Bill Redfield can still remember the first time he saw the old Hugh McBirney estate in Lake Forest. It was 1974 and he and his wife, Lyn Redfield, had been living nearby to save up money for the old house they always dreamed of. He was an electrical engineer; she was a school teacher. They both loved historic properties and had restoration on the mind, but maybe not this much restoration.
“When we first pulled into the driveway, we looked at the condition and decided that we didn’t want it,” explains Redfield. “We started the car and at that moment, the real estate agent drove in by the garage. I asked Lyn if she still wanted to leave. She, being Lyn, said no; she didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
The rest is, as they say, history.
“When we walked in the front door, we were stunned by the proportions of the rooms and we both fell in love with the house,” Redfield continues.
What the couple had just walked into was a rare and special property. Built in 1909 for Mr. and Mrs. McBirney, what is known as the “House of the Four Winds” is a collaboration between architect Howard Van Doren Shaw and landscape architect Rose Standish Nichols. Inspired by the Generalife gardens for the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, Shaw’s design did what few domestic architects were doing in the United States at that time—integrating the grand home’s interior spaces with European-style formal gardens.
The estate is now among Shaw’s most iconic designs, and thanks to the work done by Bill and Lyn, who passed away a few years ago, it has been preserved meticulously for generations to come. This month, the “House of the Four Winds,” now being cared for by a new couple who love it as much as the Redfields did, will be featured on the Lake Forest Preservation Foundation’s (LFPF) annual home tour.
Titled “The Uniqueness of the Shaw Tradition in Lake Forest Architecture,” the September 30 house and garden tour will highlight two Shaw country houses along with other homes designed by associates or devotees of Shaw. As Arthur Miller, former president of LFPF and emeritus archivist at Lake Forest College, explains, the homes on the tour were chosen to provide an intimate view into the country house vision Shaw and his colleagues brought to Lake Forest.
“Of all the great architects who designed residences in Lake Forest in this era, Shaw had the greatest impact,” explains Miller, who has co-authored several books about historic architecture in Lake Forest and on the North Shore. “This was directly through his many distinguished houses, and indirectly through the architects he mentored, and those they mentored on their staffs, down to recent decades.”
However, Shaw’s best-known and perhaps most significant creation in Lake Forest was not a house, but the Market Square he built in 1916.
“Not only was Howard Van Doren Shaw Lake Forest’s most prominent architect, but with the construction of Market Square he literally created the image of a town center that would represent Lake Forest to the world,” says Stuart Cohen FAIA, Cohen & Hacker Architects LLC, and author of Inventing The New American House; Howard Van Doren Shaw, Architect, a 2015 book (Monacelli Press) about Shaw’s architectural legacy. “If the Onwentsia Club was the center of Lake Forest social life, Shaw’s Ragdale Ring—an open-air theater-was the center of Lake Forest cultural life.”
Miller says the Market Square we have today was only made possible because of Shaw’s growing reputation among his country house clients. Without that backing, Lake Forest’s century-old icon might have never received the funding he needed to build it.
“These backers owned his houses, lived in his Lake Shore Drive apartments, or visited these dwellings as guests, and provided the capital for land acquisition and later to implement the final plans,” adds Miller, noting that Shaw’s first design in Lake Forest in 1897 was for his family’s own Ragdale country estate. “Shaw’s and his wife Frances’s very active roles in Lake Forest, in designing houses and residing here seasonally, cultivated well-heeled investors for Market Square.”
Shaw’s legacy is alive today, as six of the 12 preservation awards given by LFPF this year were for Shaw’s work or work by an associate or associate’s associate, all part of what Miller calls Shaw’s “architectural family tree.”
“For example, the house by I. W. Colburn on Foster that won a rehabilitation award is the work of a professional descendant of Shaw’s,” he explains. “Colburn first studied at Yale with Paul Schweikher and then after World War II, worked for him here in the Chicago area, before setting up his own Lake Forest firm in the early 1950s. Schweikher had worked in David Adler’s office in the early 1930s. Adler, in turn had worked with Shaw. Many of Shaw’s 1912 projects influenced Adler’s later work and attention to historic detail, including one on this tour.”
As a modern-day architect based in Evanston and a professor emeritus in the department of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cohen has long admired Shaw’s creations.
“Howard Van Doren Shaw was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s and he explored many of the same ideas about the open house plan and connecting interior space to the landscape,” he says. “However, he continued to use the familiar forms of traditional domestic architecture, which is why he was ignored by most 20th century historians. I am a practicing architect as well as a historian and when I decided to write about Shaw, I began to realize that he had had many of my best architectural ideas before me.”
Shaw is no longer being ignored.
In fact, one of the most famous architects living in Lake Forest today, Adrian Smith (who designed the world’s tallest building, among other accomplishments), joins Cohen and Miller in applauding the accomplishments of Howard Van Doren Shaw—not only to Lake Forest but to the American architectural canon.
“His houses in Lake Forest are great examples of the Arts and Craft movement fused with influences of the early Prairie School. His work is sensitive, poetic and lyrical,” says Smith, who also owns a David Adler cottage with his wife, painter Nancy Smith, and recently acquired (and plans to restore) another crumbling Adler estate in Lake Forest. “As an architect, I appreciate the legacy of great design from our previous generation of esteemed architects, regardless of stylistic preferences. The greatest of these works are inspirational, beautiful, and some are worthy of wonder and awe. Sensitive preservation of the best examples is as important as creating the new future architecture what will inspire future generations of architects. I hope I can be a part of both.”
Redfield, who continues to reside in Lake Forest in his retirement years, says he was honored to live in and restore a Shaw estate. “House of the Four Winds” was he and Lyn’s labor of love, and an example of why LFPF continues to support and nurture similar restorations in Lake Forest.
“Historic properties are one of the most important features that make a community unique,” says Redfield. “Of all the Shaw homes, this one stands alone in that has had the least amount of changes over the years. It even still has the ice door on the back porch that was available to the ice man to put a block of ice in a built-in ice box. And the three southeast formal gardens have all the original hardscape features. It truly is a local treasure.”
“The Uniqueness of the Shaw Tradition in Lake Forest Architecture” goes from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 30, with proceeds benefitting Lake Forest Preservation Foundation’s ongoing support of preserving the city’s architectural gems. For tickets and more information, call 847-234-1230 or visit lfpf.org.