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Lake Forest Country Places: Judah Estate

Lake Forest Country Places XI:

Noble Brandon Judah Estate,
111 West Westminster

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.

On the south side of Westminster west of Green Bay Road can been seen behind the wall and trees the tall, steep French-style roof line of the Noble Judah manor house, built from 1925 to 1928 by the architect Philip Lippincott Goodwin. A very familiar aerial view of this important estate appears on the cover of the indispensable Preservation Foundation Guide to National Register Properties: Lake Forest, Illinois (Lake Forest Foundation for Historic Preservation, 1991 and rev. 1994): the epitome of Lake Forest's estate era. Like the other places which have been profiled in this series, its past combines uncommon business, architectural, and social or cultural history. Today, too, the sympathetically-subdivided and preserved estate is a cornerstone in the Green Bay Road district which appears destined for National Landmark status.

The Preservation Foundation's Guide tells us that originally the manor house was the home of Noble Judah, a prominent Chicago attorney and state representative (1911-12) and his wife, Dorothy Patterson -- inheritor of the National Cash Register Co. fortune. The place was built and the grounds laid out at the high-water-mark of the Country Place Era, completed only a short while before the Crash of 1929. Though Chicago architect David Adler began the project, the architect of record is Goodwin, who -- with the Depression and the end of the Country Place Era -- would shift to modern design. Thus, he is best known for his collaboration with Edward Durrell Stone a decade later on New York's International-Styled, though still essentially residence-scaled, Museum of Modern Art. But in the Judah place Goodwin evoked the richest achievements of the late historical-style revival period: historically derived conception, quality of materials, authenticity and consistency of detail, scale, and confidence in a new cycle of culture -- the natural result of manifest destiny.

For Chicago from the twenties into the forties reached the pinnacle of its railroad-hub authority over the continent: the essential station change for transcontinental passengers and goods. Moreover, its area steel mills (Ryerson, Mark, etc.) --served by lakes ore boats -- forged the raw material for the cars, trucks, farm implements, and high-rise girders which transformed American geography and later armed the allies with the heavy munitions and equipment they required for overwhelming their Axis enemies in World War II, from 1939 to 1945. Chicago between the wars, too, was the home of the nation's leading media company with its Chicago Tribune and WGN locally, the Washington Herald, the New York Daily News (often edited in the twenties from its publisher's country place where Hawthorne shopping center now stands), and Liberty -- a weekly magazine competing with the Saturday Evening Post. While Illinois did not have the hold on Washington it had enjoyed under Lincoln and Grant in the 1860s and 1870s (when it gained the transcontinental railhead), still Evanston's Charles G. Dawes was Calvin Coolidge's Vice President from 1925 to 1929. As a part of this Illinois share in political power, Judah served as ambassador to Cuba from 1927 to 1929. The very tall, palatial Judah house, then, reflects a genuine highpoint of Chicago's economic and political power. Just as the Romans copied the Greeks in their hour of imperial hegemony, as the Renaissance Florentines and Venetians copied the Romans for their villas, and as the ascendant French and British copied Palladio and the classical masters, the architects of the Country Place Era called on the vocabulary of previous cultural zeniths in their own great edifices.

Edward Arpee's 1963 centennial history of Lake Forest details the imperial scale and impulse of the house's building. It had cost $1.5 million and "contained thirty-one rooms, transplanted piece by piece, from show places of former [pre- World-War-I-devastation] years in France.... The gates were brought from Cuba on a special ship. The cobblestone courtyard was brought from France...." In these best of Chicago years between the wars the Noble Judah house took shape. According to the Preservation Foundation Guide, too, the design of the house was thought to derive from one in Dive-sur-Mer, Normandy. Normandy, of course, was the cradle of the English aristocracy and many English families to which elite Chicagoans could trace their ancestry rooted their origins in the exploits of William of Normandy and the invasion of 1066.

As Arpee points out, too, the estate survived a mid-1940s effort to establish a community center in the house, a premature attempt to set up the kind of center which took shape so effectively in Gorton in the 1970s under Jackie and the late Brooks Smith. Also, the house was considered as a new home for Lake Forest Academy after a 1946 fire destroyed the Academy's main building on what now is Lake Forest College's South Campus. Instead, though, the estate stayed in private hands -- surviving though subdivided early and with care of the gardens by alloted sections going to the owners of the manor house, the David-Adler-converted carriage house (lower center in the Guide cover photo), and the orangerie (near the left-hand corner in the photo).

The ensemble survives today under this shared stewardship of the formal gardens designed, according the owner of the carriage house, by Innocente. The gardens are French and Italian in character -- with a tidy orchard, a French baroque parterre, perpendicular axes, long vistas and allees still much in tact today. Even with new houses on the eastern and western sides of the original property today, the core of the garden plan has survived sufficiently to give a sense of the achievement of one of the high spots of western villa cultural heritage. Resolutely formal, it lacks the informally-balanced landscape charm and openness of places like Beatrix Ferrand's Dunbarton Oaks in Washington, Cantigny in Wheaton, or Ragdale here in Lake Forest. But there can be few U.S. suburban peers in formal, axial sweep to the Goodwin-Adler accomplishment at the Judah place, preserved (in spite of tremendous motivation in favor of development) by truly well-educated and tasteful owner-stewards who, in turn, are encouraged by the Lake Forest Foundation for Historic Preservation. The long, French-cobbled, walled entry courtyard north of the main house (upper right in the Guide cover photo) is one of the most breath-taking smaller enclosed open spaces in Lake Forest or in the Chicago region (along with the Art Institute's Shaw-designed McKinlock Court or the University of Chicago's Cobb-designed quadrangles) and a precursor to the Museum of Modern Art's renown sculpture garden.

Arthur Miller

September 10, 1995