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Lake Forest Country Places: Pinewold

Lake Forest Country Places XXIII:

Bernard A. Eckhardt's "Pinewold"
at 950 E. Westminster (1908)

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.

For years this writer has fielded queries relating to Lake Forest history and material culture, architecture and landscape architecture particularly. Often, too, after pouring over maps and photos and confronting insecure and blank looks when telling people how to "drive by" places in town, one just rushes out and barnstorms for an hour -- of course, enjoying the break. On one recent occasion this writer had the privilege of supporting in such a quest JoAnn Nathan of Chicago, who is highly knowledgeable on Jens Jensen's landscape designs, in her preparations for a presentation she was making on Jens Jensen's work in Lake Forest. Perhaps the highlight of this whirlwind run-around-town was the shock of recognition this writer felt when Ms. Nathan pointed out the sun clearing in a private park on Lake Road, just east of the Eckhardt place at 850 East Westminster. It was like being touched by the hand of Jens Jensen, the Prairie school master who died in 1951: a simple, serene, noble hymn to the lakeside unity of deciduous trees and grass.

Here is the height of accomplishment in the genre of the English landscape park as it was brought to this country in the mid-nineteenth century by Olmsted and others and re-interpreted in the Chicago region around the turn of the century by Ossian Simonds and Jens Jensen, with native plants and a uniquely quiet blend of horizontal prairie with tall woodland trees. At the Eckhardt place, which this writer has passed in a rush so many times, Jensen's vision of what landscape in this region can be at its best strikes the viewer with this circle of sunlit lawn: To find the unexpected in a world of the expected, to come upon a secluded corner of the past maintaining itself with an exquisite obedience to old laws, to know the sound of lake waves, the sweep of wind, the brilliance of sky, the calling of birds, is to open a door to a peculiar sense of awareness and fulfillment. These words open a 1967 book by the late Virginia S. Eifert, about another Jensen-influenced landscape, Door County's The Ridges, entitled Journeys in Green Places: the Shores and Woods of Wisconsin's Door County (in print, paperback, from Wm Caxton Ltd, Box 709, Sister Bay, WI 54234 or through local bookstores). After Jensen left his Highland Park landscape practice in the capable hands of his son-in-law, Marshall Johnson, in the mid 1930s, he "retired" to Ellison Bay, Wisconsin where he founded (and guided for fifteen years) at his place called The Clearing, itself one of the landscape wonders of the Great Lakes region, a Scandinavian Arts-& Crafts-like folk school. Indeed, Jensen "designed" Door County -- as a member of the County's park and highway commission, staking out sites for parks and parkways and creating one of this country's great designed landscapes on a large scale (see "Door County Parks," Chapter 12 in Sid Tefler, Jr.'s The Jens Jensen I Knew, Driftwood Farms Press, 1982). In the late 1930s Jensen was instrumental in saving the rare boreal-plant Ridges at Bailey's Harbor, the inspiration for Eifert's book of naturalist insights and appreciation. Lake Forest's Eckhardt place park echoes the mature woodland natural clearings found at preserved places like The Ridges or Jensen's own Door County place, The Clearing.

Bernard Eckhardt himself, according to Robert E. Grese in his 1992 book entitled Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens (Johns Hopkins U. Press; pp. 228-29), played a key political role in supporting Jensen's important Prairie-style landscape design and preservation work. "...[K]nown as one of Chicago's most progressive citizens," Eckhardt was chair of Chicago's West Park Commission from 1905 to 1908, rehiring Jensen who had been boodled out of the job previously in the interests of patronage. This restored governmental base in Reform-Era Chicago positioned Jensen to envision and build support for the whole Des Plaines River system of nature preserves in Cook and Lake Counties, a legacy which has protected the entire region from becoming a wasteland of over development. Eckhardt (1852-1931) immigrated as a baby to Milwaukee with his family from the Alsace region of France. In post-Fire Chicago he established the Eckhardt and Swan Milling Company and later entered the banking business, according to Grese. Previously he had represented in Chicago a Milwaukee milling firm, 1870-74. The vast prairies which swelled the lakeshore-city granaries were generous toward Eckhardt.

Perhaps Jensen helped Eckhardt select his prairie lot across from the lake, at Westminster and Lake Roads in Lake Forest. Eckhardt's house was sited set back from the lake but with a prairie vista to the bluff's edge and beyond toward the sunrise. The house itself is the work of Prairie School architect William Carbys Zimmerman (1856-1932), an Eckhardt contemporary also from the Milwaukee area (Thiensville). Zimmerman was an 1880 architecture graduate of M.I.T. in Boston, one the founding architecture programs in this country. The Eckhardt house can be glimpsed both from the entrance to the drive on Westminster and from Lake Road -- where the house stands at the other end of the park. Also, it is pictured as #17 in the Preservation Foundation Guide. The Guide entry avoids labelling this as a Prairie-style residence, perhaps because it combines the strong horizontal lines typical of this style with more formal, traditional two-story columns -- though capped with ornate ornament in the Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright mode. But, even with a bow to tradition, this is as pure a Prairie-style residence as can be seen from the road in Lake Forest, given the demise of Frederick W. Perkins' 1903 "Ioka" for Mark Cummings on the lake south of the cemetery and also the remodelling beyond recognition of the coachhouse across Lake Road (pictured, as built, in the Guide as #6). Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, Sr.'s "House-in-the-Woods," by Dwight H. Perkins in 1916, Guide #55, can't be seen from the road, though the gatehouse in the same style is near the street on the south side of Illinois Road, between Sheridan and Mayflower. The Eckhardt place -- the house by Zimmerman and the landscape by Jensen -- captures the Reform-Era spirit as it related to the land, honoring both the horizontal prairie which brought the area its wealth and also the natural woodlands which bounded the cleared farm areas on lake shores, in river bottoms, and between settlements. Danish-immigrant Jensen (1860-1951) distilled his sense of this unique environment into his 1939 book entitled Siftings with chapter titles such as "Art Has Its Roots in the Soil," "Environmental Influences," and "Our Native Landscape." The book has been reprinted and is available in paperback from the Johns Hopkins University Press. The Eckhardt house and landscape, then, almost uniquely for Lake Forest, bring together the two important indigenous Arts-and-Crafts traditions of Wright and Sullivan and of Jensen and Simonds -- Prairie-style architecture and landscape architecture.

The late Virginia S. Eifert's book was written to assist visitors to Door County to understand and appreciate the unique natural character of The Ridges and of the whole Door peninsula. In the same manner, this series of articles has sought to raise local consciousness -- leading to understanding and appreciation -- about the rich tradition of artistry in building and landscape design in this remarkable, unique midwestern community which blends important European traditions with local, native focussed artistic and ecological responses (these last two not mutually exclusive). Like Eifert this writer has endeavored to help his neighbors experience "a peculiar sense of awareness and fulfillment" from sights they pass every day, in this case through providing historical and art historical background information.

Lake Forest has evolved and is continuing to evolve, often guided by artistic principles and under the hand of some of the best professional advice and creative expression available in this age. These articles have spoken out against changes which are not based on the traditional high standard of artistic accomplishment here as exemplified by the 1908 Eckhardt place, particularly against development which combines profit maximization (bulk, mass-produced and inferior materials) with minimal design sophistication or artistic input, debasing the quality and integrity of both immediate neighborhoods and also of the larger community as a whole. These Journal pieces, too, have supported innovations where high standards of artistic quality have been present, echoing the position of Building Review Board member Michael Ebner who eschews any simple formula for making important decisions in shaping the evolution of this special community.

Always, then, there will be room for reasonable, well-meaning people to differ. The Building Review Board, with the leadership of its chair Larry Temple, has set a high standard of civility in dealing with the powerful emotions and high sticker prices surrounding so many decisions which come before it. Thus, it is with concern that this writer observes the recent lapses of civility which accompanied both the preliminary Building-Review-Board discussion several weeks ago of the proposal to expand the Pirie estate at 930 East Westminster and also the recent installation of the Deerpath-Art-League-donated Michael Croydon sculpture "Ex Libris" at the Lake Forest Library, with writers in these same pages, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to this decline in civility with respect to the latter. A local newspaper like this is precisely the place to offer well-reasoned and civil arguments, to debate important issues of broad mutual concern. All of us, as contributors, too, bear a responsibility to maintain our respect toward everyone in the community and to recognize that others come at these questions from defensible, even if conflicting, perspectives. All of us in the community, too, have been disappointed when policy outcomes do not take into account our own views and needs. But if cases are effectively and civilly made, they will be influential -- if not on the matter at hand, then in the guidance they provide in future deliberations. Local governmental judgments -- while always firmly rooted in legally-vested authority -- have benefited, not infrequently, from being challenged by civil criticism, the essence of democracy. For example the excellent renovation this year of Lake Forest's 1898 Frost & Granger City Hall could not have taken place if a proposal to demolish this City Hall fifteen years ago or so had not yielded to well-argued citizen opposition. Yet these Lake Forest elected and appointed official bodies must be recognized, indeed honored, for their long-term track record of open-mindedness, significant accomplishment, and outstanding stewardship here: so much of Lake Forest's special character has survived thanks to this collective wisdom, in spite of overwhelming economic challenges and of conflicting agendas.

Surely it is a combination of private and public sound judgment which has bequeathed to today's generation of Lake Forest residents the lovely private-park view east of the Eckhardt place, with its stunning Jensen sun clearing -- the better part of a century old. To know the historical importance to the whole Chicago region of this progressive client, Bernard Eckhardt, and his remarkably gifted and farsighted landscape designer, Jens Jensen, is to underscore the value of protecting this little park, even though private, from development. High values and high taxes no doubt make each year the little park survives a separate, distinct act of courage and commitment on the current owner's part. But the value to the owner and the community almost is incalculable. With good fortune and continued sound stewardship this locally-rare or unique result of a happy collaboration for a visionary patron between two Prairie-style masters, architect and landscape architect, will survive indefinitely. This writer is grateful to Chicago-area Jensen-student JoAnn Nathan for her insights so generously offered on this special place.

Arthur Miller

October 12, 1996