The house built by John G. Shedd at 4515 Drexel Boulevard.
By Megan McKinney
Not all 19th century tycoons lived on Prairie Avenue. John Graves Shedd, Benjamin Edward Bensinger and Martin Ryerson Jr. all built fine houses on South Drexel Boulevard, and among those who did the same on South Michigan were Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank, meatpacker Edward Morris and dry goods merchants Emanuel Mandel and Harlow N. Higinbotham.
In the era before federal income taxes, when servants were each paid approximately $5 a week, these households were fully staffed with a butler, second man, cook, laundress, multiple maids, a gardener or two, a coachman and groom, plus nurses and governesses. Butlers and coachmen were often English—or, in the case of Pullman, former slaves—but most servants were Irish immigrants and many became lifelong members of an extended family, continuing to live with their employers long after they were able to work. In back of the stately homes were coach houses that held broughams, victorias, phaetons and other handsome equipage for transporting their owners. Quartered nearby were carefully groomed horses and the requisite family cow.
John G. Shedd.
By the time John Shedd joined this club, he had married the former Mary Roenna Porter. They were wed in 1878; however, the French Gothic mansion on Drexel Boulevard did not become their home until 1896. The 24-room, turreted château, with its imposing medieval stone façade and fleur-de-lis detailing, was pronounced “one of Chicago’s finest Gothic houses” by sculptor Lorado Taft.
The Shedds were by then prominent citizens who frequently entertained within the splendor of their handsome house, favorably impressing guests with the Loire Valley grandeur of the great oak-paneled rooms, richly carved mantels and leaded windows. Mary was a valuable social asset, who was, according to the late Chicago Daily News writer John Drury, “highly esteemed as a hostess, as a church worker, and as a woman of rare cultural and intellectual attainments.”
Following the 1906 death of Marshall Field, Shedd became president of Marshall Field & Co., but he is best remembered for the more than $3 million he donated to the city of Chicago to build the lakefront John G. Shedd Aquarium.
A vintage image of the recently completed Shedd Aquarium.
The second Shedd generation consisted of two daughters, Helen and Laura, both now remembered as chatelaines of remarkable Lake Forest estates. In 1911, Helen married Kersey Coates Reed, a prominent attorney, who died suddenly at 49 in 1929. Before his death, the couple had commissioned architect David Adler and his sister, interior designer Frances Elkins, to build and furnish a sumptuous Georgian Revival house. Mrs. Reed continued with plans for the mansion and lived in it until her death at age 94. The 30-room, 14-bedroom masterpiece, situated on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, features 12 fireplaces, 10 baths, Hermès leather-covered library walls and parquet flooring from a château belonging to Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry.
© Building Chicago: The Architectural Masterworks by John Zukowsky, Rizzoli New York, 2016.
Helen Shedd’s stately home, known as the Kersey Coates Reed house.
Laura Shedd was also mistress of a great Lake Forest estate, but hers was to acquire a sinister history and become a notorious “haunted house.” When she married banker Charles H. Schweppe in 1913, her father’s wedding gift to the couple four years later was Mayflower Place, an immense English Tudor manor. The property’s manicured lawns and gardens were punctuated with sculptured shrubbery and Italian statuary, and a waterfall fed a cliffside swimming pool, where the Schweppe children, Jean and John, splashed with their friends. The lavish 28-acre domain was also the setting for gala parties, including a spectacular event in the summer of 1926 at which Crown Prince Gustavus Adolphus and Princess Louise of Sweden were guests, and Ruth Page, “premiere danseuse of the Chicago Opera Company,” performed.
Mayflower Place, built by John G. Shedd for his daughter Laura.
When Shedd died in 1926, leaving an estate worth $19 million, his remains were placed in the family burial chamber of the handsome John G. Shedd Memorial Chapel in Rosehill Mausoleum. The Shedd tombs are on the second floor of the mausoleum in one of the building’s most elaborate family crypts. Large marble pillars face the entrance to the small room where Shedd, his wife and other family members are interred.
Before his death, John Shedd acquired the custom blue stained-glass window, which observers have noted lends an underwater glow to the room when its doors are closed.
The large sanctuary outside the Shedd room holds reflecting benches embellished with designs of seashells and seahorses—again the nautical theme—as well as doors leading into other private rooms.
As mentioned earlier, in 1924, Shedd donated $2 million to the city of Chicago to build a great lakefront aquarium, the first and largest indoor aquarium in America, and he added the contribution of another $1.25 million two years later.
John Shedd did not live to see his magnificent contribution to the vivid public texture of Chicago. He died in late 1926, and the Shedd Aquarium, completed three years later, did not open until May 30, 1930. Above is an opening day photograph illustrating the spectrum of ages of those whose lives have been enriched by his gift for nearly nine decades.
It was not in John Shedd’s plans, however, he surely would have approved Dirk Lohan’s 1991 aquarium expansion, creating a comfortable oceanarium home for beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Alaskan sea otters, harbor seals, and a colony of penguins.
Megan McKinney’s Great Chicago Fortunes series on the Shedds will continue through the next two generations of this remarkable family.
Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien
Author Photo by Robert F. Carl