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Lake Forest Country Places: Thorne Estate

Lake Forest Country Places X:

James Ward Thorne Estate, 600 S. Ridge 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.

Seen from Ridge Road looking west across a broad English lawn is the classic French-style manor of Mr. and Mrs. James Ward Thorne — designed, according to former owner Mrs. Cameron Brown, by Chicago architect Edwin H. Clark (firm of Otis & Clark) around 1910. The Browns donated to Special Collections the plans for the house, signed by the more experienced architect William Otis, though Clark apparently had obtained the commission.  The lady of the house, Mrs. Thorne, is pictured — in 1917, with her sons Niblack and Ward, in front of the entry still visible from Ridge Road — on page 10 of Miniature Rooms: The Thorne Rooms At The Art Institute Of Chicago (Chicago: Art Institute and Abbeville Press, 1984). The tall, stuccoed summer place was built to take advantage of a sweeping westward vista toward the west branch of the Skokie. Today, much of the estate’s land is held by Open Lands, a gift of the Browns in the 1980s. With the McIlvaine meadow north of this, the Open Lands property is a very valuable west-side resource for the community, preserving a sense of the scale and sweep of the great estates of the beginning of this century.

Mrs. James Ward Thorne (Narcissa Niblack, 1882-1966) is well-known to many in Lake Forest through her remarkable, unique miniature rooms at the Art Institute. These meticulously-crafted and furnished period rooms, mostly scaled one inch to the foot, became world-famous in the 1930s: on view in the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress and in the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs in San Francisco and New York. The rooms reflect the interest in historic interiors characteristic of the Country Place Era two thirds of a century ago, today preserving this passion and taste in ways that usually have eluded full-scale structures still extant today. There was coverage then in Life magazine, and a subsequent tour to cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis, Boston and Washington, D.C., according to Bruce Hatton Boyer’s introductory article in the 1984 Art Institute book. In addition to those on display in the Art Institute since 1954, today others are exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in Knoxville, Tennessee’s Dulin Gallery of Art, and in the Phoenix [Arizona] Art Museum.

But if the interiors of the historical-revival period are rare today, and certainly not often readily-accessible to the Chicago-area public, still the exterior and grounds at places like the Throne estate remain to give a sense of that colorful past. Edwin H. Clark was a fine architect, also designing in Lake Forest the 1914 Tuscan villa at 1000 East Illinois (no. 53 in the Preservation Foundation Guide; visible looking north from the ravine bridge on south Mayflower after the leaves fall in November) and the wonderful 1931 neo-Palladian Lake Forest [public] Library at 360 East Deerpath (Guide no. 24). On Ridge Road Clark created a dramatic chateau style manor, evoking an earlier pre-French-Revolutionary cultural highpoint. The landscape, too, reflected an eclectic European influence and the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Historical Society possesses a remarkable gold negative on glass of the pool and surrounding plantings and structures from the original estate. Such elaborate swimming pools were typical features of the grounds of estates of the era. Not surprisingly, Boyer’s article reports that Clark, who also contributed to the library design for Mrs. Thorne’s North Lake Shore Drive apartment in Chicago, did plans and elevations for ten of the miniature rooms (nine European and one American), which mostly were constructed in the 1930s. Clearly, he was a master of the vocabulary of historical, Beaux-Arts-inspired architecture.

Mrs. Thorne was born in Vincennes, Indiana and married at age nineteen the son of the co-founder of Montgomery Ward & Co. Her remarkable expertise concerning historic interiors was developed as an amateur, through extensive travel, reading, and collecting of miniature furniture. Even as the Depression engulfed most of the nation and swept away the grandeur of building in the Country Place Era, Mrs. Thorne embarked in earnest on her great work — a testament both to the strength of the Thorne family resources and also to Mrs. Thorne’s own practical sense. Her husband had retired at age 53 in 1926 and after that they travelled extensively in Europe, particularly in England and France, where James Thorne took the photographs his wife used to carry out her inspirations with her workshop of skilled artisans, her friends (needlework, etc.), and other professionals such as Clark. She had her own studio on Oak Street, near her apartment.

After her work in the 1930s made her internationally known, Mrs. Thorne continued to create rooms with her associates, but on a more modest scale as gifts for friends and other organizations. At least one Lake Forest home has a pair of rooms created as gifts for the children of these Thorne family friends.

Boyer observes that Mrs. Thorne’s scale of one inch to the foot became the standard for miniatures. The rooms today are treasured not only for the periods and lifestyles they are meant to portray but also as art objects themselves, crafted in a remarkable atelier, but always supervised to the last detail by Narcissa Niblack Thorne herself. Her works illustrate the sense of taste and of history which had been stimulated by Edith Wharton’s 1898 book on interiors, The Decoration of Houses.

Narcissa Thorne’s work, though, shows a great innovator’s flair for figuring out how to take a good notion and make it available widely — just as the business entrepreneurs of her era had done. Only a Henry Ford could afford to collect full-scale historic buildings, as at Detroit’s Greenfield Village, or restore a whole town, as the Rockefellers did at Williamsburg. But Narcissa Thorne drew on the tradition of innovative theater and set design which had thrived in pre-World-War-I Chicago and Lake Forest to create tiny stages on which the viewer could create her or his own dramas. When only a relative few could travel to see Greenfield Village or Williamsburg especially in the 1930s, Narcissa Thorne’s miniature rooms reached hundreds of thousands as the rooms travelled from city to city.

Today her own summer house in Lake Forest recalls the steep roofs and tall facades of mid-Seventeenth-Century country houses by Francois Mansart, for example. The tall windows reflect the high-ceilinged rooms behind them — scaled like the tall late-Sixteenth-Century bedroom recreated in one of the Art Institute miniatures, modelled on chateaux of the Loire dating from Francois I — particularly Azay-le-Rideau. Here the idea is transported from the Loire valley to another time and place, to the banks of the Skokie.

The Thorne summer house today is a relic of another moment of high culture, the Renaissance of the Chicago region early in this century. Mrs. Thorne’s enduring miniatures legacy is one more manifestation of the creative energy and accomplishment of this talented, visionary Lake Forest circle. This circle — Hamills, Farwells, Shaws, Thornes, Aldises and others of their set — was Renaissance-like in its passions, in its amateur achievements, and in its legacies left in institutions and classic buildings for later generations’ enjoyment, benefit, and stewardship.

Arthur Miller

July 12, 1995