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Lake Forest Country Places: Van Doren Shaw Finley Barrell House

Lake Forest Country Places VI:

Howard Van Doren Shaw's 1912
Finley Barrell House On Rosemary

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 855 Rosemary Road is the English Arts & Crafts country house Lake Forest architect Howard Van Doren Shaw designed for one of the nation's leading grain and stock commission traders, Finley Barrell. This house, with its very striking street facade on the south side of Rosemary just east of Sheridan Road, is of significant interest both architecturally and historically. Architecturally Shaw's Barrell house and garden show this future winner of the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal reaching the height of his powers at the crest of the Chicago Renaissance wave, truly a golden moment in Lake Forest's past. Shaw was yet to build his great "Havenwood" for Edward L. Ryerson in 1914, a few blocks south on Sheridan, or his Market Square in 1916. But here he demonstrates as well as anywhere his adapting for the Chicago climate the English Arts & Crafts country house vogue then so dominant. The local variation, the Prairie Style of Wright and others (Maher, Van Bergen), was an important sub-theme of this international trend. But nobody brought the English interpretation to Chicago in this era as did Shaw. Modelling his designs on English suburban and weekend houses springing up within striking distance by rail of London, Shaw imported this rich tradition to Chicago and the midwest in the period when hundreds of wealthy Americans' daughters were marrying European -- English, first choice -- nobility, trading in good Board-of-Trade fashion Chicago cash for the aristocratic cachet of a noble title. Like Napoleon's nouveau title recipients a century before, this class of American merchant and industrial princes sought instant respectability and tradition.

But in bringing Old World style to the prairies Shaw ingeniously adapted his country-house form to the rigors of Chicago summers before air conditioning. Perhaps nowhere is this seen less-obtrusively done than in this 1912 Barrell house. Shaw's own 1897 Ragdale (1230 North Green Bay Road) shoves out north, west, and south with sitting and sleeping porches, to capture every afternoon and evening breeze. But in the manor-house scaled Barrell place the porches are much more discrete. The photo of the house's southern, garden-front facade in A Preservation Foundation Guide To National Register Properties: Lake Forest, Illinois (just reissued by the Preservation Foundation, $15.00), number 50, shows them felicitously integrated into this facade both on the east and west ends -- on either side of the living room a dining porch (east) and a living porch (west). Between these porches and the lawn with its garden beyond is an Italian influenced terrace, mediating the transition from the facade to the lawn and formal gardens. Here is achieved handsomely the Italian garden ideal of integration of interior and garden space, perfect for Chicago (or Italian) summers. Edith Wharton had argued for this unity of house and site in her Italian Villas And Their Gardens (1904), in the period when she was developing her own estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts.

But beyond the Barrell house's architectural significance there is considerable historical interest, as well. Barrell's commercial importance was noted above, but the family's story has a special poignancy alluded to in the Preservation Foundation guide. It refers to the handsome Gothic-Revival gray stone gate to the Lake Forest Cemetery which is a memorial to Finley and Grace Barrell's only child, their son Jack who drowned in July 1916, at the Barrells' summer place at Havana, Illinois on the Illinois River. The Sunday, July 2 Tribune story likened this sad happening to the Lake Geneva drowning of Charles G. Dawes' son, Rufus, four years earlier. The summer place had been built to provide a "strenuous life" fitness opportunity for Jack, a 1915 graduate of Yale and recent addition to the Barrell & Co. firm, who was not strong physically.

Perhaps the explanation for the second Barrell house in Lake Forest, that by Frederick Perkins in 1916, relates to this sad family occurrence. By 1917 Finley Barrell, who had held a "commanding place" in the markets, at 53 was listed in The Book of Chicagoans as retired. He died in July, 1925 -- nine years after his son's death. The beautiful if somber entrance to the Lake Forest Cemetery was given by Mrs. Barrell -- according to the 1991 supplement to Arpee's history of Lake Forest, carried out by Susan Dart. The stately gateway recalls this untimely and shocking accidental death in 1916, an event which cut short a promising Chicago and Lake Forest dynasty.

A footnote to this history is the discovery recently on a landscape plan for what was, early in the century, the Lake Forest Academy grounds the outline of a building just east of East House (now Moore Hall of Lake Forest College). This is designated as the "Barrell Garage." This building since 1940 has been Hixon Hall -- at first at the Academy and by the end of that decade at Lake Forest College's South Campus. Today this Shaw structure houses the Alan Carr Theater and the College's Drama Department. This brings the total number of buildings designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw on the College campus to seven -- including also Glen Rowan (originally the Clifford Barnes residence; 1908), Durand Commons (1907), and the western four houses at the entrance to Faculty Circle (1917).

Finally, on the subject of Shaw, the Ragdale Foundation will hold a Birthday Party for Howard Van Doren Shaw at Ragdale on Sunday, May 13, at 3:00 p.m. as part of its regular "Second Sundays at Ragdale" series. Both Ragdale founder Alice Hays, Shaw's granddaughter, and Lake Forest College architectural historian Franz Schulze will have remarks for the occasion.

Arthur Miller

April 9, 1995