Though the term “Hidden Treasure” is overused to the point of being a cliché, it is a perfectly appropriate way to describe St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery. It’s the permanent residence of many of our city’s most notable business people, artists, architects, politicians, soldiers and civic leaders. Within its pastoral grounds you will find entombed the namesakes of many of our most well-known buildings, streets and institutions. James Eads is there, as are Albert Bond Lambert and Robert Barnes, perpetually resting among the Busch, Lemp, Maritz, Campbell and O’Fallon families. One of the most haunting monuments belongs to David R. Francis, a former mayor who organized the 1904 World’s Fair.
Some of the mausoleums are as notable as their celebrated inhabitants. For example, the architectural marvel that is the Wainwright Tomb, designed by iconic architect Louis Sullivan (who also designed the Wainwright Building downtown), still attracts visits from architects across the nation.
More than 87,000 are laid to rest in the historic and scenic cemetery that was founded in 1849 to accept the remains of those formerly interred in numerous and scattered church cemeteries that found themselves in the way of a growing city that needed space for the living. The cemetery expanded greatly when a devastating cholera epidemic claimed a large percentage of the city’s citizenry.
Bellefontaine’s park-like setting was designed by Almerin Hotchkiss, who earned fame for his Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. The cemetery’s meandering roadways take the visitor on a trip through time, back to a day when families visited their loved ones via horse and carriage. In those early days, such a journey and visitation made for a daylong event, culminating in a relaxed picnic lunch beside the dearly departed.
Today, the cemetery still makes for an awe-inspiring experience. Visitors are encouraged and warmly welcomed. Organized tours are plentiful, and if you can’t make one of them, their interactive website provides ample opportunity to plan a self-guided tour; there are enough beer barons and Civil War notables to have their own dedicated maps. A good book about Bellefontaine is “Movers and Shakers, Scallawags and Suffragettes: Tales From Bellefontaine Cemetery,” by Carol Ferring Shepley.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of hosting the Lemp Reality Tour, a bus tour that took participants to places associated with the Lemp family. The tour culminated with a visit to – and within – their family mausoleum, the largest in the cemetery. Richard Lay, VP of Public Relations for the cemetery (and a walking encyclopedia of its history) boarded the bus and discussed the notables whose tombs we passed along the way, with insightful anecdotes that were entertaining and informative. One of the most rewarding and gratifying aspects of conducting these tours were the positive reactions from tourists who were truly amazed at this beautiful and reflective spot that many didn’t even know existed.
So, if you were once a mover and shaker, Bellefontaine is the place to be; if you enjoy St. Louis history, it’s the place to see.