‘A place that respects history’: Mayslake Hall could get more improvements

The one-time home of coal baron F.S. Peabody has been surrounded by an “oasis of nature” for over a century, a tour description says.

“You really can just bask in nature in many of the rooms of the house,” says Keith McClow, who guides visitors around Mayslake Hall, a 1920s mansion that looks as if it was plucked from the English countryside.

With major exterior work complete, the mansion’s current owner has turned its focus to a conceptual master plan for the interior, a maze of rooms that still holds surprises. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County is offering a survey until Thursday to gather public input on the use of the Mayslake Peabody Estate near Oak Brook.

“We want to bring people into the space and share the art and share the beauty of nature around the building ... but we also want to highlight the different functions of the space over the years,” McClow said.

As grand as it is — the Tudor Revival-style mansion earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places — there’s room for improvement. The plan calls for adding an elevator to expand access to the second floor of the mansion. The district also would provide a ramp to some second-floor rooms.

  Mrs. Peabody’s sun-drenched bedroom sits unfurnished. Legend says she waved to her husband, Chicago industrialist Francis Peabody, just before he died while riding his horse on the estate grounds. John Starks/, November 2023

“It's a little challenging with a historic building, with lots of level changes and stairs,” said Jessica Ortega, the district’s manager of strategic plans and initiatives. “People would really like to see ways for us to remove some of those barriers so people can access many different portions of the facility.”

To reach a broader audience, forest preserve officials aim to make Mayslake a more accessible and visitor-friendly environment while still embracing its historic qualities. The storied estate has hosted a number of nature-themed photography exhibits, art classes, book clubs and lectures.

“Much of the first floor is recommended to be used as a house museum space that can also host exhibits and events,” Ortega said.

The mansion’s main staircase was made of hand-carved, solid walnut. Look closely, and you’ll spot a single seed pod in the ornate woodwork. One of the original light fixtures in the entry hall was adorned with, of all things, roosters.

  Keith McClow, heritage experience manager for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, shows off the newly restored exterior of Mayslake Hall in Oak Brook. John Starks/, November 2023

“One of the best features of the house for me as a forest preserve employee is that it was built to incorporate nature,” McClow said. “You walk into the front door, and there's this amazingly carved stairwell, which does include a lot of nature themes, but that's not what you see. You see, through the living room, out to the lake.”

To the lake

Chicago businessman Francis Stuyvesant Peabody, who founded Peabody Coal in 1883, later retreated to a pastoral setting, as did many of his contemporaries, to become a gentleman farmer. In 1919, Peabody had Benjamin Marshall — a hotel architect — design a 39-room mansion overlooking one of the lakes on his 848-acre estate.

After Peabody’s death, his family sold the property to a Franciscan order, which converted the mansion into a retreat center.

Under the draft master plan, the district would demolish a portion of the adjacent retreat wing to open up historic views from the mansion to the lake.

“I think that'll make a really improved campus because we do appreciate those sight lines at the forest preserve,” DuPage Forest Preserve President Daniel Hebreard said.

Removing the southern leg of the retreat building also would save the district from heating, cooling, maintaining and finding a use for over 12,000 square feet of space in the 1950s-era addition, Ortega told commissioners last week.

The district is exploring several options for mechanical systems that would improve energy efficiency.

“Just to be able to use the building for what it’s been used for many, many years, we need to update and upgrade some systems,” McClow said. “Now beyond that will be some additional gallery or exhibit space in this plan that we can open up and also program for the public.”

Future programming

The plan also calls for adding cooling to the event hall, a former Franciscan chapel with stained glass, but no air conditioning in the retreat building.

  A deconsecrated Franciscan chapel serves as an event hall attached to the mansion on the grounds of the Mayslake Forest Preserve near Oak Brook. John Starks/, November 2023

“If you wanted to have a private function there, like a reception or a wedding, we’re limited by what the mechanicals can support,” McClow said.

The district would dedicate the space below the event hall as a multipurpose classroom that would allow Mayslake to offer more art lessons. The second floor of the retreat wing could be used for rotating exhibits or to display some of the district’s own artifacts. Forest preserve collections — including a mastodon molar and other archaeological finds — are stored on the third floor.

On the mansion side, the district could potentially update some rooms over time with historically accurate furnishings and finishes. But that raises a conundrum because Peabody’s retirement was short-lived.

Peabody and his wife, Mary, moved in with their old furniture and ordered a whole new set from Marshall Field's, McClow said. Before the delivery, Peabody died at 63 in 1922 during a drag hunt on the grounds. His family canceled the order. Now, a servant’s bedroom is set up like it might have been at the time, but the Peabody suite of rooms sit mostly unfurnished.

“So how do we go about decorating the spaces?” McClow asked.

While those details are not set, officials are working with a historic preservation architect to refine the conceptual plan, prepare cost estimates and come up with a phasing approach. The board could review the final plan in May or June.

Mayslake will continue to be “a place for the arts, a place for culture and a place that respects history,” Ortega said.

  All the mortar joints between the bricks and limestone were replaced during an exterior revitalization project. John Starks/, November 2023

As part of the exterior project, the district went to great lengths to restore or reproduce windows. The sleeping porch is one of the best spots to commune with nature.

“You're surrounded by nature and sunlight,” McClow said. “It's a wonderful place to be.”

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