40 Woodley Road
Gazette Article by: Nan Greenough
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2003
House of the Season: The Home and Studio of John Nash Ott
If you turn down one of the many offshoots of the spaghetti-like maze that is Woodley Road, you may find yourself on a country lane that curves around to the right and eventually stops at 40 Woodley Road. Built for John Nash Ott in 1936, this is a house of mystery wrapped in a traditional demeanor.
While the overall impression is of a white-painted-brick Georgian house, small details reflect the Art Deco influence on many upscale houses of the 1930s. For example, where you would expect to see dentil molding on the front door’s pedimented gable, you find beading, like a string of pearls. The front door is framed by a beautiful wood molding shaped like rope.
In the back of the house, large bay windows (one to the dining room and one to the living room) flank a pedimented French door entry to the living room. Directly above, three curved-top dormers punctuate the slate hipped roof.
Inside, the art deco touches continue, with “reverse” fluting on the decorative pilasters (convex flutes instead of concave) in the large, gracious entry hall, which features an impressive open stairway to the second floor. The adjoining wood-paneled library is a special treat, with decorative arches set around built-in bookcases on either end, plus a central set of large French doors that open onto the stone terrace that surveys the sizeable back yard.
So far, the house looks like a normal high-end house of its era, but that’s because we haven’t toured the basement yet. For John Ott, an amateur photographer since his days at New Trier High School and a banker for 20 years, invented time-lapse photography in the basement of this house and—thanks to the fine stewardship of the house’s owners—much remains of his underground lair. In fact, the title of John Ott’s autobiography, My Ivory Cellar, reflects the subterranean nature of his work.
Time-lapse photography allows us to view the opening of a flower or the growth of a plant—actions that might take hours or days—in a matter of seconds. Creating this effect, using the technology of his day, was an extremely precise business requiring multiple cameras set up to photograph an object at different stages of motion. This led to his ability to study photobiology: the effects of various intensities and qualities of light energy and their impact on living things. He was the first to recognize the effects of fluorescent lights on plants and animals. The development of time-lapse photography provided not only a significant new study tool for science, but a new vehicle for entertainment as well. Walt Disney worked with Ott in the basement of this house to develop special effects for Fantasia as well as several other Disney movie projects.
The basement retains the multiple areas used for John Ott’s work: a dark room, a theater with projection room that held two cameras, and a control panel with the dizzying array of switches needed in a pre-computerized world. Another basement room with a skylight allowed Ott to photograph growing plants. The walls of the theater are covered with meticulous blueprints of his inventions.John Ott loved plants and filmed a TV show, “How Does Your Garden Grow?” in one of the greenhouses. One of his horticultural experiments was to import two railroad cars of North Carolina soil to create a berm edging his yard that not only kept flood water out, but in which he tried planting southern magnolias. The experiment was a success: a magnolia specimen still stands that is much larger than typical for that species in this climate.
The house once sat on a much larger property, which included three greenhouses, a man-made lake, and a building near Hibbard Road for film editing that has since been converted into a garage. Other attributes of this 1936 house that reflected the active mind of an inventor included the summertime cooling system that pumped cool water from a deep well through pipes in the house and eventually to a waterfall that emptied into the lake used for swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. Water was also recycled into a 5,000-gallon tank that provided water for the lawn.
The present owners, George and Pat Bulkley, who bought the house in 1958, have been respectful towards John Ott’s legacy, changing very little of the house and maintaining the blueprints of his inventions on the basement walls, just as he left them. Dr. and Mrs. Bulkley exemplify the notion that being good stewards of an historical legacy can co-exist with making this beautiful house very much one of their own.