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Quite a Place They Got Here

One of David Adler's finest houses awaits a buyer.

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The first sign that I'm in a historic house is the straw basket full of powder blue surgical booties by the entrance. I presume they're for prospective buyers. The Reed house, built in 1931 by architect David Adler, is currently on the market for $26 million, a record price for the Chicago area. Adler, presently the subject of a major exhibit at the Art Institute, is celebrated for his magnificent society homes, and the 24,179-square-foot Lake Forest mansion he designed for Mrs. Kersey Coates Reed is considered one of his crowning accomplishments.

I'm about to pull on a pair of booties when the cleaning ladies wave me over the threshold, my boots uncovered. Flanking the entranceway are two dressing rooms, the ladies' on the right and the gentlemen's on the left. The latter has been converted into a trophy room and teems with stuffed game animals and hides, including a leopard and a lion-skin rug. They are the property of the house's current owner, a personal injury lawyer and developer who's also a hunting enthusiast. He purchased the house from the Reed estate in 1979. The ladies' room across the way is spartan and elegant, furnished only with three chairs and a stool--nothing to hide the ebony floor, which is inlaid with a geometric pattern of nickel-copper alloy bars.

Back in the entryway, a dramatic checkerboard of black-and-white marble flooring leads down a spacious hallway, which is intersected by a staircase once used by servants. Norman Rockwell paintings and prints hang on the wall overlooking the stairwell, and framed photographs of former vice president Dan Quayle, Congressman Henry Hyde, and Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia are arrayed on a table beneath them.

Past the servants' stairs, the hallway opens up into a gallery. At its northern end there's a winding staircase framed by black marble columns; on the opposite end stands a grand piano. You could fire a gun in the gallery and (so long as all the doors were open) hit someone in the dining room three rooms away--but only at the risk of damaging the Chippendale woodwork and hand-painted Chinese wallpaper. The dining table is set with china and crystal emblazoned with the owner's monogram. The parquet floor, imported from France, presents a warm contrast to the cool, stately marble of the gallery. The library has the same parquetry, but its standout features are the walls of flawless beige leather. The venerable House of Hermes in Paris supplied the hides.

Adler (1882-1949) was born into a prosperous Milwaukee family; his father was a clothing manufacturer. Educated at Princeton and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he started his architectural career in Chicago in 1911, under the tutelage of Howard Van Doren Shaw. A year later he set up practice with his cousin, Henry C. Dangler. Hampered by his weak drafting skills from qualifying for an architectural license, for years Adler was unable to work without a partner. When Dangler died in 1917, Adler undertook a new partnership with draftsman Robert Work. When he at last qualified for a license, in 1929, the Reed house was his first commission as an autonomous creator. Mrs. Reed, the daughter of Marshall Field's company president John G. Shedd, gave Adler one simple directive: "Don't let us make this a stuffy house." Adler satisfied his patroness by infusing an essentially Georgian design with neoclassical elements. Reed's husband died before the house was completed, but she remarried and lived there until her death in 1978, at the age of 94.

Adler designed the 224-foot, 30-room home in collaboration with his sister, interior designer Frances Elkins. Its external walls are built from Pennsylvania fieldstone. There are 14 bedrooms, ten full baths, two half baths, a dozen marble fireplaces, a sauna, a flower-cutting room, and three garages. The master bedroom suite is adorned with gold leaf moldings and is adjacent to a dressing room that connects in turn to a sunporch overlooking Lake Michigan.

The house, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has been only modestly updated; it has a security system and new kitchen appliances. The bathroom fixtures are original and so are some of the bed linens. The original furnishings were designed by Jean-Michel Frank and Adolphe Chanaux, renowned for the understated luxury of their work, but these are not included in the sale; it's not known what the owner intends to do with these treasures.

Although Adler also designed major homes in Massachusetts, New York, and Hawaii, he's best known as a midwestern architect, and the Reed house is a major part of his legacy. "David Adler, Architect: Elements of Style" is on display at the Art Institute through May 18.

Members of the public wishing to visit the Reed home should first submit a letter from their bank attesting to their ability to buy it.

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