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Lake Forest Country Places: Stonywood

Lake Forest Country Places XV:

William Hammond Hubbard's "Stonywood,"
1313 North Green Bay Road

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 understated, colonial-style farmhouse built in 1892 by the Harvard-educated industrialist and philanthropist William Hammond Hubbard poses a serious challenge to Lake Forest's efforts at historic preservation. This approximately 5,000 sq. ft. dwelling is being dismantled prior to demolition by the ubiquitous local developer, Eugene Martin, in preparation for construction of an 8,700 sq. ft. home for the property's new owners, Mr. and Mrs. Miles White of Libertyville. Few cases come along which so dramatically outline the fundamental conflict between the opposed ethics of, on the one hand, community and historic preservation and, on the other hand, individual property rights and owners' or developers' drives to serve their own wishes and interests.

This house is of prime importance for its location, for its architecture, and for its historic associations. The community's inability here to prevent demolition forecasts the destruction of not only this one crucial structure but later of the new Green Bay Road National Register Historic District it anchors and ultimately the character of the larger community as a whole. While legal constraints appear to limit municipal action, the weakness comes more from inadequate knowledge about the house's architectural and historic significance. This information gap, in turn, has led to a lack of community will to preserve this very special inheritance.

First, why is this house important? Most obviously its site is crucial. It rests on a hill which is the highest point within the new Green Bay Road National Register District, the second-highest spot in Lake Forest. From east of and above Green Bay Road it looks west toward the sunsets over the east branch of the Skokie. Its prominence is all the more crucial today because of the new National Register status for Green Bay Road, but also for its location just across Green Bay from Ragdale, the City-owned estate of Market-Square architect Howard Van Doren Shaw -- arguably not only the most important preserved estate in the Chicago region but among the most significant and best preserved nationally. The Shaw estate's "Ragdale" house, built in the English Arts and Crafts style in 1897, is recognized nationally for its architectural and cultural importance -- a mecca for visiting architects and connoisseurs.

In addition to its high-profile location, the Hubbard place itself is important architecturally. It was built in 1892, according to the information provided by Barbara Buchbinder-Green in her Preservation Foundation-funded application document last year for the National Register of Historic Places. This makes it the earliest Green Bay Road estate -- primarily a country retreat rather than a working farm. It precedes two South Green Bay Road Henry-Ives-Cobb-designed colonial estate houses -- the William Henry Smith place now at 100 East Pembroke, built in 1894, and the David B. Jones place at 500 North Green Bay, built in 1895. No doubt its desirable promontory-like view to the west over the Skokie valley destined it to be the first along what would become a world-class Country Place Era line of estates, built between the time of the 1892-93 World's Fair and the Depression of the 1930s.

This restrained colonial-style house, remodelled by architect Ralph Milman in 1938 but still respecting its original classic New-England colonial lines, stands today on a site of the first importance along this historic roadway and in town a visible link to a principled, most honorable past. In hearings on proposed demolition of the house in 1994 one former resident reported that the house was closely modelled on an early Massachusetts house. At the same hearing an art historian "general practitioner" (genuinely an expert in other aspects of art history) hired by the developer testified that the house wasn't significant because, unlike the great estates up and down Green Bay, it lacked amenities such as a wine cellar. But "Stonywood" represents a simple-life ethic typical of the Puritan founder generation of Lake Forest, rooted in the most reactionary strain of New England Puritanism.

This Puritanism seen in the Hubbard house's understated lines came to Lake Forest out of Chicago, in the best separatist Pilgrim/Massachusetts Bay-Colony tradition, through the leadership of Rev. Robert W. Patterson, a protege of Rev. Lyman Beecher who was the leader of the old religion in his day. Beecher had been a leading student of Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Edwards' grandson, who brought the old religion back to Yale when it was taken over by Unitarians around 1800. Beecher's grand-daughter, Rowena Beecher, was Lake Forest's first public school teacher, in 1860. Also, the first president of the Lake Forest Association in 1856 -- the organization which incubated the town, Lake Forest Academy, Lake Forest College, and the First Presbyterian Church -- was Hiram Foote Mather, a descendant of Richard Mather, who was the brother of reactionary divine and author Cotton Mather in colonial Massachusetts. Hiram Foote Mather, too, was a student of Dwight at Yale; interestingly, as well, Foote was also the maiden name of Lyman Beecher's wife, Rowena. In an 1895 novel entitled An American Peeress Hobart Chatfield-Taylor gently satirized this simple, close-knit, Sabbath-keeping community -- poking fun at, among other things, the dull white clapboard houses of old Lake Forest, already then being supplanted by grander neighbors.

Hubbard's "Stonywood," then, is a crucial link to this earlier era in town -- with its direct intellectual and genealogical ties to New England's reactionary founding impulse. Even today just across Green Bay at 1272 resides a grand-daughter of Rev. James G.K. McClure who was Rev. Patterson's successor in Lake Forest at the Church, the Academy, and the College from the 1880s to the 1930s and a leader in the national Society of Mayflower Descendants in the early part of this century.

It becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the architectural and historical significance of this house. But there is one additional historical element of the highest importance which demands attention: William Hubbard himself. Most notably, Hubbard is memorable as the first person ever to hear a transmitted human voice. Since Buchbinder-Green's research last year, which noted Hubbard's death date of June 1, 1908, his obituary in the Tribune has shown that Hubbard was Alexander Graham Bell's student assistant at Harvard, where Hubbard graduated in 1879, and that young Hubbard was at the other end of the wire when Bell first laboratory-tested the telephone. This pioneer role brought Hubbard attention in his lifetime. For example, on April 6, 1906 Hubbard gave a talk to the Chicago Literary Club, of which he was a member, entitled "Reminiscences of Alexander Graham Bell and the Telephone in 1875-76." Hubbard remained interested in technology and innovation throughout his life, taking over a North Chicago iron mill from his uncle, Charles Hammond, when that gentleman died -- along with Hammond's significant charitable leadership in Chicago.

Hubbard's "Stonywood" is significant, then, for its highest site in the Green Bay Road Historic District and proximity to other important contributing structures, for being the earliest surviving Estate-era (primarily non-working-farm) place along this important stretch, for its colonial architecture which links it to Lake Forest's founding impulse, and for its historic significance as the home of the first person ever to hear a voice transmitted. The current preservation ordinance allows a developer to tear down even such an historic structure -- the sort of place routinely protected now for over a century in civilized eastern states where heritage is valued alongside entrepreneurship -- after waiting two years to try to find a buyer who will keep the original structure. But land values are so high in Lake Forest (the Hubbard-estate "Deertrail" lots are listed for $800,000 to $1,200,000) that it can pay a developer to wait out the two-year period and then demolish the original structure. The evidence of the futility of the current ordinance in staving off such destruction is mounting and deserves a review, now that this case with its potential to undermine the new National Register District is in play. At the very least, the Building Review Board should refuse to grant a permit for new construction on that site which does not at least begin with reconstruction of the Hubbard house exterior -- either to the 1892 appearance or to the 1938 Milman remodelling state. Additions up to the requested level of 8,700 sq. ft. should be in character and within the scale of the original, as is routinely accomplished for rambling country places in settings near New York. As this striking case illustrates, the community needs now to defend assertively its right to maintain its historic character in the face of influences, internal and external, which would erode its truly remarkable heritage and values.

Arthur Miller

February 10, 1996