Book Review: Great Houses of Chicago 1871 - 1921

Great Houses of Chicago 1871-1921
Susan Benjamin and Stuart Cohen
Foreword by Franz Schulze and Arthur H. Miller
9 x 12 inches, 334 pages
ISBN: 978-0-926464-39-8 • $75.00
Acanthus Press
Synopsis: An essential reference tool for Chicago architecture, interior design, decorative art and history libraries.

SAH and Chicago Chapter members Susan Benjamin and Stuart Cohen have produced the most comprehensive overview on Chicago’s mansions, castles and residential fortresses. This outstanding volume balances diverse sources and matches the pantheon of architects with those early patrons - the pioneers, nouveau riche and old eastern money.

Nearly 350 sepia toned photographs, drawings, and floor plans are breathtaking in scope and detail. The visual content effectively evokes the muffled footsteps of parlor maids and rebukes by gruff railroad barons. Rare figures of inhabitants intervene only occasionally; a child on a tricycle, Mr. Eliphalet Blatchford in his library but mostly the human presence consists of portraits above highly embellished fireplaces. Even so, readers will derive a clear sense of each family’s private aesthetic and public facade.

Interior design and decorative arts are as compelling as the structures. Paintings, sculpture, textiles, carvings, animal skins, all manner of souvenirs from grand tours and chotzkes galore - are piled in impeccable abandon. It's tempting to search for the few objects that found their way to the Art Insitute's collection.

The Editorial content is superb in providing the ontology of Chicago’s residential style, social context, family history and the sources of wealth. Great Chicago Houses is also peppered with aridly amusing anecdotes. It makes a surprisingly entertaining read.

I was especially touched by the 1903 Julius Rosenwald House by Nimmons & Fellows and the authors' treatment. The book’s testimony to one of the greatest of Chicago’s early entrepreneurs and philanthropists is gracious and the house itself is uncomplicated but beautifully designed.

Julius Rosenwald House
One note for the inevitable 2nd edition: while some photo dates are available in the Illustration Credits, label dates or indication of the probable range when the pictures were taken (circa) or even “date unknown” would provide an even richer context. Knowing if the varnish on the spindles is dry or decades old would add polish to this significant volume.

- Keith Bringe

All photo's copyright 2008 Acanthus Press

Charnley House

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