Westleigh,  History

Westleigh: Part Three

A Lake Forest Estate


The entresol 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. 

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Foster Place.
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