BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“What’s not to like about David Adler’s architecture?” asks the beautiful Kristin Smith, Executive Director of the American Friends of Versailles, the charitable corporation established in 1998. “He is truly one of America’s premiere ‘great house’ architects who left us a legacy of grandeur and excellence that has never been equaled. His work is sophisticated and reflective of his training at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris.”
She continues, “He was one of the last great eclectic architects and always used the finest craftsmen. But he is overlooked in the pantheon of Chicago architects time after time. People need to be exposed to the beauty in their environment, and Adler’s greatness needs to be shared!”
With the attitude of “it’s now or never,” in her off hours Kristin is putting together a documentary tribute to Adler, who was born in 1882 and died in 1949. She will be filming at five of his houses, reflecting the full style of his “great house period” from 1912 to 1934. From 18th century French chateaux, to Italian Renaissance villas, to Georgian structures, American colonial houses, and even an English half-timbered mansion, Adler’s great houses were built in a baronial scale, originally with corresponding acreage.
As Kristin puts together backers for this architectural celebration, she anticipates beginning filming in June with Punch Films, interviewing Adler experts at the magnificent private locations: “There are several wonderful out-of-print books about Adler, but we want to reach a much wider audience. Our video will be able to be streamed as well as televised. I believe strongly that preservation begins with education. The demise of architecturally significant buildings is on the rise. We want to preserve their beauty for future generations.”
Known as Chicago’s society architect, Adler’s very wealthy clients were unsolicited and were thoroughly interviewed by him before he began the project.
Each day as Kristin walks to work past Adler’s Ryerson mansion on Astor Street, she recalls a love of the architect’s work: “As a high school student, I visited a boyfriend in Lake Forest during the summer and admired Adler’s handsome houses and even back then I wanted to learn more.”
After graduation from Northwestern, Kristin was snapped up to be a model in Paris. “I wasn’t mentally really into this life and, following some modeling in the United States, I went to William Rainey Harper College to study architecture and design. Working with Catharine Hamilton, founder of American Friends of Versailles, I have been immersed in historic preservation. Adler was much influenced by the Versailles hunting lodge La Lucerne.”
“He was very much a gentleman who shunned publicity and was always measured and polished. A complete architect who tried to achieve harmony overall, he masterfully planned site usage, landscaping, interior decoration, and furnishings. He frequently collaborated with his sister, Frances Elkins, the innovative decorator who was drawn to mixing in works of European avant-garde artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Jean-Michel Frank.
“Tragically, Adler’s wife, Katherine, died in an automobile accident in France in the 1930s. They had no children. I have been very lucky to work with his great-nephew David Boyd.”
“Upon David Adler’s death in 1949, Francis Elkins, gave his and Katherine’s house and estate to the Village of Libertyville to be used for cultural and recreational purposes. Today the David Adler Music and Arts Center continues to maintain and interpret the home and offer a visual image of the harmony between music, the arts, and daily life. Amy Williams serves as its executive director and has been immensely helpful in my project.”
Although so different in architectural approach, Adler was a close friend of iconic architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, recommending him to head the architecture school of the Armour Institute of Technology, now IIT.
Kristin’s film with feature a feast of an Adler summer home, Castle Hill in Ipswich, Massachusetts, designed for Chicagoans Richard T. Crane, Jr. and his wife, Florence Higinbotham Crane, heirs of the Crane Company of Chicago. Susan Hill Dolan, Curator and Cultural Resources Manager at the Crane Estate, who will lead the interior and exterior tour of Castle Hill for the documentary, told us how Adler’s genius shines through at the property also features extraordinary gardens.
What best showcases David Adler’s remarkable talent in his design of Castle Hill?
As a start, the location of Castle Hill is unique among Adler’s sites: atop a hill, surrounded by miles of saltmarsh and ocean views, Adler’s Stuart-style mansion commands a bold presence in the landscape and from the view out at sea.
For its exterior design, Adler creates a design strongly influenced by two famous English country houses, Ham House and Belton House, both of which now belong to England’s National Trust. He chose as materials pink Holland brick set with sandstone trim. The colorful slate roof is topped with a cupola that matches that of Belton House. For the interior, he combines architectural salvage from both Cassiobury Park, former home to the Earls of Essex, along with that of a 1732 London town house.
We also see his eclectic talents at work inside, where he combines such elements as Baroque carvings, including a virtuoso Grinling Gibbons overmantel, Georgian woodwork, Gothic-style vaulting, Greek Revival lighting fixtures, and an Art Deco feel to the state-of-the-art Crane Co. bathrooms.
To quote my own article in the 2002 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition catalog, David Adler: The Elements of Style, ‘Unique to the Great House is indeed this combination, on such a grand scale, of architectural elements from the exteriors of two English country houses, along with the integration of architectural salvage from the interiors of two additional English homes, to achieve a remarkable balance of grandeur and intimacy. From the bold fluency of design inherent in the Baroque to the Neoclassical vocabulary employed by Georgian taste, both display a strong and careful sense of symmetry, and Adler skillfully, and rather electrically, balances these elements both inside and out.’
What stage in his career does Castle Hill represent?
Castle Hill is considered by some to be Adler’s masterpiece, so I would say that at the time he designed the Crane mansion in Ipswich from 1924-1928, he was at the peak of his career. At the time he was working on the Crane mansion, he was juggling work on multiple homes for important clients. Adler had previously built the Crane’s winter home on Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1916, a Mediterranean-style villa. He also designed an altarpiece at St. Chrysostom’s Church in Chicago as a memorial to Mr. Richard T. Crane, Jr. (1873-1931), so the Cranes were important, three-time clients to David Adler.
Why should people learn more about David Adler and his work?
Classic design is timeless, and I think that David Adler’s architecture reflects the beauty of symmetry in historic design that never goes out of style. Adler was also a master of seamlessly combining historical styles with elegance and taste, both inside and out. This eclecticism really makes him stand out. At a time when the modern designs of Frank Lloyd Wright were breaking new ground, Adler continued to take inspiration from the 17th and 18th century houses he saw during his travels abroad—something for which he had earlier been criticized.
Yet, Adler understood how to combine architectural elements to make them his own, both inside and out. In the end, symmetry and classic design prevailed for him, and on a scale that feels warm and comfortable.
What words would you use to describe Adler as an architect and then as a person?
The first part is easier. I would describe David as a brilliant historicist architect who maintained careful symmetry, honored classically-inspired design elements, and was a master at eclectically combining different architectural styles with elegance and taste. As a person, my sense is that he was meticulous in all things, was a man of great taste, and someone who was devoted to both his clients and his family.
How did he work with his clients?
Adler appeared to maintain close working relationships with his clients, who were of a certain social stature and preferred classic, timeless design in old world style. We know that he took on both the exterior and interior designs, so clients would have admired and trusted his taste. At the same time, this level of detail would also require working closely with Adler in order to maintain personal preferences in the kind of living spaces they desired.
How did he work with the Crane family in its design?
Although our archival documentation regarding their working relationship is scant, we know that David Adler worked with Mr. and Mrs. Crane on both the exterior and interior design of the house, including the furnishings.
As a testament to this, we have a unique set of furniture inventory cards that Adler and his office produced for Mrs. Crane. These large cards, passed down to us from a Crane descendant, are mounted with black and white photographs of the furnishings Adler purchased, with Mrs. Crane’s approval, for the Great House. Notated below the photos is an identification of the piece, its provenance, and the room in which is resided. They are mostly dated 8/28/28, dating the completion of the interiors to August 1928. This primary documentation is irreplaceable for us.
Along with 1931 photographs of selected rooms by Mattie Edwards Hewitt, a 1949 inventory of the house, and the 1950 Parke Bernet auction catalog from the sale of furniture at Castle Hill (sold by the family after the property was donated to The Trustees), these four primary documents have been my guide to restoring the interiors of the house to reflect the grandeur of the Crane era. We have been fortunate to receive loans and donations of many original pieces back to the Great House over the past two years.
What is the best way to visit Castle Hill?
Castle Hill, a National Historic Landmark, is only 30 miles north of Boston, located in the coastal town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. It is part of the greater 2,100-acre Crane Estate, which also includes the pristine Crane Beach and the Crane Wildlife Refuge, and is truly a spectacular site. It is one of 117 properties owned by The Trustees of Reservations, a private, non-profit conservation organization which preserves and protects, for public use and enjoyment, properties of exceptional scenic, historic, ecological significance. The Crane Estate certainly ticks all those boxes.
Whether you love architecture, nature, beaches, or birding (or all of the above), you will love the Crane Estate. We also have our own inn, The Inn at Castle Hill, which is a lovely place to stay right on the property. In fact, we have one passionate supporter who feels that visitors to Boston should get off the plane at Logan Airport and head straight to Castle Hill, it’s that special!
For visitors there is active programming at Castle Hill, almost year round now, but the best times for tours of the Great House during our 2019 season would be May 21 through October 27, when we give house tours six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm. Weekend tours begin in mid-April and return in November. You can take a Guests of the Cranes tour with a maid or butler, a Cupola with a View tour to take in rooftop views, or several other options.
We also have a summer concert series on Thursday nights, a popular Roaring ’20s Lawn Party in July, a fall art show, holiday events, and much more. The beach is open sunrise to sunset year round.
Have you visited some of the homes he designed in Chicago and on the North Shore? Do you have a favorite Adler residence here?
I was fortunate enough to take a group of Trustees’ supporters to Chicago and its environs for the 2002 opening of the Adler exhibition at the Art Institute. We visited Lake Bluff, where we toured the William McCormick Blair House through the kindness of its owner, John Bryan. I would describe that house as stunning, charming, intimate, and comfortable. Certainly a favorite of that region, it reminded me of the charm of a Royal Barry Wills American colonial combined with English country warmth, plus a stunning location on the lake.
We also lunched at Shore Acres Country Club, which was beautiful with its classic Adler style (although rebuilt in Adler style after a fire in 1983). I would have loved to visit the Reed House in Lake Forest to see interior designs by Adler’s sister, Francis Elkins, and to see design elements reminiscent of Castle Hill.
I did not go to any Chicago single-family homes, but I visited an apartment building designed by Adler on Lake Shore Drive. I would have liked to see the home he designed for his friend Abram Poole who designed an oil-on-canvas mural for Castle Hill and two chimney-breast paintings. I love classic Georgian-style row-house designs in cities.
We salute Susan Hill Dolan and Kristin Smith for celebrating David Adler, bringing his work to life and sharing it with generations to come.
To learn more about Kristin Smith’s upcoming documentary, visit adlerarchitecturefilm.com. Visit the Castle Hill website at thetrustees.org and check out Places to Visit to learn more about the Crane Estate.