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How the Conservatively Radical Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw Changed the American House

He came from wealth and made quiet, comfortable country homes for Chicago’s wealthy. But they also quietly tell a story of social change and architectural evolution.

Above: Ragdale, Howard Van Doren Shaw’s home in Lake Forest. Photo: Dave Burk/Hedrich Blessing/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

If you follow our real estate coverage, you’ve probably come across the work of the turn-of-the-century architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. There was his Kenwood mansion—"the architecture is ‘oh my god level’"—a 1910 Tudor which sold for $2.6 million last year. The “House of the Four Winds,” a 1909 Lake Forest country house that went on the market for $6 million last year. A $5.2 million Lake Forest mansion, sold in 2012 by a Morgan Stanley executive. The model for Daisy Buchanan in the Great Gatsby grew up in a Shaw home in Lake Forest.

As you might conclude from the above, or just from his name, Shaw was from the elite, and designed homes for the elite, which continue to appeal to the elite. They’re magisterial yet quiet; as a result, they continue to attract buyers but not a prominent place in casual architectural history. Compared to names like van der Rohe and Wright, Shaw seems conservative, even stiff, in a city defined by some of the world’s most innovative architects.

It wasn’t always so. After his death, he was memorialized by the architect and historian Thomas Tallmadge as “the most rebellious of the conservatives, and the most conservative of the rebels.” And in his new book, Inventing the New American House: Howard Van Doren Shaw, Architect, Stuart Cohen makes the case for Shaw as an innovator, drawing out that argument from Shaw’s reticent buildings.

Cohen is himself an architect. Like Shaw, Cohen—with his wife and architectural partner, Laurie Hacker—has designed many North Shore homes. Which, to my eyes, owe a debt to Shaw. Take the first house featured on their site, which is also located in Lake Forest, and was chosen for the cover of their book Transforming the Traditional. The unexpected massing of windows, the quietly eclectic mix of traditional forms, the neoclassical entryway, the wide-open living space, can all be found in Shaw houses that are now a century old.

But Cohen first encountered Shaw not as a residential architect, but as the architect of a famous and very forward-looking development: Market Square in Lake Forest. It’s arguably the first shopping mall in America—and both proto-transit oriented development and a proto-strip mall.

Market Square, north view

Cohen: I did a graduate degree in urban design, but it was within a school of architecture. What we were looking at—this would have been the late 1960s—was public space and what we used to refer to as the “public domain” within cities, and how it was shaped by buildings, by architecture.

One of the important reference books that was in the studio almost constantly was a book subtitled “The Civic Art,” by Hegemann and Peetes. It was literally an encyclopedic compendium of the great urban spaces of the world. America has a tradition of urban space in towns being town greens with a civic building, and maybe the town church, courthouse, whatever, as freestanding buildings around the perimeter of that space. Whereas in Europe, there are plazas which are completely defined by buildings that ring them.

So for the most part, the examples in this book were, in fact, great urban plazas. The Piazza Navona in Rome, Trafalgar Square in London, things of that sort. And as you got to the back of the book, there was a section of American examples, not very many of them, but Howard Van Doren Shaw’s Market Square in Lake Forest was part of that book. At that point I’d never heard of Shaw, and even though I grew up in Winnetka, I generally didn’t have occasion to get as far north as Lake Forest. I’d never seen Market Square. As a student I made a point to see Market Square, and was literally dumbstruck.

Market Square was built as what we now refer to as mixed-use, transit-oriented development, with stores on the first floor and apartments on the second, across a narrow street from what’s now the Lake Forest stop on the Union Pacific North Metra line. But strip malls are also its ungracious descendants: Shaw lined the shops on either side of the square with parking spaces, so that shoppers could pull right up to the doors. This was 1916, well before cars became the dominant mode of transportation in the United States; it was a sign of things to come.

Market Square, south view

But what so dumbstruck Cohen was Shaw’s architectural language, which shared a language with Shaw’s residential architecture.

Cohen: I thought it was absolutely amazing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was an ensemble of buildings that was all built at the same time, that looked liked it could have been an accretion, because of the variety of form and buildings that surround this open space.

If you look at the buildings flanking the square on the north and the south sides, they’re residential in scale. The roof lines, the windows, the overhangs, the dormers, all of those elements are elements that he deploys and utilizes in his houses. The departure from that are the two towers at the corner where Market Square turns on to Western Avenue. And then at the very end of the space, the hip-roof building that has two-story-high Tuscan columns.

So here’s Shaw, and he manages to build this thing, and design all of it, but not to have it look like, necessarily, that it’s all by the same hand. In other words, you could have had one designer for the north tower, and one designer for the south tower, except for the fact that they pair in size—but not in height—they could have been the work of two different people. So you get this sense of enlivenment of the variety that’s there. That was something that Shaw understood about making a place like Market Square.

Andrés Duany, who was one of the founders of the concept of New Urbanism, when he was planning the town of Seaside, which is now reasonably famous as the first New Urbanist community [Ed. note: The Truman Show was filmed there], told the developer, Robert Davis, that they would do the plan, but then they would help him find architects to commission for the original houses, but that they wouldn’t do the architecture, because they felt that if they did the houses for the place, that they couldn’t possibly build in enough variety. They actually wanted all those houses, and the civic parts of the town, to be done by a variety of different people. Which is actually the way cities and towns happen anyway.

It’s a wide variety: “Italian Renaissance, Tyrolean, Bavarian, Flemish, and English architecture.” Perhaps it seems like a kitschy blend. But consider the effect. Had Shaw used one style and applied it symmetrically, it would look like, well, a planned development designed and built all at the same time. By mixing styles, Shaw built something that looks like—or at least echoes—the way urban centers evolve, which not only lends visual interest, but tells a story, one of continuity through change.

Shaw’s version of this was fake, in a way. But it often works; if it works, it survives; if it survives, it acquires its own gravitas. The Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus was a blank slate for the pathbreaking modernism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and it’s incredibly divisive, as you’ll find if you search for “IIT ugliest campus.” The University of Chicago, meanwhile, was designed at the turn of the century to ape centuries-old institutions of higher learning, especially Oxford, to read august world-class university right here. Eventually, the school caught up to its architecture, and it’s become the thing it was designed to make people think it was, or could be.More contemporary, homogenous development, en masse, breaks with its surroundings and with history. Shaw’s buffet of forms, alternately, is not just genteel, it’s gentle. As are his houses, a selling point for buyers who don’t want to make the pretty dramatic decision to turn over their lives—where they eat, sleep, and raise a family—to the severity of the cutting edge

The living room, with fireplace and inglenook, in Ragdale. Photo: Dave Burk/Hedrich Blessing/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

But that gentility masks significant changes in the architecture of the home, driven by and driving changes in culture, that Shaw was a significant part of.

Cohen: I graduated, went to work as an architect, decided that I essentially wanted to be a residential architect—my partner and I do houses, we actually do traditional houses. That’s when I re-engaged with Shaw’s work. The work is quiet—you could drive by some of his houses and they’re not “hey, look at me” kinds of structures, but they’re incredibly inventive. In some cases, I almost do a double-take because of the compositional aspects of the houses. Interesting, unusual, unexpected arrangements of windows.

As I got the opportunity to see the insides of Shaw’s houses, I started to notice things that seemed very contemporary and very modern. That’s one of the great lessons for us today, as practicing architects, from Shaw’s houses, is the way in which Shaw, who did traditional houses, actually did houses that, even by today’s standards, would be considered modern, or could be considered contemporary. What those houses were responding to were the ways in which, in the 20th century, people were living in and using houses differently than they had in the past.

Shaw was a modernist because he designed for modern life, the decreasing formality of the family and the decline of the servant class. Consider this passage from Virginia Woolf, written in 1924 about changes taking place in society in the previous decade, when Shaw was active. Woolf, Victoria Rosner writes, “locate[s] the origins of modernism in the kitchen’s homely environs":

In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one’s cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change

The dining room at Ragdale, viewed from the entry hall. Photo: Dave Burk/Hedrich Blessing/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

If the cook is constantly coming into the drawing room to ask about hats, why bother with a drawing room?

Woolf was, of course, English. But Shaw drew heavily from contemporary English architecture, which overlapped in respects with contemporary Chicago architecture: i.e. the Prairie School.

“The idea of a building as a reflection of its site may be the source of the horizontality espoused by Prairie School architects in response to the flatness of the Midwestern landscape,” Cohen writes. But it could also have its origins in the work of the English Arts and Crafts architects whom they admired. In his 1909 essay ‘Ideas in Things,’ C.F.A. Voysey wrote, ‘Nature generally expresses the sweetest calm in repose. At sunset we see the horizontal lines as if all nature were reclining and preparing for rest.’ Voysey’s houses often had a distinct horizontality with long, flat facades divided by a horizontal stringcourse, overhanging hipped roofs, and stretches of casement windows.”

Cohen: If you look at some of the houses, you can tell where his sympathies are. The house he built for himself, it’s a big cottage. The Clarence Hopkins King house, and the Hinkley house in Lake Forest, are clearly very big, scaled up versions of a cottage. Shaw, like a lot of American architects, was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England, except he’s actually developing these things contemporaneously with the best known of the Arts and Crafts architects, like [C.F.A.] Boysley or Baillie Scott. Everybody knew what everybody else was doing because of the architectural publications in this country, which frequently featured work by English and occasionally European architects.

 

There was a tension here, as Cohen acknowledges. You might not guess it from, say, being able to buy a delicate, pretty-pretty William Morris scarf at any given art museum gift store, but Morris was a revolutionary Socialist, and the Arts and Crafts movement was committed to a kind of social reform that would not have ended well for the sort of people who bought Howard Van Doren Shaw houses. In particular it was a reaction to industrial production—Shaw himself was a gifted craftsman—of the kind that made many of Shaw’s clients quite wealthy.

But ideas of the kind that the Arts and Crafts movement were based on have a funny way of working their way into the culture, often through the tastes of the elite. Here’s Victoria Rosner again:

For all the ambition of reformers like William Morris to change the look of the average British home, movements like the Arts and Crafts never penetrated far beyond the provinces of the avant-garde…. It is not easy to tell the history of something that did not happen, but looking around America and Europe, where designers like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier and groups like the Bauhaus and the Wiener Werkstatte were dedicated to a total restatement of the problem of the house, England offers very little by way of comparison.

A total restatement of the problem of the house. Shaw was not interested in a total restatement; he built houses that looked like the past and were designed for the future. Or, to paraphrase Cohen, he used a traditional vocabulary to build modern houses

The Hugh Johnston McBirney House, aka the “House of the Four Winds,” built in 1908 in Lake Forest. Photo: Linda Oyama Bryan/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

Cohen: Many of these houses were originally built as vacation houses, but they are less formal, far more open, with spaces that are interconnected—think the free plan of European modernism, or the open plan of California houses in the ’50s or ’60s. These houses had rooms that were open to one another in a very contemporary way, which of course meant that the way you use the house was less formal. They also had, facing the gardens or private lawns, or raised terraces, they had ranges of French doors. So the idea of the connection of the rooms inside the house to the exterior, to the landscape, to a view, is something that characterizes 20th century architecture.

Shaw was friendly with and knew Frank Lloyd Wright, he knew the other Prairie School architects. One of the other Prairie School architects, who wrote books on architecture—including a history of American architecture—that’s Thomas Tallmadge, referred to Shaw as the “most conservative of the rebels, and the most radical of the conservatives.”

By the rebels he meant Frank Lloyd Wright and the group of architects around Frank Lloyd Wright. What began to interest me is that, here’s Shaw, who’s a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, and he is exploring the same set of ideas about the interconnection of spaces, the organization of the house, and its relationship to its garden and the landscape, the view out of the house, as Wright and the Prairie School are looking at. But he’s doing it without abandoning traditional architecture and the associative meaning that those forms have.

The things that were modern about Shaw’s houses were the things that were seen as being modern about Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses. The plans were far more open. The connections between rooms were both physical and visual; you can walk into Shaw’s houses and see through them out to the landscape in two directions. So a continuity of interior spaces. There was, then, the connection of those interior spaces to a terrace, or a landscape, or a garden.

If you look at the McBirney house, there’s an extraordinary sequence where Shaw actually designed the garden, and you go from an entry vestibule to a living room to what was called a “morning room,” a huge covered porch with the house literally sitting above it, and then you go into the garden, and the garden was a couple of steps down from that space, and it was defined with plantings and boxwoods, and then there are steps down into what is essentially a walled garden. It’s all linear. It all follows the sequence of movement from the entry vestibule, living room, sunroom, porch.

The McBirney house “morning room,” looking out to the porch and garden. Photo: Linda Oyama Bryan/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

I can see this in my own life. My in-laws live in a typical house in a typical upper-middle-class development in a typical Chicago suburb. And the first floor of their house is almost completely open. The den is open to the kitchen; the kitchen is open to the dining room; the dining room is open to the living room. The dining room has doors, but, as in Shaw’s homes, they’re French doors, and hardly ever closed. There’s a flow of activity through the house, from lounging to cooking to eating to talking, rather than cordoning off one use from another.

The McBirney House water garden. Photo: Linda Oyama Bryan/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

“When you see from room to room, rather than walling rooms off and having a hallway,” Cohen says, “it related to the idea of the family at home.”

The entry hall of the McBirney house. Photo: Linda Oyama Bryan/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

Though their house is far from the grand designs of Shaw or Cohen and Hacker, it’s the same idea, and you could probably draw a line from it and thousands like it through Cohen and Hacker to Shaw.

It can be a hard story to read from Shaw’s houses—it’s not one the quiet structures tell loudly. But it’s there in Marktown, the aborted company town he planned for steel maker Clayton Mark in northwest Indiana (and beautifully depicted in its current state by one of my favorite photographers, David Schalliol). And it’s there in Market Square, a transformational development whose influence can be seen in any suburb currently trying to mesh car culture and public transit. Shaw did it in one stroke, but designed it to look as anything but.

Cohen: One of the arguments about really good traditional architecture is that it actually has a kind of timeless quality to it. In fact, you can’t tell exactly when it was built. Traditional houses going up today don’t really look like houses from the ’20s, but you can’t look at it and say that it was built in 1980, or 1990, or 2010. In the vocabulary of these things, there’s enough flexibility and variety that somebody practicing today can do what Shaw did—they can take the language and invent new things to say with it, and new things to make out of it.

Shaw was thought to be very original. One of the things I was interested in was going back and looking at what people meant, circa 1910, when they identified originality in a work of art or a work of architecture. It seems to me that the sense of what made something original, or made something new or modern, changed dramatically in the ’20s and ’30s with the European avant-garde, and the idea that to be new, original, modern, you had to make something each time out that nobody had ever seen before.

One of the criticisms of the failure of contemporary architecture is that what we have are a series of huge buildings that are working very hard to make something that nobody’s ever seen before. That really, for me at least, is a fundamental question about what is the relationship of doing that as an objective to the way architecture needs to function in a civic or public environment—how architecture should function as a reflection of the institutional or private uses of a building, of a client and that client’s aspirations. I would almost argue that, when I go into a clothing boutique, or a music venue, or a bar, or even a chic restaurant, something that’s pretty far out is just fine, because it communicates that you’re in the newest and the latest.

But also one of the things that contemporary architecture is doing is communicating with that set of ideas and forms in permanence. A lot of buildings look like they’re going to speed away and take off. Or worse yet, fall down. And the obligation of architecture and architects is otherwise.

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