By John P. Walsh
David Adler (January 3, 1882 – September 27, 1949) was an American architect who made major contributions in domestic architecture for mostly affluent clients in and around Chicago. Different than German-American modernist architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) who also practiced in Chicago around the same time, David Adler’s important work drew from the past for his architectural idioms.1 What are these artistic arrows in Adler’s quiver and what makes his work interesting and valuable today?
A great amount of his domestic buildings are still standing and mainly intact for the viewer to see and experience today. Only seven of his architectural projects have been demolished. These monuments of a gilded age attract one’s attention by their powerful presence based on their typical enormity, ornate details, and tasteful grace rooted in the classic European style. Gigantic skylights, curved staircases, ornate fanlight windows, columns, working fountains, and many other features, characterize Adler’s homes for his clients.
Based on his commissioned projects, David’s Adler’s architectural career spanned from 1911 following his return from studying in Europe (after an undergraduate career at Princeton University) until the year of his death in 1949. In 1913 he was designing and building outside of the Chicago area—specifically, a chapel and iron gates at Greenwood Cemetery in Galena, Illinois. After 1915, he was doing out-of-state projects such as the Berney house and garage in Fort Worth, Texas and the Dillingham house in Honolulu, Hawaii. Adler’s grandiose floor plans made their appearance at start of his career in 1911 and continued over 38 years in more than 200 major works, several of which he returned to in later years and updated.
His work includes mostly houses, whether complete or in alterations and additions, but also apartments, townhouses, gates and terraces, outbuildings and dependencies, clubhouses, locker rooms, bathhouses, swimming pools, cottages, commercial buildings, boardrooms, lodges, prefabricated houses, houseboats, and in 1924, a dining car for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. In the late 1940s, Adler turned to designing an altar and headstones for the social elite.2
Adler planned and built in locations throughout the United States as well as internationally including Fort Worth, Texas; Wisconsin; Minnesota; Massachusetts; New York City and State; Connecticut; Colorado; Georgia; California; Florida; the aforesaid Honolulu, Hawaii; Louisiana; Virginia; New Mexico; British Columbia; and London, England. But the vast majority of his commissions—whether he planned and built them or only planned them—are found in the American Midwest, especially in Illinois, and particularly in and around Chicago. While some Adler commissions were also planned but not constructed, only a handful of buildings have been so far razed. This translates for today’s viewer into a near complete body of Adler’s architectural work to be appreciated (although most remain in private hands).
As streamlined, monumental and functional modernist architecture made its appearance in the late nineteenth century based in part on the stylistic language of industrialization, the wealth generated in that prosperous machine age became concentrated in the hands of individuals and their families who, having begun the perennial pilgrimage of American tourists to Europe, desired to live in private residences that evoked the palatial surroundings of historical nobility.3 David Adler’s “traditionalist” work in the first half of the twentieth century was part of, and built on, the great American tradition of architects who relied on European antecedents but adapted them to contemporary American taste. Additionally, Adler’s years in Europe between 1908 and 1911, especially in France, and his return to Chicago which like other cities in the United States after 1890 experienced a Beaux-Arts (academic neoclassical) renaissance, led him to embrace traditional architectural systems and rules for his clients throughout his career.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s Adler’s architectural practice— surprisingly he was not a licensed architect although he received an honorary license in his mid-career—encountered socioeconomic conditions in Chicago and elsewhere that benefited his early and later design success. Proliferation of his traditional work is more remarkable when viewed in the context of the modernist architectural achievements which were materializing on the landscape in the United States and Europe in those same years he practiced.4 By the end of his life Adler expressed regret that the lengthy era of the “great house” was over and he was, after the Great Depression in the 1930s, having to adapt to designing smaller-scaled projects. When Adler died unexpectedly at 67 years old in 1949, he left new commissions on the drafting table. His memorial service was held in The Art Institute of Chicago where Adler had been a board member for almost twenty five years and he was buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.
- The Country Houses of David Adler, Stephan M. Salny, Introduction by Franz Schulze, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2001. p. 9.
- Ibid., pp.193- 203.
- Ibid., p. 10; see We’ll Always Have Paris, American Tourists in France since 1930, Harvey Levenstein, The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- Country houses, p.11.
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Charter Club, Princeton, New Jersey, 1903. Razed in 1913.
Mrs. and Mrs. Charles A. Stonehill, Glencoe, Illinois, 1911. Louis XIII style. Alterations, 1930. Razed, 1960s.
Mrs. and Mrs. Ralph H. Poole, Lake Bluff, Illinois, 1912. Louis-XV style. Stands.
Mrs. and Mrs. Charles B. Pike, 955 Lake Road, Lake Forest, Illinois. Built in 1916 in the Italian Villa style. Building stands.
The house at 955 Lake Road in Lake Forest, Illinois, sits on Lake Michigan and is designed in the Italian villa style. Built in 1916 for Charles and Frances Pike, the 21-room house possesses one of Adler’s most successful outdoor spaces – the entrance Courtyard. Creating paths using paving beach stones with embedded designs, this outdoor garden was encapsulated on four sides by the back wall of the house (the main entrance which faces the road) as well the Kitchen, classically-proportioned Entrance Loggia and fifty-foot-long Gallery. The Courtyard was further integrated with the interior space where one enters the house’s main rooms from the Entrance Loggia into the Vestibule (with Adler’s masterful treatment of pediments and coffered ceiling) or by way of one of three sets of French doors with pilaster-supported archways into the vaulted Gallery.
In addition to the Vestibule and Gallery with its airy fifteen foot-tall ceilings, the interior first-floor plan of the Pike house contained the Living Room, Dining Room and East Loggia. Each of these main rooms was oriented to the balustraded landings of two staircases which led to an expansive sunken garden and towards Lake Michigan. The second floor of the Pike house contained bedrooms.