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Upon its com­ple­tion in 1938 the house was as a sim­ple and mod­est assem­blage of 2400 sq ft. In essence it is a three-room open plan struc­ture with beau­ti­ful spaces for liv­ing, sleep­ing and working. Located on a farm field on the rural edge of Chicago’s urban energy, the house staked its own dis­tinc­tive posi­tion in the world of Prairie School evo­lu­tion, inter­na­tional mod­ernism, and Wright’s yet-to-be-defined/built Uson­ian invention.

 

The Schweikher House

By Will Bruder

The Schweikher home and studio (built in 1937–38) is a prescient work by a young architect who was just finding his voice. The result: he created a sophisticatedly organic integration of eastern and western cultural sensibilities.

Located in a farm field on the rural edge of Chicago’s urban energy, the house staked its own distinctive position in the world of Prairie School evolution, international modernism, and Wright’s yet-to-be-defined/built Usonian invention.

Ready to step out from the world of beaux-arts style of Yale, his Matcham Traveling Fellowship experiences of 1929–30 and the mentorship of David Adler’s masterful neo styles, the Schaumburg experiment was conceived at sea as Paul and his wife, Dorothy, returned from their first visit to Japan in 1937.

The actual site for the house was on the edge of a farm in what was then the town of Roselle (later to become part of Schaumburg). The land was acquired prior to the trip as part of the architect’s fees for his work in transforming a large barn on the nearby Kern farmstead into a residence for M.L. and M.A. Kern in the mid-1930’s. Schweikher was intrigued by the potential of rural living on a site endowed with a generous horizon and gentle creek yet close enough to commuter rail service to bustling Chicago.

On his trip to Japan, he was exposed first hand to traditional wood houses. The design for their own residence was driven by Schweikher’s unique sense of scale and proportion, structural pragmatism, and passion for detail. Inspired more by the dynamic diagrams of Mies’ unbuilt brick houses than Wright’s slavish respect for the modular grid of his evolving Usonian thinking, the Schweikher house is unique for its time—mid-century Modern before such a term existed.

With the site sitting just to the east of Meacham Road, Schwiekher’s basic layout strategy is a ‘T’-shaped plan placed at the terminus of long driveway perpendicular to the road, running to the northwest corner of the property. The house is anchored to the land by three simple brick wall planes and the massive brick chimney; elements of two fireplaces and the stack of the basement boiler. It seems to float on a plinth of brick pavers that seamlessly extend outside in, and inside out.

Moving along the stem of the ‘T’ between carport and house, one is drawn to the covered void of an open east facing breezeway portal. Brick and horizontal redwood board and batten walls align the southern edge of this formal processional. The entry is pronounced by glazed double doors and a generous sidelight that offer the guest/visitor a vista to the far southern brick wall of the living room, and into the south-facing courtyard. The roof appears to hover over operable clerestory ventilation panels.

Across the entry-paving bricks in the living/dining/piano room awaits a powerful ceiling of heavy re-sawn Douglas fir columns/beams expressed between panels of clear-aged redwood boards. The carefully coursed south wall brick is softened at its base by a comfortable platform couch lined with colorful pillows. A vertical slot of daylight at the joint between wall and fireplace dramatically lightens the massive stacked bond brick fireplace hood. (This grand element inspired by the fireplaces of Frank Lloyd Wright and his acolytes of the Prairie School tradition would pre-date the iconic fireplace of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Lloyd Lewis residence in Libertyville, Illinois dated from 1940.)

Primal and cave-like the mass of this featured element glows in the west light of the room’s floor-to-ceiling glazed doors. These doors frame a view to a raked gravel courtyard punctuated by a singular sculptural tree. A view to this landscape element is shared by the public living/dining zone and sleep/dressing/bathing zone (with Japanese soaking tub and redwood shower) to the west. The kitchen is at the joint between of the public and private realms and is washed in morning light.

Conceived as both home and studio, the ‘T’ plan is completed by the northern arm of the drafting studio workshop. This area offered a place for work and client meetings close to home.

Upon its completion in 1938 the house was a simple and modest assemblage of 2400 sq ft. In essence it is a three-room open plan structure with beautiful spaces for living, sleeping and working.

A balanced composition of common “Chicago sewer brick,” exotic first growth redwood (unheard of at the time), Douglas fir and newly invented plywood planes; the house is an exquisite invention in all respects.

Influenced by the thinking of both the architects George and Fred Keck and the inventor/visionary Buckminster Fuller, whom he worked with in the early 1930’s in Chicago, and driven by the forced frugality of the Depression surrounding its creation, the house was responsive to solar orientation, natural ventilation, and a direct expression of sustainable building strategies.

At the end of World War II as the cover story of the May 1947 Architectural Forum magazine (with photography by Hedrich Blessing studios), the house had already served the couple for nearly a decade. Surrounded by a maturing landscape that was designed and overseen by the noted Midwestern landscape architect Franz Lipp, a series of additions were made in 1948–50 to accommodate the birth of Paul Schweikher Jr. and the space needs of Schweikher’s growing professional studio.

The bedroom suite for Paul Jr. is inserted in the southwestern portion of the ‘T’ past the master bedroom. North of the existing studio a cantilevered conference room with the unexpected ceiling height of 6’3″ plays against the full north facing glazed aperture that overlooks Salt Creek. A small apprentice apartment is tucked beneath. The low wood clad garage/ model workshop lies to the west creating additional closure to the auto-court area while maintaining the sequence of discovery and expectation of the home’s original 1937 site condition.

Each intervention reflects Schweikher’s unique sense of scale and proportion, while suggesting a simpler attitude about structural expression and a more minimalist use of the original palette of redwood, brick and glass. The result is a convincing harmony that does not mimic the original but enhances the quality of the whole.

In 1953 the Schweikher family moved from Illinois to Connecticut when Paul took the position of Chairman of the Yale School of Architecture (1953–57). It was indeed fortuitous for the house, and for us that Martyl and Alexander Langsdorf became its next residents. Their loving and respectful occupation spans nearly sixty years. Now the worthy and generous vision of the Village of Schaumberg allows this treasure of timeless architectural value to be experienced, enjoyed and learned from by all. Its lessons are many; the experience of its poetic and pragmatic reality will give all who visit a new and different engagement with the world we have inherited.

Today, the Schweikher House is nothing short of an architectural jewel in the suburb of Schaumburg. Virtually hidden off a wooded stretch of Meacham Road, down a modest gravel driveway is this Prairie style influenced modern masterpiece.

Hedrich Blessing

In 1946, Hedrich Blessing photographed the Schweikher House. Hedrich Blessing Photographers was an architectural photography firm established in Chicago in 1929 by partners Ken Hedrich and Henry Blessing. After 88 years, the firm closed in early 2017. The Chicago History Museum houses the first 50 years, from 1929 to 1979. All historic images included on this website are courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive.

Looking east from entry walk--9276-A negative.jpg
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Looking northeast--9276-E negative.jpg
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Living room--9276-H negative.jpg
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Living room--9276-N negative.jpg
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Kitchen shelves--9276-O.jpg
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Documentation by The Historic American Buildings Survey and The National Park Service.

A graduate architecture student team from the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign documented the Schweikher House and Studio in the fall of 2016. The members of the team were the following students: Jeffrey Anderson, Shivayogi Gajare, Peiyan Jiang, Yaxin Li, Gloria Moy, Andrew Nuding, Michael Osterloo, Chengcheng Peng, Adrienne Strohm, Carlie Wallin, and Xiaoyu Wu. Paul Hardin Kapp, Associate Professor of Architecture, School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, instructed the team. The Historic Preservation Education Foundation funded the documentation of this important modernist building.