The Fall of the House of Mellor

Vol. XIV No. 4 - FALL/WINTER 2003-4

By: LeRoy Blommaert

In early 1897, a business executive commissioned an architect to design a house for him in a fledgling new development on the north side of Chicago. The business executive was Davis G. Mellor; the architect was George Washington Maher; the fledgling new development was Edgewater; and present day address of the new house was 6022 N. Kenmore.

The client:

The executive Davis Mellor was a Massachusetts-born manager of an express company. The city directories of the time described him as a “route agent.” The 1900 census shows him as being 38 years of age and his household as consisting of himself, his wife, his sister-in-law, two nieces and a female servant of Swedish ancestry. Not much else is known about him, but he must have been doing well financially as to afford to purchase a lot and have an architect design a house for him. The estimated cost of the house was $7,000 - a considerable sum for the time.

The architect:

George Washington Maher was not new to Edgewater. He had worked for Joseph Lyman Silsbee at a time when Mr. Silsbee was designing homes for Edgewater’s developer John Lewis Cochran. Silsbee was Cochran’s first architect but by no means his last, as Cochran employed many architects to design his houses over the years. In 1892 Cochran first retained the young Mr. Maher to design several homes in his development. Their relationship, which was not an exclusive one, lasted through 1897, and included an elegant townhouse for Mr. Cochran himself in the fashionable Gold Coast area. In addition to designing homes for Mr. Cochran, Maher designed homes for other clients who had purchased lots in Cochran’s Edgewater and so it was not surprising that Davis Mellor would retain him to design his house. His work was very visible in North Edgewater.

George Washington Maher would later go on to achieve considerable fame as a skilled practitioner in what has been subsequently called the Prairie School of architecture. The large house he designed later in 1897 for John Farson in Oak Park began his ascendancy in this style. His 1909 house for Edwin M. Colvin at the north west corner of Sheridan and Thorndale (a Chicago Landmark) represents his more mature Prairie School work as does a number of houses on Hutchinson Street in Uptown.

The community:

In 1897, John Lewis Cochran’s Edgewater was still quite young, having begun with only 10 homes in 1886, south of Bryn Mawr and north of Catalpa along Kenmore and Winthrop. Development in his 2nd addition( which extended north from a line between Ardmore and Thorndale to Devon) was newer still, with the first home being constructed in 1890. Development was not especially rapid. At the time Davis Mellor moved into his house there were probably not more than 50 houses in the 2nd addition (about six to a two sided block on average) and Mellor could get to the North Edgewater train station at Granville by walking through the vacant lots (at least during dry periods.)

The house as architecture:

Davis Mellor’s house was different than most of the other houses that had been built in Edgewater up until then. Whereas most of the other architect-designed homes were in the Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Shingle, or even in the rarer Richardson Romanesque styles, this house had some of the internal configuration of the later common four-square style, but it was different from them too, with its strong emphasis on the horizontal and the use of Palladian windows on the second story. Though a comparatively large house at 3,527 square feet and 10 rooms, it did not appear large from the street. For George Washington Maher it was a transitional house, not fully prairie but definitely not Queen Anne either. The permit was issued in April 1897 and the city directory shows that Davis Mellor and his family were residing in it that same year, so evidently construction was swift. His was only the third house on the block.

The house as witness:

The house witnessed many changes both in Edgewater and in the world over the years. In Edgewater it saw the vacant lots begin to fill up as more homes were constructed on its block and the blocks nearby. The block gradually looked much like the 5400 of North Lakewood does today, except that many of the homes were larger. It saw the coming of the small flat buildings built in anticipation of the extension of the L through Edgewater in 1908, but these were built mostly to the south. Houses continued to be built in North Edgewater. In 1907 a house similar in appearance was built diagonally across the street at 6027 and in 1908 a large brick house was built immediately to the south. It was no longer so much alone. In 1919 it witnessed the first tear downs in the area: Several single family homes were demolished for the construction of the Sovereign Hotel at the northeast corner of Granville and Kenmore. This was followed in the 1920s by the construction of the common-corridor hotel buildings and corner and court-yard 3-story walk-up buildings along Kenmore and Winthrop. This new construction changed the character of the community considerably, but remarkably, except for one common corridor elevator building on the east side of the street to the south and two corner buildings to the north at Glenlake, the 6000 block of Kenmore retained its single family character and only one single family home was lost in the process. The depression halted all construction as did WWII. Until 1960 the block looked the same as it did in the 1920s. That would soon change and change drastically with the construction of a new building type: the 4+1. By the time the decade came to a close, only four single family homes remained - 6022, 6018, 6027 and 6023 - all huddled together in a little enclave as if for protection.

On October 16, 2003, the House of Mellor fell to the wrecker. Though protected for over 30 years after the passing of its last major threat and after enduring the decline in the 1970’s and 80’s, it became the victim of the revitalization of the area.

Recent history:

The house had many owners over the years after Davis Mellor’s sold it in 1903 or 1904. In June 1998 a Christa R. Grabica sold it to a Carla Walsh for $340,000. Three years later, in July 2001 it was sold to James Kingsley for $680,000 - a 100% increase. Two years later Mr. Kingsley put up the house for sale for $799,000. On August 27, 2003, it was sold for $710,000 to Tim Kerins who indicated his intentions to tear it down and build a multiple unit condo building in its place.

In middle to late September, after he learned that the house was designed by George Washington Maher, the developer Tim Kerins called Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago. He told him that before he had closed on the property he had contacted both the Landmarks Commission and the Alderman’s office. Neither had voiced any objection to his tearing down the house. The Landmarks Commission advised him that it was not orange rated; the alderman’s office advised him of the community process established in the ward for developments: that he should first meet with the Edgewater Community Council and the local block club. The final step would be the presentation of his plans to the 48th ward planning and zoning committee - a committee established by the alderman on which each organization in the ward, including Sheridan Rd. condo associations, had one voting delegate. Her position would be determined by a vote of the committee.

This author called Mr. Kerins and he confirmed what he had told Mr. Fine. He also said he would place the property back on the market but he also advised that he would keep the other option open, i.e., demolish and build, which he later exercised. Tim Kerins did follow through and did place the property back on the market in late September but at a higher price: $839,000. It was on the market for less than 30 days. Simultaneously, he applied for a demolition permit. That was on September 22; on October 3 it was issued to him. According to the Alderman’s office it received a fax on September 23 from the city notifying it that an application for a demolition permit on the property had been filed; however, because of a communications breakdown due to re-alignment of duties in the office the fax was not shown to the Alderman nor to the staff person responsible for zoning and planning; hence, no hold was put on the issuance of the permit.

Earlier in the month, while preparing a fact sheet on the house for community discussion, this author discovered quite accidentally that the architect was George Washington Maher. No architect appears on the permit for such an early date, so the name of the architect must be sought in published sources, some of which are not available. Both the name of original owner and the street number were printed incorrectly in the one source which he reviewed. Just on a hunch, he called Maher researcher Kathy Cummings who confirmed on the basis of her research that the house was indeed designed by Maher. He incorporated this important piece of information into his fact sheet and sent it to the Alderman’s office and to a staff member in the Landmarks Division of the city’s Planning Department. This was on September 15. To their credit, staff came out to look at the house - the outside at least; however, the review, which they conveyed to the Alderman, was not favorable: it was not one of Maher’s better works and it had been altered: It had been stuccoed and the front porch had been enclosed. [It was subsequently learned that the stucco was original and not a later alteration.]

Why did it happen?

Ultimately, the house was demolished because of the convergence of two factors: (1) a zoning classification that encourages demolition and higher density replacement construction and (2) a dramatic change in the housing market on Kenmore and Winthrop in Edgewater that made such replacement construction economically feasible. The first factor - the high zoning classification, an R-6 - had been a constant for many, many years. In and of itself it had no effect. It was only until very recently because of the demand for new high-end condominiums in the area, that the combination became fatal not only for this house but for others in the area as well.

Could the demolition have been prevented?

While some might say that its demolition was inevitable - a victim of progress, there is another, different point of view - that its demolition was preventable. Although the second factor in the fatal formula - the demand for high-end condos - is not controllable, the first factor - the zoning that encourages demolition and their construction - definitely is.

In early 2000, the Alderman introduced an ordinance down zoning most of the area from Granville to Bryn Mawr along Kenmore and Winthrop to R-4. It was intended to be held in city council committee; however, because of a misunderstanding, legally required notices were sent to some of the affected property owners before any outreach could be made to them to explain the proposal. The alderman’s office received a number of calls opposing the rezoning and no further action was taken. Had the area been rezoned to R-4, the economic incentive to purchase the house for demolition and construction of condos would have been either eliminated all together or else significantly reduced.

Had the previous owners known that their house was a George Washington Maher-designed house, they might well have marketed it differently and a buyer might have been found for it who wanted to live in it rather than demolish it. Just as there is a niche market for homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, there is a niche market for homes designed by other prominent architects, particularly Prairie School architects.

Had Tim Kerins been told before he purchased the property that there was community opposition to demolitions of houses along Kenmore and Winthrop, he might well have chosen to forgo the opportunity and not purchased the house so as to avoid the hassle.

Even after Mr. Kerins purchased the house, demolition was not inevitable. Had he allowed the house to be marketed properly and for a longer listing period and at a reasonable price, a buyer still might have been found for the house who wanted to live in it rather than tear it down.

More compelling is the prospect of the house being designated a Chicago Landmark by the city. This option is not available for most properties at risk: they don’t meet any of the criteria. The Mellor house did: it was designed by an important architect and a case could have been made that it was an important house by an important architect: a transitional work and the only proven surviving house by Maher in Edgewater during the pre-1900 era when he was designing houses for Edgewater’s founder John Lewis Cochran. Had the decision makers in the Landmarks Division of the City’s Department of Planning looked for reasons TO designate the house as a Chicago Landmark instead of reasons NOT TO, the house would probably still be standing today.

Epilogue and Lesson:

It remains to be seen whether the loss of this George Washington Maher house will serve some higher purpose, whether it will galvanize community opposition to the further demolitions of the few remaining homes along Kenmore and Winthrop that remind us of Edgewater’s first development and whether more concerned citizens will demand that effective measures be taken to prevent that from happening before it is too late. There is a precedent. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the community rose up to oppose the demolition of the Viatorian owned mansions on Sheridan road. The effort was successful: they still stand - in Berger Park. Hopefully a campaign to save the mini-mansions along Kenmore and Winthrop will be similarly successful.

Editor’s Note: the commentary portion of this article represents the views of its author and not official Edgewater Historical Society policy even though the Society opposes any further demolition of the single family homes along Kenmore and Winthrop.

(*) There are no similarities to Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher, other than the title.