Thursday, March 17, 2011

Home for Herman Hettler

When I started researching this home, I didn’t intend on blogging about it anytime soon.  I thought that I might some day see the interior and wanted to wait until that day.  After my experience at the home a few weeks ago, I now doubt that day will ever come.  My bad experience with a caretaker of the property also piqued my interest because, except for maybe an experience I had with a B&B owner in upstate New York, it may be the most negative experience I have had with a Silsbee homeowner.  After a little digging, I found that the recent history of the home was just as rich as the 100 years that preceded it.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog that on the eve of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Joseph Silsbee’s office was extremely busy.  It was busy with work for the Exposition but it was also busy with work on homes and public buildings, seemingly evidence that the entire city was preparing to put on a huge show for the influx of guests that would be arriving.  

In 1892, construction began on a large home he designed for lumber dealer, Herman Hettler.  Hettler was co-owner of Hartwell Lumber.  Edwin Hartwell, the senior partner in the firm lived a block north on Newport (now Stratford Place).  At the time, the streets Hawthorne and Newport comprised a small enclave of large, very remarkable, architect-designed homes.  Though few still exist, shingle style homes by George Maher, Burnham & Root, Louis Sullivan as well as two other homes by Silsbee graced the streets.
Hettler’s home has a wide front porch supported by delicately detailed columns.  It extends across the front of the home and incorporates a porte-cochere, giving the home a strong horizontal character.  A side gable roof arrangement seems to accentuate this horizontality and, as a counterpoint, a large round tower in the front rises above the steep roof line.  The base and parts of the first floor are made of large rough-cut stone with the upper stories clad in shingles.  Flared barge boards at the dormer, half timbering in the turrett and a side double-gable give the home an English character.  It is the only known shingle-clad home designed by Silsbee that still stands in the city of Chicago.  This is significant as Silsbee has been noted by many historians as the architect that introduced Chicago to the Shingle Style.  Also, Silsbee's contributions to the style have particular importance as it relates to the early work of his former employee, America's most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
One mystery on the site is a small garden cottage, once referred to as a “Japanese tea cottage”.  Local lore states that it was used by Hettler’s company at the World’s Columbian Exposition.  After some research, I found that the Hartwell Lumber Company did have an exhibit in the Forestry Building at the fair but I found no evidence that this building was used as part of it.  It is likely that it was an exhibition piece as it showcases an array of siding sizes and shingle styles.  It is s simple structure yet beautifully detailed with a flared base, compound trim at the windows and door and a T-shaped bay window arrangement on one side.  Given the style and detailing on the small structure and the fact that it was constructed the same time as the home, I believe that it is very likely that Silsbee was involved in its design.  If there are any World’s Columbian Exposition sleuth’s out there, I’d love to hear your opinion.
In the past twenty years, the home had a tumultuous history.  It was auctioned by the Hettler family in 1984.  At the time, the home had retained many of its original features.  It was sold to the highest bidder, the neighboring Chicago City Day School.  In early 1996, the school demolished the coach house that stood behind the home.  It is likely that Silsbee designed that as well.  The property became a galvanizing agent for local preservationists.  A preservation official with the city was fired for allowing the demolition and a tide of support for a landmark designation of the street followed.  The school, in turn, threatened to tear down the home and went as far as to file a permit for demolition.  The local landmark designation was approved and demolition was not allowed.  The process was taken to the courts but newspaper accounts taper off after that.  The home still stands.  This recent history can be seen as a snapshot of how preservation activism plays out in some communities.  It is also evidence of just how vulnerable historic structures like this home actually are.               

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