Fortune, Corruption, and Sham Mansions: The Story of E. Ashley Mears

The Willson house, c. 1900.

Appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 Gazette
by Meagan McChesney, WHS curator

After the Great Chicago Fire destroyed much of Chicago in 1871, thousands of urbanites flocked to the North Shore looking for a fresh start. While many saw this population boom as an opportunity to expand Winnetka’s tight-knit community, others sought ways to take advantage of newcomers. Chicago banker and realtor E. Ashley Mears was one of such swindlers. While Mears helped initiate Winnetka’s real estate boom, he ultimately put the village’s reputation – and the security of many of its residents – at risk. So how did such a character make his way to Winnetka? Here’s the story.

E. Ashley Mears was born in Vermont in 1840. He moved to Chicago at a young age, where he first became a stove manufacturer before attending law school and later, diving into banking. In 1869, Mears married Margaret Everts and had 6 children. One of their children, Henrietta, later rose to fame as the author of popular evangelical Christian books.

By the time his children were born, Mears had made a fortune as a banker. Never one to be satisfied, he quickly started using his newly found wealth to fund various ventures in real estate. After the fire, Mears recognized that Winnetka was on the cusp of a real estate boom and saw an opportunity to enhance his fortune. He purchased several plots of land and in the early-to-mid 1870s, built fourteen imposing mansions.

While impressive in stature with unique architectural features on the outside, none of the mansions were complete by the time they were sold. Most were sold as a shell of a house, and a poorly constructed one at that. According to Village Engineer Frank Windes, the mansions were “cheaply constructed and could hardly stand by themselves when a stiff wind struck them.”

Land ownership map showing land owned by E. Ashley Mears approximately where 788 Walden is located today, 1880s. Credit: Library of Congress.

Mears had a hard time selling some of the mansions. Many of the homeowners that did purchase a Mears mansion could not afford to complete the houses, and had to sell or vacate the house due to a lack of insulation during Winnetka’s bitter cold winters. “They were colder than barns,” Windes explained.

Mears, under scrutiny for his “loose” business practices and “shaky” banking methods, left Chicago and opened several banks in North Dakota. There, he was investigated for fraud and after losing much of his fortune in the Panic of 1893, moved his family to Minneapolis. Mears died in Minnesota a poor man on May 4, 1912.

Many of Mears’ Winnetka mansions, known as the “sham mansions,” fared little better than their developer. Many of the “shell-like” houses were vacant for years, becoming homes to rats, mice, and other unpleasant intruders. Others were torn down, or worse – engulfed in fire (at least 3 suffered this fate). Some that were finished and inhabited seemed cursed. One Mears mansion, for example, became the site of a tragic crime when former Village President James Willson and his wife were brutally murdered inside the home in 1884. The Willson house was moved from its original location near the tracks between Cherry and Ash to the southwest corner of Pine and Green Bay in 1910, where it remained until it was torn down in 1962.

Today, only two of the Mears “sham mansions” survive, one of which stands at 788 Walden. Lucy Fairfield Furness purchased the home from Mears in 1881. Furness may have struggled to finish the house, and in 1885, sold it to the Heinig family, who completed the sham mansion and lived there for 70 years. Unlike the other ill-fated “sham mansions,” 788 Walden has benefitted from the care of its owners, and will hopefully remain standing in Winnetka for many years to come.

Interested in learning more about 788 Walden and several of Winnetka’s architectural treasures? Visit our website to learn about our new walking, jogging, driving, and app-based tours! ■

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