Gazette Article by: Cindy Fuller
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2001
House of the Season: Becoming A Seyfarth Sleuth
Of the architects practicing along the North Shore in the first half of the 20th century there is one whose work is easily recognizable. Robert Seyfarth’s homes reflect a strong sense of proportion and light applied in a very consistent design pattern. After becoming familiar with his style, it’s easy to become a sleuth of his architecture.
Seyfarth was born in 1878 in Blue Island, Illinois. He received his architectural training at the Chicago Manual Training School, which was later incorporated into the University of Chicago. Upon his graduation, around 1898, he went to work in the offices of George W. Maher. Maher was well regarded as a Prairie School architect and designed many homes in Chicago and the North Shore (his own home is located at 424 Warwick Road in Kenilworth). While in Maher’s practice, Seyfarth worked on Patton gymnasium and Swift Hall at Northwestern University as well as a number of residential commissions.
Around 1909, Seyfarth left Maher’s firm to establish his own practice. During his career he was best known as a high quality residential designer with clients throughout Chicago and the North Shore. He worked independently, doing his own drafting and project supervision and used a small number of highly skilled craftsmen for his projects. Robert Seyfarth died in 1950.
The home at 175 Chestnut is one of a dozen or so Winnetka commissions that exemplify Seyfarth’s designs. While clearly adept at borrowing from historical styles and precedents, his consistent application of simple geometry and architectural detail reflect Maher’s and other modernistic influences. In this house, the expansive gambrel roof defines the striking triangular shape of the house. Within this form are a symmetrical arrangement of generously sized windows and a central entry door, embellished with sidelights and a strong projecting pediment. Seyfarth specified inset, not projecting, dormers so as not to interrupt the strong visual effect created by the roof. Two small porches tucked at either end of the house are another Seyfarth trademark.
Covered entirely in wood shingles, 175 Chestnut recalls the shingle style homes popular in the late 19th century. Specifically, the roofline bears a strong resemblance to the W.G. Low house, located in Bristol, Rhode Island, designed by the east coast firm of McKim, Mead & White in 1878. This style was a harbinger of more contemporary styles to come with its emphasis on the whole and not the parts and more free-flowing and casual interior spaces. Inside, the architectural detailing is simple and understated. The living room fireplace is adorned with oval medallions recalling the Federal Style. Windows reach to the floor and provide ample light. This home speaks of good breeding with an independent spirit.
175 Chestnut and its neighbor at 185 were both designed by Seyfarth as spec houses. While their exteriors are entirely different, the interior floor plan is identical. The Howe family, who have called it home for three generations, purchased 175 upon its completion around 1916. It has been lovingly maintained, with its history preserved in family archives and memories.
Seyfarth houses dot many of Winnetka’s neighborhoods. 181 Birch, 96 Woodley, 633 Ardsley, 648 Pine, and 602 Spruce are a few of his designs. Informed detectives can easily discover even more examples of Seyfarth’s work.