Of Architectural Jackalopes

Jackalope: The mythical result of breeding a jackrabbit and antelope, first imagined by magicians of taxidermy in the 1930s.  Jackalopes, usually staring balefully with glassy eyes from their wall mounts, can be found wherever people have a penchant for antler decor, humor, or both.


Just so wrong, just so funny.

Architectural Jackalope: Mating two completely disparate designs to produce a stylistic miscreant. What happens when an extraordinary landmark home designed by a noted local architect gets an addition whose style has apparently been mandated by my town for all new construction and remodels.  The style is that of the Transitional House, classified by its use of black-framed vertical windows staring balefully at the street, cheap white siding, and having no character or personality whatsoever. See my post on this architectural equivalent of dandelions.

Transitional Zook House

Nothing is safe from Transitional Architecture.

It started with a stunning 60+-year-old residence designed by Harold Zook, whose whimsical, lyrical homes dot the western suburbs of Chicago. This home’s floor-to-ceiling living room window faced onto a sunny corner lot.  It was not a large residence, but it survived for decades without significant remodels or being demolished.  That, in and of itself, is nearly miraculous in my town. With huge houses being de rigeur on these mean streets, it is understandable the current owner may have wanted to keep up with the Whoevers, or merely needed more space. But tearing down most of the existing Zook structure and grafting Transitional Architecture to the remnant?  May as well mate a bull dog with a shih tzu, resulting in a …



… Which is a heck of a lot cuter than the mismating of a one-of-a-kind house with a trendy, ubiquitous, and ultimately ugly addition.  Some houses just shouldn’t breed.


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Another Zook on the Books

Real estate listing books, that is.

Zook Cty. Line Rd. Front Elevation

A 1928 fairy tale house designed by Harold Zook

For sale: A beautifully maintained Cotswold-style home designed by Harold Zook, an architect whose whimsical, organic style endures in many homes in Chicago’s suburbs.  This home sits atop a little hill on a popular street in my town. Since its construction in 1928, each owner has taken care to preserve the character and idiosyncrasies of a signature Zook home. Let’s take a look inside.

Zook Cty. Line Rd. Door

Welcome home to a door with irreplaceable original hardware. 

Zook Cty. Line Rd.Livingroom

The living room contains Zook’s chevron-design radiator covers and an original-looking light fixture.

Zook Cty. Line Rd. Fireplace

The stonework in the living room fireplace echoes the chevron design applied to the radiator covers.

Zook Cty. Line Rd. DR

The wood paneling and beamed ceiling in the dining room make for warm gatherings. Note the continuation of the chevron design in the radiator covers.

Zook Signature Window

Present in just about every Zook home: The signature spider-web window. Zook employed web motifs in many elements of his homes.

Zook Cty. Line Rd. Staircase

A graceful staircase leads you up to the second floor.

Zook Cty. Line Rd. BR

This bedroom features not only an original fireplace, but what looks to be artwork depicting a seascape. Note the mirrors on the three closet doors.

Zook Cty. Line Rd. Billiard Rood

The basement, with beautifully exposed ceiling beams, features a vintage billiards table. 

At the time of this writing, the home is for sale for $1.28 million.  I hope the next owner is another splendid caretaker of this very special residence.

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Attack of the Transitional Houses

LookAlike1Teardowns are big in my neck of the woods – what little woods there are left.  They started about 25 years ago, when a few people, impressed with the fast train commutes and proximity to major expressways, dared to knock down spindly, termite-infested wood frame houses from the 1910s to put up tasteful brick houses. Then, they started telling their friends.  Then, the developers started pricking up their ears. Suddenly, the town was booming, quite literally, with the sounds of earth movers, bulldozers, jackhammers and the yammering of newly minted interior designers teetering on their Jimmy Choos.  My town became a mecca for anyone whose fortune was roughly the same vintage as a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, but was sufficiently large, thanks to the Internet Boom, Real Estate Boom, or the advent of hedge funds, to construct a Dream House.

There was the French Country era, in which many McMansions sprung out of the ground looking like something you might find on an ersatz Provence tourism video. Now, the pottery roosters that used to grace Distressed Oak kitchen tables are crowing on card tables at garage sales.  Pierre Deux upholstery has gone Duh.

Then arrived the Faux Victorians, that tried and sometimes succeeded in imitating the 120-year-old creaky ancestral manse down the block.  Then came the Coastal Homes, bloated shingle-style lot-eaters sporting too many weather vanes and resembling something Stanford White might have designed while ingesting too much champagne. The brilliant Mr. White, murdered in his prime by a jealous husband, might also have noted that the nearest coast is 20 miles away, making these houses just un peau incongruous.

There were even a few new palaces straight out of the Arabian Nights.  One of these was built by a man who purportedly owned a chain of dental clinics. Once the mansion was completed, the not-so-good doctor realized he’d blown his budget and fled to the Middle East, leaving his creditors toothless.

A couple of years ago, a new breed started to rise from the hard, unforgiving clay that once enveloped 1960s ranch houses or 1860s Italianate villas.  It was something people hadn’t seen before except possibly in a trendy decorating magazine. The wood siding is vertical!  The windows are also vertical and trimmed in black!  They have no shutters!   If there’s any kind of stone trim, it’s all the same kind of stone!  And they’re all white!  It appears that after the first few were built, my town apparently issued an edict mandating that all new-construction homes going forward must look exactly like these Transitional Homes, the name used most frequently in describing these now-ubiquitous structures.





The photos shown above are from real estate listings I perused as I wrote this post. With 316 single-family homes currently for sale in my town, some 15 are of the Transitional Home, or, as described in one listing, the Trend-Setting Farmhouse variety. Gosh, if I were working my fingers to the bone on a farm, I’d sure as heck want to make sure my house was Trend-Setting. I didn’t include all of the photos, because they all tend to look the same after a while. Same reason there are no captions, because they too would be interchangeable. Interesting?  They were, before they started appearing on every block.  Contextually appropriate?  Not now, but I guess they will be soon, because it seems like every third house in town will be one of these Transitional or Trend-Setting Little Boxes. Treasure Houses?  I’m thinking not.  They will be teardowns 50 years from now.

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David Adler’s Armour Mansion: A Pictorial Timeline

David Adler’s legendary Armour mansion, complete with its own recording studio, can be yours for a mere $13.9 million. The Lake Bluff, Illinois home, constructed in 1931 for Lester and Leola Armour of the meat-packing family, has been owned since 1997 by singer-songwriter Richard Marx and his former wife.  Marx initially listed the home and the five acres on which its sits on the shores of Lake Michigan for $18 million in 2014, but there were no takers.  At the time of this writing, the home is the second most expensive single family residence for sale in the Chicago area.  Although the home’s current iteration is that of the showplace of a successful musician, complete with rather stage-y Franco-Italianate interior design, the home has its own colorful history.

Marx Exterior 1

The Lester Armour residence, Arbor Drive, Lake Bluff, Illinois

David Adler, whose magnificent homes stud the shores of Chicago’s northern suburbs like priceless jewels, was a personal friend of Leola Armour. Such was the Armours’ respect for the architect, that when Adler presented them his designs for the Colonial-Federal style residence, they gave an unconditional go-ahead to Adler’s vision.  Adler’s sister, designer Frances Elkins, was responsible for the home’s interiors.

The home was photographed in 1940 by noted photographer Ellen Glendinning Frazier when the Armours hosted luminaries in town for the Democratic National Convention.  As noted in the excellent New York Social Diary, the Armours’s guests included one John B. Kelly, whose daughter, Grace, would later become the Academy Award-winning actress and Her Serene Highness of Monaco.

Armour Home, ca. 1940

The allee of trees leading to the Armour home, July 1940

Leola Armour, Jack Kelly

Leola Armour and Jack Kelly converse in the home’s sunroom, July 1940

Leola Armour lived in the home until the late 1940s, when she and Lester divorced.  Lester continued to reside there upon his subsequent marriage to Russian princess Alexandra Galitzine, who resided there until 1977. The home was rightfully added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The mansion became a celebrity in its own right when it was selected to be one of the locations for Robert Altman’s raucous 1978 film, A Wedding.  There are some good shots of the exterior and interior in the original trailer.

a wedding

Wedding” stars Paul Dooley, Nina van Pallandt, Geraldine Chaplin and Carol Burnett are visible in this photo of the ivied entrance.

The home’s “tired” interiors were treated to a facelift in a 1984 designer showcase. The home was purchased that year by an unidentified financial executive for his growing young family.

After Richard Marx purchased the Armour mansion in 1997 for $4.7 million, he made substantial changes. However, many of Adler and Elkins’ signature design elements are still intact:

Marx Circular Room

Original mouldings encircle this room that leads to a perfectly symmetrical enfilade.

Marx Floating Staircase

The floating staircase, down which Carol Burnett tumbles in A Wedding

Marx Parlor

The pediments and moulding in the parlor appear to be original.

Marx Office

Masterful woodwork in the library, as well as light fixture, appear to be circa 1931.

Changes to the home, while opulent, are not quite faithful to Adler’s vision. Continue reading

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The Auction at Villa Turicum

While browsing the always-fascinating archives of the Chicago Tribune, I came across a news item from the January 20, 1934 edition about the auction of items from the estate of Edith Rockefeller McCormick.  Mrs. McCormick, who died in August 1932, along with her husband, Harold McCormick, commissioned celebrated architect Charles Adams Platt to design the magnificent Villa Turicum as their summer retreat.  Blueprints emerged from Platt’s dreams in 1907, and it took another ten years for the Italianate villa to rise on the shores of Lake Michigan in Lake Forest.  The McCormicks reportedly spent $2 million on the home’s construction, and even more on the home’s interiors. Not the happiest of married couples, they spent little time at their stunning home.  The home and grounds sold at a sheriff auction for an ignominious $51,524.00 in October 1933.  A developer bought the languishing property and the 260 acres surrounding it in 1956. The once-magical home was razed. Here is an astoundingly beautiful website dedicated to the Villa.

The article, not terribly legible, reads as follows:

Edith Estate Article

Chicago Tribune, January 20, 1933


“The throngs of visitors who yesterday inspected the grounds and furnishings of Villa Turicum, the Lake Forest house of the late Mrs. Edith Rockefeller McCormick, numbered about 2,200.  On the previous day, the total was 14,000.  The decrease in number was attributed to the fact that admission was free on Thursday, while a charge of 50 cents per person was in effect yesterday.  The remainder of the personal effects of the onetime “richest woman in the world” are to be offered at auction beginning at 2 p.m. today.  The furnishings of Mrs. McCormick’s home at 1000 Lake Shore Drive and her art treasures and jewelry already have been disposed of.  Proceeds of the auction are to be used in paying claims against the estate.”


The ad, that appeared in the same edition

Edith Estate Announcement

The ad for the sale.

Edith Estate Ad

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For $16.5 Million: Step Into the Satin Shoes of “Daisy Buchanan”

For those of us who enjoyed the latest film iteration of The Great Gatsby, opportunities abound to align oneself with key elements of what I firmly believe is the Great American Novel.  At the lower end (about $30), you can buy a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne, guzzled liberally throughout Jay G’s epic parties.  For a mere $200,000, you can own the Jazz Age diamond headpiece from Tiffany & Co.’s Gatsby Collection.

However, if you are one of the 16 English majors in the world to have made serious money, here’s your opportunity to fund a baronial existence in a Home With History.  Simply fork over $16.5 million for the Lake Forest, Illinois country home of Ginevra King, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first love and the inspiration for Daisy “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls, don’t even consider it, Buster,” Buchanan.


Photo from curbed.com.


Dining Room


The perfect “Bridal Staircase”


The Pond

The residence, nicknamed “Kingdom Come Farm” by Ginevra’s father, Charles Garfield King, is up for grabs for the first time in many years.  The main house, an imposing sprawl of white wood frame, sits upon 45 acres.  None of them offer Lake Michigan frontage, unfortunately, but then again, you won’t have to deal with those annoying beach glass-collecting trolls creeping along your shoreline.


Ginevra King, ca. 1916

Ginevra spent many summer days at this estate when she and her family were not living at their long-since demolished town home at 1450 North Astor Street in Chicago.  The Lake Forest home was designed by Harold Van Doren Shaw, who was also the visionary behind Lake Forest’s Market Square, the first planned shopping venue in the U.S.

According to James West’s excellent book, The Perfect Hour, Scott Fitzgerald visited Ginevra at Kingdom Come Farm, and received a chilly reception from Mr. & Mrs. King when he was found to be wanting of a trust fund.  Ginevra ended the romance shortly thereafter. She later married Billy Mitchell, a socially prominent World War I flying ace.  After 19 years of marriage to Mr. Mitchell, Ginevra became the wife of a Chicago department store heir.  My mother-in-law knew Ginevra, and always referred to her as “that nice Mrs. Pirie.”  Apparently, Ginevra was sufficiently self-assured to always wear the same green wool, velvet-trimmed dress suit to the Service Club’s annual meetings.  As with her home, she had great bones, aged beautifully and was impervious to trendiness.  She was generous and kind, offering many of her resources to others during the Great Depression.  Unlike today’s tell-all divas, she never discussed her relationship with Fitzgerald, but perhaps these walls will talk.

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Today I had the opportunity to visit a true treasure house. This one was designed in 1932 by Harold Zook, a Chicago architect responsible for numerous distinctive homes. Zook, whose vividly detailed homes were built from the 1920s through the 1940s, was considered the Frank Lloyd Wright of Hinsdale, Illinois.  Zook’s homes featured a host of distinctive elements, including his trademark spiderweb motif.  This enchanting home features the spiderweb not only in Zook’s original design, but in other details added by the current owners.  Kudos to these people for their painstaking upkeep and contextually perfect updates to this little castle.

Let’s take a tour.  As you walk up the driveway, you encounter a gateway guarded by a stone lion.

From the driveway, the entry gate.

Moving along, we see some of the most charming details of the home.

The window above the garage features shutters embellished with cut-out squirrels. There’s a fairy-princess tower in the background.

Before entering the home, we see a gazebo with a slate roof.

Note the chevrons, another Zook hallmark, in the gazebo’s framework.

Part of the exterior, featuring a sweet Juliet balcony.

Note the slate roof, stone tower and Juliet balcony.

At the base of the stone tower, the owners combined functionality with whimsy with this spiderweb-motif window grate.

Window Grate

The signature spiderweb, worked into a window:

The Web Window, exterior view

Here is the window from an interior perspective.

Web Window, from inside.

Upon entering the house, you are greeted by a spellbinding spiral staircase, which takes you from the basement to the top of the tower.  Here is a view of the staircase, and please excuse my clumsy finger.

Staircase, looking up from basement

The kitchen has been updated, yet the spiderweb lives on, in one of the cabinet doors as well as the screen door.  Talk about a cohesive look!

The Zook-inspired kitchen

For more information about this house, see this 1985 Chicago Tribune story.

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Estate Sales: The Dark Side of Decorating

I confess:  I am an habitué of estate sales.  A good friend of mine and I haunt them regularly. We attended one this weekend, and I believe we stepped into the Black Hole of Home Decor.  Let me preface: Whenever I go to an estate sale, I can’t help but wonder about the home and the people who live or lived in it. Were they relocating? Was the sale the outcome of a foreclosure or bankruptcy?  I always feel uneasy upon entering one of these houses, as though I am treading on someone’s hallowed ground that is now reduced to piles of clothing and trinkets on a dusty floor.

Having said this, I was just plain scared at this sale.  I couldn’t help but whip out my camera to capture some of the decor elements.  Have you ever seen a teenage boy’s bedroom door adorned with a hand-painted Playboy logo?


Now, you have. Enter the chamber of desire, if you dare.

This house has been sold to a new owner. The place actually has a nice-looking exterior, and is situated on a large lot in a beautiful neighborhood.  The new occupants have a world of work ahead of them, but I wish them well.  And I truly hope that better, happier days lie ahead for the previous owners.

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Don Draper’s Treasure (Apartment)

He spent his young-married years in a frumpy old house in Cheever Country. He did time as a divorced dad in an existential-nightmare flophouse in the Village.  Now, Don Draper finally has a home that speaks to his success. And to the tastes of his new trophy wife, Megan. In watching Mad Men and viewing the photos of this Deluxe Apartment in the Sky (cue the theme song of The Jeffersons), one can’t help but be reminded of the Fabulous New York Apartment sets of memorable 1950s and 1960s films.  Think of Doris Day’s career girl apartment in Pillow Talk.  Frank Sinatra’s bachelor pad in The Tender Trap. Conjure up Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable sunning themselves on the terrace in How to Marry a Millionaire Recall Uncle Bill’s posh space in Family Affair.

The Sunken Living Room/Conversation Pit!  The white carpet!  The hanging lamp!  If Darrin Stevens had a pied-a-terre, this would be it.


Look at the kitchen in the Drapers’ apartment, and one expects Alice from The Brady Bunch to saunter into the sea of orange plywood, Harvest Gold and Formica.


According to Mad Men production designer Dan Bishop, the apartment is supposed to evoke a unit in a high floor on one of those ubiquitous glazed white brick high-rises designed by Sylvan and Robert Bien. Incidentally, Robert Bien, in a 2000 New York Times interview, defended his use of the building material, as well as the simple functionality of the boxy apartments.  Does Draper’s building look like this?


Will Don and Megan live happily ever after?

Will I go back to focusing on Chicago Treasure Houses?  Yes, and thank you, dear reader, for indulging me in my homage to my favorite TV show.

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Sullivan and Elmslie Want You

to restore their extraordinary home in Riverside, Illinois. Louis Sullivan, known primarily as the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed masterful buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He teamed up with George Grant Elmslie  in 1907 to design a 28-acre estate in Riverside for Henry Babson.  See photos of the estate, its furnishings and landscaping here, courtesy of organica.org.

Although the main house on the Babson property has long since been demolished, some of the estate’s service buildings remain, including this one, which was converted to a private home.  The residence is currently for sale for $599,000.  The home needs a bit of updating, but wow – what an opportunity.

277 Gatesby Road Exterior

See the exquisite detail on the garage. This unit is shared with the owner of the home across the courtyard.

The door to this bedroom once stepped out to a greenhouse on the property.

See life through the home’s abundant art glass windows.

For a video of the home, as well as more photos, see this blog from Chicago magazine’s “Deal Estate” columnist Dennis Rodkin.

George Grant Elmslie partnered with William Gray Purcell from 1907 through 1921.  Purcell and Elmslie were among the founders of the progressive architecture movement in the early 1900s. Their work is often compared to that of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Although some of their most significant commissions are no longer extant, you can still visit masterpieces such as Winona, Minnesota’s 1912 Merchants National Bank building.


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