Becoming Social on Prairie Avenue

From the mid-19th century and especially after the 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city, Chicago began to experience astounding growth. Opportunities for advancement were rampant. Farmers’ sons could become millionaires presiding over a department store empire. A man with a vision as to how to design railroad sleeping cars not only amassed a fortune, but, for better or for worse, established an entire town bearing his name. And amazingly, for some 25 years or so, a great majority of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens decided to assemble their palatial new homes on a six-block stretch of one street: Prairie Avenue.

Prairie Avenue Postcard cropped

A postcard of Prairie Avenue, circa early 1900s.

Romanesque fortresses and French chateaux began rising on what would soon be dubbed “The sunny street that held the sifted few.” Some of the world’s premier residential architects such as H.H. Richardson and Richard Morris Hunt arrived from the East to witness their extravagant designs take life. Trips to Europe enabled newly rich homeowners to acquire prized antiques, and to buy paintings from then-unconventional artists such as Degas and Monet. The Herter brothers, considered to be the finest creators of furniture of the time, populated many interiors with their exquisite cabinetry.  Rare, delicate orchids thrived while sleet pounded the glass walls of elaborate conservatories attached to the mansions.  All that was left to do was to show the trophy houses to their best advantage. Given all that had been spent on these showcase homes, it was incumbent that entertaining be executed comme il faut.

Some of Chicago’s social elite migrated from the East and South, where they had been raised in affluence. Bertha Palmer, daughter of a wealthy Kentucky family, had been schooled to excel in fine arts and deportment. The brilliant, confident Mrs. Palmer had all the attributes of a social leader and philanthropist. Other women, married to self-made men, were bewildered as to how to navigate the shallow, subtly shifting channels of conduct they had perhaps observed only from afar. How did one assimilate into a new, yet intimidating culture?  How, exactly, did one become social?

Matching the extraordinary passion that powered Chicago’s founding businessmen, their spouses were driven to show that they could play the game, as well. Whether that drive was borne from the need to provide visiting dignitaries with suitably impressive entertainment, or compulsion to keep up with the Fields and Pullmans, the ladies of Prairie Avenue were relentless in establishing a formidable social order.

According to the 1953 book, Fabulous Chicago, “The chief characteristic of Chicago society was its newness.” The author, Emmett Dedmon, went on to describe how Prairie Avenue was Chicago’s virtual birthplace of luncheons for ladies, perhaps the precursors of the “ladies who lunch.” Calling hours were established, as was the leaving of calling cards on silver salvers. Dinner parties started consisting of food considerably more elaborate than meat and potatoes.

One of the most influential figures in elevating the the domestic culture of the newly wealthy was Herbert M. Kinsley. An East Coast hotelier and restaurateur, Kinsley experienced many ups and downs in his career before settling in Chicago. After opening and closing several restaurants, and experimenting with the first Pullman dining cars, Kinsley finally found success in the 1880s with his palatial establishment on Adams Street. Kinsley’s was not only the dining place of choice for Chicago’s wealthy, but it provided unparalleled catering services. With his Eastern connections and knowledge of fine food, Herbert Kinsley became the premier consultant for at-home entertaining on Prairie Avenue.

H.M. Kinsley

Herbert M. Kinsley showed Prairie Avenue how to entertain in style.

Kinsley's Restaurant, circa 1906

Kinsley’s Restaurant, circa 1906.

Kinsley eventually became an arbiter of good taste (no pun intended) for Chicago society.  He published books on etiquette, how to conduct proper afternoon receptions, and instruction regarding appropriate attire and jewelry by occasion. He even maintained a glossary of French phrases and witticisms that one could artfully slip into conversations. Existing artifacts from Kinsley’s restaurant, such as the 1885 Gorham soup tureen below, show an insistence on elegance and quality.

Detail, Kinsley's Cookbook

Detail from one of Kinsley’s cookbooks.

Prairie Avenue also became home to an increasing array of sophisticated help: Matrons began to recruit the most sought-after butlers, footmen, cooks and governesses they could find.  According to the delightful Prairie Avenue Cookbook, “Few households were as large as the Marshall Field’s, and Mrs. Field was reputed to have on staff ‘a representative from nearly every civilized nation of the globe.'” Families would “borrow” the best of their neighbors’ staff for major parties, no doubt astonishing guests as to the quantity and sophistication of help amassed by these Midwestern hostesses.

The presence and gentle influence of  English butlers and French cooks could help confer instant patina upon families whose previous help consisted of a penniless chore girl or two.  A butler might be counted upon to pack the Sevres china for a picnic in Jackson Park, as illustrated in Arthur Meeker’s novel, Prairie Avenue.  A lady’s maid may have suggested to the lady of the house that a diamond parure was not really necessary for an informal outdoor event.

To ensure they were as culturally informed and conversationally adept as any New York hostess, the ladies of Chicago began to organize clubs, including the Fortnightly and the Twentieth Century Club. According to Fabulous Chicago, the original purpose of the Fortnightly was the dissemination of both “social and intellectual culture.” The same book identifies Mrs. George Roswell Grant as founder of the Twentieth Century Club, who noted that “when a distinguished foreigner … comes to Chicago, they want to meet the representative society people. They don’t care about being bored with a lot of men who have a local reputation as men of genius … they want to meet people whose names are known as men and women of fashion.”

Mrs. Frances Glessner was a cultural institution in and of herself. The Prairie Avenue resident was the founder of the Monday Morning Reading Class, a group that fostered friendships among Chicago’s intellectually active women and faculty wives from the new University of Chicago.  Mrs. Glessner was also a member of the Fortnightly, the Colonial Dames, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fortnightly Club

The Fortnightly Club, located since 1922 in the Lathrop House on               East Bellevue Place.

The children of Prairie Avenue were seen as extensions of their parents’ accomplishments. For the privileged boys and girls, there were governesses fluent in multiple languages, private tutors before entry into Eastern prep schools, and equestrian instructors. Then there were the obligatory lessons at Bournique’s.  It became far more than a dance academy, as was its original purpose when established in 1867. Bournique’s was a place where, per an 1883 Chicago Tribune story, “particular attention is given to gracefulness of motion, courtliness of deportment and modest self-confidence, all of which are so essential and characteristic of well-bred people.” The Bourniques became sufficiently successful to have opened several locations. The most opulent was in a newly constructed building near Prairie Avenue, designed by the architectural firm of Prairie Avenue resident Daniel Burnham.  It boasted a huge ballroom, with a dance floor composed of more than 173,0000 pieces of hardwood.

The intrepid people of Prairie Avenue were visionary, even in their social legacy.


How Chicago Culture Bloomed on the Prairie (Avenue)


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To longtime residents and newcomers alike, Chicago’s cultural institutions seem to have been fixed stars in the city’s firmament. It is almost impossible to imagine a time when Chicagoans and visitors could not delight in the Art Institute, Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera, and countless other venues. The city’s quest for artistic viability started early on:  as soon as the mid-1800s, the city began to establish itself as the Midwest’s mecca of wealth, culture and philanthropic opportunities. The city’s progress in these areas grew exponentially after the Chicago Fire of 1871, when the need for lumber, steel, foodstuffs and department store goods further enriched already prosperous families. Many of these families, such as the Potters, Glessners, Armours, Hamills and Fields, had the prescience to help build prestigious cultural institutions that thrive to this day.

By the 1880s, an inordinately large percentage of Chicago’s monied families chose Prairie Avenue as the place to build their palaces.  Although the phrase “Keeping up with the Jones” refers to the Jones family of New York City that produced novelist Edith Wharton, there were plenty of Jones counterparts residing in the not-so-little houses on the Prairie.

While their spouses were reigning over their factories, stockyards and stores, the ladies of Prairie Avenue sought to create a vibrant, elegant social environment to compete with, if not rival, those of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. The earliest social functions were not entire worthy of the storied gatherings back East.  In Emmett Dedmon’s fascinating book, Chicago, reference is made to one Charles Fenno Hoffman, who described a typical social event: “At these Chicago cotillions, you might see a veteran officer in full uniform balancing a tradesman’s daughter still in her short frock and trousers, while there the golden aiguillette of a handsome surgeon flapped in unison with the glass beads upon a scrawny neck of fifty … the high placed buttons of a linsey woolsey coat would be dos a dos to the elegantly turned shoulders of a delicate southern girl.”  However, what the city may have lacked in pedigree, it more than compensated in money and visionary benefactors.

As Chicago’s elite sought to force showy hothouse flowers from its frontier town roots, they began to cultivate the rudiments of culture on the shores of Lake Michigan. Some of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants had music and art imbued in them from educations in the East; others were ardent students of the city’s early arbiters of taste. One way or another, it became incumbent upon Chicago’s most successful citizens to transform what was once a backwater into a showcase of the arts.

Then, as now, a successful opera company was one of the bellwethers of a young metropolis. Chicago’s first opera house opened in 1865, but was destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Its successor, Louis Sullivan’s extraordinary Auditorium, opened in 1889.  Theodore Thomas founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 1891.  Concurrent with the 1893 Columbian Exposition, an event that signified that Chicago had truly arrived as a world-class city, the Art Institute of Chicago moved into its venerable headquarters on Michigan Avenue at Adams Street.  The Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge provided a Renaissance design so appropriate for Chicago’s rebirth after its devastation by fire only 20 years prior.


The Art Institute of Chicago rises, ca.1893.

Not surprisingly, the families of Prairie Avenue played significant roles in Chicago’s social and cultural ascendancy. Upon the formation of the CSO, John and Frances Glessner pledged ardent support behind the orchestra and its founder, Theodore Thomas. Mr. Glessner served as one of the original 50 guarantors of the CSO, providing the fledgling organization with $1,000.00 per year against the host of losses it initially incurred. He was instrumental, so to speak, in the construction of the orchestra’s home on Michigan Avenue. Mr. Thomas was a frequent guest at the Glessners’ homes, not only on Prairie Avenue, but in the families’ summer residences in New Hampshire.  The families’ friendship was so strong that upon Mr. Thomas’ death in 1904, Mrs. Thomas presented the Glessners with her husband’s baton.  The precious artifact is on display at the Glessner House Museum.


Theodore Thomas conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, ca. 1899.

George Armour was one of the initial patrons of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, the predecessor to the Art Institute of Chicago. Countless Prairie Avenue luminaries lended their business acumen and political connections to launch the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which brought an estimated 26 million visitors to Chicago.  Among the Exposition’s major underwriters were Marshall Field, Philp D. Armour and Gustavus Swift.

The Field Museum, another initial outgrowth of the Columbian Exposition, would not have grown into a world-renowned educational institution without the support of its namesake, Marshall Field, or the generosity of his Prairie Avenue friend and neighbor, George Pullman.


Countless visitors wait in line to visit the new Field Museum.

One of Marshall Field’s most brilliant executives, John G. Shedd, visited fascinating aquariums in his travels through major European cities. He concluded that Chicago should have not only its own institution to house aquatic animals, but one that rivaled all others throughout the world.  He donated at least $2 million toward his masterpiece.  Although Mr. Shedd died before his aquarium was completed, the Shedd Aquarium stands as a beloved, ever-evolving tribute to this Chicagoan’s generosity.


A bevy of 1920s cuties enjoyed the Shedd.

Even entities as far-flung as the Archaeological Institute of America thrived under the aegis of Prairie Avenue residents.  An 1888 list of its Society members reads like a Who’s Who of Chicago’s upper echelon, including Prairie Avenue residents Armour, Bartlett, Buckingham, Ellis, Field, Frank, Glessner, Hamill, Harvey, Hutchinson and countless more.

As evidenced in previous installments in this series, the contributions of one group of citizens living for a time on one Chicago street cannot be overestimated.

A Prairie Avenue Christmas


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If the holiday season was embraced with joy by Chicagoans in the late 19th century, it was elevated to an art form by the residents of Prairie Avenue.  With families such as Philip D. Armour and Marshall Field as neighbors, it could be safely assumed that one’s holiday tables would be laden with the finest food, and that exceptional gifts would be placed under the tree.

Since so much of the land surrounding Chicago was still undeveloped, Christmas trees were never in short supply.  Affluent families would often purchase the most stately spruce that could be accommodated under their parlors’ high ceilings. Families loved to adorn their trees with ornaments made of gingerbread, fruit and nuts, as well as garlands strung with popcorn or cranberries. Glass ornaments started being mass-produced in Germany during the 1880s, and it is likely that Chicago retailers started importing the sparkling new baubles concurrently. Trees were lit with small candles that were affixed to tree branches.  Buckets of water or sand were placed closely to the trees in case a candle’s flame ignited the tree.


Christmas Tree, late 1800s

Speaking of fires, imagine having lost family members, homes and most of the city in what was the conflagration of 1871. Then, consider how Chicago’s citizens rose, Phoenix-like, to rebuild their beloved town.  It must still have seemed miraculous during Prairie Avenue’s heyday in the 1880s and 1890s for Christmas shoppers to be able to wander through palatial department stores such as Marshall Field & Company, Carson Pirie Scott, the Fair, and Schlesinger & Mayer. Department stores were held in reverence, at least by their advertising departments, as evidenced by this ad from the early 1900s:marshall-fields-illustration


This well-dressed family enjoys a day of shopping in Chicago’s busy streets.

Holiday attire, especially for the ladies of Prairie Avenue, was beyond the comprehension – and comparative budgets – of the average Chicagoan. This dress, now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was produced by a team of seamstresses at Marshall Field’s establishment. It would have been perfect for a Christmas celebration.

Marshall Field Ball Gown2.jpg

Gown created by Marshall Field & Company

Charles Frederick Worth was the couture darling of the late 19th century. Only a handful of Chicago women would have been able to afford one of his creations, but here is a sampling of Worth gowns that make today’s Ugly Christmas Sweaters wither in comparison:

And what good was a Worth gown without the appropriate accessories?  Again, it was Marshall Field & Company to the rescue.


A Prairie Avenue child would have found delight in presents under the tree.  Gifts included a range from the simple (marbles, jacks, rolling hoops), to dolls and dollhouses, tin soldiers, and toy train sets. A lucky child might have received a puppy. According to the American Kennel Club, the most popular dog breeds of the era included Saint Bernards, English Setters, Cocker Spaniels and Beagles. A Persian kitten, then relatively exotic, would have been a sweet gift.

One of the most high-tech gifts for people of all ages was a stereopticon, or “magic lantern.” A primitive version of the ViewMaster toy, the stereopticon was a hand-held viewer that contained two lenses arranged to produce a multidimensional view of the slides placed behind them.


Stereopticon viewer with slides

Places of worship played a major role in the development of the young city of Chicago. Many faiths were represented in the area. They provided essential goods and services for the needy, as well as venues for Chicago’s elite to socialize.  Many Prairie Avenue families, including the Armours, Pullmans, and Cobbs, attended services at Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 South Michigan Avenue.  Arthur Meeker, Jr., son of a prominent Armour executive, used Second Presbyterian as a backdrop for a social encounter in his 1949 novel, Prairie Avenue.  In one chapter, Meeker’s young protagonist, Ned Ramsay, spotted a friend seated with her mother in the family pew, observing the practice of the wealthy in purchasing or renting pews for their exclusive use.  Second Presbyterian and its extraordinary architecture still thrive, as is evidenced by this recent Classic Chicago Magazine article.

Grace Episcopal Church, a popular venue among Prairie Avenue residents, stood at the corner of Eighth Street and Wabash Avenue from 1859 to 1914 when it was destroyed by fire. It was soon rebuilt, and its most modern building continues to be a vibrant faith community.

One of Chicago’s first synagogues, the Sinai Congregation, was located at the corner of 21st Street and Indiana Avenue. The building featured Moorish-inspired architecture from the legendary team of Adler and Sullivan. Sinai was, and continues to be, one of the most socially progressive congregations in the Chicago area.  The Near South Side’s Catholic families, including the countless Irish immigrants who served as maids, cooks and coachmen on Prairie Avenue, attended Mass at Old St. Mary’s Church at 911 S. Wabash Avenue. Old St. Mary’s, founded in 1833, continues to serve as a place of worship and education for South Loop families.

Few could outdo the people of Prairie Avenue in terms of holiday feasts. Christmas dinners would last for hours, from the aperitifs to the postprandial port. Roasted turkeys, geese and pigs were often the main courses.  The Prairie Avenue Cookbook, available at the Glessner House Museum (1800 S. Prairie Avenue), is a fascinating resource for 19th century social history, customs and family recipes that have been modified for current use.  According to a not-updated sidebar menu, “the Christmas turkey should be cooped up and fed well some time before Christmas.  Three days before it is slaughtered, it should have an English walnut forced down its throat three times a day, and a glass of sherry once a day.  The meat will be deliciously tender, and have a fine nutty flavor.”  Cooks were no more merciful to the other birds: “In selecting a goose or duck … take hold of the toes and pull them apart. If the web separates easily, it is young; but if it requires any great amount of physical force to separate, lay it to one side … ‘tis an old fowl, and you will reap no profit from its purchase unless you are keeping boarders.”

Things changed. Prairie Avenue ceased to be a fashionable residential location by the 1920s. Many of the elegant homes have been demolished, and skyscraper apartment buildings stand in their places. The invention of the automobile forever altered Chicago’s thoroughfares. Suburban housing developments replaced farmland as they marched toward the state’s borders.  But some things remain the same as ever: The sun rises magnificently over Lake Michigan, shedding a pink glow over the mosaic of ice caps. Brutal winter winds still roar through the Loop’s skyscraper canyons. The holiday windows at Marshall Field’s (as many Chicagoans still refer to the store purchased by Macy’s in 2006) continue to delight people of all ages. Christmas trees and menorahs continue to light the snowy nights. Children still look for Santa in the midnight starlit skies over Chicago.  We all hope for peace.  We all believe in a better world.

Holiday Dinners on Prairie Avenue

“Over the river and through the wood to Grandmother’s house we go” was sung frequently by carolers in the late nineteenth century.  If these singers were proceeding toward Prairie Avenue, they may indeed have crossed the Chicago River, and traversed through the considerable woods that were still in existence.

Once they arrived at their destination, family and friends were in for holiday treats that would be rare delicacies for most of Chicago’s population.  Several of this hallowed street’s residents founded or were in upper management in grocery firms, or meat-packing barons. They were well-suited to provide feasts. Samuel Tolman, who lived at 2031 Prairie, was the vice president of the grocery company that bore his family name. John Wesley Doane, at 1827 Prairie, presided over his family’s tea company. Marshall Field, whose mansion stood at 1905 Prairie, was known to have private rail cars of exquisite food shipped from New York City’s most elegant restaurants.  He also stocked fine food in his own wildly popular department store.  Finally, some of the best cuts of meat to be found anywhere would be prepared by the cooks at the 1215 Prairie home of Philip D. Armour.


This opulent dining room belonged to Joseph Sears

Prairie Avenue families typically consumed meals that were considered quite upscale for the time.  During the holiday season, their cuisine existed on a grand scale that few of us can imagine today.  Why and how did wealthy Chicagoans celebrate with meals fit for royalty?  As mentioned above, many of the city’s founders made their fortune in providing food.  Naturally, meat packing barons and grocery store founders had the wherewithal to eat well.  With wealth came the privilege of having lots of help.  As those of us who followed Downton Abbey know, affluent families had a retinue of staff to assist them in every conceivable way.  Although Prairie Avenue residents many not have had the sheer number of people “downstairs” as did the Earl of Grantham, they would have had a well-equipped kitchen crew.  Chicagoans most desirous of impressing their guests went out of their way to hire French chefs, as Parisian cuisine was then very much in vogue.


The Glessner family had a modern, well-stocked pantry

A typical holiday meal was served in many courses with libations to accompany each course. Women in their tightly-laced corsets would likely gaze in fear at the sheer amount of food they might be expected to consume.  A visitor not educated in the complex etiquette of the time would be mystified at the intimidating array of silverware and wine glasses at each place setting.  Specially printed menus would be placed at each seat, so guests would have an idea as to what to expect and eat accordingly.


A hand-painted menu from an 1894 dinner party given by Mrs. Harry Hammer

Not surprisingly, Chicagoans had a wealth of choices for the many varieties of meat and seafood that were expected at a special meal. When Prairie Avenue was at its apex as a residential area, oysters were a prized delicacy, and no meal was complete without them in some form.  Herewith is a holiday dinner, with actual recipes courtesy of the Prairie Avenue Cookbook.  Click on each link for the recipe.

Raw Oysters with Relish
Olive/Pickle Tray

Soups and Garnishes
Chestnut Soup
Sweet Potato Balls

Baked Shad with Shad Roe Sauce

Roast Goose with Apple Stuffing
Celery Salad

Young Roast Pig

English Walnut Cake
Charlotte Russe

Coffee, Crackers, Cheese

Amontillado, Chateau Rolland, Mumm’s Extra Dry, Cognac, Liqueur


A roast pig was a holiday favorite among Prairie Avenue families.

A cautionary tale, depending upon your choice of animal companions:  According to the Prairie Avenue Cookbook, “the Harvey children” (1722 Prairie) “had a pet piglet at the family’s summer home on Mackinac Island, which, unbeknownst to them, was being fattened for slaughter. The children remember with horror seeing their piglet, roasted, arrive at the Christmas table on the festive board garnished with mistletoe.”

Restored Avery Coonley House For Sale


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Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1907-1912 masterpiece commissioned for philanthropists Avery and Queene Coonley is on the market. The home, located at 281 Bloomingbank Road in the western suburb of Riverside, Illinois, is priced at $1.8 million. The 6,000-square-foot “living room wing” of the original Coonley compound underwent extensive restoration in recent years.  The “bedroom wing,” separated from the main house, sold for $355,000 in 2015.


The Coonley House, 2016


Garden elevation, circa 1911


Looking toward the reflecting pool


Side elevation affords substantial privacy


Wright’s signature planters adorn the reflecting pool area

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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.

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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.

David Adler’s Armour Mansion: A Pictorial Timeline


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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.

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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

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


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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. (See 2016 update below)


Dining Room: “So what is it that your people do, Mr. Fitzgerald?”


The ultimate bridal staircase


The pond

The estate, 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.  Harold Van Doren Shaw designed the Lake Forest estate. He was the visionary behind Lake Forest’s Market Square, the first planned shopping venue in the United States.

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 through membership in a venerable philanthropic organization, 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 of Chicago’s annual meetings.  Consistent with her home, Ginevra 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.

Update: As of September 2016, parts of Kingdom Come Farm, or Westleigh Farm, as it is currently known, are still for sale.  Some 47 acres of the property have been approved for the development of single-family homes. The asking price has been reduced to $11.5 million. Sadly, the property seems to have deteriorated due to neglect. What looks to have been an exquisitely proportioned formal garden in back of the house has gone to seed.  Mother Nature is seen creeping up the patio and onto the walls. The home’s interiors are no longer shown on the real estate listing.  According to recent stories regarding the pending development, the home has not seen significant renovations in approximately 50 years. It is not eligible for landmark status. In January 2016, the Lake Forest Plan Commission imposed a two-year deadline for the sale of the house. If not purchased within that time frame, the home is subject to demolition.  Where is Jay Gatsby when we need him?


Mother Nature is fast encroaching upon the estate.


The home has suffered exterior damage and neglect.


Note housing developments at top.  This is one of the last large parcels of land left in Lake Forest.