Wrecking Keck & Keck? Chicago preservationists target North Shore landmark ordinance

Architecture Midwest News Preservation
Keck & Keck's Blair House in Lake Bluff, Illinois. (Griffith, Grant and Lackie Realtors)

Keck & Keck’s Blair House in Lake Bluff, Illinois. (Griffith, Grant and Lackie Realtors)

One of the Chicago area’s last remaining homes by brothers and modernist architects George Frederick and William Keck faces likely demolition later this year, despite a long-running preservation campaign to save it.

The 1955 Blair House at 925 Sheridan Road in Lake Bluff, Illinois could earn designation as a local landmark, but that distinction may do little more than delay the inevitable, preservationists said, since the Chicago suburb’s landmark ordinance lacks legal teeth.

In 1957 Architectural Record named the Blair House “A Residence of Exceptional Distinction.” Landmarks Illinois named it one of their most endangered places in 2012, citing the home’s forward-thinking design and pristinely preserved interiors. The Keck’s custom-designed many of their homes down to the furniture, experimenting in the Blair House with sustainable technologies that are now commonplace, such as double-glazing, abundant natural light and radiant heat. A travertine fireplace and elegant stairway are among the home’s celebrated features.

Ed McCormick Blair, the original owner, died in 2010. He left the house to his estate, representatives of which plan to demolish the structure and sell the land for redevelopment. The value of the property, which is part of a 19th century farm on the shores of Lake Michigan, has been assessed at $4.9 million.

For four years the estate has sought $9,995,000 for the five-bedroom house and 27 acres of land, a price which has not been met by the market. The property’s realtor did not return requests for comment.

Owner Ed Blair Jr. submitted an application to demolish the building in December. Under Lake Bluff’s rules, that permit was subject to a 90-day review because the building is more than 50 years old.

If the building receives landmark designation, Blair will have to submit an additional request, but he is not prohibited from knocking down the historic structure after a 120-day period that Lake Bluff officials say provides for public dialogue.

Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Blair said the proceeds of the house’s sale will go to charity. “The land is worth more without the house than with it,” he told Genevieve Bookwalter. “The purpose is not to honor my father by keeping the house; it’s to honor my father by following his wishes.”

But preservationists say demolishing the home would mar the region’s architectural legacy.

“The concept of this jewel of a house being demolished has just got us beside ourselves,” said Jack Schuler, a neighbor whose property shares history with the Blairs’. Along with John H. Bryan, Schuler and Blair Sr. purchased portions of the 250-acre Crab Tree Farm in 1985. The farm, currently in conservancy, is among the last working farms bordering Lake Michigan.

Brandon Stanick, Assistant to Village Administrator of Lake Bluff, said the village’s requirement for public dialogue balances property rights with preservation.

There’s a strong property rights feeling in the village,” he said. “The advisory review process in place is meant to be a compromise between the two extremes.”

Schuler said the controversy lays bare the problems with the landmark provisions of Lake Bluff. The Blair House is one of several historic homes in the leafy, upscale suburb. Preservationists worry more will be demolished if the landmark ordinance remains merely honorific.

“If this was Lake Forest this house would be preserved,” said Schuler.

Keck & Keck's Blair House, shortly after its construction. (Hedrich Blessing, Architectural Record, February 1957)

Keck & Keck’s Blair House, shortly after its construction. (Hedrich Blessing, Architectural Record, February 1957)

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