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Lake Forest Country Places: Thompson House

Lake Forest Country Places XIV:

Leverett Thompson House
788 Woodland 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 elegant, formal Leverett Thompson house, on the northeast corner of Woodland Road and Lake Road, across from the lake shore, was designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1907. Mrs. Thompson was the former Alice Poole and the Thompson place stands on land which orginally was part of the Poole estate, “Elsinore,” across Lake Road on the bluff, built in 1884. According to the Preservation Foundation Guide (#10), “one of the first lake-front mansions in Lake Forest.” The Poole house long ago gave way to David Adler’s exquisite Keith-Stride house, but — again the Guide tells us — the 1907 Shaw house “is thought to” include an earlier Poole-estate outbuilding, making this one of the oldest surviving Lake Road structures. The interest in this address, though, goes beyond both the literary Poole family and the important Shaw house to the landscape work of a remarkable partnership employed here, Charles Platt and Rose Standish Nichols — both of the Cornish, New Hampshire summer artists’ community.

When the pre-war-founded Garden Club of America visited Lake Forest in 1919, that first post-war summer, their visit included the Thompson place. Chicago landscape gardener Ralph Rodney Root, an honorary member of the Lake Forest Garden Club, prepared a book of garden plans for the occasion, along with now-very-valuable attributions of architects, landscape gardeners, and sculptors. Root, from 1916, taught a summer school of landscape architecture at Lake Forest University, in addition to his landscape practice. Earlier in the decade and through 1918 he had been professor of landscape gardening in the architecture school of the University of Illinois and had written Design in Landscape Gardening (New York: Century, 1914), from a formal viewpoint. It is to Root’s 1919 plan, probably prepared in 1916 (1919 was the first GCA meeting after the 1917-18 war) that I owe the attribution of the garden and park at the Thompson place to Platt and Nichols.

Charles A. Platt’s most notable work was his now demolished 1912 “Villa Turicum” house here in Lake Forest for Harold and Edith Rockefeller McCormick, though most of his work was in the east. At “Villa Turicum,” though, the scale of the resources available allowed him to recreate an Italian villa and garden, with much owed to Villa d’Este near Rome. In 1908, classicist Platt won this rich commission from James Gamble Rogers and from Frank Lloyd Wright — sounding the death knell for, or at least signalling the eclipse of, the Prairie School. Wright left his family in Oak Park and went off to Europe with the wife of a client, leaving the field to the Beaux-Arts-trained architects like Platt and Shaw. The movement toward classicism and historicism had been taking shape for over a decade — with English architect Reginald Blomfield’s 1892 book, The Formal Garden in England (Shaw’s 1892 copy was on the inglenook shelf at Ragdale, but disappeared after this story appeared mentioning it), with the classical structures and court of the 1892-3 World’s Columbian Exposition here in Chicago, and with the appearance of two key American books: Platt’s own 1894 Italian Gardens and Edith Wharton’s 1904 Italian Villas and Their Gardens. Landscape historian Norman Newton (Design on the Land, 1972) credits the 1893 Chicago event and Platt’s book, though, with marking the beginning of the Country Place era in this country. From his book, based on an Italian tour, Platt reached out beyond his own formal garden in Cornish to undertake many estate plans on the east coast.

The Bostonian Miss Rose Standish Nichols (1872-1960), who Root credits with the planting for the estate with the formal garden west of the house, was the niece of another Cornish resident, the genteel sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, at the zenith of his reputation around the turn of the century (a smaller copy of a very limited-edition of his Lincoln-Park standing-Lincoln statue can be seen at the Donnelley and Lee Library, Lake Forest College). Nichols often collaborated with Howard Shaw, and Mac Griswold in The Golden Age of American Gardens… (Abrams, 1991) calls attention to their work together — like that of architect Edwin Lutyens and landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll in England at that time. Sometimes Nichols did the planting only (as at the Thompson place), but often she collaborated on the design. She was a pioneer as a professional woman in her era and attended MIT, along with being a member of Society. The guest book for the Laflins’ 1907 “Ellslloyd” a couple of blocks south of the Thompson place — given to the Lake Forest College library in 1995 by Mrs. Stanley Field — shows Miss Nichols visiting there on at least two occasions. Rose Nichols worked also on the Laflins’ grounds and on the Ryersons’ renown second “Havenwood” garden, South Sheridan and Ringwood Roads, long abandoned, and built over in the last dozen years, at the junction of Ringwood and Mayflower. Nichols wrote books into the 1920s on English, Italian, and Spanish/Portuguese gardens which nourished her coast-to coast practice (the guest book for the Laflins’ Pasadena house shows her visiting there, as well).  Nichols’ 1902 still-valuable English Pleasure Gardens  was reprinted in 2003, with an introduction by the Boston garden historian Judith B. Tankard.   

Shaw’s east-facing terrace for the Thompson house, visible from Lake Road, reflects his embracing of an architectural apporach to the terrain adjacent to the house as called for in Blomfield’s 1892 manifesto. At that same time Shaw was designing striking English-garden terraces, too, for the Durand Commons (now Calvin Durand Hall) at Lake Forest College and for Clifford Barnes’s “Glen Rowan” just west of the campus across Sheridan Road, now also the College’s. Gardeners like Nichols or Beatrix Ferrand in this country were teaming up with architects like Shaw and Delano & Aldrich (who Ferrand helped when they were starting out, prior to their 1923 design of “Fairlawn” here in Lake Forest) to seize the ground directly around the house back from the landscape practitioners, descended from the English school and influenced and led by Olmsted.

The serenely-designed, park-like vista to the lake from the terrace of the Italian-inspired neo-Georgian Thompson house remains today a testimony to a long-ago very genteel competition between garden styles (formal vs. landscape) and between emerging professions (architecture vs. landscape gardening or architecture). The Thompson place with its Shaw house and terrace, Platt estate design, and Nichols plantings may have played, too, a pivotal role in turning the tide, for a while, away from the innovations of Wright and the Prairie School through Platt’s winning of the highly-important “Villa Turicum” commission. From 1907 to World War I (1917-18), Shaw himself would dominate the Lake Forest scene, going on to build not only the 1914 Ryersons’ second “Havenwood” (Guide, #56) again collaborating with Nichols, but also the 1912 Finley Barrell house at 855 E. Rosemary Road (Guide, #50), this time collaborating with the renown Warren Manning on a formal garden (later replanted by Nichols for the Hixons, 1925). Neighboring the Thompson house, too, were Shaw’s 1912 McLennan house (#8), his 1916 Misses Colvin house (#9), and his 1914 Clayton Mark house (#11). The exception proves the rule with architect William Carbys Zimmerman’s 1908 Prairie-Style-featured Bernard Eckert house at 950 East Westminster (Guide #17): the rare and perhaps last major example of its type in Lake Forest. Shaw was the major pre-war architect-beneficiary of the outcome of this competition. The formal, historical style itself, as practiced particularly by men who worked in Shaw’s office (Adler, Anderson, Milman), would hold sway in Lake Forest beyond Shaw’s death in 1926 until after World War II, forty years after the Thompson estate was completed.

As a footnote and to bring this story more up to date sixteen years later (in 2012), several years ago the current stewards/owners of the Mrs. Kersey Coates Reed house, 1315 N. Lake Road, extended that 32,000 sq. ft. mansion south with an addition for an indoor swimming pool, blocking the view of the lake from the Thompson house. Perhaps partly in response, the current owner of the Thompson house built a two-story folly—with seasonal lake views—on the southwest portion of his property at 788 E. Woodland Road, south of the mid 20th c. swimming pool that replaced Rose Nichols’ garden of 1907.  The new folly is a replica of Massachusetts architect Samuel McIntire’s Derby farm Palladian summer house, Danvers, in 1793-94, recreated by Phil Liederbach of Chicago architects Liederbach & Graham in 2011.  The architectural details, with wooden carved urns at the roofs four corners, have been painstakingly reproduced.  (See the Summer 2012 Lake Forest Preservation Foundation Newsletter, p. 5, for a color photograph of folly with a description, given an award by the group last spring.)  In addition to the classic folly, if the Nichols garden is no longer there, the current owners have also done much to enhance the grounds in recent years.  Consultants to them have included the late British gardener/author Rosemary Verey who created a beautiful rose garden. These enhancements at 788 E. vWoodland Road contribute to Lake Forest’s Lake Road continuing to be one of the nation’s best displays of classic and historicist architecture and landscape design by some of its best creators.  Protected by a local preservation ordinance (1998) overlaying a National Register District (1976), this drive along the high lake bluff is a significant high point in American design history.   

[In addition to the sources noted above, I’m endebted to Leonard K. Eaton’s Two Chicago Architects and Their Clients (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1969) for its discussion of the Shaw-Wright dichotomy. George Ackerman, too, discusses the McCormick commission in his 1990 book entitled The Villa: Form and Ideology in the Country House. I’m also indebted to Deborah E. Van Buren for her article, “Landscape Architecture in the Cornish Colony: the Careers of Rose Nichols, Ellen Shipman, and Frances Duncan” in Women’s Studies, v. 14 (1988), pp. 367-388. For Platt a recent monograph is available and his 1894 book on Italian gardens has been reprinted, as well. Finally, Root’s 1919 book of local garden plans is available in the archives of the Lake Forest Garden Club, on deposit in the special collections unit of the Donnelley and Lee Library, Lake Forest College.]

Part of the Lake Forest Walking Tour Collection.
Arthur Miller
January 1, 1996; revised September 11, 2012