The “Empty Mausoleum” wired for Electricity

On the main road at section “O” of German Waldheim /Forest Home Cemetery sits a huge but unoccupied mausoleum. It was even wired for electricity, supposedly for interior lighting and even future outdoor lighting. Go figure!

The so called “Empty Mausoleum” was originally built and owned by Ernst Johann Lehmann, who established Chicago’s successful Fair department store in 1875.

The Lehmann mausoleum is the largest mausoleum in the cemetery but now stands vacant. l2According to an illustration on a 1905 letterhead for German Waldheim Cemetery, “E. J. Lehmann Memorial” was carved along the roof line of the mausoleum but now has no inscriptions other than the date 1902 engraved in Roman numerals, two years after Lehmann’s death.



l3The mausoleum features awesome pairs of Ionic columns while two stone lions bravely guard the west-facing main entrance. Walk around the back and you encounter astaircase in the back wall leads down to a well weathered double door. Inside is a small and barren cellar space, with  stout but sagging wooden beams.


l1Born in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany, in 1849, Ernst J. Lehmann came to the United States with his parents from Teterow, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany. The family first settled in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. His father became a basket weaver in Germany in 1849. They came to the United States in 1852 first settling in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Then they came to Chicago in 1858. He married Augusta in 1871 and they had seven children.

He became a pioneer in the department store business. Ernst founded the Fair Store in 1875 at State at Adams.  This was one of several mega Chicago icons on State Street along with Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott, The Palmer House,  CD Peacock Jewelers and others.

Legend has it that Lehmann had been a friend of the Ferdinand Haase family and helped them operate the picnic grounds on the land which would become the German Waldheim/Forest Home cemetery. One account indicates that he may have piloted a pleasure boat drawn by geese on the Des Plaines River.

Ernst was wildly successful as a retailer, so much so that the Lehmann family later  owned a total of nine mansions and large estates on 2,000 acres in and around Lake Villa during the last years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century.

His last years were not kind to him. Lehmann  suffered a breakdown, described in his obituary as mental derangement. It was attributed to overwork, and he spent the last decade of his life in sanitariums, dying in the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane at White Plains, New York, on January 5, 1900 at age 51. His estate was estimated at $10,000,000.


fair storeHe chose the name “The Fair Store” because “the store was like a fair because it offered many different things for sale at a cheap price. His twelve-story building was completed about 1897. In 1925 the business was sold to a syndicate headed by  Kresge (predecessor firm of Kmart). Under its management, three more Fair stores opened between 1929 and 1956. They were Oak Parh, Evergreen Plaza, and Old Orchard. In 1957, Montgomery Wards purchased the State Street flagship store and the three other locations,

The last store to open was at Randhurst in 1962 but was rebranded Montgomery Ward. The innovative flagship store on State Street was closed and demolished in 1984.

So why has been the mausoleum been empty,  you may ask? . Originally, six bodies were buried in the mausoleum at Waldheim, but in 1920, they were all moved to an equally impressive mausoleum on an island in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

On a personal note, The empty Lehmann Mausoleum is just down the road from all my Dad’s relatives in Section “F”. On many of my trips to visit the Fleig graves as a young boy, I often passed by the huge structure in section “O” on the way to my  Fleig graves, never suspecting the story of the “empty mausoleum”. Thanks for visiting it with me today.

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