George Higginson, Jr. House, WHS 2971

George Higginson, Jr. and the Making of Winnetka

Gazette Article by Duff Peterson
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2011

Higginson Lane is a short street running at an angle between Sunset Road and Birch Street. It is named after George Higginson, Jr. (1864-1936), a prominent citizen of Winnetka in the early 20th century. Higginson was a member of the Village board from 1907-1911, senior warden of Christ Church, an incorporator and founding member of Indian Hill Club, and speaker at the dedication of the Winnetka Community House.[1] In 1909, he founded the Winnetka State Bank, capitalizing it with $25,000, most of it coming from fellow Winnetkans.[2]

Higginson settled in Winnetka in 1894, living at first on Prospect Avenue near Park. In 1904, he purchased a 60-acre tract of land bounded by Sunset Road, the extended line of Locust Road, Hill Road and Birch Street, along with another parcel just south of Sunset and west of the present De Windt Road, in what was then a nearly uninhabited area of the Village. From 1904 until the early 1920s, Higginson was Winnetka’s largest landowner.

The land, consisting mostly of open fields, was known as “Meadow Farm,” and though it was described as a “gentleman’s farm,” Higginson and his family kept at least 20 cows on the property. In 1906, the Higginsons built a grand residence in the middle of their domain, near the end of the present Meadow Lane.[3]

Born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Higginson graduated from Harvard in 1887 and was employed in the railroad business in Memphis and Kansas City before coming to Chicago in 1892 to work for the West Side Elevated Railway Co., a precursor of the CTA Blue Line. (Private companies ran Chicago’s elevated trains until the CTA took them over in 1947.)[4]  From 1902 to 1924, he served as the Chicago representative of Stone & Webster, a Boston-based company that built power plants as well as provided financing and advisory services to utilities, and operated streetcar lines in several American cities.[5]

Higginson came from a prominent Boston family. An ancestor, Rev. Francis Higginson (1588-1630), crossed the Atlantic with the advance party for the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629.[6]

George Higginson’s uncle, Henry Lee Higginson (1834-1919), was a hero of the First Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War and later a founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Henry Lee Higginson’s father, George, was a founding partner of Lee, Higginson & Co., a preeminent investment-banking firm that helped to finance the growth of iconic American companies like General Motors, AT&T and General Electric. (Lee, Higginson collapsed in the Swedish Match Scandal of 1932. The firm and many others had invested in the global match-manufacturing empire created by a Swedish tycoon, Ivar Krueger, who turned out to be a major swindler and embezzler. The scandal was a catalyst for the U.S. Congress’ sweeping reforms of the securities and banking industries of 1933-1934. After Lee, Higginson’s downfall, the head of its Chicago office, William McCormick Blair, co-founded the firm now known as William Blair & Company.)[7]

George Higginson, Jr. married Edith Griswold in 1891. She died five years later, and he married Emily Wakem (1864-1941) in 1898. Higginson’s son with Emily, also named George, died in 1901 before his second birthday.[8] His son George, along with Edith, Roger, died at the age of 9 in the Iroquois Theater fire of December 30, 1903, along with the boy’s aunt, Jeannette Higginson, and his governess. George Higginson was called upon to identify the bodies.[9] Higginson also had two daughters with Emily, named Teresa and Emily, who lived long lives.

George Higginson was the older brother of Augustus Higginson (1866-1915), the architect of several important Winnetka houses, most notably the Fetcher House at 822 Bryant Avenue. Augustus Higginson and his wife Frances lived in the Village for a few years, but moved to California in 1905, where he designed a number of houses in the Arts and Crafts style in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito.[10]

The Higginsons were distantly related to the writer Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902) and many other books, and generally considered to be one of the greatest novelists in the English language. Although born in New York, James lived in Europe for most of his life. In March 1905, during a lecture tour of the United States, James stayed with Emily and George Higginson in Winnetka, praising their hospitality in one of his many letters to his sister, Alice.[11] The letter to Alice, dated March 13, 1905, is reproduced in Gunter, ed., Dear Munificent Friends: Henry James’s Letters to Four Women.

In 1926, the Higginsons’ daughter Teresa married Count Giangiulio Rucellai of Florence, Italy. The event was given prominent space in The New York Times and Time magazine, which described Teresa as a “hard-riding huntress.” [12] An ancient Florentine family, the Rucellai had become wealthy from textile weaving by 1400, and were major patrons of the arts during the Renaissance.[13] Count Rucellai’s mother was also American, the former Edith Bronson of Newport, Rhode Island. Edith Bronson and her mother, Katharine De Kay Bronson, were favorites among the late 19th century expatriate community in Venice, and close friends of the European-based American painters John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler, as well as of Henry James. Katharine De Kay Bronson was the model for a character in one of James’ novels, The Aspern Papers (1888).[14]

At the time of Teresa Higginson’s marriage, the Rucellai family owned a palazzo in Florence as well as properties in the Tuscan countryside, including the Villa Rucellai, a former fortress dating from the Middle Ages situated high above the River Busenzio, about 15 miles from Florence. Over the course of hundreds of years, the Villa Rucellai had been gradually transformed into a rustic farmhouse surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, but was inhabited only part of the year. Edith Bronson Rucellai and her husband, Cosimo, came to love the villa, and starting in the 1890’s, they threw themselves into modernizing it and making the property economically viable. A few years after their marriage, Teresa and Giangiulio Rucellai took over the property, and Teresa spent many years carrying on the work of her American mother-in-law in improving the house and grounds.[15]

Starting in 1920, George and Emily Higginson began to sell off parts of Meadow Farm. In August of that year, they sold a large parcel comprising the entire east side of the present Thorn Tree Lane to Howard Phillips, who subdivided the property a few years later.[16] At roughly the same time, the Higginsons sold off several parcels along the north side of Hill Road between Birch and Locust. George Higginson retired from business in 1924, and in that year, the Higginsons left Winnetka, living mostly in Lenox, Massachusetts from then on. Meadow Lane was laid out, taking its name from Meadow Farm, and most of the houses along it were built during the years 1926-1930. By January 1940, E. Sawyer Smith and Associates, a Winnetka real estate firm, was offering half-acre lots along Birch and Sunset in what it billed as “the original Higginson estate.”[17] Higginson Lane wasn’t developed until the late 1950s, however, and the original houses on the street (some of which have since been demolished) were built in that era.[18]

When Teresa Higginson Rucellai died in 1973, her daughter Giovanna took over the Villa Rucellai. Giovanna died in 2002, and ownership of the villa passed to her children. Today, the Italian great-grandchildren of Emily and George Higginson of Winnetka operate the Villa Rucellai as a country inn and produce some of the finest olive oil in Tuscany.[19]

1. Goodspeed, Weston Arthur, History of Cook County, Illinois.~  ~Chicago:Goodspeed Historical Association, c.1903, vol 1, p. 701 (online~ ~edition);see also Obituary of George Higginson, Jr., Winnetka Talk, April 30, 1936, p. 54,and Brodsky, This House is Ours: The Story of the Winnetka~ ~Community House. Winnetka Community House (1993).
2. The Messenger, March 1909, p.68; the bank’s other founders were Victor Elting and John R. Leonard.  It opened for business on May 17, 1909.  (Messenger, May 1909, p. 1.)
3. Much of the detail in this paragraph is taken from “Historical and Architectural Impact Study (HAIS): 101 Thorn Tree Lane, Winnetka,” prepared by Benjamin Certifications (date unknown), copy in the house file for this property at the Winnetka Historical Society.  The HAIS in turn cites Cook County land records and several editions of The Book of Chicagoans, a kind of Who’s Who. The Messenger, February 1906, p. 6, mentions that “Mr. George Higginson’s home on Winnetka Ave. will be an attractive frame building.”  (Note that the street was called Winnetka Avenue from Ridge to the western limits of the village until May 1924, when the council renamed it Hill Road.)
4. Grossman, Keating and Reiff, The Encyclopedia of Chicago.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2004, p. 153.   
5. Founded in 1889 by two MIT graduates, Stone & Webster went public in July 1929, a few months before the great stock market crash of October 1929.  It filed for bankruptcy in 1997 after years of problems.  Its final collapse came after it landed a $950 million project to build a chemical plant in Indonesia.  The project’s owner, a relative of President Suharto, demanded a $147 million kickback.  After exploring ways to pay it, the company abandoned the kickback idea on the advice of its lawyers and lost the business, causing the company to slide into insolvency.  It was acquired by the Shaw Group of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2000 and still builds power plants as a division of that company. Boston Globe, March 15, 2006 (online edition).
6. Fischer, Albion’s Seed:  Four British Folkways in America.  New York: Oxford University Press (1989), p. 50.
7. For the history and downfall of Lee, Higginson in the Swedish Match Scandal, often compared to the Enron scandal of 2001, see Carosso, Investment Banking in America.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1969), p. 317-318, 325-326. The Web site of William Blair & Company,, also provides useful background on that firm’s early days.
8. “Descendants of Rev. Higginson,”
9. The Messenger, December 1903, p. 3-4.
10. See article by Cindy Fuller on 822 Bryant under “Historic Houses” on the website of Winnetka Historical Society.
11. The Messenger, March 1905, p. 4.  See also Chicago Tribune, March 10,~ ~1905, p. 1.  The letter to Alice, dated March 13, 1905, is reproduced in Gunter, ed., Dear Munificent Friends: Henry James’s Letters to Four Women. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (1999),p. 52, available online at James’ Winnetka visit occurred a few weeks after he had dined with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.  The meeting was cordial at best.  James was put off by the president’s macho bluster, while Roosevelt, although a voracious reader, had no taste for James’ long-winded tales of high society; a few years earlier he had called James “a miserable little snob.” James gave Roosevelt the ironic nickname “Theodore Rex,” which became the title of Edmund Morris’ bestselling 2001 biography of the president.  Fisher, House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family.  New York: Henry Holt and Company (2008), p. 560-562.
12. The New York Times, June 26, 1926; Time, June 28, 1926.
13. Web site of the palazzo Rucellai in Florence,
14. Sunday Guardian, October 4, 2008, online edition at~  See also Lewis, The City of Florence.  New York: Henry Holt and Company 1995, p. 256.
15. For details about the intriguing history of the Villa Rucellai, see and
16. See HAIS on 101 Thorn Tree lane, noted above.
17. Winnetka Talk, January 25, 1940, p. 56.
18. For example, the three-lot Meadow Reach subdivision at the southwest corner of Sunset and Birch was approved by the village council July 1956. Winnetka Talk, July 19, 1956, p. 1.
19. See note 15.

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