Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on the Patten family. Please click here for part one, part two and part three. And click here for part five.
The Thistle and the Wheat
James Patten died during the last gasp of the wild financial days of the 1920s. After the stock market crash of October 1929, less than a year after his death, the world would be beset by increasingly dire financial distress, growing poverty, and weakening economies.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Amanda Patten continued to live in the mansion on Ridge Avenue. She now lived in the house with only her servants.
Her daughter, Agnes Patten Wilder Parma (1891-1976), had married and moved to Santa Barbara; her son, John Lourie Patten (1889-1976), had also married. He moved to Biloxi, Mississippi and later to Miami, Florida.
In 1933, Amanda Patten had a small change made to the house on Ridge Avenue: iron bars were installed on her bedroom windows.
In March 1933, she had been the victim of an extortion attempt. She received five handwritten notes demanding that she pay the letter writer $50,000. The letters included death threats.
Patten alerted the police and a sting operation was planned. The letter writer was notified that the demand would be met. Arrangements were made for Patten to bring the money with her to an agreed upon meeting spot on Ridge Ave.
On the appointed evening, it appeared that Patten stepped out from her mansion and was walking on her way to the drop-off location. Only it was not Patten, but Vera Everett, an Evanston police officer.
Dressed in Amanda Patten’s clothes, Everett carried a bulky “dummy package” and concealed a revolver in her purse. Police officers were hiding all along the avenue, while Evanston’s police chief and several officers trailed Everett in an unmarked car. Soon, the extortionist appeared and was summarily arrested.
In a full confession, Axel Peterson, an unemployed landscape gardener, father of three daughters, and Evanston resident, explained that he had written the threatening letters demanding $50,000 as a “loan” to pay his mortgage.
His wife later said Peterson had been suffering from anxiety and had attempted suicide several times. Peterson was sentenced to two years in Leavenworth prison. (67)
In April 1934, the Woman’s Club of Evanston conferred upon Amanda Patten an honorary membership for her “distinguished place in the life of Evanston.”
Amanda Patten died at the Evanston Hospital in January 1935. She was 76 years old. The doors of the mansion on Ridge were open to more than 400 people who came to pay their respects. Among them were former U.S. Vice President Charles Gates Dawes and Northwestern University president Walter Dill Scott. (68)
James Patten had left the house on Ridge Avenue to his wife. After she died, it went to the Patten children. They donated it to Northwestern University with the “stipulation that it be used as a memorial to their mother.” (69)
In the summer of 1936, Northwestern University officials put the property on the market for $65,000.
University officials explained that “a plan to convert the house into a club for faculty members” had been barred by Evanston’s zoning ordinance which prohibited using property in the area for “anything except single family dwellings.” (70) Northwestern officials said that the proceeds from the sale would be used to fund scholarships for women students in honor of Amanda Patten.
But it was the height of the Great Depression and the mansion remained unsold and unoccupied; meanwhile many speculated about what might become of it.
In the summer of 1937, the Chicago Tribune disclosed an offer the City Council of Evanston had received: a wealthy (unnamed) former Chicago resident, who now lived in the east, had offered to pay cash for the Patten house. He would then donate the property to the city of Evanston and in exchange receive the current City Hall building located near Fountain Square. That property, he planned, would be demolished to make way for a modern, air conditioned two story business block.
Much was made of the offer and details were splashed across the pages of newspapers. But the City Council turned down the offer for the same reason Northwestern University had put the Patten house on the market; officials cited the city’s zoning ordinance as a hindrance to accepting the deal. (71)
In the summer of 1938, members of C. A. Hemphill and Associates, an Evanston-based construction company, purchased the Patten house and property and announced plans to tear down the mansion and build nine “modern” homes on the site.
The Evanston City Council approved the building plan, highlighting the fact that the property would now go back into the taxable category after having been previously tax exempt due to Northwestern’s ownership of it.
In September 1938, Northwestern University officials held a three-day public auction in the Patten mansion, where linens, jewelry, glassware, books, artwork, furniture, and other items were auctioned off by the “experts of Grant galleries.” (72)
Over several days, an estimated 15,000 people toured the home during the auctions. “They came to watch Victorian mirrors go for $2 and $3, to see a massive antique wardrobe chest sell for $11. Or they came to wander about under the solid mahogany beams on the first floor, to observe the great fireplaces of onyx and Grecian marble, to look at rare paintings,” one reporter wrote. (73)
“The James Patten mansion on Ridge Avenue in Evanston, admired for many years by the uncounted thousands of motorists who have flitted past its leafy domain and baronial fence of wrought iron, is celebrating its own funeral,” wrote a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
As he “joined his fellow townsmen in the weekend parade, upstairs and downstairs in my lady’s chamber,” he “wondered if we did not vaguely resemble, in our peaceful Midwestern way, the historic mob at Versailles in 1789.” (75)
Overall, the auction’s coverage took on a slightly derogatory tone. Many who ventured into the mansion on Ridge Avenue pointed out its complete lack of balance with the modern times; it was a “palace” of an earlier era. It was “Going, Going, Gone.”
A few reporters almost sounded gleeful in hinting at the story’s larger meanings: “Proud mansion of Evanston, the James A. Patten home on Ridge Avenue, considered a palace at the turn of the century, is the latest to be demolished of that pathetically dwindling number of empty estates which stand in ghostly grandeur, forlorn in this new age,” wrote a reporter for the Chicago Herald and Examiner. (76)
Amidst the economic challenges so many people were facing, the impending razing of the mansion appeared not to be widely mourned by the general public. The Patten home was a “stone palace of a vanished Kingdom” whose fence alone cost more in 1901 than the entire house was worth in 1938. (77)
Many were quite surprised, upon stepping foot into the house, to find the image of the thistle played out on so many of its surfaces. While the thistle was, in part, an ode to Patten’s Scottish heritage, (78) its endless repetition was seen as an ironic representation in the home of the Wheat King. (79)
The “paradox remained of the master of the world wheat market glorifying the thistle,” one reporter noted, “menace of the crop on which he counted so much.”
By December of 1938, the mansion had been demolished.
Once it was gone, only the front steps, a large stone planter along the sidewalk, and a portion of the fence that once surrounded the property remained. As the dust from the wrecker’s ball settled, the story of the Pattens began to fade into the historical distance, but various items salvaged from the home or sold at the auction would appear in the following years. And eventually, some of the items made their way into various museums.
In 1938, the “wreckers [had] worked with care . . . to remove” the Patten house windows “without chipping,” as the Chicago Tribune reported. (80) In 2006 one of those salvaged windows was sold at auction for $120,000. (81) Evanston’s Halim Time and Glass Museum has a window in its collection: and windows are also in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
66. “Too Many Thistles,” Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 3, 1938.
67. “Gets Five Years for Threats to Armour Family,” Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1933; “Gets 2 Years for Sending Threats to Mrs. Patton,” Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1933.
68. “Many Notables Attend Funeral of Mrs. Patten,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 29, 1935.
69. “Evanston City Council Gets Offer to Swap City Hall for James A. Patten Mansion,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 19, 1937.
70. “Patten Home on Market,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 28, 1936.
71. Al Chase, “Evanston Council Gets Offer to Swap City Hall for James A. Patten Mansion,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 19, 1937.
72. “Crowds Jam Patten Auction Sale,” Evanston News-Index, Sept. 13, 1938. The auction also included items from the estate of F. C. Austin (1853-1932). Austin donated his estate to Northwestern University in order to start a scholarship program (today known as the Austin Scholars Program at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management). Chicago Tribune, Sept. 11, 1938.
73. Pence James, “Curious Throngs Crane Necks at Patten Auction Doings,” Chicago Daily News, Sept. 13, 1938.
74. Pence James, “Curious Throngs Crane Necks at Patten Auction Doings,” Chicago Daily News, Sept. 13, 1938.
75. “A Line O’ Type of Two,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 13, 1938.
76. “James A. Patten Mansion Going to Wrecking Crews,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, Sept. 4, 1938.
77. “James A. Patten Mansion Going to Wrecking Crews,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, Sept. 4, 1938.
78. “George Maher Window Sells for $120,000.”
79. “Dwelling – ’38- Sniffs Dust of Dream Home- ’02,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 4, 1938.
80. “George Maher Window Sells for $120,000,” Hewn and Hammered.
81. “George Maher Window Sells for $120,000,” Hewn and Hammered.
Many thanks for this series! I frequently walk by that iron fence and have wondered about the story behind it.