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Lake Forest Country Places: Holts Homestead & Hamills Tower

Lake Forest Country Places II:

Holts' "Homestead" (1860)
& the Hamills' Italian Tower

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.

Holts' "Homestead," a Link to Chicago's Founding

Presbyterians from fast-changing Chicago founded Lake Forest on the new railroad to Waukegan just before the Civil War. Among them were DeVillo Holt and his wife, Ellen Hubbard Holt, builders of one of the first country houses in Lake Forest -- in 1860 -- and today one of the town's key landmarks. The "Homestead" has been on the northwest corner of College and Sheridan Roads for one-hundred and thirty-four years and ties early Lake Forest to Chicago's founders.

The Homestead is a clapboard Italianate villa in the style of Andrew Jackson Downing, the New York architect who promoted republican virtues through country houses in four-and-five acre parks all across Ante-Bellum America. The Holts' commodious, but not pretensious home, lived in by the family for a century, reflected Chicago's early achievement in the West. DeVillo Holt, born in New England and a descendant of Nicholas Holt who came to Boston in the 1630s, went at an early age to Mackinac to trade furs with Native-American trappers. By the late 1840s he had entered the lumber business in Chicago and, according to the Holt genealogy in the Lake Forest College library, owned the first cargo-load ever shipped on the Illinois & Michigan Canal -- in 1848. Mrs. Holt was a cousin of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, who "founded" Chicago commercially in the 1820s and 1830s both by platting the first major real estate tract and then selling lots in the east and also by building the port's first brick warehouse.

The Holts, faithful Presbyterian Church members, came to Lake Forest for religious and cultural reasons. As Lake Forest College History Professor Michael Ebner has noted in his 1988 book Creating the North Shore, in 1850 when the majority of New Yorkers were native-born, the majority of Chicagoans were not: more than half were immigrants (Irish, German) recruited to build this metropolis of the American west. In a city where most were Catholic or agnostic, Puritan-bred New Englanders like the Holts sought a quiet, rural place to live -- respecting the Sabbath and united in temperance. The children of the Holts and their friends could go to school -- Lake Forest Academy where today Lake Forest College's Durand Institute stands -- far from saloons or loose women. Downingesque villas and parks in Lake Forest echoed the homely "seats" of the old North Side in Chicago, the pre-Fire "Garden City."

Interestingly, local historian Edward Arpee (whose wife Katherine was a Durand descendant) wrote that the Homestead is a brick structure with a concrete floor, clad in wood. Probably this was both for style and also as a gesture toward unpretensiousness. All the old settlers had started out equally, working together with few resources. Showy mansions were not appreciated, recalled Frederick Cook in Bygone Days in Early Chicago. Also, Holt -- in the lumber business -- would have wanted to avoid the appearance of spurning wood as a building material!

Ellen Holt, daughter of DeVillo and Ellen Hubbard Holt, lived on at the Homestead until 1960 and no doubt her recollections figured in her neighbor Edward Arpee's 1962 centennial history of the town. For a while the College owned the home, preserving it and renting it out -- and some of the family papers and photos are now in the College library. But as interest in preservation took root in town after the mid-1970s, the College sold the Homestead to private interests who better could undertake the appropriate maintenance. Arrangements were made, too, for a limitation on subdividing the property; in the mid 1980s one sympathetically scaled and styled dwelling was constructed just to the north, between the Homestead and the 1860 companion landmark Harvey Thompson house.

Today, as we walk and drive past the Holts' Homestead, we get as good a sense as anywhere in the Chicago region of Ante-Bellum, pre-Fire patrician Chicago. Here is a restrained but stately assertion of an anti urban ideal, earlier widely found everywhere on the fringes of the bursting city, but now only rarely preserved with even some of the original park like grounds.

Arthur Miller

May 4, 1994; revised October 15, 1994


"Elsewhere" — Alfred Hamill's Italian Tower at Mayflower & Ringwood

At the south end of Mayflower Road on the east side is a converted carriage house with a high tower like those in Market Square, but in the style of Italian hill towns. This was the hideaway of one of Chicago's great cultural leaders (Art Institute, Newberry Library) in the first half of this century, Alfred Hamill. This is the first of two columns that deal with (today) adjacent properties, Alfred and Clarice Hamill's "Centaurs" on the southwest corner of Mayflower and Illinois, facing Illinois, and "Elsewhere," the adjoining tower/retreat of this talented and influential "Renaissance man."

Alfred Hamill died in 1953, but his wife Clarice lived into the 1970s at her smaller home just south of the Christian Scientist church, on Washington Road. Probably in the fall of 1972 Ruth Winter, Lake Forest College's extraordinary then- director of cultural affairs (and deserving of a whole story of her own), took me to meet her long-time neighbor and the mother of her daughter-in-law, Clarice Hamill. As the new College librarian, I was anxious to meet the library's most significant donor: in the early 1950s Mrs. Hamill had given the College library 6,500 volumes, the core, of her husband's princely book collection from "Centaurs." I remember the occasion vividly: something out of Henry James. A noble, but elderly woman, Mrs. Hamill enchanted me with her own books (including a spectacular collection of miniature volumes), her family background (her grandfather had been an associate of Goethe's at Weimar, present at the birth of the Romantic Movement), and memories of the "Centaurs" estate. I had seen the charming bookplate for "Elsewhere," but it was a mystery. She laughed and said the it was an inside joke. If someone came to the door at "Centaurs" or phoned for Mr. Hamill, the staff were instructed to say that he was "elsewhere" and to take a message. But close friends knew that this was a code saying that Mr. Hamill was in his tower-top study looking over the lake, "Elsewhere." They could find him there engrossed in the bookish pursuits he so loved. Here he wrote poetry, read books from his libraries, planned his cultural projects, and nurtured his soul -- the very essence of the villa ideal, an Italian concept dating back to the time of the Romans, an escape of the city and from daily cares -- "elsewhere."

Alfred Hamill himself was a descendent of French pioneers in in the Mississippi valley and St. Louis, stopping in boomtown Galena (where there's a modest Hamill house) on their way to the new capital of the West, Chicago. His family -- among Chicago's leading builders -- was in banking and he dutifully became an investment banker, but only to make the funds that would allow him to live a Renaissance ideal on his Lake Forest estate. In his study he wrote poems, many of which he collected and printed privately as Christmas gifts under the nom de plume of Hugh Western. His generation of Chicagoans had nurtured the Chicago Literary Renaissance, including Harriet Monroe's Poetry: A Magazine of Verse founded in 1912 with Lake Forest backing as well as the original Little Theatre in the Fine Arts building, the birthplace of modern theater in this country. The Lake Forest Players on the Aldis estate (southeast corner of Green Bay Road and Deerpath) were an off-shoot of this renewal movement: amateurs taking over from hackneyed melodramatic touring actors, small audience-spaces, and realistic or artistic plays. Hamill's still-very-readable poems most often reflected this movement and also his book-collecting interests: Byzantine history and art, Russia, Italy, and life itself as a work of art.

But literate Lake Foresters know Hamill best through his wonderful Lake Forest Library, the 1931 Jeffersonian neo-Palladian clublike temple to learning he put together as library board president with Edwin Clark as architect, the Stanley Keith children as donors, and Remisoff -- the then much-in-vogue Russian emigre -- as rotunda muralist. This gem is the essence of the aristocratic country ideal, leisurely learning at the top of a broad lawn. Hamill wrote a little guide to the murals in the library rotunda, beautifully designed and printed, which still is available on request from the Librarian. This treasure we pass through so often is nearly invisible to us, but Hamill's concise effort as a cicerone or guide to the classical subjects of the murals makes us mindful of this stunning inheritance. I can almost feel him at my side, whispering in my ear. Surely the inspiration for this perfect, vest-pocket-scaled institution was worked out in quiet hours high up, "Elsewhere."

Arthur Miller

October 16, 1994