Foster Place: A Lake Forest Estate

The Magnificent Westleigh Estate

November 1990

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Foster Place.
Part Three
(Part One may be found here.)

The true story — as any truth about the house, its former inhabitants, and guests — would arrive in a trickle of asides over the years. I remembered myself and moved on toward the dining room, ready for the Thanksgiving meal about to be served with a heightened formality I was aware of but unaccustomed. The echoes of an Al Jolson song playing on a gramophone faded from my imagination, displaced by the sound of three siblings’ laughter echoing off limestone ashlar walls. Their roller skates must have hummed like a steady thunder on the hardwood floor I walked across. 

That was an aside my future mother-in-law offered in the library over appetizers only moments before. The estate once known as Westleigh was a secret playground for her and two big brothers, the abandoned wing a private amusement park for them, the original clapboard structure of the estate demolished after the second world war. 

For them, the former housekeeper’s suite was open to the elements, the southern wall of the wing a tangle of stone, brick, cast iron pipes, and twisted downspouts. A porcelain tub dangled from the second story above the south terrace. 

The smell of peach overtook the aroma of gravy simmering on an eight-burner range. I took that moment of last-minute preparations to slip into the powder room, the former toilet room still intact but remodeled four decades earlier. Still, some echoes of the past never changed. I rinsed my hands and reached for a tea towel. A jar of liquid soap was unused, a woman’s illustrated hand on the label, graphic design leftover from the era of poodle skirts. 

I seated myself at the Chippendale table. Oak logs crackled in the fireplace. Silver service glistened in the sunlight streaming through two banks of substantial French doors. I was a tourist, seated at one of sixteen chairs. I admired the centerpieces of fresh flowers and late-afternoon candlelight. 

To former residents of the suburb, the estate once known as Westleigh was dubbed The Louis F. Swift House. To the onlookers now, as I engaged in small talk with my future extended family, Foster Place was a palatial residence accessed by a direct line and formal invitation. Surrounding me was a dignity, imaginary walls erected to keep traditions intact, upheld, and away from decay. 

The dining room sat forty people comfortably. Once known as the “Bachelor’s Room,” the thick walls, covered with Chinese panels above the dado, was where, they told me, the Prince of Wales slept when he visited nearly one century before. I gazed up at the intricate plasterwork adorning the ceiling. The room’s position, for that purpose, made no sense. 

The wing we all gathered in was refurbished in 1956 by the esteemed architectural firm of Stanley Anderson and Associates. The former kitchen, refrigeration room, cooks’ quarters, and maids’ enclaves no longer existed. The well-designed maze had been reconfigured for the modern age when my future father-in-law purchased the property with his first — and late — wife. 

What remained in addition to a first wife’s China and taste were the service stairs: wide wooden steps self-contained behind a wall at my back. The service corridor had become the entry hall, one portion of the passage remaining to connect a kitchen and family room to the more formal rooms of the house.

Behind a panel near the fireplace was a secret door leading down to the robe room, but I could no longer hear the gramophone. Instead, I heard the voices of servicemen. Fifteen naval officers and their families were housed throughout both wings of the estate at the height of World War II. After Louis F. Swift passed away in 1937, the house was abandoned, its memories auctioned off two years later. When the long war had finally ended, the original clapboard structure was demolished, deemed a fire hazard. 

The remaining wing, situated on 3.5 acres, was purchased by my future father-in-law who sat that Thanksgiving at the head of the table, overseeing his prodigy, his back to the fireplace he tended to so carefully. 

When the winter snow melted, he took me on a tour of the grounds, eager to feed my curiosity. I was a tourist with wide eyes and fanciful notions, admiring the wild raspberries where a marsh had been and the majestic apple trees my future husband would use a long handled basket to harvest ripe, red fruit. Espaliered pears stretched up the loggia. A new conservatory nestled between an enormous garage, both added in 1965, its angle parroting the original structure. 

The vegetable garden was enormous, the feast sealed off from the herd of deer with a tall fence, the plot resembling an enclosed but roofless room. Raised beds were overflowings with green beans, patty pan squash, and zucchini. The heirloom tomatoes released a robust aroma in the late spring sun. I looked back at the house and smiled at my future father-in-law. “No swimming pool?” I teased him. 

“You’re standing on it,” he answered and grinned. 

I was horrified by the thought. The garden without cutting flower beds blanketed an illustrious past. The in-ground pool had been filled in two years prior. The robe room had a purpose, as did two secret basement doors. Beneath the terrace and exterior fountain, two entryways hid, one for the men and one for the ladies. There were dressing rooms in a basement I had not yet toured. 

I pictured the white marble and heard the splashing sounds that must have been; the smart set in their striped swimming costumes lapping in the luxury of the Jazz Age. I was standing where the Prince of Wales had on an autumn day in 1924.