Ragdale rehab complete, ready for artists to find their muses
Scores of butterflies flit around blossoming apple trees, one example of the muses at Ragdale, the Lake Forest artists' retreat where the historic house has just been restored.
It cost $3.2 million to rebuild and redecorate Howard Van Doren Shaw's Arts & Crafts gem, and the 1897 home will be open soon for resident artists, and will also have dates for fans.
Susan Page Tillett, executive director, will tell you the butterflies are just part of the magic of Ragdale, where Audrey Niffenegger wrote some of "The Time Traveler's Wife" and became one of many writers and other artists to achieve a breakthrough credited to the retreat.
"Ragdale is Clare's house," said Tillett, "and her lover walked across the meadow behind it. Audrey said whenever she had difficulty figuring out something about the house, she would remember Ragdale."
Other writers who worked at Ragdale include Nancy Horan, author of "Loving Frank," Scott Turow, known for best-selling judicial-inspired novels, nonfiction author Alex Kotlowitz, and Jane Hamilton, whose novels include "The Book of Ruth" and "A Map of the World."
The poet or other writer who cannot create in a private sleeping porch off his large bedroom with charming dormer and vintage wallpaper featuring deep gold tulips and roses will feel guilty indeed.
And Tillett explains how the furniture, such as the dining room table that Shaw designed for his family's city apartment, is part of the magic.
"Having dinner at this table gives you the advantage of the divine sense of proportion. The way conversation is facilitated, it's a sign of a great architect. Imagine this room in candlelight."
For architecture and design fans, the real magic is the insight Ragdale gives into Shaw, known for homes on the North Shore and in Chicago, churches and commercial buildings that include Market Square in Lake Forest.
"He was eclectic," said Tillett. "This is probably his greatest Arts & Crafts house. It's personal. He really loved Ragdale. It's very much a contrast to his Chicago home, which was very elegant. This was a country place."
Ragdale's access to furnishings, accessories and information about the architect is enhanced by the fact that Shaw's descendants were the only private owners of the home, and family members are still involved. Alice Judson Hayes, Shaw's granddaughter, created the artists' retreat and donated the property to the village of Lake Forest, which eventually leased it to the Ragdale Foundation for 99 years. And she shared stories of her grandfather until her death in 2006.
The long hall where visitors enter under a barrel ceiling makes quite a statement. Delicate leaded glass windows that open into the dining room show a different design in each pane, including one with hearts, a Ragdale symbol. The original of the William Morris carpet runner, which is a tulip pattern in pinks and blue, was scraps left over from the family's downtown home, said Roland Kulla, the artist and Ragdale board member in charge of decorating the restored house.
The struggle to recreate the wallpaper here demonstrates the painstaking effort taken with the decorating. Photographs from 1904 exist of the hall, dining room, living room and one bedroom, but of course they were in black and white.
Kulla found a color copy of the wallpaper in an early 1900s book about wallcoverings. It's an 1885 faux tapestry with all kinds of images Shaw used in the house: a trellis, deer, manor house and lords and ladies dressing up.
Kulla found experts who could make wallpaper from the picture in the book, but getting the colors right took several tries.
The dining room was a little easier. The artist found not only a scrap of the original wallpaper left behind when a heating system was installed, but also found David Berman of Trustworth Studios in Massachusetts, who reproduces the original patterns from Englishman CFA Voysey. Kulla calls this array of roses and peonies in pinks, blues and greens that Shaw designed a Jacobean style, and it is the same tones found in the hall paper.
Besides the celebrated table, the room shows an example of the window seats found throughout the house.
Shaw worked in a corner of the large living room, and artists can sit in a chair that belonged to the architect's grandfather, relax on a Stickley couch that came from the family or perch for evening conversations in one of the English nooks flanking the fireplace.
Shaw added the oak paneling about 1921, obvious for the most personal of reasons -- the heights of his grandchildren are marked near the bay of French doors to the screened porch.
Another family treasure displayed in this room is a poem Carl Sandburg wrote about Ragdale and Howard Shaw and his wife, Frances, who was also a poet and a friend of Sandburg's.
At one point a wallpaper of morning glories named The Saladin hung in this room, and Kulla chose a smaller version of the blue-and-green pattern for one of the bedrooms.
Visitors will also notice Ragdale blue, a famous coppery blue-green and Ragdale green in a similar range.
The house needed a lot of work before Kulla could begin decorating, and the foundation is still raising funds to pay for the project. Serious issues included foundation failures that meant the front porch tipped one way, the back kitchen the opposite. The slate roof had been added over wood shingles. Window air conditioners were everywhere, and the 77 windows -- all different sizes -- had to be rebuilt and storms and screens devised.
Ragdale has other fascinating buildings, including a repurposed barn built around an 1830s house that is one of the oldest in Lake County. Behind the formal garden tended by volunteers is the log cabin where Alice Judson Hayes lived during her last summers. A genuine antique, it represented Abraham Lincoln's birth place at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and even had plumbing from fan dancer Sally Rand's dressing room at that exposition.
Shaw bought 50 acres for $10,000, and today most of the land stretches behind Ragdale as the Skokie River Nature Preserve owned by the Lake Forest Open Lands Association.
Visiting RagdaleFund-raisers and other opportunities to visit Ragdale, 1230 N. Green Bay Road, Lake Forest:
May 5: A Toast to Ragdale -- A Roaring Reopening; 5:30 p.m. VIP preview, $275; 6:30 cocktails, dinner, music and dancing, $200.
June 3: Noon to 4 p.m., free tours and artists demonstrations with family activities.
June through October: Guided tours are $10 per person.
Information: (847) 234-1063; ragdale.org