was there, we took photos of the outside of this chapel, but weren't able to go inside. Thanks for all of the info!