On Death Row in Lake View: Gothic-Styled Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home (Updated)


John Morris/Chicago Patterns


Update 03/29/15:

Crain’s Chicago Business reports the property was sold to Stone Street Partners for $3.8 million. In the article, Stone Street CEO David Trandel states they intend to keep the building intact as they develop around it–including 10 apartments.

NBC Chicago reports the entire interior will be gutted, and that the current owner is looking for retail or a restaurant to lease the space. Fortunately, it appears this structure won’t be a victim of facadism.

This outcome is the best that could’ve been hoped for, and we commend David Trandel of Stone Street Partners for recognizing the cultural and architectural significance of this building.

Original article from 11/2014 below.

At the intersection of Wellington and Southport, a 1920s Gothic-styled funeral home sits empty and faces an uncertain future. A few weeks ago it was released from the city’s Demolition Delay list, a status change that allows for demolition to proceed. Since 1985, this architecturally significant structure has been the Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home. But business recently ceased operations and both the land and building are up for sale.

The funeral home was described by a real estate holding group as a “rarely available development site,” and it certainly is. It’s also one of the few remaining purpose-built Gothic funeral homes in the city.

Rising From the Ashes of the Great Fire

The building was originally constructed for P.A. Birren & Son, a mortuary services company founded downtown in 1859 by Henry Birren. Birren went from a wagon maker to a mortician. His interest with the mortuary field piqued after he saw a hearse and later built one.


Undated photo showing PA Birren and Sons Funeral Home in the background, courtesy of Joseph Herdegen

Although the business was destroyed by the Great Fire, P.A. Birren and Sons rebuilt it. They also expanded to other neighborhoods, including the Lake View location (seen in the undated photo above). Until the company sold its assets in 1985, it was the oldest funeral business in Chicago.

Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home

John Morris/Chicago Patterns


From One Family To Another

The property at 1356 W. Wellington was sold to Herdegen-Brieske during the AIDS epidemic. A 2012 memorial to Bill Herdegen, printed in the South Lake View Neighbors newsletter [PDF], explained how Herdegen contributed toward the knowledge and understanding of the epidemic at such a critical time:

During the 1980s AIDS crisis, many funeral homes were reluctant to take victims of AIDS. Bill became a leader in providing services for AIDS victims. During the late 1980s, Bill was instrumental in a major AIDS research project that determined that 24-36 hours post-mortem, the virus no longer posed a health risk.

When Bill Herdegen died, his son, Joe, took over. In a Chicago Tribune article published in September, Joe Herdegen talked about the difficulties of running a funeral home in a neighborhood amid significant demographic shifts:

(The neighborhood) wasn’t being replaced by older people; it was all the yuppies, the (people with dual incomes and no kids). It took its toll on our numbers.

I guess it’s a good thing they’re not dying, but it’s not a good thing for us.

-Joe Herdegen to the Chicago Tribune

Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home

John Morris/Chicago Patterns


On top of overall neighborhood changes, the passing of his mother last year also had a role in putting the family operation up for sale. Herdegen told the Tribune: “Her biggest asset was the land the property sits on. I have five brothers and sisters. Need I say more? It’s an estate issue.”

According to the article, the building and land were appraised at $3.5 million.

Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home

John Morris/Chicago Patterns

Small Building, Large Lot, Prime Real Estate

Demolition isn’t certain, but it appears probable given the location’s value and potential for development. It consists of several lots in a highly trafficked intersection, and is described as ideal for a residential/retail development project.

Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home

Above side door: scroll above crown, flower, and leaves, flanked by two shields. John Morris/Chicago Patterns

Gothic Ornament on a House of Mourning

Built in 1926 at the height of Gothic Revival’s popularity, it features rich symbolism for a small building. We can only guess at the intended meaning of images here, but shields and crowns were often meant to convey strength, permanence, and solemnity.


Statuary alcoves. Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns

Statuary alcoves. Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns

The Grotesque and Statuary Alcove

It is thought that grotesque figures adorning buildings have roots in paganism. A creature that combined the worst of man, fish, bird, animal, and demon would ward off evil spirits. These are used most commonly on churches.

Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home

John Morris/Chicago Patterns


On the Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home building, there are several grotesques (not to be confused with gargoyles), residing on each side of ornate alcoves holding a crown. While it’s common for grotesques and gargoyles to have open mouths, it’s rare to see one with its tongue hanging out.

Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home

John Morris/Chicago Patterns


The Angelic Cartouche

The grotesques on each side of the door are separated by a cartouche featuring an angel holding a shield. The alcoves on either side house a royal crown, with smaller shield icons at the top.

Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home

John Morris/Chicago Patterns


This building is adorned with a trove of Gothic ornament, but it may not be around for long. We’ll update this article with new developments.

References and Further Reading

Related Posts featuring Gothic Architecture

8 responses to “On Death Row in Lake View: Gothic-Styled Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home (Updated)”

  1. Steven Vance says:

    What’s the address?

    You should add that it’s at the intersection with Lincoln Avenue, too. That placed it more easily for me, especially when I noticed that there were diagonal streetcar tracks!

    • John Morris says:

      Good point about omitting Lincoln, I’ll add it, thanks.

      Address is 1356 W. Wellington, I linked it to street view location in the article near the top (under ‘From One Family To Another’ heading).

  2. Steve Schwartz says:

    Thanks for this update. The H-B family buried my grand parents, great grandparents and other relatives of that generation as they all lived in the neighborhood. They were so helpful and generous when I did genealogy research, so I’m sorry to hear they’ve had to go through some tough changes.

  3. AK says:

    Stagnant property doesn’t do us any good, but I do hope they’re able to preserve or reuse some of the details of the building on site and not just sell it to salvage shops.

    • Brianbobcat says:

      AK, that is to say they salvage ANY of the terra cotta or details. I haven’t heard any updates for this building, but it’s a shame it’s already been removed from the demolition hold list. At least the corner building could be built into a new structure surrounding it on Wellington and Southport.

  4. Peter Birren says:

    I have many fond memories of this building, originally signed the P A Birren & Sons Mortuary. (Guess who I’m named after.) My brother and I would play hide-and-seek in the caskets while our father tended to family business upstairs.

    My dad, Donald Birren, did not go into the funeral business but studied painting and sculpture. One of his small pieces was on display in the foyer when, I imagine around 1956-ish, someone walked off with it. We never found it.

    I’d sure like to get my hands on some of the cartouches and grotesques should the building meet its doom before I do.

  5. Ann Misziewicz says:

    My grandfather worked as as a mortician for the Birren family. My dad grew up, upstairs and i remember going there for many holidays as a child. Very found memories of the building. My grandmother lived there for 50 years.

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