The Louis F. Swift Estate Revisited

The Louis F. Swift Estate
Photo: History Center Lake Forest-Lake Bluff

1916

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Foster Place.

Part Two
(Part One may be found here.)

The entresol of the former Louis F. Swift estate served as a connection point between two wings. The original residence named “Westleigh” (“Leigh” being Scottish for “pasture” or “prairie”) was a clapboard Colonial Revival designed by William Carbys Zimmerman. The country house was constructed in 1898 on thirty-seven acres for Louis F. Swift and his wife, Ida Butler Swift, although, according to Chicago Blue Books, the Swifts had resided in Lake Forest for two years. In 1896, Ida joined the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest and the Lake Forest Golf Club, established in 1895, changed its name to the Onwentsia Club: an exclusive social center boasting numerous activities such as polo and the hunt. 

Westleigh’s fireproof wing wasn’t built exclusively for royalty as late-twentieth-century rumor had suggested. Rather the fourteen-room 10,500-square-foot expansion, constructed in 1916 and designed by prominent architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, was meant to double the size of the existing mansion. 

The new wing boasted three main rooms on the first floor: the dining room, the dining porch, and the “Bachelor’s Room,” which was built without an intended use. A flight of hidden stairs led down to the robe room. 

The remaining first floor was a well-designed maze consisting of a large kitchen with an alcove for the range, a refrigeration room, and a cook’s pantry. Immediately south was the maids’ dining room. To the north of that was an open porch, divided into a sitting and dining area. There was also a serving pantry, a self-contained service staircase, a maids’ closet, and a toilet room. A service corridor led to the entresol where the library at the south end of the wing, with its closet and vault, was a quiet refuge sans bookcases. 

The second floor of the new wing boasted three enormous bedrooms, two with large private baths and one sharing a bath with the sewing and linen room. The two center bedrooms shared the open-air sleeping porch, tiled with terra cotta and located on the second story of the loggia. Each bedroom also had a louvered outer door, ensuring a generous cross-breeze in the hottest summer months. 

Every room had a fireplace with marble mantels and hearths. High walls were divided by dado, complemented by substantial millwork throughout. The dressing areas boasted floor-to-ceiling wardrobes painted in a thick and luxuriant shade of white. The housekeeper’s suite, situated above the entresol, had a private bath and sitting room. 

Hidden at the northern corner of the second story was another self-contained staircase. Four stairs led to a switchback landing featuring additional servants’ quarters: two small bedrooms with built-in cabinets and an additional linen cabinet, all stained in a honied hue. 

Above it all was the unfinished attic: dark and mysterious, shed dormers allowing only a trickle of natural light into the vast dark-gray and dusty space. By 1990, mice would scurry across the cache of oriental carpets pulled from ballrooms a matriarchal grandmother had sold before moving to the northern suburb. Rolled tight and wrapped in thick papers tied with string, enormous woven rugs would wait, for no new rooms were large enough to accommodate the splendor of bygone days. 

Howard Van Doren Shaw would move on that year to build Lake Forest’s Market Square, the first planned shopping center with fellow architect, Arthur T. Aldis. By the early 1920s, Lake Forest would be the idyllic setting for the smart set. Among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald and his first love, Ginevra King. This Side of Paradise was published.

Throughout the century that followed, the Wesleigh wing would retain the patina of a bygone age, echoes of grand parties still heard, the ghosts of tragedies still felt. 

September 1903

The entresol was a connection to the past.

In 1902, Gustavus Franklin Swift, with Ogden Armour and Edward Morris, formed the National Packing Company. By September 20, 1903, Louis Franklin Swift and his wife, Ida, the two married for twenty-three years, had six children: Nathan Butler Swift, Bessie Swift (who married Charles Fernald), Alden Bracket Swift (who married Lydia Niblack), Ida May Swift (who married Count James Minotto), Louis F. Swift, Jr. (who married Mary H. Bennet, then Elizabeth Chase), and William Elliott Swift (who married Helen Morton). 

Until March 29 of that year, Louis had served as Vice President of Swift & Company, the meat-packing empire, taking over as President on March 29, 1903 — the day his father and the company founder passed away. 

Still, Louis entertained lavishly at Westleigh while acquiring vast swaths of real estate including one-thousand additional acres in addition to the Lancaster Farm, soon known as his Everett Stock Farm. Mr. Swift met William Sneddon on a road near Muncraig Farm. Impressed with Mr. Sneddon’s articulate nature and the farm’s efficiency, he invited Mr. Sneddon to run the Swift farms. And Mr. Sneddon would for another forty years. 

In 1903, Louis F. Swift’s eldest son, Nathan, had recently left St. Albans Academy in Knoxville, entering Lake Forest Academy in 1900, shortly after Westleigh was built. At the academy, Nathan was captain of one of the most successful eleven in its history, not to mention one of the most noted football players in the country. 

Handsome and enthusiastic, Nathan met Sidney C. Love, Charles Garfield King, Frederick McClaughlin, W. W. Rathbone, Walter B. Farwell, Walter Keith, and R. R. McCormick at the Onwentsia Club for a Saturday afternoon game of polo, which was Nathan’s favorite sport. 

The Onwentsia Club bordered Green Bay Road to the east, the Westleigh estate to the south, and the Skokie Valley to the west. Near the marsh that afternoon, the polo ball waited in the grass at the western end of the field. The players pushed their ponies toward the ball, Nathan riding well, Rathbone and Love bringing up the rear. Players turned. Rathbone and Love drove at the ball. But in the flurry of hooves, it was unclear which young man drove at the ball first. 

The sound was a gunshot: a pop. The ball struck Nathan in the right temple, just over his ear. Dazed and confused, Nathan insisted he was fine until the exhaustion set in moments later. The other players gathered around, taking Nathan from his pony. Someone called for the Swift family carriage, and Nathan was whisked home. 

Carried to his mother’s room, the family sent word for Dr. Nicholas Senn and Dr. A.C. Haven. A telegraph was dispatched for Dr. C. D. Kahlke. The latter, receiving word of the accident, boarded a special train in Chicago and rushed to the Lake Forest estate, thirty miles north.

That Saturday night, the doctors conferred with the family, convinced an operation would save the young and dashing Mr. Swift’s life. Nathan’s uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Edward F. Swift, waited anxiously with Nathan’s parents, as did Adolph Nerling, a young man Nathan had educated — his protégé. Waiting, too, were Louis F. Swift, Jr. and William — Nathan’s brothers. 

Late into the night, three surgeons removed a blot clot from the twenty-three-year-old man’s brain. The three surgeons convinced those waiting that Nathan would recover. But the young man never spoke another word, falling into what the doctors described as a stupor, losing consciousness shortly after the operation. 

Just before 9 o’clock the following morning, Nathan’s parents stepped out of the room. Moments later, on a Sunday morning, an aunt, an uncle, and a protégé were silent when Nathan lost his life. Word of their son’s death was too much to bear. Hearing the news, both parents fainted. 

Two siblings, Alden and Ida May, both in school, received word and would rush home, as would Mrs. Bessie Swift Fernald, taking a special train from California in time for the Tuesday funeral. 

The headlines from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Livestock World read: NATHAN SWIFT DEAD. Son of the President of Swift & Company Loses His Life. Polo Ball Proves Fatal.”

“It was purely an accident,” Nathan’s father said. 

The young man was buried in Lake Forest Cemetery in the family mausoleum. 

By 1905, the National Meat Packing Company (The Beef Trust), which Gustavus had formed three years earlier with local and business competitors Ogden Armour and Edward Morris, would be disbanded — dissolved by the United States Supreme Court. 

The following year, Upton Sinclair would pen The Jungle Book, a scathing novel depicting the harsh conditions within the Swift meat plants. Several months later, Louis Swift’s brother, Harold, would graduate from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. 


For more on the history of Lake Forest, IL, visit the History Center Lake Forest-Lake Buff.