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Lake Forest Country Places: Walden
Lake Forest Country Places XVII and XVIII:
Cyrus and Harriet Hammond McCormick's "Walden" and the Estate's Endangered Bridge
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.
Walden Part I (Lake Forest Country Places XVII)
While this series has discussed estates where only the main house and the immediately-adjacent grounds survive, this is the first estate to be considered where not only is the property subdivided, but the main house itself is gone as well. But "Walden" was important, an early estate setting a pattern followed by others, and one of its vestigial key elements now is at risk -- the main "Walden" bridge. The recent newsletter from the Lake Forest Foundation for Historic Preservation, distributed to the community, highlighted the essential points in favor of preserving this bridge.
What this article will try to do is to provide background on why "Walden" -- which was inspired by the McCormicks' appreciation for Henry D. Thoreau's 1854 account of his life and ideas (for example, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" and "With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor") at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts -- is significant for Lake Forest and the Chicago region and why the bridge is something worth saving. Currently an urgent campaign is getting under way to raise on a tight schedule the funds necessary ($100,000) to save this important landmark. Recently this bridge was declared one of the ten most endangered historic structures in Illinois.
"Walden" was one of the leading, model estates in a period -- between the 1893 World's Fair and World War I -- when Chicago was in the forefront of national cultural leadership. The estate's boundaries were the Stone Gate neighborhood on the north, the lake on the east, Westleigh Road and Harold and Edith Rockefeller McCormicks' "Villa Turicum" on the south, and Ringwood Road and the Ryersons' "Havenwood" on the west. The large but inviting New England shingle-style house was designed by architect Jarvis Hunt, who came to Chicago from the east coast to work on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and also designed Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The "Ravello," too, was designed by Hunt. It is the bluff-edge overlook modelled on an Italian original seen abroad by Mrs. McCormick and which was the focal terminus of a vista from the house to the northeast.
But more than just a grand house and grounds for a wealthy couple, or even just an especially fine such ensemble, "Walden" -- as its contrary-seeming name suggests -- was a center for reform-era initiatives which helped pull colossal Chicago back from an abyss of misunderstanding, violent social conflict, and breakdown following as the Chicago Fire and disastrous strikes and riots in 1871, 1877, 1886, and 1894. Reformers soon sought social renewal and amelioration of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization's specialization, impersonality, and stress, particularly in Chicago which had grown ten-fold to a million inhabitants between 1850 and 1890. In Lake Forest the McCormicks found inspiration in Thoreau's nature-based how-to book, Walden, for a way out of the conundrum of the times.
One important example of social reform starting close to one's own home and interests was Harriet Hammond McCormick's leadership in ameliorating working conditions in the McCormick factory. Harriet Hammond's early life was spent in Haverhill, Massachusetts. But orphaned at twelve, she came to live with an aunt in the Chicago neighborhood on the near-north side dominated by the McCormicks. After school she spent two years touring Europe with her aunt. In 1889 she married Cyrus, Jr. who already was the president of the reaper company his late father had founded. Sometime after their marriage, Harriet McCormick visited the reaper factory. There she saw the hard-working men leave their stations at noon and carry their lunch pails to the shade of a board fence, where they sat in the dirt to rest. The memorial booklet printed after her 1921 death observes that following a speech she gave to a national women's reform meeting in 1902 "welfare work was begun in the Harvester Company, placing it among the pioneers in that branch of industrial betterment."
After attention to on-the-job conditions, in reform-era Chicago small homes and large received renewed scrutiny -- as the basic social units. For Lake Foresters at home such as the Cyrus McCormicks this meant simplicity, calming natural surroundings and gardens (Harriet), art or musical composition (Cyrus), and devotion to good causes (Cyrus was president of the Lake Forest College trustees at the turn of the century). The gentle, curving drive to the unpretentious though large "Walden" house (now gone) crossed the bridge which Cyrus himself had conceived and sketched out, in the best spirit of the life-re-integrating Arts & Crafts Movement, for refinement by a noted engineer.
The uniqueness of the bridge is detailed in a 1933 typescript History of Walden Estate of Cyrus H. McCormick, Lake Forest Illinois by supervising landscape architect Warren Manning. Planned by McCormick himself, "the curve of the arch was like the rim of a great wheel and instead of having supports at right angles to the roadway,...the supports [were] at right angles to the arch and running downward as if from the center of a great circle." Then the supports went through the arch up to the roadway at angles to it. The engineer, as Manning quotes Cyrus McCormick, was "'Mr. J. H. Gray,... one of the first men to build the tall City Sky-scrapers." Gray didn't know of such a design and couldn't find one, but he thought it was feasible. So it was built and McCormick, according to Manning, had heard of other bridges later following this design.
The main body of the estate was landscaped by the Bostonian Manning, who had first come to Chicago to assist New York Central Park designer Frederick L. Olmsted by providing the floral design for the 1893 Exposition. Manning and Harriet McCormick experimented with plants on the bluff to protect against erosion -- an early ecological initiative which would bear repeating today near the bridge. Mrs. McCormick studied Botany at Lake Forest College in the summer of 1895 -- under president John Merle Coulter, also founding editor of The Botanical Gazette. Lake Forest was on the cutting edge of experimenting with plants -- exotics to find hardy breeds for the challenging local conditions and employment of native plants artistically. Thus, according to Rec director Fred Jackson, his grandfather -- Walden's gardener from England -- reported that it was at "Walden" the pachysandra was introduced to the U.S. Later, before World War I "Walden" was a field site for a summer school in landscape architecture at Lake Forest College. In 1916 the more than sixty attendees in several classes were drawn from as far away as Oregon, but many were members of the Garden Club of Illinois out of which grew the Lake Forest Garden Club: Mrs. A.A. Carpenter, Miss Colvin, Mrs. J.M. Patterson, etc. The already well-developed arboretum at "Walden" along with the Byron Laflin Smith estate provided excellent resources for plant study especially. This educational use typified the McCormicks' intention that their estate be a private park where everyone would be welcome. This access included occasions as formal as flower shows through the 1930s and as informal as a stroll through the miles of trails.
The Walden landscape was sophisticated and spectacular. Manning's vista from the house to the also still-extant "Ravello" or summer-house, mentioned above and overlooking the lake (just north of Westleigh at the bluff's edge) was a pictured example in Ralph Rodney Root's 1914 book entitled Design in Landscape Gardening. Frank Griswold designed a radiant formal flower garden in 1902, reproduced in The Golden Age of American Gardening by Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller in 1991. The informal vistas inspired by the then-emerging Prairie School of landscape gardening blended harmoniously with the more formal pergolas and flower beds in a uniquely Lake Forest style. The long drive through the McCormick ravine, planted with wildflowers and wonderful in most seasons, was a triumph of the new local style. Cyrus McCormick's innovative bridge design, too, recalled the bridges of the eighteenth century English landscape school which contributed to the new Prairie aesthetic -- but on this occasion in the Chicago vernacular of exposed steel, ingeniously employed.
Between 1910 and her death in 1921 Harriet Hammond McCormick helped found what would become the Lake Forest Garden Club (the Garden Club of Illinois) in 1912 and also what would become the Garden Club of America (the Garden Guild of America) in 1913. Also in 1913 she and Cyrus hosted the Teddy Roosevelt administration's forester, Eugene Pinchot, and his wife who also was a Garden Club of America founder. Arpee tells us that under the new administration of the former president of Cyrus's alma mater, Princeton, President Woodrow Wilson's ecology initiative was jump-started through meetings held then at Walden with the Pinchots and others.
In 1924 bibliophile Cyrus McCormick published in a very handsome limited edition a paper Harriet had read to the women's Friday Club of Chicago in 1899 on the history and present challenge of landscape and gardens. Landscape Art: Past and Present surveyed the history of gardens and called for civic amelioration of the City-Beautiful sort -- calling for open space for city dwellers and playgrounds for children. The text is spectacularly accompanied by photogravure reproductions of the highest quality -- as stunning in their way as Curtis's Native American photo reproductions of the same era. Here the beauty of "Walden" is rendered classic and timeless, fit company for the other subjects of Harriet's garden history survey. This was an appropriate memorial to a reform-era leader of great stature. This is particularly true today, since little more stands of the original "Walden" than remains of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, an artist's recreation of which appears in Landscape Art: Past and Present.
Our fast-paced modern era has nearly erased all but a few traces of "Walden" at its peak. The low, rustic stone gateway and retaining walls leading to the "Walden" drive and to the bridge remain, starting at the corner of Mayflower and Ringwood, as does the bridge itself -- for the moment. But the bridge with its stone approaches is the most important remaining public structure of "Walden" and it deserves the support the City already has provided and warrants further voluntary support from neighbors today on the Walden grounds and from the rest of us in town. Our local landscape heritage, a proud chapter in world garden history included in standard books such as Norman Newton's 1972 book Design on the Land and Griswold's 1991 book cited above, risks becoming as obscure and forgotten as that of the Ancients.
A modern democracy can and must preserve the best of its material cultural heritage. As its recent inclusion on the state's ten most endangered list signifies, this bridge arguably could be a state historic site, as could other local vestiges of the heyday of estate culture. But our heritage, too, of privacy and self-sufficiency guides us to rise to the occasion locally. The alternative, the grinding down to unrecognizability of a distinct and often-quite-noteworthy culture's high achievement, confronts each of us who live here today.
[I appreciate assistance in developing this month's article from Sarah Wimmer, whose active concern has challenged this community to protect this important bridge.]
April 13, 1996
Walden Part II (Lake Forest Country Places XVIII)
Last month I attempted to put into historical and cultural context the importance of preserving the main "Walden" bridge, at the north end of Bluff's Edge Drive (the last or easternmost street heading north from Westleigh Road, at the lake) or, alternatively, at the southeast end of the old main entrance drive (Walden Road), entered just east of where Mayflower intersects with Ringwood. But a wonderful, rich conversation with Ruth Jackson who grew up at "Villa Turicum" and "Walden" makes me want to do a "sequel."
Miss Jackson's father was the English gardener who Miss Jackson's nephew, Fred, credited with the introduction to this country of pachysandra at "Walden" -- as I reported in last month's article. Also, she is the sister-in-law of the Ruth Jackson who met in Chicago and then married Miss Jackson's late brother, Lee. This second Ruth then came to live in Lake Forest, in the brown shingle-sided home, located on Illinois Road across from the Lake Forest College Farwell Field, which her husband bought from his mother. The first-generation Jacksons and their children had lived previously in a very comfortable gardener's house in the southwest end of the "Walden" estate (downstairs large living and dining rooms with a large screened porch and upstairs four bedrooms plus a trunk room). West of this house was the superintendent's house and -- in between the two -- there was an icehouse which was delightfully cold on hot summer days, at least as long as one could stand to be that cold. The new home on Illinois Road was smaller, but closer to town -- a priority for the then younger generation.
In gardener's-daughter Ruth Jackson's memory as the youngest child of five, "Walden" was a wonderful place. She lived not far from the Cyrus McCormicks' working farm, with its livestock -- pigs, sheep, cows, and work horses. The farm was located on the left-hand side of the south entry drive (approached from Westleigh near Sheridan, at the low stone walls framing the entrance, now Walden Lane). First on the left was a meadow and then the farm, which stretched north to Ringwood Road. Much later the architect Jerome Cerny would make the barn over into a house for himself and his family. Miss Jackson remembers the farmer as somewhat grumpy, though she laughingly recalls that -- no doubt -- she was under foot often when this busy man was attending to his chores. At this period, though, this southeast corner of town was very rural, soon too rural for the maturing Jackson children. In the 1950s Miss Jackson revisited with a brother the site of the "Walden" house she lived in after she was three years old, finding a "hump" in the ground where the house had been, but also the then-still-extant potting shed from the old estate and also a root cellar which dated from those days.
Miss Jackson clarified for me the character of the road in the base of the ravine, along the stream. This was a bridle path for riding, never meant for cars. The riding horses were kept in the stables, still seen with their tile roofs on the north side of Westleigh Road between Sheridan and the lake. Along the bridle path in the ravine, about three-quarters of the way to the lake, Miss Jackson recalls a small summer house squeezed in south of the path and the stream -- made of wood and in an octagonal shape, with benches around the periphery inside and a round table in the center. As a girl she had not understood the difference between "bridle" and "bridal." So she used to play pretend weddings there -- until her older brothers set her straight. Also, she recalls when she was seven or eight her father would take his children for twilight walks on the estate including along this bridle path -- identifying the many types of birds which sang (I can't recall all those she mentioned) and the variety of trees they passed. These walks would include often a visit to the Jarvis-Hunt designed "Ravello" at the southeast corner of the estate, the lookout over the water from the edge of the bluff. Again the rounded shape (recalling a Jens Jensen council ring) of the pergola-covered overlook had benches on the inside wall -- but this time of stone.
Miss Jackson recalls with amusement and as a contrast to concerns today a chance encounter with Cyrus McCormick III at the "Ravello" -- when he was in his twenties. As he strolled into the enclosure one summer day he found this child, identified himself and asked her who she was. When she had done so, McCormick promptly acknowledged his acquaintance with her father. He said he had come to the "Ravello" to see how many people could be accommodated there for a party he was having that night. If the group could fit. Would she help him? He proposed that he sit next to her, then she get up and move to his other side, then he move to her other side, etc. until they had gone around and gauged how many could sit comfortably for the occasion on the ring-like bench. There was, indeed, room. Miss Jackson recalls this innocent little game fondly, and realizes how a young girl today would never engage in such a game with a stranger. Later, she ran home to tell her mother whom she had met.
Miss Jackson remembers vividly, as well, the various elements of the "Walden" garden and estate -- the lily pond or grotto at the south end of the garden, for example. The College library's Cyrus McCormick, Jr. papers, incidently, include correspondence with the Paris art dealers, Durand-Ruel, who were Monet's agents and who were mentioned in relation to Chicago collectors in last year's Art Institute Monet show. This lily pond may have been inspired by the famous Impressionist's garden at Giverny. This pond was shielded from Westleigh Road by tall evergreens. The formal garden was mentioned last month -- created by Frank Griswold and pictured from Lake Forest Garden Club slides now deposited in the Smithsonian. Miss Jackson also remembers the pergola which led to what they called "the big house." Here pillars alternated with stone benches. The garden is pictured in color on a full page in Griswold and Weller, The Golden of American Gardens and the pergola is captured in a romantic photogravure print in Harriet Hammond McCormick's Landscape Art: Past and Present (1923). Also, nearby there was tennis court and southwest of the house a bowling green. The walk down to the lake was between the gardens and the public road -- Jasmine Road, later re-named Westleigh. Also, there was the meadow resplendent with wildflowers. She recalls that her father had thrown seeds of meadow flowers in there.
Miss Jackson remembers Cyrus McCormick, Jr. as a "nice, thoughtful, considerate man to work for" who sent a very kind letter to her mother when her father died while Ruth was still in her teens. Perhaps McCormick's own early loss of a daughter and then in 1921 of his wife, Harriet Hammond McCormick, gave him wisdom in such matters. Miss Jackson remembers that later McCormick remarried -- his secretary, descended from a socially-prominent family. Cyrus died in 1936, but the second Mrs. McCormick who inherited "Walden," continued in residence; she herself eventually remarried. It was she who, after World War II, finally had the shingle-style house torn down to make way for development of the property. Miss Jackson now regrets not attending the spectacular house sale there, in which her siblings did participate. She does know that her sister, by then Mrs. Hake, purchased the house's stairway balusters and subsequently used them in a house on Vincent Court in Lake Bluff, across from the school.
Though Miss Jackson was only three years old when she came to "Walden," she recalls many stories about her earlier home -- Harold and Edith Rockefeller McCormicks' "Villa Turicum" which was south of "Walden" across Jasmine or Westleigh Road. Contrary to reports elsewhere the family knew that Edith McCormick had spent at least one night there, since the next morning the chauffeur came to their house on the estate to seek flowers Mrs. McCormick wanted to take with her back to the city. Also, the family has a snapshot of the airborne seaplane Harold McCormick used to commute back and forth to the city. The pilot had only one arm -- the other had been taken off by a tricky propeller. Harold McCormick figures prominently in a chapter entitled "Early Flying" in Tribune writer and cartoonist John McCutcheon's very readable autobiography, Drawn From Memory (1950). On p. 240 he reports that Harold had the first private plane in the region and that he "built a hangar on the beach below" his Lake Forest house. McCutcheon in 1911 was an early passenger from Grant Park to the "Villa Turicum" beach.
Miss Jackson also reports having a photo of the "Villa Turicum" garden's outline taken before it was planted. A few other mementoes reflect the times. First, Miss Jackson has from her mother an intricately stitched lacework tablecloth, now framed, which was cast off by Edith McCormick but rescued by a staff member for Miss Jackson's mother. From Cyrus McCormick's "Walden" there are both a discarded blue china tea pot on little legs and also a pressed-glass bottle for shaving lotion, from Cyrus III and meant as a gift for Lee (who found it too fussy for a man). Most of Edith McCormick's effects were auctioned off, spectacularly at a tiny fraction of their costs, in the 1930s -- the College library has one of the sale catalogs which shows the contrast with the Jackie Onassis sale which fetched prices so far above the estimates. Edith McCormick had lost her fortune through ill-conceived investments in an era of sobering failures. Hardly anybody could afford to buy from her collection. She and Harold had divorced much earlier. Indeed, when Ruth Jackson was three and her parents moved across Westleigh Road to "Walden" she recalls hearing in the family that this was not considered as one brother raiding the neighboring brother's staff, since Harold and Edith were breaking up.
"Villa Turicum" burned out quickly if brightly, while "Walden," in the memory of Miss Jackson, seems in her telling like the golden glow of a slowly-ending summer afternoon. Over nearly half a century "Walden" developed, reached its apex between 1912 and 1920, and finally was broken up -- after Cyrus's death, the Depression and the Second World War. On one level, what remains today -- most notably the endangered bridge -- is a deferred-maintenance worry for the City as "receiver." But -- as Miss Jackson reminds us -- on another level is a link to a richly golden-glowing estate past. For her this was her own secret garden of nature walks taken with her father, as well as of delightful haunts and hiding places for pretend games and for encounters with F. Scott Fitzgerald-scaled characters. Her telling of the story makes the bridle path echo with muffled hoofbeats, the farmyard reverberate with familiar rural sounds, and the "Ravello" peal with cheerful "Smart Set" laughter. "Walden" was a real place -- where people lived, grew up, and sometimes died and where relatives split up and moved on. As a whole, also, it was a striking work of art, as are each of its few surviving elements -- especially the endangered bridge.
May 15, 1996