Estates and Gardens of Chicago’s North Shore - 11 July 2008

| Jul 11, 2008

Estates and Gardens of Chicago’s North Shore
Baird Jarman

We spent most of our first full day exploring the extensive grounds at Crab Tree Farm, a dairy in Lake Bluff whose early history proves instructive regarding development in the region. Grace Garrett Durand, wife of Chicago broker Scott Sloan Durand, originally operated a successful hobby farm in Lake Forest that she named after its location along Crab Tree Road. The couple commissioned a Shingle Style main house from William Carbys Zimmerman in 1896, the same year that Cyrus McCormick, Jr. commissioned his own Shingle Style home, Walden, which ushered in a new era of landed country estates on parcels of land much larger than the approximately four-acre lots typical in the original 1857 Lake Forest plan. Expansive estates soon infringed upon Durand’s growing dairy operation, which earned complaints from her new neighbors about unpleasant odors. In 1905 the Durands bought another dairy farm on the current site and shifted their base of operation. In 1910 a large fire destroyed the extant wooden farm buildings एंड the following year they hired Solon Spencer Beman, known for his design of the planned workers’ village of Pullman, to create a courtyard surrounded by new fireproof structures.

The Entry Drive at Crab Tree Farm

These five courtyard buildings, designed in a style variously characterized as either South African or Scandinavian, have steel frames and walls assembled from terracotta blocks coated with concrete and stucco. The roofs are cast concrete tinted to resemble terracotta. Four of the five buildings, including part of the large central structure with the clock tower, house an outstanding collection of American and English Arts and Crafts furnishings. Crab Tree Cottage, filled with a great deal of Gustav Stickley furniture, also displays TECO and Grueby ceramics as well as English designs ranging from Morris and Voysey textiles to de Morgan ceramics.

The main Farm House at Crab Tree Farm (1911) by Solon Spencer Beman

Nearby the courtyard a bungalow was built in 1993, modeled on drawings by Harvey Ellis that appeared in the December 1903 issue of Stickley’s magazine The Craftsman. The basement of this Ellis house contains a cross-section of English Arts and Crafts design, including chairs by Pugin, Baillie Scott, and Macintosh as well as metalwork by Dresser, Ashbee, and Benson. Contemporary art also appears at the farm; the old grain silos now serve as installation spaces and one wing of the bell-towered farmhouse serves as a large shop with woodworkers in residence.

The Ellis House at Crab Tree Farm (designed in 1903 by Harvey Ellis, built in 1993)

Departing from the Craftsman vein, we then visited two small and significantly older structures both relocated to the eastern stretch of the farm, a rebuilt medieval brick English hermitage with a newly thatched roof and a recently conserved 1830s log house moved from its original site along Green Bay Road.

Medieval English Hermitage
1830s Log House from Green Bay Road

In the afternoon we visited the restored Art Deco gem, the Colonel Robert Hosmer Morse House, built in 1931 by Zimmerman, Saxe & Zimmerman (the Chicago-based firm of the aforementioned W. C. Zimmerman in partnership with his son and son-in-law). Our hosts discussed the lengthy restoration process the house required, including the painstaking refurbishment of scores of light fixtures and etched-glass mirrors. Built adjacent to a golf course, the 25-room mansion was built to entertain, with a locker room for golfing groups in the basement as well as several moderne drink-mixing closets scattered about the house despite its Prohibition Era origin.

Colonel Robert Hosmer Morse House (1931) by Zimmerman, Saxe & Zimmerman

Returning to the Crab Tree Farm estate in the late afternoon, we further explored a medley of architectural treasures on an 11-acre tract of land sold by the Durands to Helen Bowen and William McCormick Blair in the 1920s. Here the Blairs hired David Adler to build them a large house in an early American colonial style, with walls of limestone and white shingles (the wooden shingles are unpainted on the roof and in the dormers).

William McCormick Blair House (1926-28) by David Adler

A walled garden designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman nestles into the west-facing side of the house, where it is sheltered from the lake, which is visible over a bluff to the east. In addition to numerous outbuildings, the estate also contains a Georgian tennis house designed by Adler shortly after the main house.

Shipman Garden at the William McCormick Blair House

Tennis House on the William McCormick Blair Estate

The Blair estate also contains a cottage with neoclassical and Tudor period rooms across from an eighteenth-century Palladian folly (all relocated from parts of the United Kingdom).

The Palladian Folly

The day concluded with two lakeshore sites bearing remnants of the great McCormick family estates, Walden and Villa Turicum. Both houses were designed by East Coast architects, respectively Jarvis Hunt and Charles Platt. Only the Ravello terrace remains of Walden, built in 1896 for Cyrus McCormick II and torn down in the 1950s. An elegant, glass-walled, New Formalist house by New Canaan architect John Black Lee was built beside the Ravello in 1960.

The Ravello at Walden (1896) by Jarvis Hunt and Warren Manning

Perhaps the most famous of the Lake Forest mansions was Villa Turicum, whose tragic history mirrors the troubled life of its owner Edith Rockefeller McCormick. Along the shoreline sit the stairways, cascade, and garden urns that once decorated the lakeside grounds of the majestic mansion. The house had an astonishingly short life as an active home. Platt continued to work on the estate and its sprawling grounds (including a polo field and acres of gardens) for over a decade, from 1908 to 1918 (the house was completed in 1909), but after 1912 Edith Rockefeller McCormick allegedly spent only one night on the property. The house itself was demolished in 1965, but not before a group of investors hoping to repurpose the property lost a sizeable investment.

The remnants of the Villa Turicum water cascade (1909) by Charles A. Platt

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