Chartered in 1853 by the Illinois State Legislature, the Oak Woods Cemetery Association hired landscape gardener Adolph Strauch to design the 184-acre burial site on the southeast side of Chicago. Strauch created a ‘landscape-lawn cemetery’ in which the plantings, monuments, and grounds formed a unified composition, uninterrupted by fences or walls around individual plots. Low-lying areas were excavated to create a series of artificial lakes, with the soil used to increase the height of natural hills. Curving avenues were threaded throughout the site, taking advantage of grade changes.
Work on the city’s first private, non-denominational cemetery commenced in 1864, with the first burial in 1865. In 1866 and 1867, some 6,000 Confederate soldiers were reinterred in the southwest portion of the cemetery, brought from the grounds of nearby Camp Douglas (a Union prison camp) and from City Cemetery, which was shut down in the face of a cholera epidemic. Covering two acres, the Confederate Mound is marked by a 46-foot-tall granite monument (dedicated in 1885) topped by a bronze statue. Sixteen bronze plaques near its base list over 4,000 names of the dead. Although the cemetery was initially entered from the west along Cottage Grove Avenue, by 1893 a gateway comprising granite shafts and wrought-iron fencing had been installed along the north side, along with an administrative building. Plants sold for burials were cultivated in some ten greenhouses (since removed) near the entrance. A small portion of the cemetery is owned by three synagogues, with Jewish burials originating in the nineteenth century. A high perimeter wall, variously of brick and concrete, now surrounds the site, where many politicians and distinguished individuals are buried, including Olympic hero Jesse Owens and physicist Enrico Fermi.