Architect David Adler: books and book collectors

Art Miller


hrough May 18, 2003, the Art Institute of Chicago will be showing an exhibition on the work of Chicago-based architect David Adler (1882-1949). In addition to major essays, including two by national-level historians Richard Guy Wilson and Pauline Metcalf, on Adler’s architecture and interiors respectively, the catalogue of the exhibit includes 18 studies of individual projects, including a few with interesting Caxton Club and book-related links.

Significantly, Wilson finds that Adler surpasses, to use his own word, contemporary American traditionalist architects such as Delano & Aldrich and John Russell Pope. Among the 18 Adler projects on view, clients who were notable book collectors included Alfred E. Hamill and Jane Warner (Mrs. Edison) Dick. The Richard Bentleys, clients for an Adler house, were scions of old Chicago families and inherited material from notable Caxtonian collections — those of John H. Wrenn and Frederic Norcross, Phoebe Bentley’s grandfather and father. Charles B. Pike, one Adler client profiled, led the early 1930s campaign to relocate the Chicago Historical Society in Lincoln Park; Adler later designed a memorial room there in his honor. Pike’s Adler-designed house later was home to Suzette Morton (Hamill, Zurcher) Davidson, proprietor of the Pocahontas Press and patron of the Sterling Morton Library at the Morton Arboretum.

Most notable among these Adler clients, from a Caxton perspective, was Alfred E. Hamill, club president from 1920 to 1922, in the period when Adler was designing for him his well known library wing on his Lake Forest estate residence. Hamill also served on the Caxton Council from 1919 to 1937. As a poet, writing under the pseudonym of Hugh Western, Adler also wrote many good poems, often based on his collecting interests — among them, Italy and the Renaissance, Byzantine and Russian culture, and great literature. His 10,000-volume collection and his classic library by Adler were the subject of a 1941 profile for The Dolphin by Paul Standard, and The Caxton Club visited Hamill’s library, an excursion on October 18, 1947.

The Adler rectangular library, steps down from the level of the main floor and the terrace nearby, it was lined with bookcases, in the 18th Century English manner, with repeated rounded arches above doors, windows, bookcases, and the cozy fireplace, with a Greek inscription by Jim Hayes. Busts in round niches at the end continued the rhythm on a smaller scale. In the late 1920s a stack room was added for the growing book collection northwest of the library. Also in that period Adler built a tower study and book room nearby on his estate, known as Centaurs. Much of Hamill’s book collection, after his passing in 1953, went into institutional collections — at the Art Institute, where he and Adler both were heavily committed, and to the Newberry and Lake Forest College libraries.

Another Adler client, a book collector and book arts patron was Jane Warner Dick. She amassed a library of works of Katherine Mansfield, now in the Newberry collections, and also had printed by Philip Reed’s October House in 1952 her memoir of the presidential campaign that year, Whistle-Stopping With Adlai. The Dicks’ 1932 Greek Revival style house, based on early American models, included a cozy living room with a carved wood mantle and, along its west-facing outer wall, between windows, book shelves. The top shelves were spaced with gothic arches, late-Georgian embellishments, which contributed some verticality to the relatively low room. Jane Dick had an active career as a political volunteer, and her handsome memoir, designed by Bruce Beck and illustrated by Betty Jones, is an elegant reminder of one of the high points of Illinois political history. Whistle-Stopping with Adlai has found its way into many important institutional libraries as a record of one of the last great railroad-based political campaigns.

One fascinating 1928 Adler design was for the Dutch and South African colonial Richard and Phoebe Norcross Bentley place on the lake in Lake Forest. Phoebe Bentley’s grandfather, John H. Wrenn, was one of the founders of The Caxton Club in 1895 and an eminent collector of 19th Century English first editions, assisted in his gathering by the English bibliographer, Thomas J. Wise. In the late 1920s Wrenn sold his great library to the University of Texas in Austin; there it played a role, through the correspondence between Wrenn and Wise, in proving that the Englishman was the greatest of all literary forgers, creating many new “first editions” in the course of locating many legitimate ones, as well.

Mrs. Bentley’s father, too, was a Caxtonian: Frederic Norcross, a member of the Council from 1917 to 1923. The Bentleys expanded their property in the 1930s under former Adler associate Ambrose Cramer, Jr. adding a playroom with space for a library above, off the master bedroom. This presumably was to house Norcross (died 1938) and also Bentley family books. Many of these later came to the Lake Forest College library, where Mrs. Bentley was a long-time trustee, including a copy of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, the 1850s student work of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and also a signed copy of a collection of Dante Rosetti’s poetry.

The Charles B. Pikes’ Italian villa dates from the first phase of Adler’s independent architectural career, when he was in partnership with Hamill’s cousin and original architect, Henry Dangler. Indeed, Dangler died of tuberculosis early in 1917, while the work on the estate was concluding. Though Pike himself was not a notable collector, through his crucial service to the Chicago Historical Society, as described by late Caxtonian Paul Angle in his centennial history of the Society in 1956, he played a major role in ensuring the future viability of one of the area’s major research library collections. After Pike’s death Adler designed a memorial exhibit hall in Pike’s memory, one of his few non-residential commissions. Later the Pikes’ Lake Forest villa was the home of Caxton fellow traveller in the era before women members, the late Suzette Morton (Hamill, Zurcher) Davidson. Morton was the proprietor of the Pocahontas Press and an active book designer in the 1950s and 1960s, when she lived in the Pike villa. Much of her book design energy went into projects for the Art Institute, and it was that institution’s curator James Speyer, who undertook for Morton a sensitive interior-only renovation of the public rooms, in the spirit of Mies van der Rohe. Morton’s Pocahontas Press is one of the private presses included in the current Caxton exhibition at Columbia College. And the club made another excursion to visit Morton’s institutional project, the Sterling Morton Library at the Morton Arboretum, in April of 1967.

Of course, Adler himself was a significant book collector, as were many traditionalist architects of his day. Adler’s own library is listed in the now much sought-after Richard Pratt monograph on the architect, published in 1970. As many of the exhibition catalogue articles on specific houses explain, Adler made good use of his architectural library, mining books for motifs found in places like the Hamill, Pike and Bentley estates. If Adler did not settle on any specific model for his library for Hamill, he drew in general on the English 18th Century great house tradition for his inspiration. Perhaps no architect in America used his library so creatively, variously and accurately to fabricate new, 20th Century suburban estates of distinction.

Many Caxtonians will visit this interesting Adler show, which establishes one other area of art in which Chicago has been a leader. So it may make the trip more enjoyable and relevant still to keep in mind the Caxton Club, book arts, and collecting aspects of some of these notable architectural productions and the people who conceived and lived in them.

David Adler: The Elements of Style, edited by Martha Thorne, with essays by Richard Guy Wilson, Pauline Metcalf, and Ghenete Zelleke and Foreword by Robert A. M. Stern; new color photography by Bob Harr, Hedrich Blessing. New Haven: Yale University Press, in association with the Art Institute, 2002. 224 pp.

The exhibition runs from December 7, 2002 to May 18, 2003.

Editor’s note: The Real Estate section of the Chicago Tribune (January 12, 2003) carried the headline, “Adler-designed Lake Forest mansion listed for record $26M.” The lakefront home on 6.4 acres was designed and built in 1931 for Mrs. Kersey Coates Reed, the daughter of Marshall Field & Co. President John G. Shedd. It is one of the homes featured in the retrospective exhibition at the Art Institute. Mrs. Read was a major donor, in memory of her husband, to the 1931 Lake Forest Library, created when Alfred Hamill was president of the local library board.

An exterior view of Alfred Hamill’s Centaurs Italian-villa, showing the 1922 library wing, designed by Adler as an addition to the house, which designed before 1912 by Hamill’s cousin, Henry Dangler. Image by Hedrich-Blessing and used through the courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The east or lakeside view of Richard Bentley’s home, designed by Adler in 1928. The lower-level windows employ a style derived from Dorothea Fairbridge’s 1922 book on South African architecture. The shutters reflect a pattern found in Francis Yerby’s 1924 book on Dutch domestic architecture. Both books were known to be in Adler’s own library. Image by Art Miller.

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