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Lake Forest Country Places: Dixon House

Lake Forest Country Places XVI:

Arthur Dixon III House, 5 East Laurel Avenue

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.

The stately but unpretentious Arthur Dixon house can be seen on the south side of Laurel Avenue just east of Green Bay Road. This classically proportioned country residence was built in 1936, designed by Lake Forest-born and educated (Lake Forest College, '16) architect Stanley Anderson. Arthur Dixon was a Chicago attorney and civic leader who also provided important direction for education in Lake Forest, in the 1930s especially. This house highlights, as does the case of the just-razed Hubbard place at what was 1313 North Green Bay Road nearby, the difficulty of protecting the unique estate ambiance and Beaux-Arts inspired architecture of the new Green Bay Road National Register Historic District. The challenge the Arthur Dixon estate faces is the large undeveloped plot to the east, which recently forced a very hard choice between local values of architectural preservation and of concern for the elderly. Significantly, too, the Dixon house provides a useful benchmark for understanding the local confusion about architectural styles today which led to the approval last month of a replacement residence plan for the site of the Hubbard house, one which is unsympathetic to the traditional architectural context of the new Green Bay Road Historic District.

The Arthur Dixon III house was built as the nation was emerging from the worst years of the Depression, after the stimulus of the National Recovery Act (1933-35) had restarted the economy. Barbara Buchbinder Green (not "Bookbinder-Green" as appeared in this library-trained writer's column last month!), in her application document for the Green Bay Road National Register District written in 1995 and funded by the Lake Forest Foundation for Historic Preservation, provides biographical material on Dixon. He was born in Chicago in 1895 and was a Harvard-educated, Northwestern Law School-trained attorney admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1920. He was a partner in the firm of Burry, Johnstone, Peters & Dixon from 1925 to 1942 and after 1946 with Holmes, Dixon, Knouff & Potter. He also was a director of the Arthur Dixon Transfer Company.

But perhaps most significant was his philanthropic and civic leadership in Chicago and in Lake Forest. In the city his influence was exercised in the local branches of the American Red Cross and the YMCA, most notably. In Lake Forest he was active on local school boards, particularly as president of what is now known as District 67 from 1933 to 1935 and of the Day School from 1936 to 1940. Under his leadership of District 67 -- as noted by Lake Forest College History Professor Arthur Zilversmit in his book Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (U. of Chicago Press, 1993) -- the Board "actually increased spending" during the most trying years of the Depression and approved the 1935 Stanley-Anderson-designed auditorium wing on Gorton, now the Baggett auditorium (p. 71; see also Preservation Foundation Guide, #32).

Stanley Anderson was educated at Lake Forest College ('16), at the U. of Illinois architecture school (1916-17) and in the Beaux-Arts tradition through a year of study at the Sorbonne in Paris and six years in the architectural office of Howard Van Doren Shaw (from 1919 until Shaw's death in 1926). Arthur Dixon's linking up with Anderson resulted in a manor house organized around the classic pediment on its facade. This facade has been domesticated, though, by a mid-Atlantic-styled farmhouse first floor front porch. The shape of the house is neo-Palladian -- with a central block whose proportions are derived ultimately from the form of Greek temples with two symmetrical recessed wings. The impression from Laurel Avenue is of a comfortable, east-coast, centuries old rural retreat. It reflects stable roots, a sense of tradition, quiet good taste, and country informality.

This impression contrasts with that of the plans for the new home approved by the Building Review Board on February 14 to replace the demolished Hubbard place on the highest site in the Green Bay Road National Register District. Though reduced in height from the house originally proposed, it is approved to be built with an irregular facade of five differing roof peak levels (plus a dormer) and ornamented with a collection of Georgian colonial and nineteenth-century farmhouse details. The whole is dominated by a very un-colonial, steeply-pitched roof. The other three sides reflect the late 1980s and 1990s postmodern-based style which has achieved hegemony in west Lake Forest and which increasngly is to be found scattered through more traditional east Lake Forest. The north or rear elevation includes a residual Romanesque turret, seemingly obligatory in this style. This plan was approved by a three to two majority of those Building Review Board members present, with the two architect professionals overridden by their lay colleagues and led by the committee's well-intentioned chair. This gentleman's generous nature and conciliatory mode of operating were demonstrated as he tried to mediate between -- on the one hand -- the architects on the Board, supported by audience appeals for simplicity and tradition, and -- on the other hand -- the firm expectations at this late stage of the unhappy client working through her architect-developer, Mr. Martin. The final motion for approval included a Board appeal to the developer and his client to try to bring the roof pitch into conformity with traditional colonial style norms.

The Committee chair's and the developer's earnest efforts to negotiate the angle of the roof pitch on the spot reveal the organizing principle of this type of architecture in contrast to that of the Dixon place. It reflects the mid-twentieth-century architectural revolution away from classically-inspired unity of design to an organic, programmatic approach to the needs of the client, where function assumes primacy in design.

It was Chicagoan Louis Sullivan who declared that "form follows function." For the eminent art historian James S. Ackerman organic form describes "a process of composition that seeks to develop interdependent spaces and masses that function expressively as members of an organism." This contrasts with the classical principles of harmony which guided Palladio and other Renaissance masters, the Adams in eighteenth-century Britain, Jefferson, the architects of the nineteenth-century Greek Revival, and the Lake Forest Beaux-Arts circle. For these -- inspired by ancient models -- external, visual balance and proportion provide a discipline within which the skilled architect works to develop an arrangement which suits the client. Classical standards of beauty link the high accomplishments of this age to earlier highpoints of culture. Thus, the clients of the "Chicago Renaissance" era, from the 1890s to World War II and later, asserted their claim -- first announced by the Beaux-Arts style of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 -- to a place on the list of great civilizations. It is this spirit of a new Classical Age which inspired the clients and architects who defined the character of the National Register historic districts and properties in Lake Forest.

Historical style, in the hands of practitioners unused to or not accepting the disciplines of classical composition, tends to become only a vocabulary of ornaments on a building or -- as in the case of the new plan for the Hubbard house site -- ornaments on a facade. Here ornament refers to an historical style but is grafted onto the structure derived from the client-centered program. Colonial, Georgian, Romanesque or French Renaissance elements become partial references to traditions rather than organizing principles for the architect's work. The point of disagreement over appropriateness of new work in the National Districts hinges mainly on this criterion: is the building organized by traditionally-derived principles of style or by organic form? If the former, then there are clear parameters (roof pitches, symmetry, proportions, and detail) which dictate the form of the structure. If the latter, then the historical references, if any, are constrained by the dictates of the program's requirements.

A standard for architectural composition based on traditional ideas of style and -- often -- of formal unity, then, has been lost here, for the most part, which had begun with Shaw and continued with Shaw-trained professional and paraprofessional staff in the Stanley Anderson firm -- into the 1970s. Indeed, this standard was taken for granted. This latter firm's dominance had allowed it to serve as an informal gatekeeper, setting a benchmark other would-be Lake Forest architects had to meet. Active preservation advocacy arose to fill this vacuum in the 1970s, particularly in the Lake Forest Foundation for Historic Preservation and in the town's preservation ordinance.

The kind of control on style previously provided by the Stanley Anderson office's dominance and now dispersed among volunteer and citizen-board watchdogs hasn't always been effective in protecting genuinely-important historic sites such as the Hubbard place or, generally, the architectural character of the developed, traditionally styled sections of town. The handsome neo-classical-revival Dixon residence, then, is significant historically as the home of an important civic and educational leader and architecturally as a fine example of the Country Place Era's ideals adapted to a new, less flamboyant time. Its central classical pediment and symmetrical plan, so handsomely proportioned, are emblematic of the traditional architectural values which, through Anderson, survived the wreck of the Crash.

It is unfortunate that the Dixon house's successful protection recently at a crucial corner with Green Bay and not far from a developing corridor of condominiums had to take priority over a much-needed senior housing project. Nevertheless, Mayor Butler, Alderman Abby Fassnacht, and the full City Council have taken important steps to keep this senior-housing goal before the community, and developers may be at work on projects for alternative sites.

It's an important footnote to this series on local country places that some retired estate employees and other support community members face seriously mounting rental costs and other expenses due to the high premium on local real estate. Some barely can afford to hold on in the community where their life-long friends and churches are located. These estates grew out of a pre-Franklin D. Roosevelt, Arts & Crafts-era aristocratic ideal of privilege living in community with those who supported it (as in the former apartments over Market Square, for example). And Arthur Dixon himself epitomized this community ideal when he unflinchingly supported public education as well as private, even after the 1929 crash and in the depths of the Depression. Once again the times call for leadership to ensure that those who have served long and, often, selflessly are able to retire here near churches and friends in dignity and modest comfort.

Arthur Miller

March 10, 1996