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Lake Forest Country Places: Lasker Estate

Lake Forest Country Places XXIV:

The Albert Lasker Estate
—the Coach House at 1221 Estate Lane

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.

After hugging the lake shore now for several columns this series is striking out for the west side: the expansive Albert Lasker estate, built in the late 1920s on a substantial tract of land bounded originally by Everett Road on the north, Telegraph Road on the east, Old Mill Road on the south, and extending west to about 200 feet west of the Tollway; 480 acres in all. This big chunk out of Vernon Township was the site of a late June Sunday-afternoon reception held by the Lake Forest Foundation for Historic Preservation -- with a visit specifically to the renovation-in progress of the coach house at 1221 Estate Lane.

This charming lane winds south from Everett Road, past the old estate gate house on the corner and several perky rail-fence, rose-bush-lined lawns until it heads straight for the old coach house. According to a 1991 description distributed by the Foundation at the meeting and written by Kyra Barr, this is just one of twenty-six outbuildings, along with the manor-scaled main house, which were the work of the local (but internationally-recognized) master architect of the late Country Place Era, David Adler. Other estate buildings include a theater, a music room, and the gatehouse already mentioned. By veering to the right and continuing south past the coach house, one comes to the main estate house. But that is a subject for another column. The focus here is on the very handsome renovation of this striking Adler subsidiary structure into a small country place in its own right and in keeping with the character and quality of such a conversion if Adler had done it himself.

Adler's own 1920s conversion of the coach house for the Noble Judah estate, off North Green Bay Road, is one of the little architectural jewels in town, though because it's not visible from the street it can't be a subject for this series. With its antique French panelling, perfect winding stairway, handsome forecourt/Normandy farmyard on the east, and striking garden vista west, this small-scale Judah estate project reflected Adler's intense focus on detail and quality: the best. It is this level of achievement which has motivated the architect for the Adleresque Lasker garage conversion: meticulous and artful attention to detail and quality. Though only partially completed, architect Dan Sutherland's neo-classical evocation of the era of Adler's hey-day on this high-profile site promises that this house will set a new standard in its neighborhood and should be a source of inspiration for others who share the grounds and buildings of this once-famous, though now mostly eclipsed, estate. Drawings by the Craig Bergmann firm for the landscape design, which were on hand at the Foundation reception along with a plan of the original estate grounds and golf course, promise that the small but important site of this property will reflect its fine estate bloodlines. The owner/renovators, with their swarm of vans daily, are bringing back with brio some of the glow of the famous estate's golden age. It's worth taking a little detour to drive along Estate Lane just to watch the progress.

But the purpose of this series has been to recall some of the original glory and significance of estates around town. So without more ado, something about Lasker, Adler, and the estate itself needs to be said. As a young man in the opening years of the century Albert Lasker invented much of what we know as modern advertising. Everything from Quaker Puffed Oats ("Shot from guns!") to automobiles benefited from Lasker's flair for catching the public eye. According to 1996 notes by Carol Champ from John Guenther's biography of Lasker, Taken at the Flood, and distributed at the Foundation reception, Lasker came to America at the age of six weeks from Germany in 1880 -- the child of American Jewish parents from Galvaston, Texas travelling in Europe. Lasker's parents were very prosperous -- his father "headed up [three] banks and owned a milling business." At the age of sixteen (presumably 1896) Lasker already was a "veteran" newspaperman for the Galvaston News. At eighteen he went to work for the Lord & Thomas advertising agency in Chicago, for ten dollars per week (he would retire in 1942 a multi-millionaire with over $45 million). He had outstanding energy, imagination, ability to persuade, and sense of presentation. He first foresaw the potential of radio and introduced the first soap operas, helping to invent the radio commercial. He was tall, always moving, warm (even passionate), dramatic, puritanical, healthy, clumsy, humorous, tense (apparently having three nervous breakdowns), and always a showman and impresario. Lasker bought into Lord & Thomas in 1903: he systematized and professionalized the business. Already making $52,000 annually in 1903, the newly married young man (his wife Flora from Buffalo had joined up the year before) by 1912 had built a house in Glencoe on the grounds of the Lake Shore Country Club; Flora bought and decorated a near-north side town house in 1915. In 1916 Lasker became a part owner of the Chicago Cubs with William Wrigley and J. Ogden Armour. He named Wrigley Field and hired a great pitcher (Grover Cleveland Alexander). Lasker roared into the twenties and radio and, when the Lake Shore Country Club course got crowded in the mid-twenties, built his own estate and course at what then was called Everett, Illinois: Mill Road Farm.

Just as Lasker himself was larger than life, so was his new estate -- Barr reports that it was labelled "one of the [ten] most beautiful estates in the United States...." A key decision in this accomplishment was the engagement of David Adler as architect. In 1925 and 1926 the career of Howard Van Doren Shaw was at its end: Shaw was ill and died (of pernicious anemia) at fifty-six and at the height of his reputation nationally -- he was awarded the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal as he was dying. But locally his period of major productivity had been before World War I and David Adler, who briefly had been in Shaw's office a dozen years earlier, by the mid-twenties was just coming into his own major commissions: the next decade would be his major phase.

Adler, a 1904 Princeton graduate and native of Milwaukee (b. 1882), had studied architecture for several years at Munich's Polytechnikum (1904-06) and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1906-1911) -- the French national arts academy in Paris, with its ateliers, competitions, and conservatism. His was among the most extensive European educations of any American-born architect whose work is to be found in Lake Forest. Though he didn't bother with the bureaucratic paperwork of a diplome, he absorbed the senses of grandeur and axial vistas and of the importance of detail and quality which characterized the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the dominant institution of its day. Never stopping to pass the Illinois architect licensing exam (it was finally just given to him in 1928), Adler left Shaw's Chicago atelier almost at once in 1912 or 1913 to strike out with another Beaux-Arts-trained Shaw associate, Henry Dangler (who did have a license and could sign plans), socially connected and talented, as well.

Quickly the two established their reputation for elegance and good design: commissions in Lake Forest for William Clow, Jr. and for Alfred Hamill in 1913 (Preservation Foundation Guide, #80 and #57, respectively). The Clow house was an understated late Georgian evocation of refined elegance while the Hamill place was in the then-popular Italian villa mode. But Adler was called especially to the French architectural vyocabulary: his first house in Glencoe, now demolished, was exquisitely modelled on the chateau of Balleroy in Normandy. A picture of this Louis XIII style masterpiece, firmly planted on the Lake Michigan bluff, appears in Richard Pratt's monograph on Adler's work published in 1970, now a much-sought-after collector's item (a new study of Adler is in an advanced research phase by Steven Salny of Baltimore, Lake Forest '77).

It was to this grand French mode that David Adler turned for inspiration for this ducal commission for Lasker. Barr's description labels this as "Seventeenth Century," and the striking facade of the garage reflects a high baroque flair; nothing dull or mundane even for this service building. This spirit is reflected, too, in the new facade Adler designed for the Hamill place in 1928 -- a brisk step away from slavish adherence to the Tuscan villa mode of the earlier garden front, also pictured in the Preservation Foundation Guide. So the Lasker garage facade from the start had an identity of its own, distinct from the manor house to the south: a Dutch or South African colonial style Adler would recall a few years later for the Bentley place on North Lake Road at the intersection with Spruce. Also, the Lasker garage was sited high and looking north: worthy in its own right. These bloodlines provided the possibilities which the current owners, their architect, and their landscape gardener have seized with enthusiasm -- to make this one of the outstanding new small country places in Lake Forest.

The manor house itself will wait to be the subject for a column of its own, but the scope of the estate as a whole was exceedingly bold -- characteristic of its owner and the scale of his success and impact on American commerce and popular culture. To the west he developed his own golf course, which was designed and constructed in 1925; it opened in 1926 and the great master of the game, Bobby Jones, declared it one of the three best courses in the U.S. The par 70 course was a long one, and had to be shortened. In 1934, still, the U.S. Open champion "broke par with a 69...." Lasker himself shot around 100.

The estate's landscaping ultimately was the product of an informal plan by James Greenleaf, a major New York landscape architect: winding lanes, natural plantings, and forest glades -- this last still experienced today driving south of the manor house on Estate Lane. Originally from the house and adjacent amenities there was a vista south to the pigeon house and one west onto the golf course, with camouflaged sand-traps.

With the arrival of the Depression came the end of the estate era and Lasker, sensing the changing times, gradually distanced himself from the lavish lifestyle of Mill Road Farm. In the end he gave it to the University of Chicago, perhaps to be open as a "stately home" with public gardens as in England, as a conference center, etc. Eventually, after World War II, the land was sold as lots and the 32,000 sq. ft. main house fetched only $110,000 in the dark days of 1943 (roughly double Lasker's 1903 salary, at age twenty-three). The Country Place Era was over.

For my biographical material on Adler I have drawn on my own evolving local architects' biography file, most recently entitled Lake Forest Classic and Prairie-School Architects: A Revised Preliminary Biographical Checklist and Finding Aid to Local Projects and to Sources (April, 1996), 20 pp. So far listing over seventy architects, over thirty sources, and hundreds of local buildings and residences, the current version of this list, arranged by architect name, can be obtained by sending $5.00 to the Lake Forest Journal (addressed to "Architects' List") to cover copying and mailing.

Arthur Miller

July 11, 1996