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Lake Forest Country Places: Keith House

Lake Forest Country Places XXIV:

Mrs. Stanley Keith, 1315 North Lake 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.

As readers of previous articles in this series know, I tend to wax if not eloquent at least loquacious about the good taste of the family which about 1930 built this fine house at 1315 North Lake Road, in the period of high accomplishment in the country place era. Steven M. Salny, author of an article on this house and then later The Country Houses of David Adler (W. W. Norton, 2001) with its images and discussion of this premier house, arranged earlier for me to accompany him on a visit there, generously offered by the now previous owner. This series, though, has been about the places one can see and enjoy in full measure from the sidewalk or curb, not intruding. So I’m pleased to report that the fine interior of 1315 North Lake Road — wonderful as it is — is an internalization of the exterior sense of ordered elegance and sweep created by the architect and the landscape architect, Ferruccio Vitale. While those queuing up to attend the 1997 Gorton benefit here will be treated to a rare experience indeed, others just passing by can be rewarded, too, for the price only of the contribution to support the Lake Forest Journal.

What is unique and special about this country place of Mrs. Keith’s, having survived almost unchanged after two-thirds of a century and currently finishing a major renovation and expansion, is its unusual placement within the 1857 Lake Forest plat bisected by Lake Road and offering remarkable Beaux-Arts vistas east and west. Like Platt’s “Gwin” estate outside of Cleveland, the roadway separates the house from the park.  Also, this is one of just a handful of remaining unsubdivided estates along the mostly-broken-up Mayflower-Road/Lake-Road corridor — one of an endangered species in Lake Forest. The current owner protected the lakefront, east side site from being divided into two lots. The visual scope of this late estate-era triumph by Adler and Vitale brought home when this article appeared the importance, too, of the petition then before the Building Review Board to expand the estate at 930 East Rosemary Road, Camp Rosemary, to recreate one of these classic estates, the only effort on this scale proposed here since Adler’s work ceased just a few years after this commission for Mrs. Keith, over sixty years ago.

First of all, Mrs. Keith, who was widowed by Kersey Coates Reed early in 1929, was one of two daughters of John G. Shedd, the early 20th c. dynamic president of Marshall Field & Co. Shedd’s other daughter was Mrs. Charles Schweppe, for whom he built in 1915 the estate at 405-429 North Mayflower Road, recently subdivided (Preservation Foundation Guide #48). Mrs. Reed, later Mrs. Stanley Keith, as a memorial to Kersey Coates Reed donated, with her sister Mrs. Schweppe, in 1931 the stately Lake Forest Library building by Edwin H. Clark, at 360 East Deerpath (Guide, # 24), undoubtedly the finest community library building this writer has seen in the Chicago region. The sisters, too, built the original building of the Shedd Aquarium at the south end of Grant Park, and the focus of lakefront landscape redevelopment this year.

Like Edwin Hill Clark’s Library the country place at 1315 North Lake Road is Georgian Colonial Revival, in this instance constructed out of Pennsylvania gray micah stone and following the neo-classical villa form of a central structure with two wings terminating symmetrically in twin temple-like pavilions — as in the Capitol in Washington or, closer by, New York architects Delano & Aldrich’s 1923 McGann place at 965 East Deerpath. The Pennsylvania stone, too, recalls the simplicity and orderliness which characterized the lives of members of the Society of Friends, centered in that state. Such a stone house outside of Philadelphia became the home of popular 1920s novelist Joseph Hergesheimer and he wrote a book about it, From An Old House, published by Knopf in 1926. Hergesheimer chronicled his finding and enhancing lovingly his Georgian inspired stone country place and setting out gardens to give it scope. I now own the Lake Forest Library copy, obtained honorably at a September sale some years ago. The College library copy came from the Alfred Hamills, so the book was known around town.

This symmetrical, classically-proportioned, perfectly-scaled and historically-resonant masterpiece built from superlative materials sits on one of the finest sites in the Chicago area, with a broad expanse of high bluff views to the lake and up and down the shore. If one stops her or his car, just pauses for a second, opposite the front entrance to 1315, she or he can look east — through the front door when it’s open in summer and through the house — to the sky over the lake beyond. Turning to the west, she or he can look through the gates down a long allee to a sculpture with a brick-wall background, the latter created by Adler. In between are the succession of room-like spaces framed by mature arbor vitae, no doubt Vitale’s inspiration, but in keeping just as surely with the overall Beaux Arts-inspired vision which was so distinctly Adler’s. These arbor-vitae lined chambers reflect the midwestern affinity to Italian garden structure which garden historian Jane Brown has seen as peculiarly American and, we could add, Chicagoan. It is American since floral display, except for roses, seems limited to a few weeks in spring and fall as in Italy, with the harsher extremes of summer and winter in between. In Chicago, this is especially true of winter. But this challenge not only attracted excellent landscape architects like Vitale but invigorated the pioneering amateur botanists who were early members in the Lake Forest Garden Club, including Mrs. Keith.

The Reed house on the lake side of Lake Road was built on the site of an earlier brick house, built ca. 1880 for commodities trader Abram Poole of Chicago, or possibly before him by banker W. V. Kay.  The estate was called Elsinor.  Ca. 1927, according to grandson Peter Reed in conversation with the author, Mrs. Reed had Vitale guide her in renovating the old Poole garden.  Records of the Lake Forest Water Company in Special Collections, in the original record book (p. 18), show that there was a substantial and, from June through October, very thirsty garden there in 1892: drawing 17,484 cubic feet of water, or 131,180 gallons.   This compared with M. L. Scudder (p. 13), 797 N. Sheridan today, drawing only 4,095 cubic feet, or 30,712 gallons in those months—less than one quarter as much.  There was water at the Poole gardener’s cottage (extant, also brick), a lawn sprinkler and three additional such, presumably across the road from the house at the old garden.  A conservatory also had a faucet carefully detailed in these records.  The Reeds bought the property, house and garden, and worked on renovation of the garden with its central axis lining up with the front door across the road, the entry to the old Poole house.  At the west end is the signature Vitale shaped pool and sculptural niche, with a large bronze female figure within it.  So the garden was here and renovated before and/or by 1927.  The Adler house then was sited so that the new entry would be in the same spot.  

Ferruccio Vitale (1875-1933) was a major eastern landscape architect, with Washington’s Meridian Hill Park among his credits. According the landscape architect James Matthew Evans in The Landscape Architecture of Washington, D. C.: A Comprehensive Guide (Landscape Architecture Foundation, 1981) Meridian Hill Park, a mile north of the White House, is a “masterpiece, one of the finest urban parks in the U.S.” (pp.85-86), even if not the safest place to visit even in daytime. Planned before World War I, it was realized in the 1920s and 1930s.

Two events brought Vitale to the Chicago area from the mid 1920s on: Lake Forest’s Foundation for Architecture and Landscape Architecture summers from 1925 to 1931 and by about 1930 supervision of the landscape design for the Century of Progress, Chicago’s second World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934, east of Soldier’s Field. Vitale died before the Fair opened, but made a lasting mark on the Chicago shoreline, which still is being played out in the struggle over the move to turn Meigs Field into a park adjacent to the Shedd Aquarium. The Foundation at Lake Forest was an Ecole-des-Beaux-Arts-modelled summer graduate program from 1926 to 1931, for the best graduates in architecture and landscape architecture from midwestern universities (later Harvard was added just before the Depression, as a step toward making this a nationwide program).

The purpose of the Foundation was to prepare promising beginning architecture and landscape architecture professionals for collaborative country place practice, through atelier-like group study with nationally known practitioner/teachers of drawing, drafting, design, and even sculpture. Annual competitions or concours, judged by leading professional and lay experts, resulted in gifts of a year’s travelling fellowship in Europe for one participant from each discipline. Unhappily, this collaborative study requirement led to women being dropped after a few years — since they couldn’t go unchaperoned to Europe with a young man. This was less than a decade after women were given the vote. The program was housed on the Lake Forest College campus until the last summer, 1931, when the academic part of the program moved to the new Lake Forest Library; the students continued to live on campus. The students visited the best estates (lists survive in the minutes book of the Foundation Trustees, a copy of which is in the College archives). The program carried on after the Crash of 1929, only succumbing in 1932 — because the contributions to support the summer program dried up as those donors still able to give felt pressed by other urgent charities, to reduce the suffering of the unemployed. The year-long tours abroad continued for a couple more years on an endowment established by the Ryerson family; David Adler was an important force in this late effort to keep the dream of the Foundation alive. A serious fall from a horse while hunting in 1934 which virtually ended Adler’s career couldn’t have helped the Foundation. In 1935 the less-than-a-decade-old Foundation ceased operations, since the need for new professionals in country place design had abated considerably. The funds remaining, about 60% after losses to Insull-related investments, were returned to the Ryerson family.

Vitale was the founding professional leader of the Foundation, promoting the concept to graduate schools and professionals, and his loss left a vacuum which Adler appears to have done much to fill. The Lake Forest Garden Club and spouses were the Foundation’s backbone: amateur garden author Katherine Lancaster Brewster and Walter Brewster, Clarisse and Alfred Hamill, and others such as Mrs. Keith. The locals saw to the finances, entertained the students and the visiting professional dignitaries, judged the competitions, donated books for the library, and even provided the motor cars for excursions. The vista from the front of 1315 North Lake Road to the sculpture to the west is one important monument to the ideal of beauty which inspired and energized this unique Foundation concept.

Some of the plans of local estates done by the Foundation students as projects are on view in the southeast-most room of the Lake Forest Library, restored a few years ago by the Lake Forest Garden Club. A significant collection of other renderings and drawings surviving from the program, along with the minutes of the Foundation, now is in Lake Forest College’s Donnelley Library Special Collections unit. Certainly there is material here for a major exhibition and book. Though this movement was forgotten in the abrupt change of taste which followed the Crash, it represents a highpoint of American culture and one which was poised to establish Lake Forest as a center for nurturing collaboration between architects and landscape architects.

This collaboration between architects and landscape architects is a goal which is worth recalling when we observe painful local miscommunications of the recent Newells Reserve sort. This writer invites readers to motor along Longmeadow Lane and then, for stark contrast, to picture to themselves some of the great planned crescents and parkways in Britain at places like Bath and London. Or to recall the civilized park-facing developments and houses Adler, Arthur Heun, and Howard Shaw orchestrated or enhanced in Chicago. The educated taste of Vitale, Mrs. Keith, and the other Foundation supporters long ago calls out to stewards of Lake Forest in this present generation to (1) preserve jewels such as the Mrs. Keith place (house and park), (2) support efforts like that proposed for the expansion of 930 East Rosemary Road which strive to re-establish a classic standard in country place design here, and (3) encourage, indeed, require constructive collaboration among clients, architects, and landscape architects to create harmonious, planned solutions to the age-old problem of blending the built and natural environments. Let the Longmeadow Lane experience be recalled as the point where Lake Forest planning touched bottom (the extremity of what Franz Schulze has described as the modernist impulse to “self referential” architecture, a new idea here forty years ago). From here, let us recall, Lake Forest pushed its way back toward the surface of landscape and architectural harmony, a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Arthur Miller

November 14, 1996; rev. October 5, 2011