April 2, 2018

Paul Schweikher’s Pre-Midcentury Modern Chicago Home

Built in 1938 in a combination of Eastern and Western architectural styles, the Paul Schweikher House is a hidden gem in Schaumburg, a northwestern suburb of Chicago. The Modernist home, which housed its namesake architect, as well as a Manhattan Project physicist and the artist who designed the original Doomsday Clock, was once on Landmarks Illinois’ list of Most Endangered Places in Illinois. Since it was listed in 1998, however, the home has been converted into a museum that today offers private tours and talks, and is on the way to creating its own membership program.

Upon moving to Chicago in the 1930s with his wife, Paul Schweikher quickly began making a name for himself as an architect. Many of his architectural drafts were featured in museum exhibits, including Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition, the 1933-34 World’s Fair celebrating the city’s centennial.

After Schweikher began working with an architectural firm called Lamb and Elting (later Schweikher and Elting) in 1934, he was commissioned to rehab a farmhouse and turn it into a large family home for the Kern family. In exchange for his work, Schweikher was given the land upon which he eventually built his own home.

Front view of the home's exterior.

photo by: Kim Bauer

Exterior shot of the Paul Schweikher House.

Schweikher began drafting plans for his house during the boat ride home from a vacation in Tokyo, where he had stayed at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel. Schweikher’s experiences in Japan inspired much of the home’s design, particularly its sliding doors, lamp fixtures, and the organic materials used for construction that emulate traditional Japanese wood house.

According to the Schweikher House website, the architect’s home “is unique for its time—Mid-century Modern before such a term existed.” Although Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Schweikher were each other’s contemporaries, the two architects never worked side by side. Kim Bauer, programming coordinator for the Schweikher House Preservation Trust, jokes that “there’s a fireplace in our main living room that we’ve seen in another Wright home, and it just happened to be built after the Schweikher House was. We like to say that Wright took inspiration from the Schweikher House fireplace.”

But the history of Paul Schweikher and his innovative designs are just part of the home’s story. The second and final family to move into the Schweikher House was couple Martyl and Alexander Langsdorf. The Langsdorfs took up residence in the Schweikher home in 1953, after Paul Schweikher moved to Connecticut to assume his new role as the dean of Yale’s Architecture School.

Alexander Langsdorf had moved to Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project with Italian-American physicist and creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, Enrico Fermi. The two physicists collaborated together at the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, Martyl, a popular landscape artist, designed the now-famous Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists newsletter.

In a note about the history of the Doomsday Clock, Martyl explains that she was asked to create a design as part of “a direct response by concerned scientists to the social implications of the [atomic] bomb.” Even though Martyl wasn’t given any money for her commission, she felt compelled to help the scientists spread their message. The design itself was meant to signify urgency. The clock eventually became the logo for the Bulletin, and Martyl moved its hands back and forth in each issue, depending on the scientists’ concerns about an impending nuclear explosion. Martyl also created the end pieces for the Bulletin, as well as illustrations for individual articles between 1947 and the 1970s.

Window seat and window on a winter day.

photo by: Kim Bauer

Close-up of the window seat in the north bedroom on a winter day.

Black and white photo of the home's living room and fireplace.

photo by: Leslie Schwartz

Black and white photo of the home's living room and fireplace.

Alexander passed away in 1996, and Martyl became the sole occupant of the home until her death in 2013. The Schweikher house fell under threat when the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) claimed eminent domain rights over the seven acres of land the home currently sits on. Martyl fought against MWRD by adding the home to the National Register of Historic Places and raising its public profile. After the Schweikher House was listed on Landmarks Illinois’ Most Endangered Places in 1998 (and after some negative press in the local newspaper), MWRD backed away from their attempts to take over the land. Bauer says, “Martyl really fought for that house. In my opinion, she was a godsend to save it.”

Between 1998 and 2013, Martyl collaborated with the Village of Schaumburg to take ownership of the house and help save it. In 2009, the Schweikher House Preservation Trust began to offer intermittent private tours of the home. The Preservation Trust increased the number of private tours they offered and began giving annual tours with DOCOMOMO (the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites, and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement) after Martyl’s passing.

The Preservation Trust also began a new series called “Conversations in the Studio” in what was first Schweikher’s architecture studio and later became Martyl’s art studio. Past talks include a conversation about Modernist architecture with Susan Benjamin, who wrote the National Register nomination for the home. Historian Jane Rozek will speak about Paul Schweikher himself on April 22, 2018.

In celebration of the Schweikher House’s 80th anniversary, the Preservation Trust is participating in #ILGIVE on May 3, 2018, a 24-hour online fundraising event that supports local nonprofits throughout Illinois. They are also planning a “peony party” in June, a favorite annual event of Martyl’s that highlights the peonies that grew each spring in the home’s beautiful back garden.

Currently, The Preservation Trust aims to begin a membership program and increase their community’s awareness of the Schweikher House. “People always say they’ve driven by the house a million times, but they never knew it was there. I grew up in the area, and I didn’t either,” says Bauer. “A famous architect, a Manhattan Project scientist, and a famous artist? The house has a really cool history, and I would say that even if I didn’t work there.”

Modernism: Explore Modern Architecture

What is Modernism? In architecture, it’s defined as a design language with an emphasis on form rather than ornament; structure and materials rather than picturesque constructions; and the rational and efficient use of space.

Carson Bear is an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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