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The Great Depression Doomed Wilmette's Most Eccentric Mansion

Built by Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall, the palatial home features a retractable roof, tropical garden and Chinese temple.

A packed crowd at the Wilmette Historical Museum took a trip to the Roaring Twenties to tour, via slide show, perhaps the most opulent mansion ever built on the North Shore.

Photos from the three-decade existence of prominent architect Benjamin Marshall’s palatial home at the entrance of Wilmette Harbor wowed some 100 history buffs. They could scarcely believe a Xanadu-like structure, reminding some of Charles Foster Kane’s grand estate in Citizen Kane, could have been first built and then torn down in the span of a little more than a generation.

Earlier: A Walk Through North Shore History

Acting as their tour guide was speaker Steven Monz of the Benjamin Marshall Society, a Chicago-based organization. Marshall designed classic Chicago buildings like the Drake, Blackstone and Edgewater Beach hotels, Blackstone Theater and South Shore Country Club. He also designed five of the eight classic buildings (including the Drake) on East Lake Shore Drive, where the iconic roadway curves east from the start of Michigan Avenue.

Despite Marshall’s accomplishments, he’s never mentioned with Chicago’s holy trinity of architects – Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan. He died at 70 in 1944.

“He came later,” Monz said of Marshall’s prime. “Wright was so modern, that’s why he was known throughout. His buildings are so recognizable. Marshall stopped in the Depression. He was not happy and lost a lot of vigor. The lifestyles he built for came out of style – servants (quarters) and grand dining. His whole lifestyle was suppressed and squashed.”

‘Flamboyant tastes and swashbuckling style’

Marshall’s Wilmette residence became an extension of his “flamboyant tastes and swashbuckling style,” Monz said. Born into a wealthy family on Chicago’s South Side, he moved to Wilmette in 1921. In summer, he was recognizable from afar with his white suit, white shoes and white hat, the latter sometimes replaced by a sombrero.

Marshall spent between $500,000 and $1 million in 1921 to build the pink, Spanish-style home on the waterfront, across Sheridan Road from where the Baha’i Temple now stands. The Sheridan Shores Yacht Club used the home’s basement as its clubhouse.

Entering the home from Sheridan Road, visitors were greeted by a salmon-colored frieze over the front door, depicting Burnham and fellow architectural giant Stanford White, among others. Marshall’s own work studio had three huge windows with space for 45 draftsmen to work.

An absolute highlight of the home was a 50-foot-high, 75-by-100-foot tropical garden, complete with palm and banana trees. A lover of gadgets, Marshall designed the ceiling and windows to open at the push of a button to the outdoors in good weather. At least one table also rose from out of the floor into another room.

The home also featured special theme spaces in which Marshall stocked furnishings he collected from around the world. Most ornate was an $80,000 Chinese temple room. Also included were Egyptian and Scandinavian rooms.

Monz said Marshall’s home was the North Shore's most eccentric mansion.

“It wasn’t a standard home," he said. "It was very personal. I think because he worked out of there and he made prototypes of things, it had more (gadgets) than most houses. I don’t know if it was the prettiest house from the exterior, but it was definitely the most interesting. It was lavish and very theatrical, like he was.”

A-list of celebrity visitors

Celebrities from all over the world were entertained by Marshall. They often carved their names on a table. Headliners included the Duke of Windsor, playwright Noel Coward and actresses Ethel Barrymore and Beatrice Lillie.

It all came crashing to an end when The Great Depression hit in the 1930s. Most new building stopped, putting architects out of work. Marshall was forced to sell the home. Department-store magnate Nathan Goldblatt bought the home for $60,000 in 1936. Eventually Goldblatt moved on, the home was empty and eventually was offered for $125,000 to the Village of Wilmette, which declined.

Historic-preservation philosophies were not the same as today, so demolition of a home not even 30 years old was scheduled in 1950. The wrecking ball almost met its match. One worker told a newspaper the work was “like demolishing a fort” – Marshall had built the structure so sturdily with construction techniques far ahead of its time.

The Baha’i Temple now owns the site. The only reminder of the grand Marshall home is its wrought-iron entrance gates.

Monz’s presentation is part of a series on  events in Wilmette history at the Wilmette Historical Museum at 609 Ridge Road. On April 15, a diver and historian will recap one of the most spectacular shipwrecks in Lake Michigan history, the Lady Elgin steamer which sunk off the shore of Wilmette in 1860.

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