Quintessential America

The Wizard of Lake Street

The snow struck down on the village like a ghostly sledgehammer.

by DAVID RUTTER

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The January morning in 1918 moved as slowly as advancing rheumatism. Thus the horses that tugged the sleigh’s runners through the Barrington streets strained and slipped. No wheeled vehicle would have budged.

Few sounds broke the solitude of the funeral procession, save for the horses’ rhythmic breathing in the feathery falling flakes and the rubbery squish of galoshes as mourners mushed the drifts.

Solemnity muffled the morning.

The village sighed.

Atop the snowy sleigh was the casket that bore the final remains of a 69-year-old workingman. Behind the sleigh walked family and members of the Baptist Church who had come to lift his spirit to the next world.

January 17 was voracious and evilly cold. The horses strained through two feet of fresh snowfall on Lincoln Avenue, then tugged even more slowly down Dundee Avenue and then south to Evergreen Cemetery where Fred’s parents were laid to rest in earlier years.

And they sang for him that morning in church, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

He had been their tenor voice in the Men’s Choir. He was a man to be honored. He was born in 1849. He was a master carpenter. When the Baptist pastor needed a new parsonage, he built one. The parish priest at Saint Anne Catholic Church needed a rectory, too. So Fred built a two-story Victorian charmer by the church’s side.

But Fred was gone now, leaving his beloved Emma Jane and four grown children – Max, Arnett, Jennie, and Viola.

Yet he left many testaments. After all, he was the Wizard of Lake Street.

The Grand House

Except for the urgings of his wife and the traditional tendency for people of means to express their success with mansions, there is no inescapable reason why John Robertson had to build a 15,000-square-foot home in 1898. His children had grown. He was 55. He was a Victorian businessman of substance who had no particular need for a three-story home, topped by a grand ballroom.

But his wife, Julia, wanted the house. It would make a statement. It would be the center of Barrington life.

Whether inspired by dreams of legacy, or pressured for the sake of domestic tranquility, Robertson decided there should be a house in Barrington as had never existed and likely would never exist again.

Robertson knew there was only one person who could do it. Even then, Robertson likely understood that history would say he had “built” his palace. But that is distortion caused by idiom.

Robertson supplied the money. But he no more “built” the house than Hoover built the dam that bears his name, or than did Pharaoh Khufu “build” the Pyramids at Giza.

In Robertson’s case, his architectural monolith was the work of one man – Fred E. Lines.

Lines was not a note keeper by temperament; so there remains little written record how he concocted the Robertson mansion, or how he carried it out.

It was a standard, though gargantuan, Four Square-style template commonly available to builders then. It would cost at least $150,000 or so, far less than the $6 million in 2014 dollars needed to restore it in time for the village’s 2015 sesquicentennial.

Oddly enough, son Arnett was 16 the summer the Robertson monster was arising. But the details of its birth seemed to leave no impression on the young man regarded as the community’s leading amateur historian. In fact, Arnett’s published history of Barrington barely notes his father’s existence, though there is effusive praise for maternal grandfather and first elected village mayor, M.B. McIntosh.

Based on Lines’ other Barrington projects – there were many and all subtly glorious – he took a year to raise the Robertson behemoth and achieved the feat with minimal assistance from anyone. There was no architect, said a local historian. Lines was the architect.

And most significant peering over your shoulder at 116 years ago, he did it by hand. It was a Rembrandtian portrait; no pre-fab, McMansion with layers of manufactured components shipped readymade to the construction site.

He framed the house himself, as well as the interior Victorian-inspired wood decorations and staircases. All by hand, one of a kind.

Massive electrical saws, power lathes or even electrical drills? Didn’t exist yet.

The Robertson house was built as a kerosene illuminated home, and though commercial electricity had just arrived in Barrington as Lines hammered the first nail, reliable home power was still several years away.

There was no indoor plumbing and few servants. Barrington was a workingman’s town. In 1898, the dawn trek to the outhouse leveled many social barriers.

Robertson knew Lines would build the house he wanted, because Lines already had changed the face of Barrington’s near downtown with his hammer, planes, and perfect eye for chiseled detail.

The Magic Shop Out Back

One of the Barrington homes that Lines built with his own hands still stands at 130 W. Lake Street. It remains, in a word, beautiful. It’s his home.

It is now, as it was then, a sly statement of singular craftsmanship.

Fred Lines’ granddaughter, Jean Box, the last survivor of the family, spent many days and nights in the house. She is 89 now and though she was born after Fred Lines’ passing, she remembers that memories of him hovered over the house for years.

Emma lived there until she died in 1934, and daughter Jennie lived there until she died in 1984. As Viola’s daughter, Jean knew every hidey-hole of the place.

It was the home “Grandpa Lines” made. Photos of him rekindle those memories. “He was a serious man I think,” Box says. “He was always neat. He wore bowties. He had a very nice moustache. Can’t remember if it had those handlebars. But it was nice.”

He always called himself “the 49er” because that’s the year he was born.

Box also remembers the two-story wood fame workshop in the back. In that many-splintered emporium, Fred Lines created. There were hundreds, thousands of wood shapes in various stages of sculpture. “Ten years after he died, his vice and workbench were still there,” she said.

Barrington is filled with his art, some of it the furniture that he made. All are handmade in ways that can be mimicked, but never replicated by computerized woodworking tools in the 21st century.

All done by two hands.

Lines not only handmade his own 3,500-square-foot home, but also the house next door for Arnett. There are, by various accounts, at least a half-dozen surviving 19th century Barrington houses he either built or contributed to lasting artistic grandeur.

How To Become A Genius

Fred Lines learned carpentry fundamentals as a child shortly after his Connecticut Yankee family emigrated from a Walworth County, Wis., log cabin. Then he grew up in Barrington and fell madly in love with Emma McIntosh.

After they married and moved to downstate Mackinaw, Ill., Emma’s father enticed his return to Barrington in 1890 with promises of free wood from the McIntosh lumberyard. Also for the unlimited croquet battles to which both the McIntosh and Lines families seemed addicted. The Ice House league croquet field was named for Max.

And so Fred and his family came home, never to leave.

But his health eventually teetered. In November 1917, he was working on the porch roof of his home. He slipped and fell off.

He never fully recovered. Two months later, he died in his bed. In the Queen Anne temple he built with his two hands.

He went with a whisper as soft as falling snow.

And the village sighed deeply.

David Rutter is a frequent contributer to Quintessential Barrington.

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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They'll all be about Americans doing what we do best — sharing, helping, living.