Editor’s note: This is the last of a five-part series on the Pattens and their residence. Please click here for earlier installments: part one, part two, part three and part four.
An in-depth look at the Patten house
James and Amanda Patten knew Evanston well when they chose a commanding location for their new home.
It was a two-acre site that rose above Ridge Avenue, one of the highest points in Evanston. The large house that already stood on the property was one of the earliest houses in Evanston, built in 1857 by Dr. James Van Zandt Blaney (1820-1874).
After returning from the Civil War, Blaney sold the house in 1867 to real estate investor Rufus King (1817-1881). King rented the house to William Deering from 1873-1874. After King’s death, the property was purchased by Milton W. Kirk (1846-1915) and his wife Alice Thompson Kirk, who paid $35,000 for it in 1882. Milton Kirk hired the noted architectural firm of Edbrooke & Burnham to redesign and enlarge the house.
Milton W. Kirk was one of the seven sons of wealthy Evanston soap manufacturer James S. Kirk.
James Kirk purchased Mulford’s Tavern on Ridge Avenue near Oakton Street in 1867 and built a large house he named Oakton Villa.
This was purchased by the Sisters of St. Francis in 1901 and is the site of the present-day St. Francis Hospital. Milton’s brothers also built on Ridge Avenue: Arthur lived on the northeast corner of Ridge Avenue and Church Street.
Brother John and his wife Sally also hired Edbrooke & Burnham to design a house directly across Lake Street from Milton and Alice, at 1456 Ridge Ave., which they called The Maples. This house, which was remodeled in the 1920s, still stands.
Alice Thompson Kirk died in 1884, leaving three children. The following year Milton Kirk married Ethel Kirkman, who lived across Ridge Avenue in a large Italianate home known as Larchmere, 1429 Ridge Ave., owned by Ethel’s uncle Marshall Kirkman.
In 1884, Milton Kirk was elected president of the Evanston Board of Trustees. This was the equivalent of mayor before Evanston adopted the city form of government. He served for one term, just like his later successor, James Patten.
In 1896, Ethel and Milton Kirk bought a house on North State Street in Chicago, moving there in 1897. According to the Ridge Historic District nomination form, Kirk marketed the property in Evanston as an opportunity for development.
In 1901, James and Amanda Patten bought the property. They did not develop the property for investment but razed the Kirk house and hired architect George Washington Maher to design a grand statement of a house in an emerging new fashion.
Maher was part of a new movement in architecture that sought to establish a distinctive American style. East Coast architect Henry H. Richardson had garnered attention by designing monolithic stone buildings.
His style was brought to Chicago in his radically different house for John and Frances Glessner on Prairie Avenue in 1886. Louis Sullivan followed with his mammoth Auditorium Building, distinguished by its massive granite exterior, the strategic use of arches, and an interior filled with color, light and tracery.
In Chicago, a new architectural style was emerging. Variously labeled as “The New School of the Midwest,” “Rationalism” or “Chicago Style,” it is today known as the Prairie School.
Many young architects had begun their careers together and were inspired by Richardson and Sullivan and. Maher, George Elmslie and Frank Lloyd Wright had worked together in the office of architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee, whose influence can also be seen in their work.
Maher, while arguably not part of the Prairie School, was developing an emerging ethos, based on Arts & Crafts ideas of using nature in architecture, and reminiscent of Sullivan’s theories and execution of tracery.
“Two … disciples of Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and George W. Maher, were building during this period striking, innovative houses.” (82) As architectural historian H. Allen Brooks observed of Maher and his relationship to the architects who officed at Steinway Hall and developed what came to be known as the Prairie School, “Only one residential architect in Chicago had developed a consistent personal mode at this time, and he was not at Steinway Hall.” (83)
In 1897, Maher had designed the John W. Farson House in Oak Park, and a similar home for Farson’s partner, Archibald B. Leach in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1899.
In 1902, he designed a home for Frederick T. Gates, John D. Rockefeller’s adviser, in Montclair, New Jersey. All of these homes express Maher’s emerging style, built of brick with emphatic horizontal lines, few but generous window openings, prominent porches, lateral porte-cocheres and porches, a hipped roof, flanking chimneys and a prominent dormer centered over a central entrance.
He also developed a system of choosing a single natural motif for each design and consistently expressing it throughout the interior, including stained glass windows, fireplace mosaics, wall stencils, fabrics and more. It would eventually come to be known as his “rhythm motif” theory.
Built of stone, and fully realizing all his design elements, the Patten home was Maher’s tour de force. “In 1901 he designed for James A. Patten in Evanston an enormous granite house which, with its massive solidity, helped inaugurate a style which swept across the Midwest.” (84)
Sitting on the rise above Ridge Avenue, the house had a commanding presence. It was built of “snow-white Vermont granite,” roughly hewn in large blocks, set on a smooth base, with deeply struck joints between the blocks that added to the extreme texturization of the exterior.
The house was flanked by tall chimneys, a large, covered porch to the south and a porte-cochère to the north.
The latter was reached by a sweeping semicircular driveway from Lake Street that curved around a large reflecting pool. The roof was hipped and covered in green Celadon tiles.
The front entrance faced Ridge Avenue, with a wide stone terrace and steps, flanked by two large planters. The entrance walkway had a section of stairs flanked by two huge iron orbs on pedestals, similar to his entrance for the Leach house.
Maher also designed the high wrought iron fence, with pairs of granite pillars flanking the entrances. The fence remains, and is an Evanston landmark.
You can still see the openings for the two ends of the curved driveway on the Lake Street side and for the huge stable building that faced Asbury. This stable building was made of white glazed brick and was so austere that it resembled the designs of the Viennese Secessionist movement.
This huge building was two stories high; it held a large room for carriages, stalls for horses and a heating plant for the main house in the basement.
The 1904 Architectural Record called it “a heavy, gloomy chunk of a building,” noting that the rough masonry “painfully emphasized” the structural elements.
Earlier, a 1901 Chicago Tribune article saw it differently, using the terms “simplicity and strength” saying that the design was “illustrating the art principles of good architecture that every house should possess its own characteristics in order that when complete it may present throughout a wholeness or unity of expression.”
The treatment of the entrance relieved the monolithic appearance of the building. The deeply set doorway and flanking windows were overhung by a second-story balcony supported by curved corbels with bas-relief sculptures of eagles and lions’ heads.
The balcony fronted a deep inset which led to the bedrooms, fronted with two polished granite hexagonal columns topped by foliate capitals, in the spirit of Richardson and Sullivan.
In a striking contrast to the expansive rough-cut white stone, the smooth, polished granite of the balcony was inlaid with colorful mosaics in an establishing geometric and organic design.
This design, essentially a long, bordered rectangle with inset corners, centered by a large circle around a modified cross and embellished with foliate designs, was repeated throughout the house in the fireplace treatments.
It was an opportunity to introduce color and tracery throughout the house. The exterior was described as a “Venetian effect, blues, golds, and dull reds in a rich blending of subdued brilliance.” (85) This effect was supplemented by the art glass in the windows and door that “produced an effect of subdued radiance.”
Today Maher is best known for his use of the motif-rhythm – in which he chose one native plant as a unifying decorative alliteration.
The Patten house was the first house where Maher put this theory into its fullest effect. He chose the thistle, which was said to have grown there, but also was important to the Pattens as they were both Scottish. The thistle is the Scottish royal emblem, a prickly plant that can inflict injury to those who grasp it. The Scottish motto is “No one attacks me with impunity.”
How appropriate for a fortresslike edifice, and for Patten’s personality. However, Maher also used the thistle on several other houses of this period, including the Patrick King House (now known as the King-Nash House, 1901) in Chicago.
Later architectural critics observed that the predicted dominance of the rhythm theory was never achieved.
H. Allen Brooks wrote that many architects, from Sullivan to Elmslie to Hugh Garden, felt that rhythm created better design. Maher wrote “This theory completely harmonizes all portions of the work until in the end it becomes a unit in composition.” (86)
However, Brooks argued, “But the theory was inherently a decorative concept and only superficially applicable to architectural design, though Maher spent years trying to apply it. … His first attempt was with the James A. Patten house.” (87)
Most of the windows in the Patten house were an interpretation of the thistle executed in stained glass. After the building was disassembled and sold at auction, these windows ended up in many private and public collections.
The Halim Time and Glass Museum in Evanston has one of the triplets – a center section of one thistle, flanked by smaller geometric repetitions in a pattern. This was the design used in most of the major rooms of the first floor.
Each of the over 20 rooms had different artistic treatments of the woodwork, marble and mosaics in fireplaces, mirrors and light fixtures. Each room had its own color scheme and distinct interpretation of the thistle theme, worked out in curtains, table scarves, sprawling stencils on walls and ceilings, and other ornamentation. Even the piano was custom designed.
Maher worked with well-known artisans, who had also worked with Louis Sullivan, to design and craft the decorative details.
Celebrated craftsman Louis J. Millet crafted the custom stencils for the walls and ceilings, the fabric and most notably the art glass and mosaic tiles. Willy Hans Lau, noted for his iron work, designed the light fixtures and andirons, and executed the landmarked iron fence.
The entrance hall was paneled in mahogany with a mammoth onyx fireplace on the west wall. The room was wrapped by an immense carved mahogany stairway. The landing had a balcony above the fireplace with a large “landscape window” and window seat. The walls, where not natural mahogany, were painted a “warm green.” (88)
In contrast, the reception room, or parlor, was described as almost dainty, the walls were painted in “Nile green” – a light, yellowish green. There was less woodwork, but still stenciling, and the fireplace was entirely of pale marble with an inlaid mosaic design as on the front of the house. A large, round mirror with a wide mahogany border was centered over the fireplace.
The library had a large fireplace with a dark marble surround and an immense mantelpiece of mahogany with an inset round medallion. The borders of the walls were stenciled and painted in a “solemn olive.” (89)
The Music Room got the most attention in the published descriptions of the interior. One account said, “The culmination – the spiritual emblem of this entire scheme is revealed in the music room.” (90)
An immense arched doorway trimmed in wide mahogany led from the entrance hall. Two smaller arched doorways led to the dining room to the west; all were draped in deep apricot portieres trimmed in gold thistle appliques.
A pair of these is in the collection of the Art Institute. The room was decorated in “soft apricot” with green accents, “the upholstered chairs answering the note of green, which is so harmoniously struck in the wall decoration. In this, also, springing as it were into spontaneous life from the growing form beneath, stands the spirit of the thistle, ready to echo in ethereal tones the melodies of her mortal rivals.” (91)
The piano was custom designed by Maher and specially built by William Knabe & Co., an exclusive piano company based in Baltimore. The hexagonal legs echoed the design of the exterior columns.
The Inland Architect featured this close-up of the music room light fixture, crafted of brass by Willy Lau. It is currently in the collection of the Evanston History Center, donated to us in 1988 by a lighting museum in Florida.
Unfortunately, none of the beautiful glass had survived by the time it came to the EHC. The hexagonal fixture is nearly a yard in diameter; each face has a lyre flanked by thistle blossoms.
Beyond the music room was the dining room. The fireplace there had a wide marble surround topped with a mosaic pattern mimicking the one on the front entrance. The room was paneled in wide expanses of mahogany, the ceiling stenciled. The sideboard was an immense built-in, which also had the front entry geometric treatment repeated above. The floors were mosaic tile.
The breakfast room was also popular with reviewers. It was an octagonal room, fitted into the polygonal bay on the south façade of the house. It was said to have a beautiful fireplace and mosaic tile floors. The walls were pale silver “with varying lights into peacock blue, to its own tranquil lustre on the ceiling.” (92) The brass ceiling fixture was also octagonal and “glowed yellow”.
Descriptions of the kitchen mention that it was tiled and had “a large refrigeration plan.”
Upstairs there were six bedrooms, five with en suite bathrooms. There were also three servants’ bedrooms. The third floor had a billiard room and a gymnasium that doubled as a ballroom. The basement had a bowling alley and a smoking room.
Freedom from claptrap
With this enormous masonry residence, both Maher and Patten asserted their influence and impact in their chosen fields. The Studio summarized its description of the house, calling it “a very vital departure.” (93)
“That it is original is self-evident. That it holds the keynote of future interpretation in architecture is the conviction of many who have studied it. Dignified and impressive, it might not instantly appeal to the laity, but its freedom from claptrap methods imparts a quality of charm which steadily intensifies its interest to the beholder.
“The ornament is never obtrusive but, like a clear musical overtone, it vibrates in harmony with the rich chord predominating. As in all movements in search of the truth, this may be slow in forcing its way, but eventually, in spite of academic precedent, its influence is bound to be felt in no uncertain degree.” (94)
Maher himself wrote, “I repeat that here in the west the tide of any false conservatism will be turned; that here will originate a new school of architecture which will grow stronger each succeeding generation until all the life assimilated in this new country will find full expression in marble and stone.” (95)
While marble and stone may not have become the dominant building material, particularly for residences, the new school of architecture did indeed grow stronger and become very influential. Unfortunately, the house is no longer extant for us to appreciate and form our own opinions of its contribution to posterity.
81. “George Maher Window Sells for $120,000,” Hewn and Hammered.
82. David Lowe, Lost Chicago (Boston:Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1978), 174.
83. H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 34.
84. H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 34.
85. “Unique House for Mayor Patton of Evanston,” Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1901.
86. H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 67.
87. H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 67.
88. The International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, (Volume 21, November/December 1903, No. 81), 85.
89. The International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, (Volume 21, November/December 1903, No. 81), 85.
90. The International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, (Volume 21, November/December 1903, No. 81), 85.
91. The International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, (Volume 21, November/December 1903, No. 81), 85.
92. The International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, (Volume 21, November/December 1903, No. 81), 85.
93. The International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, (Volume 21, November/December 1903, No. 81), 85.
94. The International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, (Volume 21, November/December 1903, No. 81), 85.
95. Arba Nelson Waterman, Historical Review of Chicago and Cook County and Selected Biography, Volume 2. (Chicago and New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1908), 875.