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Lake Forest Country Places: Centaurs

Lake Forest Country Places III:

"Centaurs" -- A Renaissance Villa

One of a series of articles by Arthur Miller, Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections at Lake Forest College, originally published in the Lake Forest Journal, 1994-1997; some have been replaced or updated.

Note: Since this article was written a good deal of new information has been developed about this house and estate. Stephen M. Salny in 2001 published his book, The Country Houses of David Adler, W.W. Norton. About the same time the Architecture and Design unit of the Art Institute, the repository for Adler's 9,500 surviving drawings, prepared a summary finding aid, under Martha Thorne's direction. The next year, in connection with a major exhibition at the museum, again led by Thorne, was published David Adler, Architect: The Elements of Style, Yale U. Press and the Art Institute, 2002; one of the articles at the end, about individual Adler projects, covers the "Mrs. and Mrs. Alfred E. Hamill House, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1921-22, 1927-29," pp. 103-09 (see Google Books). It was written by Arthur H. Miller, and is illustrated with historic photos and drawings from the AIC collection plus new color photographs of the work as it appeared in 2001-02. The Hamills' son, Corwith, contributed information for the article including the house's orignal name as it was designed by Henry Dangler ca. 1912, Villina San Nicola. A photograph of this earlier version of the house's north or front facade appears in Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest by Kim Coventry, Daniel Meyer, and Arthur H. Miller, W.W. Norton, 2003, p. 170. Elsewhere , too, this book adds more images and information about the Adler period of development there. A. Miller November 4, 2009.

Alfred Hamill's country house on Illinois Road just east of Mayflower is named for the classical Greek mythological figure which represents the bond between man's intellectual and physical selves, the half-man/half horse centaur. Bookbindings from the library, his bookplates, and a pair of sculptures by John Storrs in front of his house all reflect this motif. For the Renaissance Italians their villas away from town represented an escape from business and city cares to a spot where both mind and body could be restored through intellectual pursuits and exercise, respectively. While the nearby Onwentsia Club offered organized exercise to these Renaissance Chicagoans, the Centaurs house and gardens archetypically provided ample opportunity for reflection, reading, and quiet walks.

The heart of Centaurs was its library by architect David Adler who in the early 1920s added it to the original pre-World-War I Henry Dangler villa, a few years before he added a crisp new facade, facing north to Illinois Road. This long, stately room with its adjacent bookstack chamber was pictured first in The Dolphin (1944), a book-collectors' periodical, and a decade later again in the monograph on Adler's work by Pratt. [The library appears in another view in Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest..., pp. 238-39.] With a fireplace providing a focus for a reading area and small round windows and busts of authors over the bookshelves, the library is essential Adler: formal, resonant with high tradition and learning, beautifully proportioned, and yet neverthless comfortable. And Big. When in the early 1980s the Castenguays restored Centaurs, they bought two college libraries -- one from Ireland and one from Kentucky -- to fill the newly-refinished shelves.

Certainly, Alfred Hamill had collected books on a grand scale. His beautiful calligraphy collection was assembed for the Newberry Library in Chicago, where he was Board President. Also, many collection highspots, as described in Paul Standard's 1944 Dolphin article, went to the eminent Chicago bookdealers, Hamill & Barker (Frances Hamill was a cousin) and on to other collectors. But the body of the collection went to the Lake Forest college library and from it can be read the rich range of Alfred Hamill's interests and tastes. Among those 6,500 volumes, many treat the history of Italy, especailly in the Renaissance -- represented by studies from as early as the sixteenth century to the best of the early twentieth-century scholarship on art, literature, and history. Other interests included Russia, fine printing and typography, the classics, and Mexico.

But Centaurs, an estate just north of both the Cyrus McCormick, Jrs.' Walden and A. L. Ryerson's Havenwood (now both gone), had fine formal gardens along the ravine, culminating in Adler's neo-Palladian garden structure pictured in the Pratt book. From November to April it can be seen by looking east across the ravine from the entrance to Walden. In this garden (now subdivided), the Hamills could stroll and read, write poetry or sketch, visit with friends and enjoy nature's always changing play of light and color. In front of the house and also pictured in the Pratt volume, John Storr's twin centaurs welcome visitors to this epitomy of the Renaissance villa ideal of cultured rural leisure.

Arthur Miller

May 5, 1994; updated November 4, 2009.