Appeared in the Gazette, Spring 2018
By Layla Danley
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Charles H. Thorne’s family was one of the most prominent in Chicago. Charles’ father, George, was the co-founder of Montgomery Ward along with Charles’ uncle Aaron Montgomery Ward. Charles and his brothers worked for the family business, and after their father and uncle retired, they were placed in charge of the thriving mail-order company that was famed for producing a catalog, known as the “Wish Book,” that offered everything from hoop skirts to bed sheets to Buggies. Charles eventually became president of the company, and he took it public in 1919. He and his brothers invested in North Shore real estate, and Charles’ brother George built a lakeside home in Winnetka at 391 Sheridan Road. When Charles decided to build his Winnetka home, he chose a beautiful one-acre piece of land located nearby, at the corner of Maple Street and Pine Street.
By this time, Charles had married Belle Wilber of Peoria and had 3 children named Hallet (Hallet was Charles’ middle name), Elizabeth and Leslie. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Charles was actively engaged in helping to shape the city of Chicago through his work with The Commercial Club of Chicago and its Civic Committee. He was a known golfer and a member of the Chicago Athletic and Yacht Clubs, as well as several on the North Shore, including Exmoor, the Midlothian and Skokie. Charles was also known for having spearheaded the construction of Montgomery Ward’s iconic building along the Chicago River that opened in 1908. So when it came time to build his own home in Winnetka, Charles knew a little something about buildings that could be both eye-catching and enduring.
Charles decided to hire Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall of Marshall & Fox Architects in 1909 to design his home at 635 Maple Street. Marshall had designed several residential and commercial buildings, including the house at 681 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka around 1900 (perhaps more famously known as Old Man Marley’s House from Home Alone) and Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel in 1908, when he began work with Thorne. Completed in 1912, the 3-story brick and limestone Tudor Revival home had 10 bedrooms, intricate woodwork and several features of a commercial building, including steel I-beams and a 23” thick foundation, that made the house extremely solid. There was also a 3-car brick garage and coach house. Thorne and his family only ended up living in the house for four years, from its completion in 1912 until April 1916.
Although the Thorne’s tenure was short, the home’s future owners and its architect would go on to achieve a certain amount of notoriety. The Thornes sold the house to Arthur Veeder in 1916, and his son Melvin inherited it upon his death in 1930. Melvin’s wife Isabelle Pope Veeder had become famous in the 1920s when her fiancé William Nelson McClintock, known as the “Millionaire Orphan,” died in December 1924 at the age of 21 under mysterious circumstances. Officials suspected that McClintock had been purposefully infected with typhoid germs by his legal guardian, William Darling Shepherd. The sensational trial grabbed headlines all over the country and Isabelle’s became a household name. Prior to his death, Isabelle had obtained a marriage license and unsuccessfully tried to marry McClintock on his deathbed in lieu of their originally planned February 1925 wedding. After being cleared of all charges, Shepherd eventually inherited the McClintock fortune. Isabelle Pope again made headlines by suing Shepherd for a “widow’s share” of the estate and eventually received a significant settlement (reports at the time said she received anywhere from $125,000 to $300,000, which would be several million dollars today). The Veeders lived in the house until February 1960. There were a number of owners after that, including one who split the property in two in the 1960s, which led to the demolition of the original garage and coach house.
Architect Benjamin Marshall also made headlines with both his work and personal life. Marshall would go on to design several of Chicago’s most well-known landmarks, including the 1550 North State Parkway Apartment Building (1911), the Edgewater Beach Hotel (1915), and the South Shore Country Club (1915, now known as the South Shore Cultural Center). However, Marshall’s architectural legacy is perhaps best captured by his buildings on East Lake Shore Drive. Comprised of The Drake Hotel (1920), as well as the addresses at 179, 199, 209, and 999 East Lake Shore Drive, these five buildings have helped define the modern Chicago skyline.
In addition to being a prolific architect, Marshall was also a bit of a celebrity. Described in various articles and books as a cross between the fictional character of Jay Gatsby and the real-life showman Florenz Ziegfeld, who was also a Chicagoan and friend of Marshall’s, Benjamin Marshall was known for his fashion, his collection of Packards, and the epic parties he threw at his pink stucco mansion on the harbor in Wilmette. Originally designed to be the North Shore Yacht Club, the house eventually became Marshall’s studio and entertainment home. It included a pool, a garden loggia, an Egyptian Room, a Pompeian room, a stage for performances and a Chinese pagoda among other things. Marshall hosted everyone from the Prince of Wales to entertainers like Fred Astaire and Ethel Barrymore to the real-life Ziegfeld and his famous Ziegfeld Follies showgirls. A 2015 book on Marshall’s life and work called Benjamin H. Marshall: Chicago Architect, references pool parties where showgirls’ bathing suits dissolved when wet. He also hosted more staid affairs, of course, including numerous charity events and civic organizations.
When Carter Ruehrdanz and Rose Selker purchased 635 Maple Street in 2014, “As Is,” they knew they’d found something special, though they were yet unaware of the fascinating history of the house and its architect. The prior owners had used it as a second home and were rarely there, so it had fallen into disrepair, as evidenced by its lack of working plumbing. Ruehrdanz and Selker wanted to restore the home to its original glory while simultaneously updating it for modern living. The 2-year process included taking the house down to the studs and doing everything from installing new mechanicals, roof, gutters, plumbing, and drainage to tuckpointing the exterior, replacing limestone, and replacing deteriorating exterior brick. Given how difficult it is to match brick, they came up with an ingenious solution—they were able to take brick from the detached walls around the perimeter of the property and use it for the exterior of the house itself since it was a perfect match. Where needed, those detached walls were rebuilt with new brick that’s so well matched as to appear seamless since those walls are situated away from the main house.
In the interior of the house, Ruehrdanz and Selker faced a number of difficult decisions. Despite liking radiant heat, they found the home’s original radiators inefficient and bulky. The floors sloped and the wood had been covered over with carpet in places. They decided to level and replace the floors with rift and quarter sawn oak, while also installing radiant floor heating along with a forced air system. 4 of the original 10 bedrooms were very small, so they opened them up and combined them to make one nice bedroom and sitting room. They needed to replace all of the windows but were fortunate in being able to replace them with windows of the same dimensions and size, thus maintaining the original look of the house while also making it significantly more energy efficient. They restored the home’s original intricate woodwork, and were able to undo some odd modifications.
When taking out walls, they found that several holes for sconces that were in Marshall’s original plans had been stuffed with newspaper and paneled over. They were able to realize Marshall’s vision by finally installing sconces in their intended place. They’ve also been able to restore many of the home’s doors and hardware to their original luster. In the instance they couldn’t salvage something, they had it replaced with a replica that’s indistinguishable from the original, such as a door leading from the foyer to the backyard garden.
The home’s biggest change is perhaps the reconfiguring of the kitchen space. Built at a time when a stately home such as this employed servants, the modern kitchen now has more light with the addition of windows and the opening of the space to the rest of the house. The footprint of the original butler’s pantry, however, remains the same.
All in all, the restoration has been both a great learning experience and a bit of a history lesson. Ruehrdanz and Selker became interested in uncovering the home’s history throughout the process and learned all about its prior owners. In fact, during demolition, Ruehrdanz and Selker found a mysterious bottle inside a wall. After some research, they discovered it was a chloroform bottle from the early 1900’s. The home, it seems, still has some stories to tell.