O. C. Simonds

Gazette Article by: Barbara Geiger, M.A.L.A.
Appeared in Gazette: Winter 1999

Master Landscape Gardeners Help Shape Winnetka

Master designer O. C. Simonds was the creator of such legendary landscapes as Graceland Cemetery and the extension of Lincoln Park in Chicago. He and his associate, Hubbard Woods native J. Roy West, were active along the North Shore from Evanston to Lake Forest in the early years of the 20th century. They designed many properties in Winnetka—contemporary articles mention up to 27 unspecified places, of which five have come to light. Planting mostly native species in a naturalistic, informal fashion, Simonds and West created village landscapes that respected the existing topography while providing charming and convenient gardens for residents.

The earliest site in Winnetka designed by Simonds was Christ Church at Humboldt Avenue and Sheridan Road. Winnetkan William Hoyt commissioned architect William Otis to design the church as a memorial to his daughter and her three children, who perished in the December, 1903 fire at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago. Hoyt then hired Simonds to plan a park setting for the hilly and triangularly shaped grounds. Several decades later, landscape architect Ralph Rodney Root turned the churchyard into a columbarian, but the grove of oaks in the old graveyard and the vines on the front of the church are still reminiscent of Simonds’ work.

Just south of the church, between Sheridan Road and Prospect Avenue, Simonds planned a unique garden encompassing the four summer residences on that block. While each home had its own private yard, the designs were carefully integrated to create an overall landscape. A grass pathway ran along the base of the bluff on the east side, leading to flower gardens and tennis courts along Sheridan. Country Life in America, a leading periodical of the day, featured Simonds’ special design for these properties in its August 1911 issue. Although the site has been subdivided, many mature trees and shrubs today still create a wooded effect that brings to mind Simonds’ original intention.

Farther west, Simonds planned the grounds for the Hibbard and Kuppenheimer estates. Also on an interesting triangularly-shaped lot of about four acres, the Kuppenheimer home was designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, circa 1910. Simonds planted heavily around the lot’s perimeter to give the family seclusion and the feeling of being out in the country.

Still farther west, the Winnetka Country Club (now Indian Hill) called on Simonds in 1914 to work on drainage problems and to create a landscape more attractive than that designed by its golf course architect. While he was working there, Simonds also drew residential subdivision plats for the land surrounding the club, and the winding roads and patches of forest that still exist there are in keeping with those plans.

While these five sites are just a small sampling of Simonds’ and West’s projects in Winnetka, they convey the natural, understated style that reflected the concern for beauty—and lack of pretension—characteristic of the designers’ work and their clients’ tastes.

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