Edith B. Farnsworth House

[Edith B. Farnsworth House (1951) Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The dinner party was going to be held in one of those charming old buildings built at the close of the 19th century. The Irving had been constructed on the northwest corner of Oak and State Streets in two phases, first in 1895, then in 1898, and Georgia Lindafelt and Ruth Lee’s apartment was within easy walking distance of Georgia’s bookshop at Delaware and Michigan Avenue. Dinner guest Dr. Edith Farnsworth didn’t have far to travel either. She lived with her mother in her parents Astor Street mansion, but if the doctor couldn’t get home in time to freshen-up before dinner, Georgia and Ruth’s place was just a hop, skip and a jump from Passavant Hospital where Dr. Farnsworth practiced. According to a memoir the nephrologist wrote years later, upon entering the apartment Georgia casually introduced the other dinner guest to Edith, “This is Mies darling.”


[Edith B. Farnsworth House, 14520 River Road, Plano, IL / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Edith recalled that the German-born architect sat through almost the entire dinner like a massive immobile piece of granite, saying nothing while the women carried on a lively conversation. Edith was telling her friends about a piece of property she had purchased from Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick not far from the tiny town of Plano, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago. It was only 9 acres, but the secluded site along the bank of the Fox River would be ideal for weekend get aways. The Farnsworths and the McCormicks moved in the same social circles. Edith’s grandfather George had come to Chicago in the late 1830s, left, and discovered the wooded acreage of Wisconsin and Michigan. After returning to the city in 1868, he went on to became one of Chicago’s wealthiest lumber barons. Edith’s father, also named George, took over the reins of the family business and after his death in 1941 Edith, her mother, sister, and brother were beneficiaries of the bountiful Farnsworth estate. The house she shared with her mother and two servants at 1448 N. Astor Street was large and comfortable enough, but she told Georgia and Ruth that she wanted a retreat from the city and her very busy medical practice. When she asked the brooding architect if there might be a young man in his office who would be interested in a small house project he replied, “I would love to build any kind of house for you.”


[Edith B. Farnsworth House, National Historic Landmark / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had come to Chicago in 1938 to head-up the architecture program at the Armour Institute. In 1945, when the architect told the doctor he would be happy to design a house for her, his private architectural practice consisted of a handful of young men who were working primarily on the campus buildings that van der Rohe was designing for the recently merged Armour and Lewis Institutes, now known as the Illinois Institute of Technology. When a young architect named Myron Goldsmith came to work in Mies’s Wabash Avenue office in 1946, he was handed a pencil and watercolor sketch that Mies had done of Farnsworth’s house the year before, and was given the project. It took another three years however before things really started to take off.


[Edith B. Farnsworth House, Plano, IL / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Mies, Edith and Myron took many a picnic trip out to Plano, and by 1949 the glass enclosure Mies had designed for his dynamic client was ready to be built. The house was unlike anything anyone had ever seen along the Fox River, the Chicago area, the United States, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Almost. In 1945 Mies had shown architect Philip Johnson the Farnsworth watercolor but because the project had taken so long to reach construction, Johnson was able to complete his version of a glass house in 1949.  But once the Farnsworth project was completed, critics saw that the glass dwelling in New Canaan, Connecticut lacked the uncompromising clarity of purpose and intense attention to detail that Mies had provided for his doctor friend.


[Edith B. Farnsworth House, Fox River Valley, IL / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Early in their discussions Mies had mentioned that the house could probably be built for around $40,000, but by the time construction finally got underway in 1949 the budget had grown to an agreed upon $65,000. Edith’s 2,200-sqaure-foot weekend retreat was not exactly small when considering that the average single-family home in America measured 950-square-feet. Slabs of travertine marble and enormous sheets of polished plate glass didn’t come cheap, neither did steel or copper electrical wire in post-WWII America. Sorting through every single piece of marble to make sure they were laid correctly, matching the primavera wood veneer to perfection, working side-by-side with welders on the steel joins, the hawk-eyed architect left nothing to chance – which can be expensive. As construction drew to a close in 1951, and the budget climbed above $65,000, tensions rose between the architect and his client. In a 1986 oral history with the Art Institute of Chicago, Myron Goldsmith said that Mies didn’t want to discuss the issue with the haranguing Edith any longer, and that from that point on Myron would have to handle the bothersome doctor. Hurt, and feeling cut-off and shunned, Edith stopped sending checks to cover costs.


[Edith B. Farnsworth House / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

When the house was finished in 1951, Mies was still owed money so he sued for payment. Edith    counter sued and said that not only had the architect gone over the original $40,000 budget, but that the house she had paid for was uninhabitable – it was like living in a terrarium. In 1953 Mies was awarded over $12,000 in judgments, and settled for $2,500. Edith retreated to her “uninhabitable” glass container for another 19 years before deciding to sell the property because the county had decided to build a new bridge over the Fox River within 180 feet of her now world famous summer retreat, and Peter Palumbo, a wealthy London real estate developer purchased the property for $120,000 in 1972. In 1996 the five foot above grade platform that Mies had designed to keep the house free of flood level river water proved to be no match for the changing topography of the formerly rural area. Suburban development meant there was less ground surface to absorb rain and after a record-breaking 17 inch rainfall the Fox River rose higher and higher, engulfing the large plate glass windows. Under intense pressure one of them finally gave way, broke open, and water inundated the interior. The platform built in the hinterlands in the early 1950s was no longer a match for 1990s urbanization. In 2003 Palumbo was ready to sell and put the Farnsworth house up for auction at Sotheby’s. After a nail biting eight minutes of bidding an offer of put together by a team of government agencies and individual donors brought the gavel down at $6.7 million. Then in 2008 another record high flood filled Edith’s terrarium with water once again. Now there is a proposal on the table to build a system of hydraulic lifts under the house that could raise it as much as nine feet above the ever rising river.



See more of Mies in the 50’s at: 860-880 Lake Shore Drive and S.R. Crown Hall.




Posted in 20th Century Bldgs., Chicago School, Landmarked | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

St. Paul Catholic Church, Chicago

[St. Paul Catholic Church (1899) Henry J. Schlacks, architect; (1922) Cav. Angelo Gianese Co., mosaics; Royal Bavarian Art Institute for Stained Glass, art glass (2008) restoration: JNKA, architects; WJE, engineers / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Bricks – and lots of them. That’s exactly what 29-year-old architect Henry Schlacks was going to    need for the parishioners of St. Paul’s parish to build the church edifice he had designed for them.


[St. Paul Catholic Church, 2234 S. Hoyne Avenue, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The parish had been founded in 1876 when a cluster of German immigrants settled in a sparsely populated area of Chicago located within easy walking distance of the recently completed McCormick Harvesting Company factory on Blue Island Avenue. The neighborhood was primarily Irish, and although the Catholic mass was universally celebrated in Latin, the Chicago archdiocese established native language parishes for their non-English-speaking congregants.


[St. Paul Catholic Church, 22nd Place & Hoyne Avenue, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Schlacks and his partner Henry L. Ottenheimer had designed a school building for the parish in  1892, but Schlacks alone came back to design the new church. The architect had decided that not one piece of wood, steel – or even a nail – would be used in the construction of the 209-foot long building or its soaring twenty-four story tall towers. A decision that was aided by the fact that members of the congregation – who were going to do most of the actual construction work – were from a section of Germany with a long tradition of masonry construction. In the northern European lowlands, along today’s Germany, Poland and Denmark’s Baltic Coast, large brick churches were built in Medieval Gothic and Romanesque styles during the heyday of the Hanseatic League, a tradition of craftsmanship that carried on well into the 19th century.


[St. Paul Catholic Church, Heart of Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

A multitude of custom-made, vitrified brick in all shapes and sizes was furnished by the Chicago-based Jenkins and Reynolds Company, with project supervision by contractor Paul F.P. Mueller, who had met Schlacks when both men had been employed in the offices of architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan Sullivan. Everywhere you looked on the job site it was brick, brick, and more brick, and the entire structure rose from the ground, clay-fired-piece by clay-fired-piece, in just the same way as the mason’s ancestors had done 500 years earlier. When 50 priests assisted Archbishop Patrick Feehan on June 25, 1899 at the dedication of Saint Paulus Kirche, an over flow crowd of 2,500 people packed the intersection of Hoyne and 22nd Place, and no one had ever seen anything quite like it.


[St. Paul Catholic Church, Pilsen, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Over the next 30 years the interior was decorated, step-by-step, inch-by-inch, and Henry Schlacks was there to oversee all of it. The art glass came from studios in Munich, and the polished white marble from Carrara, Italy. The exquisite mosaic tile work was created in a Venetian workshop and the completed panels were shipped from Italy to Chicago for installation. By the turn of the 21st century, time, weather and moisture had not been kind to the roof or floor of the massive structure. The unsealed basement had compromised the sanctuary’s floor joints and the leaking roof had caused interior water damage. In 2008 the archdiocese began a $10 million restoration of the building overseen by architects and engineers Jaeger Nickola Kuhlman & Associates, and Wiss Janney Elstner Associates. And just as they had done 100 years earlier, the congregation, now primarily Hispanic, worked alongside the contractors to help renew the only building of its kind in the United States.


[St. Paul Catholic Church, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

And we close with a great big thank you to our friend Pete – an active parishioner and dedicated steward of the church and its community – for the wonderful tour. St. Paul’s is on the Open House Chicago schedule this weekend, so be sure and stop by.



See more of Schlacks at: St. Boniface Church, Chicago and Holy Name Cathedral.





Posted in 19th Century Bldgs., Chicago School, Preservation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Louis H. Brink House

[Louis H. Brink House (1909) E. E. Roberts, architect / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Before there was a Prairie Style or Prairie School of architecture there was something called the “New School of the Midwest.” The term was often used to describe the new style of architecture that had cropped up in and around the Chicago area lead by an architect named Frank Wright. In 1942 the esteemed architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock wrote a book about Wright and his like-minded Midwestern colleagues called In the Nature of Materials and the phrase “Prairie style” was prominently placed into the architectural lexicon. Then in 1972 H. Allen Brooks’s seminal work The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries sealed the “Prairie” deal.


[Louis H. Brink House, 533 N. Grove Avenue, Oak Park / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Architect Ezra Eben Roberts watched the New Style of the Midwest crop up all around him. Roberts lived just around the corner from Wright, and could see his neighbor’s work and expanding influence first hand as E.E. walked up and down the streets of suburban Oak Park. Wright may have been getting a lot of attention with his new style, but Roberts got more jobs. He was happy to provide his clients with whatever style of house they felt comfortable in, and even used the phrase, “Designer of Homelike Homes” when advertising for his services. It made him a popular choice for many of the home building residents in the west suburban community and kept the architect very busy.


[Louis H. Brink House, Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School National Historic District / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Although Roberts looked to historic revival styles for many of his designs, he was always open to   new ideas and was happy to embrace some of what he’d seen Frank and other architects doing with their residential work. Vertical became more horizontal, brick and wood gave way to stucco, roof lines became broader, eaves were extended, the massing became more simplified and geometrical, as Roberts joined the ranks of the New School of the Midwest designers. In 1909 Louis H. Brink hired the architect to design one of these kinds of houses on a lot he’d purchased on Grove Avenue, not far from Roberts’ own home.


[Louis H. Brink House, Grove Avenue, Oak Park / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The Grove Avenue property already had a house standing on it, but Brink wanted something new and modern. He was born in Chicago in 1865, was a founder of the Chicago Poultry Board and the Butter and Egg Exchange, and was in the commission trade business which had made him a millionaire. Roberts had recently completed a project for Charles Schwerin not far from the Brink location, and from the looks of things the architect used the Schwerin house for inspiration. Stucco had become a Roberts favorite by this time so that wasn’t an unusual choice. The overall mass of both homes was nearly identical right up to the arched dormers tucked into the roof line. But to shake things up a bit the Brink’s dormers would be a little broader, the porch roof would be flat with the stairs tucked behind a wall, and the geometrical pattern of the banded wood trim would be reworked.


[Louis H. Brink House, Oak Park / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

When Louis Brink died on April 18, 1931 at the age of sixty-six, he left an estate valued in the neighborhood of $1.25 million (around $19.5 million today), with his three sons named as executors. The income from the trust was to pay for his wife Ida’s expenses and care, while any remaining income was to be split among the sons and their sister. Louis had stipulated that upon Ida’s death whatever monies were left were to divided into four equal shares. John, Laurence and Ernest would get their money outright, but Jessie’s share was to be held in a trust overseen by her surviving brothers, with the income from that trust distributed to her in quarterly payments. In 1933 Ida and Jessie sued the estate and contested the terms of the will in court. The suit must have made for uncomfortable living arrangements. Jessie lived in her brother Laurence’s house next door to where Ernest lived with their mother. The judge found no grounds for the suit and dismissed the case, and Ida lived in the house until her death in 1947. E.E. Roberts had died ten years earlier, leaving behind a legacy of over 100 projects built in Oak Park, far more than the 25 designed by his internationally famous neighbor.



Over the years we’ve often been asked, “Do you give tours?” “What kind of camera(s) do you use to take your photos?” “Are there any special tricks you use when you take your pictures?” “Who is designslinger?” Well we’re hosting a four block historic walking/photo tour this Saturday in conjunction with the Oak Park Art League where we’ll see more of E.E. Roberts, share a few stories about some of few of his colleagues and the homes they designed for their clients, as well our approach to taking the photos that you’ve seen here on designslinger for the past five years. So join us from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. on October 11th and help support the Art League by signing-up here.




Posted in 20th Century Bldgs., Landmarked, Prairie School, Preservation | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Americus B. Melville House

[Americus B. Melville House (1904) E. E. Roberts, architect / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Americus Bell Melville had a good law practice going in Huron, South Dakota. The New York born    attorney had written and published a 587 page treatise in 1885 on Dakota Justices’ civil and criminal court practice, was a member of the State Senate, and very busy. The ink dot that marked Huron on the Dakota Territory map had barely dried when Melville first arrived. The Chicago & North Western Railroad had bridged the James River in 1880, and the company decided to create a division headquarters on the river’s west bank at Ragtown. But future C&NW president Marvin Hughitt apparently thought that as one of the nation’s most prominent road lines Ragtown wouldn’t do, so he changed the name to Huron. When the railroad arrived Ragtown was a tiny hamlet of 164 people, but in just 10 years the population increased 1,752% to just over 3,000 inhabitants, and Huron fought hard to be named the capital of South Dakota when the southern portion of the Dakota Territory achieved statehood in 1889. Melville had been there for all of the excitement but the times they were a changin’, so he decided to pack up his family and head to Chicago.


[Americus B. Melville House, 437 N. Kenilworth Avenue, Oak Park / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

By 1891 this former frontier town had become the nation’s second largest city, and one of its fastest growing. The recent U.S. census had put Chicago’s population just behind that of New York City – which consisted of just Manhattan Island back then – and it was predicted that the Midwestern metropolis would be in the top spot by the time heads were counted in 1900. Melville set up his office in the city’s downtown business district and searched for a family home in the suburbs for his wife Belle and her twin 13-year-old daughters.


[Americus B. Melville House, Frank Lloyd Wright - Prairie School of Architecture National Historic District / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

About 10 miles west of his office, Oak Park was home to a number of upper-middle-class     businessmen who enjoyed the fresh air and tree lined streets of suburban life within an easy train commute to their city-based offices. The Melvilles purchased a recently completed home in the built-up northwestern section of the suburb on Chicago Avenue. Immediately next door, on the southeast corner of Chicago and Marion Street, stood the home of George Nordenholt who had built the Melville house as well as a number of other Oak Park and River Forest residential and commercial structures. Two houses over to the east stood the newly remolded home of Walter Gage which was next door to Walter’s brother Thomas who lived one lot over from the Robert Parkers. Then, at the southeast corner of Chicago and Forest Avenue, sat the very unusual looking home of the architect Frank Wright.


[Americus B. Melville House, Oak Park, Illinois / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1903 when A.B. and Belle decided to build a home for their recently married daughter Jessie, they chose nearby Superior Avenue neighbor Ezra Eben Roberts as their architect even though they were surrounded by the work of their notable Chicago Avenue neighbor Frank Wright. Wright had designed the Gale houses, the Parker, and a few more down Forest Avenue, making him quite celebrated for his unique approach to architecture as well as his lifestyle. Apparently the free-thinking architect pushed the boundaries a little too far for the Melville’s taste. Roberts on the other hand may not have been as renowned as Wright, but he was very well known and highly regarded in Oak Park and by the early 1900s had designed more houses around town than his more conspicuous neighbor. Jessie and Henry Benton Howard’s home would stand at the rear of a corner lot Melville had purchased at Chicago and Kenilworth Avenue east of Wright’s home and studio. E.E. didn’t have as identifiable a “style” as Frank, but by the time the Melvilles came calling Roberts had begun to integrate some Wrightian concepts into his own work. Soon after the Howard house was underway Roberts got to work on a new home for the Melvilles which would sit at the front end of the corner lot facing Kenilworth.


[Americus B. Melville House / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Here Roberts left his ornate historical revivalism behind him and created a dwelling place that   embraced the more simplified geometric shapes and and forms that Wright and other proponents of this new Midwestern style were incorporating into their domestic architecture. He even revamped the traditional Italianate bracket found under many an Oak Park eave and turned it into a less complicated, elongated version of its old self. Apparently the Melvilles were so happy with their large corner home that when they downsized a bit in 1916 and moved into the house next door, they called on Roberts to update the early 1880s-era structure. The Melvilles lived on Kenilworth until 1923 when after Belle’s death the sixty-eight year old widower moved to Los Angeles, married a woman 33 years younger than himself, and then moved to Florida.



Join us on Saturday, October 11th and see more of Roberts’ work as we lead a 2 hour neighborhood walking/photo tour in conjunction with the Oak Park Art League. We’ll share a few stories about the architects whose houses you’ll see, their clients and share our approach to photographing the buildings that show-up here on designslinger. So bring your camera, wear comfortable shoes, and help support the Art League by purchasing your ticket(s) here.




Posted in 20th Century Bldgs., Landmarked, Prairie School | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Joseph E. Tilt House – Salvation Army College for Officer’s Training

[Joseph E. Tilt House - Salvation Army College for Officer's Training (1914) Holabird & Roche, architects / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

When Carl Sandburg opened his poem Chicago with the line “Hog butcher for the World,” he paid tribute to the city that processed nearly 85% of the meat consumed in North America. Industry leaders like Armour, Swift and Nelson not only slaughtered thousands of hogs, cattle, and sheep on a daily basis, they also produced goods that were byproducts of their processing operations. Soap, glue, gelatin, leather, and even shoe polish, were just a few of the secondary products the packers were able to market and sell for even more profit. With millions of pounds of animal hides available for tanning each and every day, Chicago became one of the largest shoe manufacturing centers in the country, and Joseph E. Tilt became a millionaire by making shoes in the “City of the Big Shoulders.”


[Joseph E. Tilt House - Salvation Army College for Officer's Training, 700 W. Brompton Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Tilt was one of the thousands of young men who came to Chicago as it recovered from the fire of 1871 because they saw potential in the recovering city. The move was fortuitous. After a stint as a  superintendent, Tilt decided to start his own shoe making enterprise and opened a small manufacturing plant. Although Chicago’s meat industry provided vast amounts of animal hides for tanning, what hogs, sheep and cattle didn’t provide was top quality leather. After being treated with chemicals and dried, the “heavy leather” wouldn’t do for fine high-priced goods, but it worked perfectly well for lower-cost shoes and work boots. Tilt, along with a few other Chicago-based shoemakers saw potential in the low-grade leather, and with over 200 tanneries in the city the processed hides were often within blocks of their factories, and readily accessible.


[Joseph E. Tilt House - Salvation Army College for Officer's Training, Lake View, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The J.E. Tilt Shoe Company produced boots for the U.S. military, and the firm’s large sales force placed thousands of pairs of Tilt-manufactured footwear in dry goods store across the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. By the late 1880s, with his income on the rise and the introduction of his higher quality “Diamond T” brand of shoes, Tilt purchased a large plot of land north of Chicago in the city of Lake View, at the southwest corner of Addison Street and Evanston Avenue – today’s Broadway. The 4-acre parcel ran 234 feet along the west side of Evanston from Addison south to Brompton Avenue, 274 feet west on Addison, and 409 feet along Brompton, comprising one-half the entire city block. He built a large, 2-story house at the northeastern corner of the lot, and a green house that was almost as large as the house. At the time, Tilt, his wife, and six children, had very few neighbors.


[Joseph E. Tilt House - Salvation Army College for Officer's Training, Addison & Broadway, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1905 Tilt’s son, an early car enthusiast, built his own automobile in his father’s garage.    Two years later 28-year-old Charles started the Diamond T Motor Car Company with $1,000 provided by his mother because his father apparently didn’t approve the financially risky automotive adventure. On the other hand, by the time 1914 rolled around, Tilt had decided that spending $80,000 or so to build a new house that better reflected his millionaire status was worth every penny. The old house was torn down and in its place architects Holabird & Roche designed a 25-room, 14-bedroom manse fit for a shoe baron. But Tilt didn’t stay long in his new home. On May 23, 1920 the Chicago Tribune reported that the shoe maker had sold his $300,000 corner and downsized to a $135,000 house at the southeast corner of Barry and Sheridan Road. The Tilt’s had joined other Chicagoans who chose to spend winters in Pasadena, California, and built a large Spanish Revival house where they began spending more and more time, and in 1928, trading in his cobbler’s tools for easels, Tilt and his wife opened an art gallery in the western outpost.


[Joseph E. Tilt House - Salvation Army College for Officer's Training, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The Addison and Broadway property had been purchased by the Chicago branch of the Salvation Army. The organization had been operating training facilities around the city since the 1880s, and the Tilt purchase provided them with the opportunity to consolidate their operations into one location. The house was named for Army founder William Booth, and in 1954 a new dormitory building was constructed just to the west of the Booth Manse. Over the next 50 years the campus complex grew to include the series of residential and classroom buildings that you see on the block today. And Charles A. Tilt’s automotive adventure proved to be a very successful after all. The Diamond T company got into the truck manufacturing business and by the time of his death in 1956, the Chicago resident had accumulated a fortune that was larger than anything his father could have ever imagined.



See more nearby at: Lake View Presbyterian Church, Chicago and Town Hall Station.




Posted in 20th Century Bldgs., Adaptive Reuse | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

We’re hosting a tour!

[Oak Park Art League Building (1938) E. E. Roberts, architect / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In conjunction with the Oak Park Art League, we’ll be leading a two hour walking/photo tour on Saturday, October 11, 2014 from 1 to 3 p.m. Using the League’s very own E.E. Roberts designed building on Chicago Avenue as our starting-off point, we’ll stroll up and down two adjacent blocks and take a look at eight Roberts designed homes, a handful from Prairie School practitioners Tallmadge & Watson, a George W. Maher, and the last house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park.


Join us as we share our stories about these architects and their clients as well as our approach to taking the photos that you’ve seen on designslinger for the past five years – while you snap away. So bring your SLR camera, point-and-shoot or smart phone, wear a comfortable pair of shoes, and with your ticket purchase help support the Oak Park Art League.


You can find more information and tickets on the League’s website under classes/workshops.


See you on the 11th!




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Rosehill Cemetery Mausoleum

[Rosehill Cemetery Mausoleum (1914) Sidney Lovell, architect / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Lets say you and four of your friends friends are looking for an investment and decide to buy a piece of real estate. Your property purchase has nothing on it, and you ask, “What’s the best use of the land for the most profit?” The size of your lot isn’t going to change, but if you can stack one income generating unit on top of another, your potentially profit producing plot may generate much more cash. This is why multi-unit buildings get built, and why banker C.B. Munday and his four partners chose to build a mausoleum in Chicago’s venerable Rosehill Cemetery.


[Rosehill Cemetery Mausoleum, 5800 N. Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Munday was the vice-president of LaSalle Street Trust & Savings Bank, and in 1912 he and four business associates created a holding company called the Cemetery Security Company when they purchased the 350-acre cemetery with just over $38,000 in cash and a note to pay-off the remaining $752,000 in ten years with interest. At the center of the cemetery sat a large section of unsold grave sites. Using the more is more theory, rather than selling each plot of ground as a single burial site, if they were able to sell the same plot a number of times by stacking one on top of another, the monetary return on that single 4 x 8 foot plot realize a substantial increase in income. So on October 30, 1912 the Chicago Tribune carried a large advertisement proclaiming the “Advantages of A Private Mausoleum – Now Within Reach of All” offered by the Community Mausoleum Company, Rosehill Cemetery.


[Rosehill Cemetery Mausoleum, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Mausoleums had been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, and the Romans built a line of them along the Appian Way. They didn’t come cheap. People of means erected mausoleums not only as repositories of their earthly remains but also as testaments of their earth-bound wealth. The new owners of Chicago’s largest non-sectarian burial place were reaching out not only to the typically upper crust mausoleum-crypt client, but also to those who never thought they could possibly afford such luxury accommodations. The consortium hired Chicago architect Sidney Lovell to design a burial palace that would not only wow the masses, but be the largest in the world.


[Rosehill Cemetery Mausoleum, Chicago/ Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Lovell didn’t disappoint. He covered the interior with miles of Yule and Carrara marble and contracted with the Chicago-based firm of Giannini & Hilgart for the art glass. The investors didn’t forget the typical mausoleum client. Wealthy Chicagoans were offered the opportunity to purchase “rooms” where they could create the familial environment of their choice. A number of individuals whose names may mean little today but who defined the power structure of the city at the time, purchased real estate in the burial building. Aaron Montgomery Ward and his fellow catalog innovator Richard Sears bought rooms down the hall from one another. John G. Shedd, chairman and president of Marshall Field & Co. outdid them all. He acquired not only one of the largest family rooms, but plenty of extra space to create an elegant foyer that provided seating with a Tiffany glass skylight overhead.


[Rosehill Cemetery Mausoleum / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

By the time the building was completed in 1914, seventy-five percent of the available space had been sold. The mausoleum not only attracted the rich, but also people who could afford to pay $350 for one of the 1,183 marble-fronted crypts. Munday and his gang were out of the burial game by then however. Their purchase of the cemetery came along with a cash reserve of over $800,000 in the cemetery’s perpetual care fund, which the five apparently had used to their own benefit. Just under half of the amount was deposited in Munday’s LaSalle Bank, fund dollars were “invested” in the companies of the other partners, and in the summer of 1914 Rosehill’s community of companies were put into the hands of a court appointed receiver. On December 9, 1915 an ad appeared in the Tribune addressed “To the Public” from Wesley Dempster, the new owner of Rosehill. He wanted to assure everyone that the cemetery was now in good hands. Not only did the burial ground prosper under Dempster, but the everyman mausoleum was so popular that over the next 25 years the Rosehill governors added five more wings to Lovell’s original design. And the mausoleum was such a hit that Sidney Lovell went on to design over 50 mausolea before his death in 1938. He had also secured patent #1244109 on October 23, 1917 for a filtration system that allowed air to circulate through the enclosed tombs so that visitors would never become overwhelmed by the fumes of decaying human remains.




Posted in 20th Century Bldgs., Decorative Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

Washington Block

[Washington Block (1874) F. & E. Baumann, architects / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Imagine taking a brick out into a just watered garden and standing it up on end like a tall building. If it fell over you probably wouldn’t be surprised. Or if you had distributed the weight fairly evenly it might have stood its ground, but eventually leaned a little like the tower in Pisa. Now grab another brick and place the long, flat side down on the ground and give it a push trying to keep it level, then put your brick on top of it. If the edge is smooth and flat, it will sit nicely on its pedestal without tipping over. This simple exercise forms a basic principle proposed by a Chicago architect as a solution to building taller and heavier buildings in city’s unstable water-logged soil.


[Washington Block, 40 N. Wells Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1873 Chicago architect Frederick Baumann published a 35-page pamphlet, “The Art of Preparing Foundations for All Kinds of Buildings with Particular Illustrations of the Method of Isolated Piers as Followed in Chicago.” The ideas he put forth weren’t revolutionary, he just took a well thought-out common sense approach to building large commercial blocks in Chicago’s squishy soil and put it down on paper. The city’s booming business district had once been the site of an ancient lake bed, and when the last glaciers receded the land mass that eventually became the Loop was a muddy mess. It wasn’t unusual to walk around the remnants of the brick facade of a 4-story building that had collapsed into the street, or to roll a marble from one corner of a room to the other as the building sank into the mud. In the post-fire boom downtown developers built like crazy replacing what had been lost using the same construction methods builders had used before 1871. Baumann saw an opportunity to build a more structurally sound business district in the aftermath of the fire and hoped to encourage developers and their architects to change their pre-fire ways.


[Washington Block, City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

John Prosper Olinger came to Chicago in 1854, practiced law, became one of the charter members of the Chicago Board of Trade, and invested his money in real estate. His wife Catherine was the daughter of early Chicago pioneers Barbara and Pierre Cure who had once operated a grocery and provision store on Randolph Street in the late 1830s. In 1874 Olinger hired Baumann and his cousin Edward to design a standard, pre-fire, 5-story with basement commercial building on a lot the Cure estate owned on the southwest corner of Washington Street and Fifth Avenue – which had been known as Wells Street. With basement windows half above grade and half below surrounded by an open window well and a prominent corner stair leading up to the first floor offices, by all outward appearances the handsome Athens marble building looked like any number of the other towers rising around it – but it wasn’t. Baumann used his recently published isolated pier theory to keep the building steady on its feet. Like a stepped pyramid, the isolated pier supported the weight of interior columns which meant that the building would settle more gently and evenly without causing walls to collapse or floors to tilt.


[Washington Block, Chicago Loop, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Olinger moved his real estate office into the Washington Block as soon as it was completed, and the estate held on to the building until 1905 when it was put up for sale with an asking price of $200,000. The open basement window well was enclosed by an expanded sidewalk that chopped the tall window openings in half, and the second story door opening was turned into a window and a new door was added where the elegant corner stair once stood. Baumann’s isolated piers went out of favor as buildings grew taller and heavier and the pyramids ate up more and more of much needed basement space. Even so, he did go down in history as the person who got Chicago’s architectural establishment to stop and think about how to build structurally sound structures in the city’s uncooperative soil, and the Washington Block is the only remaining example of a Baumann pyramidal design that hasn’t been demolished to make way for more profitable, and much taller buildings.



See a very tall nearby neighbor at: Willis Tower.




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O.O. Ostrom Houses, 38-50 East Schiller Street, Chicago

[O. O. Ostrom Houses, 38-50 East Schiller Street, Chicago (1885) Harald M. Hansen, architect / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

As he looked back over the past twenty years, George Hollenbeck Rozet couldn’t believe how much his life had changed. The native Philadelphian was living with his wife Josephine in New Orleans on March 4, 1861 when Louisiana seceded from the Union, and George signed-on with the southern Confederacy. Two years later the Rozets were on the run as the Union Army entered the Crescent City and headed north to Tensas Parish, Louisiana where they sought refuge at the Westwood Plantation home of Josie’s father Henry D. Mandeville, Jr. At war’s end George didn’t see much of a future in the ruined reconstructing South, so in 1866 he packed up Josie and the kids and headed north to Chicago. It was a good choice. Many businessmen like the retail merchant Potter Palmer had profited from the war and money was pouring into the city. George saw opportunity in real estate, and by 1881 had established himself as one of the top brokers in the city. One of his clients, the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, was selling off chunks of land that had, not so long ago, been the site of the city’s Roman Catholic cemetery along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. Rozet brokered the property into a commission yielding bonanza.


[O. O. Ostrom Houses, 38-50 East Schiller Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Chicago men of business saw promise in the land that had once held the remains of the dearly departed. They purchased pieces and parcels of the former cemetery as Archbishop Feehan graded streets and divvied-up the sandy soil into salable city lots. In January, 1882 the Chicago Tribune announced that George had brokered a deal between the Catholic cleric and retail pioneer turned real estate mogul Potter Palmer. In one fell swoop Palmer, who already owned several large parcels of property around the old cemetery grounds, plunked down $90,695 to buy a large chunk of the Archbishop’s sandy  subdivision between the not-quite-yet completed Burton Place and North Avenue, where it fronted the newly emerging Lake-Shore drive.


[O. O. Ostrom Houses, 38-50 East Schiller Street, Chicago; Gold Coast National Historic District, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Olof O. Ostrom wasn’t quite in Potter Palmer’s league, but he was doing just fine. When he saw a real estate opportunity, he rolled the dice, and had hit the jackpot a number of times. A piece of the former cemetery that ran east along Schiller Street at the corner of the newly extended Astor Street, was just the right size for Ostrom. He could probably get about seven or eight 20-foot-wide townhouses into the 85-foot-deep lot. The eastern edge of his newly acquired property was adjacent to the large Palmer purchase, and Ostrom was hedging his bets that Palmer would sell his lots with his crazy restriction that only large free-standing houses could be built on the over sized lots. Ostrom on the other hand simply wanted to squeeze as much as he could out of his strip of sand.


[O. O. Ostrom Houses, 38-50 East Schiller Street, Chicago; Gold Coast, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1885 Ostrom hired Chicago architect Harald M. Hansen to design the row of conjoined dwellings. Hansen had come to Chicago from his native Norway after a stint in Berlin studying architecture at the BauAkademie. Architecture as a degreed area of study in the United States was uncommon. In 1865 MIT became the first institution of higher learning to develop an architectural school, followed by the University of Illinois in 1869. It took a couple of years for UofI to get its architecture act together, but in 1871, Harald Hansen left his home in Chicago, and headed down to Urbana, Illinois to become one of the first instructors in the new program. Hansen stayed for a couple of years before heading back to Chicago, and the row he designed for Ostrom would become the prototype of a number of townhouse clusters that the architect would design and become noted for. Fellow Norwegian Ole Christiansen served as the general contractor and oversaw the skilled tradesman who constructed the elaborately crafted, 3-story, 14-room town homes.


[O. O. Ostrom Houses, 38-50 East Schiller Street, Chicago; Near North Side, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Even though the eight houses only averaged around 20-feet in width, the developer and his    architect spared no expense. Ostrom was following the lead set by Palmer and other area investors, carving-out an elite residential community that would rival Chicago’s established enclave of exclusivity, Prairie Avenue. Ostrom’s roll of the dice paid off once again. Charles M. Charnley, lumberman and brother of James Charnely who lived nearby in a large home on the northwest corner of Division Street and the Lake-Shore drive, moved into the eastern-most townhouse. A.C. Bodman, a department manager in the Marshall Field wholesale division, moved into a mid-row house, and publisher Alfred T. Andreas took the house at the corner of Schiller and Astor. In 1894 Carter H. Harrison, Jr., son of a Chicago mayor and soon-to-be mayor himself, moved his family into the Andreas corner. The Harrisons stayed until 1906 when William Wrigley of chewing gum fame moved in. The townhouse lost its corner turret for a more sedate Georgian revival facade, and although the front door continued to face Schiller Street, the home’s address was switched over to the more prestigious Astor. Over time the multi-roomed, single family townhomes were divided into smaller-roomed, multi-family apartment units. But in the last few years, a few have been restored back to their original 4,000-plus square-foot, single-family size.



See a row of nearby Astor Street townhouses at: Potter Palmer Houses, Astor Street, Chicago; 25 East Banks Street, Chicago; and James L. Houghteling Houses – John W. Root House; plus another elaborate roughed-hewned facade from Hansen at: George A. Weiss House.




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Allerton Building – Art Institute of Chicago

[Allerton Building - Art Institute of Chicago (1892-1918) Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, architects / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

He was born into money, made even more money, and gave lots of it away. Robert Henry Allerton, born in Chicago in 1873, had, by the time of his death in 1964, become the Art Institute of Chicago’s most beneficent, living, benefactor. Between his first term as a trustee in 1918 and his tenure as Honorary President from 1956 to 1964, Allerton had donated over 6,000 objects to the museum and made $1.5 million in donations. It may seem like small potatoes in today’s billion-dollar-obsessed world, but his contributions to the museum were held in such high regard that in 1968 the institution honored their benevolent patron by naming their prominent, Michigan Avenue facing structure, the Allerton Building, on the 50th anniversary of Robert Henry Allerton taking his seat on the Board of Trustees.


[Allerton Building - Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Allerton’s father Samuel came to Chicago in 1856 to trade cattle. He not only made a fortune doing so, but along the way he helped found the city’s Union Stock Yards and became a director of five other yards around the country. He was a founder, director, and one of the largest shareholders of the 1st National Bank of Chicago, and owned tens-of-thousands of acres of farmland in Illinois, Nebraska and Wyoming. Samuel’s son was passionate about art, so he sent Robert on a grand tour of Europe where the young man would be able to see some of the great art and architecture of the Western world. When Robert came back to Chicago and his parent’s Prairie Avenue mansion, Samuel sent his son to Monticello, Illinois to oversee the management of Allerton’s 20,000-acre farm to learn a little bit about the family business. And perhaps it was a good thing that he did, because when Samuel Allerton died in 1914, Robert was the chief beneficiary of his father’s multi-million dollar estate. Cattle was his business, but art remained his passion. When he joined the Board of Trustees of the Art Institute in 1918, Allerton was well on his way to accumulating quite an eclectic group of drawings, paintings, sculpture, furniture, earthenware, figurines, and hundreds of pieces of textiles. All of which would one day serve as the basis of the museum’s Robert Allerton collection.


[Allerton Building - Art Institute of Chicago, Grant Park, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The building the trustee’s chose to name in honor of Allerton’s commitment to the institution was the original and the oldest structure in the museum’s multi-building complex. It was designed in 1892 by architects Shepley, Rutan & Cooldige for the the World’s Columbian Exposition, even though the building was miles from the Exposition site on the south side of the city. That was because this Bueax-Arts marvel was to become the new home of Chicago’s Art Institute at the Expo’s end. In October 1893 two temporary, 3000-seat assembly halls, built for the fair’s World’s Auxiliary and tucked into the open courtyard behind the elaborate stone facade were dismantled, and the Art Institute moved in to the still-standing, u-shaped structure.


[Allerton Building - Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Over the course of the next three decades, the open end of the “u” would be closed off by additional gallery space, a permanent lecture hall would be constructed on the north side of the open courtyard, a library to the south, with a grand staircase in between. A gallery/bridge that spanned the below-grade Illinois Central rail road tracks connected the Michigan Avenue building to open landfill. On that newly created piece of land more galleries were constructed around an open courtyard, a theater and buildings for the School of the Art Institute. By time time of Allerton’s death, two wings flanked the original Michigan Avenue structure, and the Institute’s footprint had more than tripled in size. He had been there for all of it.


[Allerton Building - Art Institute of Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1942 Allerton gave 6,000 acres of his father’s farm to the University of Illinois along with an English-style manor house he had built in 1900 called “The Farms.” Two years earlier the art collector had moved to a 125-acre plot of land he had purchased on the island of Kauai with his “son” John Gregg. In 1922, the orphaned 22-year-old had been introduced to the 49-year-old life-long bachelor during a University of Illinois “Father-Son” football weekend. After Gregg’s graduation, Allerton got the budding designer a job in the offices of Allerton’s friend, the socially prominent architect David Adler. When Adler downsized in 1930 Gregg was out of a job, but by this time he had moved in with his “mentor,” and was known around town as Allerton’s “son.” Then in  1960, after 30 years together, the 87-year-old octogenarian legally adopted his 60-year-old companion. Illinois had passed legislation in 1959 allowing an adult to adopt an adult, and although the two were living primarily in Hawaii, they still maintained their Illinois residency. When Robert Allerton died he didn’t forget his beloved museum. He left 2/3 of his estate in perpetual trust to the Art Institute, with 1/3 going to the Honolulu Academy of Art. John was given the house and property in Kauai along with a $3 million income producing trust. And when John Gregg Allerton sat down for an interview in 1985 he summed-up their relationship. “He didn’t have a son and I didn’t have a father, so we were paired off and lived happily ever after.”



See more at: Art Institute of Chicago, and Modern Wing – Art Institute of Chicago; stories of two more Art Institute benefactors at: Potter & Bertha Honore Palmer Mausoleum, Benjamin F. Ferguson House; and another 1890s-era project from Shepley Rutan & Coolidge at: Chicago Cultural Center.



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