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Chi Lives: saving the house that genius built


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The deal hasn't gone down yet, but it looks like architect Paul Schweikher's home and studio won't be bulldozed to make way for an expanded water treatment plant after all. The village of Schaumburg is about to fork over a half million dollars to buy this little-known treasure, rescuing it from the clutches of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which has held it hostage since 1988. That's when the MWRD condemned and acquired the property, apparently unfazed by its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the testimonials of architects and historians.

Schweikher worked in the Chicago area for nearly three decades and then went on to head the architecture departments at Yale and Carnegie Mellon universities. An American modernist, he's important in part because his work links the Prairie and Bauhaus schools of design. The house and studio he built for himself on seven acres near Roselle in 1938 is the best remaining example of that work--a long, low, redwood-and-brick blend of the two styles, with a generous dose of Japanese influence. (Schweikher traveled to Japan in 1937 and stayed at Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel.) Schweikher lived in the house until he left for Yale in 1953; a number of Chicago's future architectural stars--Bertrand Goldberg, Edward Dart, Gertrude Kerbis--apprenticed in the studio.

South Willow, as Schweikher called it, still looks as it did when they were there. Turn into an inconspicuous gravel drive not far from Woodfield Mall, cross a small prairie, and it suddenly presents itself--a cluster of weathered modules, all overhangs and brick walkways and horizontal perspectives, sweeping back to a promenade of fruit trees and framed by towering pines. The landscape, an integral part of the design, is the work of Franz Lipp, who later created the celebrated gardens at the McCormick estate, Cantigny.

Enter the shoji-inspired front door, and you're at the pivot point of an L formed by the bedroom and living room wings, the place where you see all at once what the house is about. It's a symphony of low and high ceilings, inside and outside space, massive brick walls, glass that seems to float, and wood, glorious wood. Schweikher built it with one bedroom, a cypress shower, a bathroom with a view, a Zen garden, teak plywood floors, and a modernist version of a country kitchen. In 1947 he added a bedroom for his son. The studio is a separate building, a few steps from the kitchen door, where drafting tables were lined up under a band of windows offering a panorama of the grounds. Schweikher's private office, added in the 40s, is cantilevered--sailing out toward Salt Creek, which runs along the edge of the property. A bedroom and bath tucked under the office was crash space for late-working apprentices.

When Schweikher left for Yale, he sold the house to friends of a friend: nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf and his wife, Martyl, a painter. (Langsdorf developed the plutonium used in the Manhattan Project, then petitioned Truman not to use the atomic bomb; Martyl's work is included in the collections of major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian.) When they moved in, the house was still surrounded by farms; Martyl remembers moonlight glowing on neighboring cabbage fields. But before long it was annexed to the burgeoning village of Schaumburg, and the farms were replaced by housing developments. The Langsdorfs raised two daughters at South Willow, using the office as a master bedroom and the drafting room as Martyl's studio. They believed they were living in a work of art and were scrupulous about keeping the buildings (including a garage and model shop) and grounds as they found it. When the MWRD acquired the compound, the Langsdorfs got a lease that allowed them to stay for life.

That arrangement will continue under Schaumburg's ownership. Mayor Al Larson says the village is committed to preserving the complex. He's putting together a committee to suggest how it might eventually be used and managed. (The purchase includes only two and a half acres of the property; the other four and a half acres remain in the hands of the MWRD, which will lease it to Schaumburg.) Architect Jeffrey Whyte, who does his own drafting in Schweikher's former model shop, thinks South Willow's soft, untreated redwood surfaces make it too fragile for the kind of exposure the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio gets, so it may or may not be open to the public on a regular basis. But this weekend there's an opportunity to visit. Whyte and architectural historian Susan Benjamin (she did the research that got it on the National Register) will conduct tours under the auspices of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, which last year had the property on its Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list. The tours are scheduled for Saturday from 10 to noon. Admission is $20. Call 312-922-1742 for reservations and directions. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Betty J. Blum, Art Institute of Chicago.

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