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Lake Forest Country Places: Ragdale Barnhouse


Lake Forest Country Places IV:

The Ragdale Barnhouse
—Lake Forest’s Oldest Dwelling

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.

At 1260 North Green Bay Road, the City-owned Ragdale Barnhouse includes two historically significant structures. In addition, it is tied together by a late 1930s architectural impulse of American historical self-consciousness which capped sixty years of the Country Place Era — an era defining the essence of classic Lake Forest. The ensemble, preserved by a City/Ragdale-Foundation partnership, reflects the country place ideal at three key moments in Lake Forest’s past.

The oldest part of the Barnhouse is the brick, Greek-Revival farmhouse, which a plaque installed on the wall attributes to a date of 1838 (Susan Dart reprts a date of 1844 for the structure). This was just two (or eight) years after the Pottawattamies finally left the Chicago region for the other side of the Mississsippi and after the city of Chicago was chartered. Sixty years later the Swanton family sold the family farm to the young Chicago architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw. The property included cultivated fields and orchards on the higher, east end and virgin prairie and wetlands lying lower and to the west. On the higher ground not far from Green Bay Road and south of the farmhouse, in 1897-98 Shaw built an English Arts and Crafts home for his parents and his own young family at 1230 North Green Bay Road: Ragdale. Also, he built a barn adjacent to the farmer’s, by-then tenant’s, house — again in the English country style. By 1939-40, Shaw’s daughter Theo — married to architect John Lord King — had inherited and begun to remodel the little farmhouse and barn. King, who had designed the McCutcheon house just to the north in 1938, now united the farmhouse, barn, and a small shed along Green Bay forming a central courtyard and one country house.

The Shaw stable and shed were not grand structures but working buildings shaped by the style of the English Arts and Crafts Movement which reacted against industrialized, urban, monumental building and living. In 1897 Shaw, with a few friends, subdivided the Swanton farm and extended Lake Forest north on Green Bay Road and west, part of the impulse that brought larger properties and bigger houses to Lake Forest. These were weekend and summer homes, villas truly. These were not villagers as were the Holts, who built the 1860 “Homestead” at College and Sheridan. The Shaw children lived in Chicago and attended school there mostly. But early falls and late springs often were passed in the Lake Forest schools; Shaw’s daughter Evelyn — according to her daughter in-law, Susan Dart — got Latin American history six times, but missed U.S. history entirely as a result.

The John Lord King conversion around 1939-40 echoes the WPA (Depression-era Works Progress Administration) and pre-war celebration of American traditions and virtues — just as does the Lincoln log cabin from Indiana, brought to Chicago for the 1933-34 Century of Progress, and moved to west of the Ragdale garden and barn shortly after by Shaw’s daughter, Sylvia. The brick house and the old barn were icons of that period for traditional strengths and virtues of the yoemen pioneers. Similarly on the east coast in the 1920s and 1930s Colonial relics were being restored — elements of our material culture linking us to a productive, hard-working, independent past. King’s gentle architectural links between the parts of the Barnhouse only frame and highlight the virtues of the original structure.

The Barnhouse belonged to the Preston family from 1948 until 1980 when it was acquired by the Ragdale Foundation; in 1986 it was transferred to the City. Today its upkeep is shared by the City and the Foundation, the latter providing the programming for the property — maintaining the artists’ community Shaw’s Ragdale estate always has been.

A plan of the grounds drawn for a booklet distributed with a 1919 Garden Club of America tour of the Ragdale estate (and called to my attention by Mrs. Eric Oldberg) shows a large formal garden just west of the Barnhouse. Today only the western half of this original plan still is extant. This remnant is the only City-owned formal garden preserved from the Country Place Era. On the south side of what now is a lawn, where the eastern half of the garden had been, is a new structure, the Friends’ studio: a spacious two-apartment building in the style of the Shaw/King Barnhouse designed by Chicago architect Walker Johnson (vice president of the Ragdale Foundation) with Lake Forest architect Sheldon Hill. This building is named for two artistic friends, Sylvia Shaw Judson Haskins and Dorothy Holabird, a composer. Conceived by Ragdale Foundation founder Alice Hayes (Sylvia’s daughter) and meant as space for resident visual artists and composers or performance artists, it is a reaffirmation of the Arts-and-Crafts commitment to the essential compatibility and unity of the arts. This same impulse had led to the inclusion of Shaw’s Goodman Theater in the Art Institute complex during the 1920s. The Friends’ Studio, built by contributions to the Ragdale Foundation in memory of the two friends, is a material-cultural link between the artistic ideals of our day and the Arts-and-Crafts values articulated in post-industrial-revolution Europe and America a century ago.

Very likely no other Lake Forest country house brings together as many diverse landmark elements: a pioneer farmhouse (1830s/40s), an architect-designed Arts-and-Crafts stable (turn of the century), an Americana-Revival farmstead country-house conversion (1939-40), and the late-century revival Friends’ Studio (1990). Almost uniquely in town this ensemble of structures and landscape elements is a museum of Lake Forest architectural and cultural history, a treasure now safely preserved for future generations by the shared stewardship of the City and the Ragdale Foundation.

For more information about the Shaw family and the Barnhouse, see particularly two publications by Susan Dart — Evelyn Shaw McCutcheon and Ragdale (Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Historical Society, 1980) and Market Square, Lake Forest, Illinois (…Historical Society, 1984) — and Alice Hayes and Susan Moon, Ragdale: A History and Guide (Open Books and the Ragdale Foundation, 1990).

Arthur Miller

October 15, 1994