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Lake Forest Country Places: J. Ogden Armour’s Mellody Farm


J. Ogden Armour’s Mellody Farm

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.

Mellody Farm Centennial Facts
Nov. 14, 1904-Nov. 14, 2004

Compiled by Arthur H. Miller, from research also by Elizabeth Hedsund, Rita McAyeal, and Shirley M. Paddock; November 12, 2004, latest minor rev. May 19, 2013.

Armour family

Philip Danforth Armour came to Chicago in 1867, twenty years later than Cyrus McCormick; by his death in 1901 he had amassed a princely sum in commodities and meatpacking estimated at $100 million by Fortune (April 1931). His designated heir was his son, Jonathan Ogden Armour, who left Yale in his freshman year to assume the leadership of the company. By 1918, with World War I in Europe, the Armour company was worth approximately $1 billion, of which J. Ogden was direct owner of 72% (the rest owned by other Armours). He was the second wealthiest American, after Rockefeller then. But by 1923, he had lost his fortune and his empire (and that of his relations) had been “sold out,” after he tried to counter the negative economic forces of the post-war depression of 1919-23. He died in 1927, but the family regained much of its (real dollar value) wealth after 1930, with the sale of J. Ogden’s investment in Universal Oil Products (with its patent for ethyl gasoline). J. Ogden married Lolita Sheldon and they had one daughter, Lolita, later Mrs. John J. Mitchell Jr. Lolita Mitchell’s grandmother, Mrs. Philip D. Armour, outlived her spouse by many years, lived in the country with her son, and even survived P.D.’s fortune, as well. 

Mellody Farm land acquisition

The Armour country place west of Lake Forest began in 1904, coinciding with the “arrival” of cars in Lake Forest, according to a Waukegan Sun story, found by Shirley M. Paddock. John Griffith, local realtor and associate of Armour’s fellow meat packer and Lake Forest summer resident Louis F. Swift, put together the land deal which became Armour’s Mellody Farm. This was reported in The Lake Forester for December 17, 1904. The key purchase of over 300 acres was of the pioneer Martin Melody farm, the site today of the Lake Forest Academy buildings and grounds. The sale is listed as November 14, 1904 on a map dated 1914, found by Shirley Paddock among the John Griffith papers in the Griffith Grant & Lackie Realtors, Inc. (hereafter GGL) archives. A month later on December 15, 1904 the east side entry from today’s Waukegan Road, now Lake Forest Open Lands property, was purchased from the Kennedy family and others, as well. By 1914 the estate covered over 840 acres, mostly of land bought in 1904-05, but with other purchases, mostly west, as late as 1909, including from the Dennis Gibbonses, Mrs. Gibbons being pioneer settler Patrick Melody’s granddaughter. A requirement of J. Ogden’s was that all five local railroad lines should be east of his new country place. The Melody property was west of all five of Lake Forest’s railroad lines—two C & NW tracks, two North Shore Line tracks and the C M & SP tracks, which traversed the Armour property. The total land acquisition cost by 1914 was $150,000, though Melody also lived in an Armour-owned house on Vine St. a few doors from John Griffith himself, and apparently a part of the deal.

Design and construction, 1905-1908

According to the venerable architect and respected critic Peter B. Wight (Architectural Review, Feb. 1916, p. 98 col. 2), Chicago society architect Arthur Heun (1866-1946; see Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest…) was given by the Armours “control of all the work…” from “designs which were entirely his own….” He selected others, including landscape architect Ossian C. Simonds (1857-1931) for the main landscape design and construction (roads, the railroad bridge) and related tree planting and also Simonds’ fellow Prairie Style master Jens Jensen (1860-1951), for perhaps later planting within the overall garden plan Heun developed. New York interior design reformer Elsie De Wolfe (1865-1950) was selected for the interiors and furnishings. Each of these experts Heun drew into the project were founders of their fields (and authors of influential books: respectively Landscape-Gardening, 1920; Siftings, 1939 and The House in Good Taste, 1913)—the two landscape men of the midwestern indigenous approach to landscape (Prairie Style) and De Wolfe of post-Gilded-Age classic simplicity in home interiors. Heun himself brought midwestern estate design, a field relatively new itself, to a new level with this commission. 

Construction took place between 1905 and when the family tentatively moved in on May 5, 1908, though work undoubtedly continued after that. The general contractor was Chicago-based W.J. Newman, according to a contemporary newspaper article found among the GGL archives by Shirley M. Paddock. Newman invented and built a “powerful steam shovel” to excavate the extensive basement and foundation from the top, rather than from below, as was typical. Fifty men and twenty-five teams of horses were engaged on the earth excavations, with a temporary village of boarding houses, shops, and stables. An embankment 22 ft. tall and a half mile long shielded the house from the CM & SP rail line traversing the property north to south east of the house and gardens. 

The American Renaissance country house, as Wight termed it (he thought it not a pure Italian villa), is in the form of a letter “H”, 164 ft. square; the long central hall is 112 ft. by 45 ft. With dependencies (kitchen, laundry, etc.) the house in 1916 was 419 feet long. The house contained 29,000 sq. ft. of living space. The house and grounds were thought to have cost $10 million.

Styles and character of house, grounds, gardens and interior

Heun’s house had many Italian national style characteristics: the pair of towers on the front entry (and the campanile on the stable block), the arched doorways and windows, the stuccoed walls, and the red tile roof. The low, rambling exterior appearance beyond the basic “H” plan and the low-pitched hipped roofs are Chicago School in character. The careful siting and plan, the central spine for circulation, the hall, the repetition of the window spacing and other exterior features, and the relation of the house to its gardens are classic or Beaux-Arts, with some contemporary Arts & Crafts elements for the gardens (pergolas, smaller spaces, naturalistic planting by Jensen, etc.). The dignity of the exterior continues in the interior and the furnishings seen in the contemporary photos, with much of the decor following De Wolf’s taste for classic late Bourbon French and Georgian elements. The library’ paneling, in the southwest corner, is late English Renaissance, in the manner of sculptor/carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) and the smaller far west small library room, for Mrs. Armour, has paneling documented as being from an 18th C. London town house. Like architect James Gamble Rogers’ then neighboring 1902-04 Westmoreland for A.B. Dick, this was described as an American Renaissance style country house, reflecting the new transatlantic cosmopolitanism of the Chicago social and economic elite. 

Pre-Academy history of the estate

After the disappearance of the Armour fortune in the mid 1920s the family gave up the house, which was sold by 1927 to a syndicate of Lake Foresters, working with John Griffith again, who planned to build a country club with a golf course around the buildings. Though construction was completed on a club house/locker room to the north (later the chapel and fine arts building) that was designed, according to Bill Hinchliff, by former F.L. Wright associate Herman von Holst, the Crash and Depression ended the club idea. After the Depression, which had wiped out major club backer Samuel Insull and others, the property again was on the market, as GGL papers document, and sold, according to Hinchliff, to Chicago Depression-era business leader Frank Lewis, apparently not a resident on the estate, who worked to keep the place up for about a decade, selling off parcels to John F. Cuneo and others. In 1947 he sold the remaining 600 acres, the estate’s core, to Lake Forest Academy, the main 1893 Pond & Pond building (also of very high quality) of the institution having burned the previous year. The rest constitutes the modern history of the Academy and of Ferry Hall, which left its east Lake Forest home also to join the newly co-ed Academy in 1973.

Landscape and Gardens 

The ensemble of informal landscape and formal garden elements of the Mellody Farm estate helped Ralph Rodney Root by 1916-17 understand a distinctive midwestern (indeed Lake Forest) estate type blending harmoniously the contrasting formal and informal characteristics.  He published this too in a January 1924 article in the Archtiectural Record, including a copy of the Mellody Farm gardens.  The landscape begins far east at Waukegan Road, with an entry gate and cottage recalling that at the 1890s Breakers at Newport, R.I.  Then an English landscape roadway winds westward and across the Simonds railroad bridge and then lines up with a view of the house.  The gardens and house were on an axis or vista line that led from the east up to the symmetrical entry court  and the house’s front door, through the hall and Elsie De Wolfe’s iconic winter garden and on to the exterior and west to the Casino, the tea house or pavilion on the slight rise overlooking the pond on the west side.  Between the house and the garden, the architect Heun laid out Italian-like garden spaces with trelliage, masonry walls, water features, hedges and plantings that may have started out in a 17th C. manner and morphed into pool-side informal plantings later (Jensen?).  There were various smaller garden rooms and sub axes, as well.  

Some Interior Features

The main hall is lateral, as at Lake Forest’s Ragdale, the 1897 summer home Howard Van Doren Shaw and his family at 1230 North Green Bay Road.  But in many respects it recalls the similar dominant main hall of the 1883 Nickerson Mansion, now the Driehaus Museum, Chicago.  The architects for that earlier house were Burling and Whitehouse, with Whitehouse in the early 1890s practicing on his own and with Heun as an associate. When Whitehouse retired, Heun took over the practice.  So there was a laying on of hands, if you will, from the Driehaus Museum to Melldoy Farm, though the plans are separated in time by two decades.  In both cases the long main halls terminate in an imposing staircase to the second level.  

Directly in line with the entry and the Casino is the also symmetrical winter garden designed by New York decorator Elsie De Wolfe, in the mode she had used recently at the Colony Club with walls lined with trelliage suggesting an exterior transitional space.  The room also includes a small fountain, and looks west to the gardens.  To the north or right, near the kitchens that broke the north wind, was the dining room with its faux finish in a marble effect and west of it a dining porch.  On the left, or south, was the library, paneled and carved in the Grinling Gibbons manner of the late 17th C. (Hampton Court outside London).  While this library was the work of local craftsmen, the smaller library to the west employed a room transferred form a London house.  Immediately east across the hall was the grand music room, in an 18th C. Adam-like Renaissance revival style with decorated plaster features.  

The second floor plan echoed that of the main floor with a long north-south hallway, but with great built-in cabinets on either side at the middle.  Mrs. Armour reprised this feature when she built her mid 1930s new house by David Adler on Green Bay Road, opposite the Onwentsia club entrance (she also included there a scaled-down winter garden with Syrie Maugham elements).  There were four bedrooms at the four corners—J. Ogden’s on the northeast (with an elevator and small sitting room adjacent to the porte cochere there), spouse Lolita Sheldon Armour’s southeast, daughter Lolita’s on the southwest and J. O.’s mother, Mrs. P.D. Armour’s on the northwest.  Cosy. 

The adaptive reuse of the interior to a boarding school has seen changes in locations of functions over the years, especially with the ca. 1970 addition of the Netsch wing on the east, originally the library.  This was moved to the living and music rooms in the 2000s and the admissions office moved into the dining room. Classes meet in the bedrooms above as they have since the beginning.