Where History and Heritage Found Roots in the Barrington Countryside
On the crest of a hill overlooking sloping lawns and beds of peonies that have bloomed for a hundred years, there rests a stately home. It is not Highclere Castle of “Downton Abbey” fame, nor does it rival the summer cottages of Newport, Rhode Island, or the many mansions in Lake Forest, but it is a spacious and elegant residence, its’ original quality and beautifully crafted details now restored, and its rooms once again appreciated and lived in with ease as they were over a century ago, when George Ely Van Hagen and his family forsook the city for the life of a gentleman farmer in the Barrington countryside.
The present residents of Wakefield Farm prefer to be called stewards rather than owners, and when they first encountered the property in 1987, and learned of its history, they envisioned that the carved woodwork, the original floors, and the solid brassware of the door handles and window latches could once again gleam. The walls could be stripped of layers of paint and wallpaper, and the marvels of modern paint analysis could reveal original colors.
Through the generosity and support of George Van Hagen’s grandson, still a Barrington resident, there was the availability of early photographs, including some taken while the residence was under construction, quite a rarity in those days.
There was also the intriguing lore that the house had been designed by Louis Sullivan in collaboration with Dankmar Adler, with a wood and stucco exterior that referenced the Arts and Crafts movement, but with the grand simplicity of Federal Revival style elements gracing the interior.
Convinced they had been offered a challenge they must answer, those new residents of 1987 would later describe three years of “painstaking labor, frequent frustration, and occasional tears”. As they said “they learned the true meaning of stewardship”. And their restoration would stand the test of time, when, in January 2016, The George E. Van Hagen House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The citation stated that the house had been restored to its original architectural and design integrity.
After Susan Benjamin of Benjamin Historic Certifications, LLC, had completed the National Register Nomination for Barrington’s White House in 2015, she was referred to the residents of the Van Hagen House. Learning about its history, and seeing its thoughtful restoration, Benjamin and her assistant, Laura Knapp, set about researching its architectural heritage. In the process, they filled in many gaps in local history about the Van Hagens, and came up with a surprise concerning the architect.
John Nyden was born in Sweden in 1878, into a family of builders. He came to Chicago via Canada in 1895, at a time when the Arts and Crafts movement was having an impact on smaller building design, while skyscrapers were rising along the lakefront. He became a prolific designer with a portfolio equal to those of Chicago’s world renowned architects. Among his papers, gifted by Valborg Nyden to the Chicago History Museum, there is a simple entry under residences: George E. Van Hagen, Barrington, Ill. A century later, thanks to loving stewardship, his star has been re-polished on the crest of a hill in the Barrington countryside.
Robert Louis Stevenson has, perhaps apocryphally, been quoted as saying that Monterey Bay was “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea known to man.” And it might be said that the meeting of the George Van Hagen family with some rich farmland in a rural outpost of Chicago would begin a most felicitous relationship that would enhance their surroundings for over a hundred years.
In May of 1907, the Barrington Review (now the Barrington Courier-Review) reported that “one of our real estate agents who is very actively booming Barrington reports an ever-increasing interest among moneyed men of Chicago in this vicinity. A Chicago architect who was out here lately has about decided to put up some modern houses for sale or rent, and a party of three men of means was here this week looking over the town and vicinity. Barrington has many advantages to make it grow.”
The realtor was Sanford Peck, and undoubtedly, the “men of means” were H. Stillson Hart, Spencer Otis, Sr., and George Ely Van Hagen. All three men, youthful and highly successful in railroad related businesses, had their offices in the Railway Exchange Building at 224 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where Daniel Burnham, who designed the building in 1904, had his offices. Perhaps strategically, Sanford Peck had also opened an office in the building, where he could indeed “boom Barrington”.
The Van Hagens were an interesting couple. George Ely Van Hagen was born in Ontario, Canada on September 4, 1873, and his parents were undoubtedly of direct Dutch origin or descent. His wife to-be, Mary Wakefield Lewis, was born on April 20, 1876 in North Bend, Hamilton County, Ohio. The significance of this is that she was a direct descendant of the ninth President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, and the first Ohio home of the Harrisons was in North Bend. Her lineage was as follows: Her grandmother Mary Symmes Harrison was the daughter of William Henry and First Lady Anna Symmes Harrison. Mary married John Henry Thornton, around 1829, and likely in North Bend. Their fourth of six children, Alice Fitzhugh Thornton, married John Calvin Lewis in 1863. John Lewis was the son of Joseph Lewis and Mary Wakefield. John and Alice Lewis had four sons, and their one daughter was christened Mary Wakefield. While one source gives her birthplace as Milwaukee, the family tree again lists North Bend as the birthplace of the entire family. Mary Wakefield Lewis was also a great-niece of the 23rd U.S President, Benjamin Harrison.
John Calvin Lewis was a native of Elizabethtown, in Hamilton County, Ohio and graduated from Miami of Ohio in 1860. He started clerking in his uncle’s law office in Clinton, Illinois, but felt impelled to join a Company when the Civil War broke out. He served with distinction, rising to the rank of Captain. Recuperating from wounds in upper Michigan, he joined the lumber and milling business there, moving to Chicago and becoming very successful in companies with ties to the railroad industry. Their home was in the North Kenwood neighborhood, and his children were raised in Chicago. It is possible that his daughter Mary Wakefield Lewis met the young entrepreneur of the Standard Forgings Company, George Ely Van Hagen, at a social event in the city. Their marriage took place on October 27, 1897.
Their early married life was spent near the Lewis’s in North Kenwood, but around 1907, with like-minded members of the railroad supplies fraternity, they had begun the purchase of farm property some 35 miles northwest of Chicago in the Barrington countryside. Architects were engaged, and plans were drawn up for comfortable, but not palatial residences. A new wave of pioneers was coming to the Barrington countryside, but, as George Van Hagen’s grandson noted, they counted neighbors on the fingers of one hand. In 1921, the Van Hagens and their neighbors organized the Barrington Hills Country Club. Their social interactions gradually evolved into an English-like country community that offered a pleasant lifestyle for those seeking respite from city life.
While less well-known today, the Van Hagen’s architect, John Nyden, had a significant and prolific career in those years of Chicago’s ascendancy as a world-class cradle of architectural creativity. His work at Wakefield Farm has been faithfully restored.
That the residence was named Wakefield Farm, was clearly a tribute from Mary Van Hagen to her paternal ancestors. But her Harrison ancestry lived in the house by the presence in the stair hall, of the only known portrait of First Lady Anna Symmes Harrison, which would turn out to be one of the missing First Lady portraits in the White House.
There is no better or heartfelt recollection of the Van Hagen years at Wakefield Farm than that written by their grandson George E. Van Hagen III. He was born in 1923, and his grandmother did not leave the property until 1951, so he enjoyed many years of childhood in an idyllic environment.
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His personal Memoir “Tales of Wakefield” eloquently recalls this unique time in Barrington’s countryside:
Wakefield was a model producing dairy farm consisting of 15 buildings including the main residence. The farm specialized in milk, cream, and butter, making this available to local markets. The farm also raised chickens and hogs. In the early days, Percheron horses supplied the power for cultivating the soil and harvesting the corn, oats, and hay needed to feed the milk cows.
The farm was run by a manager who lived with his family in the Managers House on the property. In addition, there were hired hands who lived on the farm, at the Boarding House where a cook provided meals. A hearty Wakefield breakfast of fresh eggs, pancakes, fried potatoes, and country ham was a popular way to start the day. My Grandfather figured you worked better on a full stomach.
The Cow Barn was unique, in that it was considered in its day, as a very modern and up-to-date dairy facility. It was designed by my grandfather to provide maximum comfort and efficiency for the milk cows. I was told that when Iowa State University designed its dairy barn they asked my Grandfather for his architectural drawings because they wished to copy his design.
It was also a fact that he provided such innovative things as window shades to keep the sun out of the cow’s eyes and 14 inches of cork as insulation in the floor of the barn so that the cows would not get cold feet and thus slow down milk production.
The Horse Barn was the largest building on the property and measured 34’ x 120’ and stood approximately four stories high. It provided 16 standing stalls for the Percheron Work Horses and 10 box stalls for mares in foal, and riding horses.
At one time this building was seriously considered as a site for the Barrington Countryside School, but this later proved impractical.
The main residence where my Grandparents lived, was built with frame and stucco construction, which was very popular in those days. The house consisted of 16 rooms, four fireplaces, six bathrooms plus full basement and attic, and sat on a beautiful hill overlooking the gardens of Wakefield. To the east was a picturesque Kettle-Moraine pond and to the south an old log cabin from the early days which added to the color and memories of Barrington past. The house was surrounded by great oaks and majestic evergreens. Through the trees to the north and west you could see the cattle and horses in the fields.
Summertime during the ‘30s, I remember working those fields during the haying season and helping drive the big teams of horses. They were beautiful and quite gentle. You got very hot from the work and I remember lemonade never tasted better. It was also quite fun to walk behind the horses when they were plowing the fields before planting and looking for arrowheads. We used to find quite a few. This had been Indian (sic) Country before 1834.
A family tradition was Sunday dinner at Wakefield Farm after church. We would arrive all dressed up from church and have to sit still as our elders talked. The fresh milk and butter was a staple with these meals, as well as fresh vegetables and home grown chicken. If it was summertime, we often walked in the beautiful gardens with my Grandmother who took special delight in sharing her flowers. The house was always filled with many wonderful colors and aroma of peony’s (sic), gladiolas, snap dragons, and roses.”
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The peonies still bloom at Wakefield, they may in fact predate the house, perhaps planted by an earlier farmer’s wife. The present residents find great joy in the annual blooming renewal of this link to the past. That they were able to share the restoration of the house with George Van Hagen III, has also been a joy to them, although regretfully he died a few months before the National Register Nomination was completed. But he did see the house returned to its original refined beauty.
George Van Hagen Sr. died in Florida in 1946, and Mary Wakefield Van Hagen died in 1959. They are buried, along with other family members, in Evergreen Cemetery in Barrington. Mary remained in the house until 1951 even though she had sold it a few years earlier. Gradually, as the character of the Barrington countryside changed, the estate was broken up, parcels were sold, and a few of the old farm buildings were converted into houses. Wakefield Farm was no more, but Wakefield the residence endured.
Mary Van Hagen and her daughter, Elizabeth, went to live in Chicago at 900 N. Michigan Avenue, a large, elegant building. It is probable that they took the portrait of Mrs. William Henry Harrison with them. Since George Van Hagen Jr. had died young, the portrait probably passed to his son, who kept it in a safety deposit box at the First National Bank of Barrington. It came to light again, and its significance understood, when White House and State Department Curator, the famed Clement Conger, visited Barrington under the auspices of the present residents of the Van Hagen home. Later, arrangements were made, and the portrait took its place with those of the many remarkable women who have served America as First Ladies, Anna Symmes Harrison not least among them.
Her descendant, Mary Wakefield Van Hagen, must also have had special qualities, judging by the way that her grandson’s face lit up when talking of her. His grandparents, after all, had given him wonderful memories of a childhood spent in a magical place, once known as Wakefield Farm.
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By Barbara L. Benson
When George Van Hagen III was featured in the July/August 2008 issue of Quintessential Barrington, he was being honored as a well-loved and distinguished member of the Barrington community. Barrington Youth & Family Services, the Community Band, the VFW, and the Voice of Democracy program were among the activities that he so passionately participated in. Service to his community followed service to his country as a Navy Flier in World War II, when he was shot down in the Pacific and only rescued 10 hours later by a U.S. submarine. George knew of survival in the direst of circumstances.
He was also a great historian and without his verbal and written recollections of his youth, the story of Wakefield Farm could not have been written, and brought forward so vividly into another century.
The descendant of a distinguished line of Americans going back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and including two American presidents, he was proud, but never conceited about having such noteworthy forbears. If he talked about them, it was with a certain awe and admiration.
Clearly his greatest love and respect was reserved for his grandparents, George and Mary Wakefield Van Hagen. By putting down their roots in the Barrington countryside in the early 20th century, they had given him an environment in which he grew up imbued with patriotism and an unselfish inclination to community service.
Among his accomplishments as a historian was the documenting of Barrington’s old country schoolhouses. But on a social note, he recounted tales of life in the earlier countryside, where he was a member of the Fox River Valley Hunt, and often commemorated special events by showing a talent for writing poetry. Stories of those days, were often passed on with a twinkle in his eye, and a chuckle in that rich voice, which was stilled on October 31, 2015. His Van Hagen grandparents would surely have familial pride to know that their grandson was recognized in the later years of his life as a patriot, a gentlemanly gentleman, a family man, and a community treasure.
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By Barbara L. Benson from the Memoirs of George Van Hagen III
Wakefield Farm was a very hospitable place, but there was one colorful resident who was not usually included in welcoming visitors. His language was not always acceptable in polite company. And he had quite a loud voice. George E. Van Hagen III recalls that his voice carried easily across the fields, calling “George, George!” Three people could answer: father, son, and grandson.
“Charlie” was a Macaw Parrot who was brought back from Bogota, Columbia in 1830 by William Henry Harrison and his wife, Anna. Harrison had been serving as United States Minister to Columbia. Charlie lived with the Harrisons at their home in North Bend, Ohio, and eventually he was given to Alice Fitzhugh Thornton Lewis, their granddaughter who had moved to Chicago. She in turn gave Charlie to her daughter, Mary Wakefield Lewis Van Hagen, who brought him to a new paradise, Wakefield Farm.
Macaws can live to well over a hundred years old if properly cared for. Charlie probably was, dying in 1950. He had a perch in the sun room, large quarters in the basement, and a big outside cage specially built for him which still stood on the hill beside Wakefield when George Van Hagen III wrote his story.
Charlie’s problem was swearing, and his favorite expression “Go To Hell”. The family liked to recall that on a Sunday afternoon the Rector from St. James’ Church in Dundee would sometimes stop by to see Mrs. Van Hagen. On one unannounced visit there was no time to put Charlie in his quarters. Instead, he remained on his perch in the sun room muttering merrily away while tea was served. “Go to Hell”, “Go to Hell” he intoned.
Mrs. Van Hagen was relieved not to see any reaction from the Rector, and the conversation went on. She thought that perhaps he was slightly deaf and didn’t hear Charlie. But it wasn’t until the Rector was taking his leave that he turned to his hostess and said “My, your Parrot speaks distinctly Mrs. Van Hagen, doesn’t he? As her Grandson noted: “That was Charlie!”
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Barbara L. Benson grew up in Kent, England, and later moved to New York. She settled in Barrington and has walked with our history ever since she first arrived here in 1980.
Photographer Tao Zhang is the owner of Lenswork Studio. To learn more, visit www.lensworkstudio.com.