Above, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, UK
Here’s how my research interests in English country houses developed...
I grew up near Chicago and spent my summers at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a sparkling glacial lake just north of the Illinois border. Many of the properties along the 27-mile shoreline were great mansions built by Chicago millionaires (back when a million meant something!) as their summer homes in the mid-19th century. How I fantasized about life in those huge houses. May I point out that I blame my father for giving me royal illusions by choosing the name Victoria?
Above, photo of Stone Manor on Geneva Lake, WI, is used by the courtesy of Mark Czerniec. Thanks, Mark.
Geneva Lake is ringed with the great mansions of Chicago titans like the Wrigleys and the Schwinns. The one above, known both as Younglands and as Stone Manor, was built by Otto Young, developer of the long gone State Street landmark, The Fair Store. Also a real estate mogul and financier, Young was born in Germany in 1844 and died at Lake Geneva in 1906. He had been treasurer of the board of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago.
My mother told me her first visit to Lake Geneva was as a child in the 1920’s when she and her family visited an aunt, the Swedish cook at one of the great houses. Even the downstairs servants were allowed to invite their families from time to time. But I identified more with upstairs residents, of course. Wishful thinking
If you visit Geneva Lake, you may want to schedule a tour of Black Point, shown above. The home has been open to the public for a few years. I used to come here as a teenager when Uncle Ernie Schmidt entertained the young sailors on the lake. The house was built in 1888 by Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp, one of Uncle Ernie's relatives.
Ever since childhood, I have had a great interest in these great homes and in the families who lived in them. My interests widened to English country houses when I visited England as a college student.
Above, Bowood House, Wiltshire, UK
A few years ago, several friends and I took a course at Oxford University (through the Smithsonian Associates) to study the history of stately homes in Britain. We were in residence at Worcester College and traveled around Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire to various estates under the leadership of Geoffrey Tyack, as delightful a professor as I have ever known.
I will be writing about some of the houses I've visited soon. But first, remember some of the earliest remains of English Country Houses are actually Roman. The Romans were in Britain for over 400 years, beginning in 55 B.C. and left behind remains from the Channel ports to Hadrian’s Wall. Bath has its famous Roman springs. Excavations have uncovered the ruins of many country estates, such as the Chedworth Roman Villa, above, now run by the National Trust in Gloucestershire.
After the Romans left Britain, or were assimilated into the population, most building was done in wood and thus, little is left. Exceptions are the fortresses constructed for protection, many of which remain either as ruins or as much-expanded centers of contemporary powerful families, such as Windsor Castle, Arundel Castle and Alnwick Castle. More soon!