“O” is for Otis

Gazette Article by: Nan Greenough
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1998

Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”

One of Winnetka’s first resident architects, William A. Otis designed a number of exceptional houses and two special public buildings: Christ Church on the hill and Greeley School.
Christ Church, built in 1905, may be Winnetka’s most beautiful building. Sensitively tucked into its sloping site, it blends with the landscape. Every detail, from the copper-clad steeple and crenellated tower to the irregularly coursed limestone block walls and switchback stairway leading to the main entrance, is exquisite.
The original 1912 Greeley School forms the northwest section of the current building (the white columns and pediment were added later). The school echoes the Arts and Crafts-influenced public architecture of Otis’s demolished Winnetka buildings: Horace Mann School (1899-1939) stood on the site of the present post office, and the Lloyd Memorial Library (1910-1957) made way for the library we now use.
Trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and a longtime lecturer on architectural history at The Art Institute of Chicago, Otis brought a solid sense of historical architecture to his work at a time when clients craved revival styles.
Otis was born in New York State in 1855. He came to Chicago in 1881, joining the office of renowned architect William LeBaron Jenney, where he later became a partner.
In 1888 he married Elizabeth Shackford, the daughter of a Maine sea captain, Samuel Shackford. Shackford, a former Winnetka village president (elected in 1877), was deeply involved in village affairs and passed this sense of civic duty on to succeeding generations.
Shortly after marrying, Otis opened his own practice. A little more than ten years later, he took in the younger Edwin H. Clark, who became a partner in 1908.
The Otis and Clark partnership lasted until 1920, producing the Lloyd Library, Greeley School, and a number of beautiful houses in Winnetka including a Colonial Revival at 661 Blackthorn Road and red brick Georgian Revivals at 485 Cherry Street (at the corner of Sheridan Road) and 1127 Sheridan Road.
Outside Winnetka William Otis designed many private houses and public buildings including the Orrington Lunt Library at Northwestern University.
Otis was a man with passionate interests. He wrote a 700-page history of the Otis family in America. He was also an early, tireless advocate of lowering the train tracks through Winnetka. After studying the topic thoroughly, he gave many lectures, illustrated with lantern slides, to railroad officials and groups up and down the North Shore.
Both Elizabeth and William Otis held positions on various village boards, as did their architect son Sam, who designed the cenotaph on the Village Green. William and Sam were members of the Winnetka Plan Commission, which completed the village’s first comprehensive plan in 1921.
One of William Otis’s more interesting designs is the house facing the Village Green at 644 Oak Street, which he built for his family in 1894.
Unlike the historic revival houses that he designed for clients, the house at 644 Oak is an eclectic fantasy that draws liberally from a variety of styles: medieval, Victorian Gothic, and Shingle Style. This refined, unique house demonstrates Otis’s ability to mix stylistic elements with sophistication and confidence. The result is a singular, personal statement that is also one of the most architecturally important houses in Winnetka.

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