The Magnificent Westleigh Estate

Photo: Compass Real Estate

November 6, 2020

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Foster Place.

Part One

The magnificent estate once known as “Westleigh’ sold today. Important people seated around a long table in a title office scratched dates, initials, and bold signatures across crisp, white pages. Solid lines were highlighted by adhesive arrows in bright colors lest a crucial section be missed. Such a transactional flurry was always underscored by a hint of anxiety, stacks of papers passed along to the next banker, the next realtor, and the next attorney. At long last, the new owners. A round of congratulatory handshakes followed broad smiles and relief. 

Freedom was granted. There was freedom to flee the state and prepare for a well-deserved retirement. There was a release from societal constraints, a century of steep traditions traded for warmer environs and new rules written by the keepers of a gated community.

I felt the melancholy months after Westleigh’s next chapter, a first draft, was written by noontime that November day. The impending sale was news I’d heard through the grapevine. My curiosity getting the better of me, I read the listing, watching with horror and fascination as the initial $3.95 million asking price was lowered twice to $3.1 million — $400,000 less than in 2003 when they’d bought the place. That was the year the youngest married couple in the clan relieved my former in-laws of the burden. My in-laws would be free to downsize. Months later, my former mother-in-law would be a widow on a cloudy November afternoon. Thanksgiving would never be the same.

The decision to sell “Foster Place” caused resentment among the siblings in the clan. The decision to sell was made between trust funds and, to siblings, nothing more. My former sister-in-law exhibited an uncharacteristic trepidation, deciding to purchase the 10,000-square-foot home at the height of the housing bubble, proclaiming real estate was a solid investment that would never depreciate. Her inheritance would be safe. I forced a smile and nodded once, knowing the market, knowing better. I also knew that no matter the outcome, she would emerge on top of the game. I would be left to romanticize.

By November 6, 2020, my melancholy was authentic but distant, unspoken to all but my closest confidantes, for I was no longer a part of that world by a difficult choice. Still, my heart was heavy, learning that the final sale price was only $2.25 million. “Only,” a cynic mused. But there was loss. The cost of upkeep was staggering — the grounds, the Dutch elms, the fountains, the cast iron pipes, the slate roof. The bluestone terraces were always at risk of frost heave when the first subzero winds gusted across the glacial lake. 

There was grief. That sale represented the end of an era, finalized in black ink. Traditions would soon become digital photographs, outdated slides still tucked into a Kodak projector, and memories fading with age. And when the last witness to a celebrated era was no longer available to answer questions future generations might have, the memories would become rumors. 

Ah, but rumors sell historic properties. History is a bragging right. 

It is said that the Westleigh wing was built specifically for a royal guest. The second rumor is that Edward, Prince of Wales, spent the night. 

Spring 1990

The eve of my June wedding was not the first time I’d been to Foster Place. That privilege occurred when my boyfriend took me to meet his parents under the guise of running a quick errand up to Lake Forest when we still lived in the city. A burst of luscious spring vegetation shaded the grand entryway from my initial view, the Italian Renaissance Revival exterior secluded from the street the house was currently named after.

The moniker, I would soon learn, was meant to distinguish the main residence from the winter house in Hawaii and the summer compound on a private chain of islands on the Canadian border. There, the family would escape the stifling heat and humidity of Chicago summers much like the tycoons of yesteryear who sought refuge in the northern suburbs amid persistent labor unrest, riots, strikes, and the stockyard stench. 

The khaki-brown brick structure was imposing with two and a half stories of height, yet the configuration seemed an afterthought to my untrained eye. My boyfriend parked the Mercedes Benz, borrowed from his matriarchal grandmother. My eyes drifted up the grand steps of the limestone portico. 

“We’ll enter through the side,” he said, and I followed him around a corner. The shade was burst by southern sunlight. Six concrete steps led to an open screen door. “Hello!” My boyfriend called into a thirty-foot-long room. 

“Hi!” I heard a woman call back in a distinctive voice. 

Waiting for my boyfriend’s parents to emerge through the service hall, connecting the kitchen to the stair hall I could not see, I memorized the white Formica cabinets trimmed with teak; the kitchen a jarring 1972 remodel and a surprise. But I had only moments to wonder if the rest of the structure was intact or stripped bare. My future in-laws emerged into the light-filled room tanned, toned, and the picture of well-read and world-traveled. 

I don’t remember the conversation that followed, but my boyfriend slipped outside and clipped fresh lilacs from a shrub while I made small talk. He returned with a bouquet, wrapping the stems in damp paper towels and a layer of foil to prevent spills. 

The afternoon captured my imagination. And we drove away from the splendor of a wealthy enclave and back to our dismal apartment in Uptown. On the drive home, I couldn’t help but wonder more about the residence. Stories lurked behind those paneled twenty-foot high walls. 

Some answers would come when we returned to Foster Place for Thanksgiving months later. I was to meet the extended family when we announced our engagement. The dress code was to be business casual. Glued in some respects to my presumptive upbringing, I pictured those in attendance wearing tartans, tweeds, and wools. I opted for plaid — a sophisticated blend of emerald and navy — but something more akin to a London arthouse than the country club. I was met with bold but authentic grins when my boyfriend opened one of two front doors, the round handle overtaking his powerful grip. 

The scent of peach was everywhere in the entrance hall, porcelain bowls of potpourri strategically placed on Chippendale tables. The perfume mixed with the aroma of turkey, stuffing, and the flavorful trimmings lovingly created by a disciplined woman with a culinary flair. 

An assortment of pâté was served in the library at the southern end of the house, which, I learned from my future brother-in-law, was built as a wing. The wing, the family boasted in passing, was built to house Edward, Prince of Wales, when he came to visit. 

“Specifically for him?” I clarified.

‘Yes!” The holiday conversation ensued, my enthusiasm temporarily brushed aside as a traditional get-together was neither the time nor the place for my inquisitive nature. Conversations would not be derailed or attention hoarded. Still, my future father-in-law was keen to expand on the tale in bits when he mixed a cocktail at the wet bar — “once a vestibule, closet, and vault,” he said. 

A vault. I smiled at the thought. I was in good company, conversational but out of my league. 

A portrait of the family company founder, painted in oil at the turn of the twentieth century, was prominent above the fireplace — one of ten throughout the house, flanked in marble, limestone, and herringbone brick. He guarded his prodigy but was never master of the house. That designation was once reserved for Louis Franklin Swift, President of the Swift & Company meatpacking conglomerate. 

Making our way from the library to the dining room when dinner was announced, we passed through the circular entresol with its limestone ashlar walls and elaborately plastered ceiling. The white marble fountain was silent, each spout a bas-relief with Classical detail. The white marble pool was dry, the black veining rich with the patina of grandeur. Our voices and celebratory laughter echoed on the marble floor. I paused for a moment, gazing out the 4-light French doors onto a south terrace. 

I wasn’t familiar with British royalty as much as I should have been at the time even though I’d traveled Europe and visited Windsor Castle in my youth. The Prince of Wales was a title. I was in love and ready to wed. An abdication was the farthest thing from my mind.

For a stolen moment — a tourist once again — I imagined the sound of a gramophone, hints of a melodic Al Jolson song written in 1924 playing in my mind. And when the first winter snow would melt away, and the lilacs were again in bloom, I pictured the French doors flung open, blue drapes billowing on a spring breeze, and Jay Gatsby in a white suit gazing down from the sleeping porch, overlooking the glamorous parties once thrown.