Our trip commenced with a witty and informative dinnertime lecture about North Shore history by tour leader Arthur H. Miller, Archivist of Lake Forest College. Calmly ignoring a violent thunderstorm, he discussed topics ranging from the role of the Presbyterian Church in the settlement of Lake Forest to the heavy summertime demands on the local water supply created by the popularity of extensive landscape gardening to the vogue for English-style country life that established polo and fox hunting in the greater Chicago area in the 1890s.
Arthur also discussed the enormous impact of income-tax rate changes upon the viability of operating large residential estates, noting that most of the structures on our itinerary were built during one of two periods. A first wave of large estate building lasted from 1896 to 1916, when the upper tax bracket jumped from 15% to 67% to finance World War I. A shorter second wave occurred after the highest bracket fell below 50% in 1924 and lasted until 1932 when the rates were again hiked (from 25% to 63%). Even the wealthiest families found it increasingly difficult to maintain large estates following the Great Depression. At the outbreak of World War I the top bracket paid merely 7% income tax, but from 1936 through 1981 the rate stayed above 70%. The peak years for the abandonment, repurposing, and demolition of North Shore country estates came from 1951 to 1963, when the rate stayed above 90%. Conversely, in the period since 1987, when the top rate has remained below 40%, many of these estates have been restored and refurbished.
Thursday’s downpour cleared the way for great weather during our four travel days, and with the midsummer landscapes in full bloom the tour was like stepping into the scenic pages of Arthur’s book, Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest: Architecture and Landscape Design 1856-1940, coauthored with Kim Coventry and Daniel Meyer.