Part 2: The Historical Significance of the Lake Forest Estates

Lake Forest's claim to historic distinction rests on many factors both physical and social. It is a suburban town begun primarily to support the establishment of a church-related educational institution. Few suburban towns have been founded for such a purpose. A part of the present city is distinctive physically not only because of its picturesque street plan but as well because of the early date when it was laid out.

Of the suburban communities in America that were planned in the nineteenth century according to the picturesque principles worked out for English gardens and American rural cemeteries and parks, Lake Forest is one of the very earliest, coming only five years after the first such town in America, Llewellyn Park, NJ., founded in 1852.

The Lake Forest plan is also notable because its architect, the landscape gardener Jed Hotchkiss, went on to create such other important picturesque places in the Midwest as Bellefontaine cemetery in St. Louis. The general concept reflected in the Hotchkiss plan is of the city in a park, its streets laid out in an organic manner that takes into account such natural features as the ravines and lake bluffs instead of forcing the street plan into the formal straightjacket of the gridiron.

Lake Forest is equally famous for the many notable persons who chose to make their permanent or summer homes there. By World War I the list of property owners in Lake Forest read like a Who's Who of the famous and wealthy in Chicago. It was these same persons who built up large portions of Lake Forest with estates, first following the picturesque ideal of naturalistic park-like planning, then the more aristocratic concept of the estate as a private and secluded refuge from the world and, finally, the estate as part of a scientifically operated farm.

In addition, Lake Forest is also noted for the quality and character of its architecture whether erected for residential, religious, educational or public purposes. Although the names of the earliest architects working for Lake Forest clients are still largely unknown, it is probable they were among the foremost of their profession practicing in Chicago. Probably the earliest architect who we now know to have worked in Lake Forest was Henry Ives Cobb, who built his estate there in 1890. (Note: We are speaking here only of residential buildings. Architects of such early buildings as the Academy are known to us.)

Other noted Lake Forest architects were Charles Frost and Howard Van Doren Shaw, both of whom also maintained estates there. Even such well-known eastern architects as James Gamble Rogers and Charles Platt were called upon to design for Lake Forest clients. In short, the quality of the architecture in Lake Forest was very high indeed, and the quality of its construction equally so, if only because the clients could afford the best. It is these same factors that give Lake Forest its historical significance, that also make the estate areas of residential Lake Forest historically and visually distinctive.

In addition, it was the concentration in Lake Forest, probably more so than in any other community west of the Hudson River, of a vast assemblage of impressive estates laid out by important architects for some of most influential families of Chicago that makes both Lake Forest and its estates especially significant. Couple with that the unusual situation of Lake Forest high on the bluffs overlooking an inland sea and its equally rare early picturesque plan, and the result is a unique place of special historical and physical distinction.