04 May, 2012

Villa Turicum Wears Funeral Air at Auction

 Villa Turicum on auction day in January of 1934.

This afternoon I found a most interesting article about Villa Turicum written by Lloyd Lewis in the (now defunct) Chicago Daily News on January 22, 1934.  This particular newspaper segment sat in the very bottom of one of Edwin Krenn's  pieces of luggage that I am now sorting through.

I've transcribed it here as this particular remnant in Edwin's cache of mementos falls apart to the touch. It is a fascinating read; you will note the rhetorical and maudlin quality I'm sure, although it provides a glimpse of the character of Villa Turicum and how Edith used it:

Marble Palace of Disappointment Awes McCormick Sale Crowds.

     Villa Turicum, country palace of the late Edith Rockefeller McCormick, was heavy with funeral mood last Saturday afternoon. 
      An auction sale was going on, but none of the traditional excitement of this old-folk institution was present. Not even the size of the crowds, nor the rivalry of bidders, nor the curiosity of the common people to see the interior of this fabulous house, could lift the pall.
     Ushers as solemn and rubber-heeled as undertakers' assistants stood at the front door admitting the public in single file. Men humbly slipped off their hats as they entered and women dropped their voices as they edged into the big rooms whose scant if costly furniture was going under the hammer for the benefit of the dead woman's creditors.

Note: A small portion of the article has completely disintegrated here. 


...men and women wearing heavy coats sat on window ledges or on the few chairs which did not bear the auctioneer's ticket. They sat on library tables, kitchen tables, and on the beds upstairs, waiting as if for the funeral services to begin. 
      Off in distant rooms the auctioneers were crying the sale, speaking respectfully of the object in question, praising it, recommending it as does a clergyman at last obsequies. When all the furniture in a room was sold the auctioneer moved to another room with the crowd following but never jostling. 
     Some awe of the woman still bore down upon the curious months after she had died. The crowds were still a little afraid of her, and perhaps sorry for her, since they were seeing, in Villa Turicum, the most majestic of her disappointments.
     In 1917 this fabulous estate had risen in Lake Forest as a fit palace for the daughter of America's oil king, herself married to one of the harvester tetrarchs, to use in entertainments of regal distinction. It was, and still is, a cold and splendid vista of marble, statuary and fountains both inside and out. From it radiate rose-lined wending in marble arches, statues, or bowling greens. Trees are many and rightly placed.

Was to Be a Villa d'Este.

     Villa Turicum was to be the villa d'Este of America - a Mediterranean dream in stone and grove and splashing fountains. It never was a Villa d'Este, and now it will never be. 
     For Mrs. McCormick could not sleep in it. Long used to the hum of world metropolises she found Villa Turicum too quiet, lying as it does in woodland overlooking the silent blue lake below. Mrs. McCormick liked to read late at night, and the song birds of Illinois awakened her too early. So, between 1917 and the year of her death, she saw little of Turicum, spending perhaps less than 300 days there in all those years. 
     At first she dreamed of keeping a herd of sheep on the lawn, as the Bourbons had done at Versailles, and of dressing her guests as Watteau shepherds and shepherdesses for gay fetes. But the dream never came true. She had a bowling green installed with special border lights and stone benches in the inclosing box hedges, but no balls ever rolled on the billiard table grass. She had a towering marble teahouse built at the end of a Versailles promenade, with a kitchen in the basement, and a balustrade from which the Illinois ravines could be surveyed. But it was never used.

Cascade of Fountains.

     From the eastern patio she had water cascading from fountain to fountain down to lake-level, 200 feet below, where it ended in a huge Roman bath. She had planned for her guests to either stroll down the winding marble steps, or to descend by elevator inside the house.
     This was rarely, if ever used. A few times, after the formation of her friendship with Edwin Krenn, the landscape gardener, she gave Villa Turicum a Lucullen touch. There was a night or two when the patio was adorned with tropical blooms, the porches hung with caged cockatoos and macaws, long tables set in the open air, the cascades set to splashing, while the full moon came up out of Lake Michigan.
     But the palace never became a palace, and seemingly remained a curiosity to Mrs. McCormick herself. Sometimes thirty servants would work on domestic or estate duties, but the grand feasts, the brilliant gatherings, did not come off. A forty-car garage stood idle. Sometimes in late years Mrs. McCormick and Mr. Krenn would motor out of a morning, look at the flowers which were cultivated in her garden near the mammoth garage, then they would glide back to the city - and see a moving picture.
     Villa Turicum is gutted now by auction, and soon it may be torn down to reduce taxes. Why it never became the imperial Mediterranean palace of Mrs. McCormick's dreams is a secret that the imperious, philanthropic, eccentric lady took to her tomb. Domestic trouble, interest in other things, disappointment in its architecture have all been given as her reasons for neglecting it.  But those who knew her best blame the birds, the early morning birds who chattered beside the marble halls as inconsiderately as by the prairie log cabins of the Illinois scene a hundred years ago.

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