Crab Tree Farm’s Blair Residence
Crab Tree Farm’s Edward McCormick Blair residence, 1955
Designed by Chicago architects Keck and Keck in the International and the villa, or country place, styles
The Edward M. Blair 1955 Keck & Keck designed modernist mansion was built on an over twenty-acre lakefront parcel of the over two-hundred-acre Crab Tree Farm. The larger property has been a gentleman’s farm since 1860 and today is Illlinois’ last Lake Michigan shore working farm. The Edward M. Blair house, 925 North Sheridan Road, Lake Bluff, (listing as of Dec. 2014) certainly is a North Shore historic and architectural landmark from two main perspectives: one that of its historic position in the gentleman’s farm heritage the Blodgett-Durand-Blair property, 1860-2010, and the other that of its remarkable styles, both Country Place/Villa and International.
To begin, Mr. Blair represented until his passing represented only the third family of owners of a large gentlemen’s farm from Blodgett Road north to the former Lester Armour property. Since at least 1860 it was the gentleman’s farm of Judge Henry W. Blodgett, a northern Illinois pioneer since the 1830s, notable anti-slavery activist and key supporter of Abraham Lincoln in the decade leading up to his election to the presidency. After Blodgett’s death early in the 20th C., in 1905 this Lake Bluff property was acquired by Scott and Grace Garrett Durand. Mrs. Durand then moved her model dairy farm from its Crab Tree Road, Lake Forest, location into the former Blodgett barns. When fire destroyed the barns and damaged the adjacent house in 1910, Mrs. Durand rebuilt the barns in a fireproof manner to designs by noted Pullman architect Solon Beman,1911, and she rebuilt the house within the original Blodgett era walls to designs by architect Hugh M. G. Garden. The landscape around the house and barns was created by Jens Jensen, often associated with Garden, with some of the Jensen-era arbor vitae trees still in place there. By the mid 1920s the Durands sold a strip of the northeast portion of the farm to the Uileins and immediately south of this some eleven acres to William McCormick Blair, as part of a series of efforts to develop the east side of the farm when the nearby Shoreacres golf club opened in the period. David Adler was the architect for the Blairs and also the prevailing landscape designer for this estate, for the house, tennis house, and auxiliary cluster of greenhouses, garages, staff lodges, etc. By the 1950s Mr. Blair was buying the rest of the farm from the Durand family, and was breaking off an over twenty-acre portion of the southeast lakefront portion for his son, Edward. It is here that the house is question was built, designed by modernist master architects Keck and Keck in 1953 and completed by 1955.
Edward McCormick Blair (1915-2010), both a great grandnephew of Cyrus McCormick and also a scion of the Chicago pioneer Chicago families of businessmen: hardware merchant Edward T. Blair and the banker Joseph T. Bowen. After schooling at Groton, Yale, and Harvard Business (M.B.A.) and wartime service, young Edward M. Blair joined the Chicago investment banking firm founded his father: William Blair & Co. By 1950 a partner, he succeeded his father as managing partner in 1961 and led the firm until his retirement in 1977. He served on many corporate boards, including that of North Central Airlines (eventually a component of Delta Airlines) and Marshall Field & Company (eventually part of Macy’s). He also led philanthropic boards including Rush Medical Center and the investment committee of the University of Chicago’s board of trustees. Just before World War II Mr. Blair married Elizabeth Inglehart of Baltimore, who died in 2001, This couple’s two sons, Edward Jr. and Francis, by 2010 when Edward M. Blair died, had given Mr. Blair five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
The family’s Keck & Keck country place of 1955 was Edward Blair’s home for over a half century, to 2010. By that time the lakefront of the old Blodgett farm parcel was in conservancy, south; then a large portion owned by the Pawlicks; then north is the Schuler property with its house by the noted architect Lawrence Booth, the designer who also rebuilt the burned Shoreacres Adler clubhouse in the mid 1980s; and the original 1920s William McC. Blair estate, owned by John and Neville Bryan since the early 1980s, who also bought the rest of the farm to the west a few years later. Thus, 925 Sheridan is one of only four residences on this stretch of Lake Forest’s original Blodgett farm, and—as Mr. Bryan has pointed out—Illinois’ last lakefront working farm. To a remarkable degree, too, it remains one landscape with a succession of wooded and open spaces, running north to south the length of the farm’s shoreline. The Blair house by Keck & Keck sits at the east, bluff end of an old oak savanna now much of it in conservancy, the residence’s landscape. As a residence built on what was a compound, the Edward McC. Blair house with its natural landscape is a notable de facto historic landmark.
Turning to the architectural significance of this remarkable house, as shown in the book entitled Keck & Keck Architects by Narciso G. Menocal (1980), pp. 70-71, the Edward Blair house is notable for its two main style heritages. The first is the house’s striking design links to the International Style, especially that of Chicago immigrant in 1938, architect Mies van der Rohe. The second heritage seen is that of its plan and setting within the main stream of country house planning both since the five-part Palladian villa plan was created in mid 16th C. northern Italy and also since the 18th C. English landscape style emerged, with its informal indirect approaches to stately homes.
The modernist Keck & Keck firm, which is featured in the last two house articles of North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs, 1890-1940 by Stuart Cohen and Susan Benjamin (Acanthus Press, 2004), pp. 284-94, has risen in prominence especially in the last decade as mid-century modernism has been revived and reprised from the Trump Tower to the new studio at Ragdale, Lake Forest. The designer of the brothers, George Fred Keck (1895-1980), created two “extraordinary” (Cohen and Benjamin, p. 313) exposition houses for the 1933-34 Century of Progress, a 1933 octagonal House of Tomorrow with floor to ceiling plate glass windows and a 1934 Crystal House, with its surrounding window walls and the roof and floors suspended from an external structure. This led to two north shore International Style residential commissions in the 1930s, the Wilmette Bruning house and the Lake Forest Cahn house, the latter built on the site of Howard Shaw’s 1900s Kuppenheimer house, that of Mrs. Cahn’s parents. The Cahn place, now obscured by renovation, was well-known and highly visible in conservative Lake Forest, at Westleigh and Green Bay Roads. Semi-circular or arched in plan, with a central entry, the Cahn house’s house’s circular fireplace inglenook is not unlike Wright’s Wingspread circular plan, at Racine, WI, though contrasting dramatically in materials and colors: Wright’s earth tones and natural woods and masonry and the Cahn house’s new industrial surfaces and prevailing white coloring.
The International Style of the Edward Blair residence from George Fred Keck’s design is clearly seen in the image of the hall on p. 70 of Menocal’s 1980 monograph and that of the house and landscape plans on p. 71. As the view of the hallway shows, there is a prominent stairway, of the sort built by Mies for the Arts Club, Chicago, in 1951 (demol. 1990s) for its East Ontario Street quarters. The Miesian tortuously challenging “simplicity” or beauty of the stairway belies the painstaking planning and workmanship of the finished product. The surviving Farnsworth House, 1951 (a National Trust and Landmarks Illinois museum at Plano, IL, thanks in no small part to the Bryans), a country retreat as well, also reflected this careful attention to detail and studied simplicity. The absence of traditional ornament is noticeable, replaced by an appreciation for line, vistas, proportions, materials (also rich but unadorned wood panels), and composition. This Keck & Keck Blair house is in contrast to the firm’s also contemporary and also stunning Fagan house of southwest Lake Forest, but there Wrightian in character with its union with the landscape of the natural materials of the structure. Set low on the prairie on the former Lasker estate, the wood and masonry on the north façade of the Fagan house hugs the horizon at the top of a rise, and on the south is open with floor to ceiling windows to absorb the sun’s light and heat in winter, but sheltered from those by overhanging eaves from summer sun. The 1955 Blair house stands out distinctly from its landscape setting.
Even more fascinating is the way that Keck & Keck related their Edward Blair house with its fine but unadorned woods and other natural materials to the country house expectations of the family and their guests. From the plan (a view from above) the five-part parti is clearest, with its masonry floor, reflecting hierarchy of materials instead of height at the center entry, the focal point. The one-story center both highlights the entry in a classic way, but in a counterpoint manner, reversing expectations for height there but giving the same clue. The plan follows an arch, as at the Cahn place two decades earlier; but here the wings jut back to the west, in a Palladian riff. Though modern, it then is early New Formalist, with its balanced wings and central entry. North and south of the central stone-floored entry are the two story halves of the house, to the south the living room, conservatory and family bedroom wing and to the north the dining room (immediately north of the entry also with a masonry floor) and service rooms and garage. This echoes expectations for elite housing since the age of Andrea Palladio in the Veneto in the mid 16th C. and as reprised especially in Britain and the U.S. in the Georgian period. Also Georgian is the clear reference to the English landscape style and the Picturesque in the indirect, curving approach of the drive through the natural savanna up to the entry porch through the twenty acres or so of woodland west of the house. The circular turnaround in the three-sided entry court also is characteristic of the English landscape style.
It has been observed how ahead of their time were Keck & Keck in embracing sustainable architecture, with the Fagen house’s stone floors absorbing sunlight in winter to heat the house in the evening, and the Wrightian broad overhangs to keep out summer sun. The Blair house too has this characteristic, in addition to the stone-floored entry in its conservatory, truly an indoor garden facing to the south, and divided from the living and master bedrooms by the floor to ceiling brick fireplace and chimney. Open above in the master bedroom, the stones of the floor and bricks of the chimney wall store winter solar heat and then release it to rise into this space in the evening. There also were clever grill openings for ventilation by cross breezes east to west in these two main rooms.
Thus, at the beginning of the New Formalist design impulse following on modernism’s earlier asymmetry and less-is-more aesthetic, the Blair house provided a comfortable country house in the latest International Style mode, but with the traditional comforts and eye to entertaining of Chicago’s leadership. The warm woods of the living room and masonry of the dining room floor mitigate the almost clinically Spartan character of the spaces. Awe, if not shock, was part of the fun, the friction of the meeting of the expected comforts with the jagged edges of the new aesthetic of the Farnsworth House and Mies’s 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive. The nearby lake view for the Blair house heightens this resemblance to the water-facing tall-building Chicago designs of Mies’s. The effect still today is extraordinary and in 1955 must have been breathtaking. In Adler’s William Blair house of the 1920s the style was nostalgic, but the plan was more edgy (the master and guest bedrooms on the same floor as the living rooms, in the select southern exposure rather than the living room). Here the plan is quite nostalgic, but the style is edgy. In some respects, the Keck & Keck Blair house is the other half of a pair of family houses in dialog across the span of time from the 1920s to the 1950s.
This 1950s landmark house with its landscape setting is integral to the great gentleman’s farm dating back a century and a half and one of the jewels in the crown of Lake County’s and Lake Bluff’s lakefront. Its elegance, richness of materials, state of preservation and rich design heritage make it an outstanding feature of Chicago’s upper north shore. Its key role in the history of Lake Bluff cannot be disputed.
Arthur H. Miller*
August 2011; rev. October 10, 2011; December 19, 2014
* Arthur H. Miller was Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections, Donnelley and Lee Library, Lake Forest College from 1996 until October 31, 2013. He has degrees from Kalamazoo College (BA), the University of Chicago (AM English, AM Librarianship), and Northwestern (PhD English), and he studied at the U. of Caen, Calvados, Normandy, France. He has co-authored and edited books on Lake Forest area architecture and landscape history and contributed articles to books on these topics. (A 2009-LF/LB Historical Society-published book on the mid-20th C. architect Walter Frazier and his firm discusses Edward Blair’s aunt Lucy Linn’s house just north of the Blair house at Shoreacres and mentions Frazier’s small addition/alteration to the 1920s Adler house of Edward’s parents nearby.)