And Helen Hadduck Bowen
The William McCormick Blairs’ country house, Port of Call, was designed by David Adler in 1928.
By Megan McKinney
We began this Classic Chicago Dynasties series last August with three segments on The Bowens before launching into The Blairs—and a promise of the eventual pairing of these two great Chicago lines. That moment has arrived.
When William McCormick Blair and Helen Hadduck Bowen wed in 1912, they were perceived as a Chicago golden couple. The exquisite Astor Street house, which they received upon their marriage and remains among the city’s loveliest, was detailed earlier in the series.
Theirs were charmed lives, filled with beauty, privilege and achievement, three fine sons, William McCormick Jr., Edward McCormick, Bowen, and a lovely daughter, Helen Bowen.
Blair House, 1416 Astor Street, was a wedding gift to the McCormick Blairs from Helen Blair’s parents.
Yet few lives are as sunny throughout as they may appear in retrospect, and the William McCormick Blairs would be in for a periodically bumpy ride—before an epic breakthrough midlife.
McCormick Blair’s privileged education at Groton and Yale appears to have gone as easily as his father’s at the same schools; however, Edward Tyler Blair had been able to slip into his own father’s extraordinarily successful hardware business a few years before its lucrative sale and his early retirement to a pleasant life of letters.
No such fortune for young McCormick, who spent the two years after his 1907 Yale graduation first at the Northern Trust Company and then with the bond brokerage firm David Reid & Company. Then, in 1909, he joined the venerable Boston firm Lee, Higginson & Co., rising evenly to managing partner of its Chicago office. However, suddenly, in 1932, the eight-decade-old Brahmin institution collapsed, resulting from having underwritten the notorious career of Swedish match king Ivar Kreuger, leaving mass human destruction in its wake, including the suicide of 52-year-old Kreuger and loss of whatever fortune Blair had accumulated.
Ivar Kreuger in 1920.
Even more devastating was the William McCormick Blairs’ 1930 personal tragedy. Seventeen-year-old Helen was riding her horse, Pitennis, at Onwentsia, when the animal suddenly threw her. The lovely young Helen died from the injuries.
The loss of Helen could never be overcome; however, Blair’s business recovery, in tandem with a former associate, was close to miraculous. Blair was 50 and his Lee, Higginson colleague Francis Augustus Bonner, 49, at the beginning of 1935 when they formed Blair, Bonner & Company. The fraternity of the Chicago business leadership had come to the rescue with a pair of steel Ryersons—Joseph and Edward—John and Douglas Stuart, of Quaker Oats, and Roger Shepherd putting together the $50,000 crucial to establishing the firm.
On January 8, 1935, Blair, Bonner & Company opened with an office in the Marshall Field Building at 135 S. LaSalle St. Initially the focus was on financing housing in the Midwestern United States, and assisting in the growth of the Household Finance Corporation and Continental Assurance.
The stunning Art Deco entrance to 135 S. LaSalle St., designed in 1934 by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, successor to Daniel Burnham’s architectural firm. Also known as the LaSalle National Bank Building, this was the last great Chicago office building constructed before the extended building hiatus created by the Great Depression and World War II.
Another image of the William McCormick Blair’s Lake Bluff house, Port of Call.
In addition to their Astor Street house, the William McCormick Blairs owned Port of Call, a stone and shingle summer place they built on 11 wooded lakefront acres near the village of Lake Bluff. The property had been carved out of Crab Tree Farm, a dairy farm owned by Grace Garrett Durand. Many Chicago socialites, including members of the Oak Brook Butler family and Josephine Patterson Albright, maintained similar facilities. Interest in the dairy business was an extension of the need for fresh milk, cream and butter that prompted virtually all 19th century families who could afford one to keep a cow. However, Grace Durand’s interest went beyond the personal need or even hobby phase; her dairy was a full-scale commercial operation.
A closer view of Port of Call.
The Blair’s longtime friend David Adler designed the house, which was situated on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and intentionally appeared to be a rambling Colonial farmhouse constructed in phases through many decades. The effectiveness of this illusion was the result of personal research by Adler and the Blairs, who traveled together throughout the American East studying farmhouses of the period. Also on the property were a Georgian-style tennis house with an indoor court, a greenhouse, various staff outbuildings and, in the English style, a Greek temple folly to be viewed from a distance.
Port of Call in deep winter.
The public rooms of the main house as well the tennis house were wood-paneled and equipped with commodious fireplaces.
Helen Blair, an accomplished interior designer, although non-professional, decorated the house herself with 18th and 19th century pieces, as shown in the following series of vintage photographs.
Helen Blair’s Port of Call living room with 18th century paneling from Virginia.
Helen’s Port of Call library.
This image of the arrangement of Currier & Ives prints set into the paneling of a Port of Call hallway has often been published.
The Blairs kept another vacation house in Northeast Harbor, Maine not far from the Bar Harbor house of Helen’s mother.
William’s esteem for Adler was so great that following the architect’s death, he founded the David Adler Cultural Center at Adler’s house in Libertyville and raised funds to restore the property.
David Adler Cultural Center.
William McCormick Blair saved the Chicago Club from financial ruin in the 1940s; and he also served as president of the Commercial Club, the Chicago Historical Society and, in 1956, he began a 10-year term as chairman of the board of trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago, the city’s most prestigious pro bono job. His son Bowen would later follow him in the same position.
In addition, he was a director of the Continental Casualty Co., the Continental Assurance Co. and the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Co. He was a Life Trustee of the University of Chicago, as well as of the Art Institute of Chicago, a Trustee of the Field Museum of Natural History and of Groton School; he was also on the Board of Trustees at The Scripps Research Institute and the Yale Alumni Board. And he was decorated as a chevalier in the Légion d’honneur and a commander in the Royal Order of Vasa.
Those positions and honors were accumulated during midlife and late middle age, but Blair wasn’t sitting by the fire with a shawl over his shoulders as he approached great age. He played golf and tennis until he was 90 and continued to make an annual automobile trek to California for a holiday. Out of simple curiosity at 93, he booked passage aboard the supersonic Concorde.
When he died in 1982, a month short of his 98th birthday, he was still active in his celebrated firm.
Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties series on The Blairs will continue next with a pair of segments on The Glamour Blairs.
Previous articles on The Blairs and other Classic Chicago Dynasties may be found at https://www.classicchicagomagazine.com/category/vintage/classic-chicago-dynasties/.
Robert F. Carl