MARTYL LANGSDORF, 1918-2013

Martyl photoOn Tuesday, March 26, 2013, Martyl Langsdorf, a long-time resident of Schaumburg passed away.  Martyl, however, wasn’t just a resident.  She was also an internationally acclaimed landscape artist whose works appeared in many exhibits, galleries and museums.  She was the wife of Alexander Langsdorf who worked on the Manhattan Project that was headed by Enrico Fermi.  She was the designer of the Doomsday Clock.  And, most importantly for Schaumburg, she was the enthusiastic owner and caretaker of the Schweikher House that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Martyl was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1917 to Martin and Aimee Schweig.  Martin was a well known local photographer and Aimee was very much involved in the St. Louis art world.   The early summers of Martyl’s life were spent in Provincetown, MA studying and working in an artist’s colony run by Charles Hawthorne.  Martyl eventually graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and studied with Arnold Blanch at an artist’s colony called the Colorado Springs Arts Center.

From 1932 to 1941, Martyl’s mother, Aimee, was the central figure in the Ste. Genevieve Art Colony in a town by the same name that is down river from St. Louis.  Martyl was very much engaged in this colony’s work and inspired by their desire to paint the real effects of the Great Depression.  One of her contributions can be viewed today in a mural called “La Guignolee” that still hangs in the local post office.Martyl mural

In 1941 her life took a different turn when she married Alexander Langsdorf, Jr., a nuclear physicist.  They moved to Chicago in 1943 when Alexander was asked to work at the Argonne National Laboratory.  Shortly after, their daughters Suzanne and Alexandra were born in 1945 and 1948.

Doomsday clockIt was during this time that Hyman Goldsmith of the Universty of Chicago and the founder of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, asked Martyl to design a cover for the Bulletin.  Martyl responded with the familiar representation of the Doomsday Clock that has been on the cover of every Bulletin since its inception in June 1947.  Though she is known in the art world as a landscape artist, this is her most famous work of art.

In the early 1950s the Langsdorfs began looking for a more permanent home.  They discovered a gem of a house that was built by Paul Schweikher, a noted Chicago architect who headed the firm Schweikher and Elting.  Mr. Schweikher had recently been asked to join Yale University as chairman of the School of Architecture and it had become necessary to move his family.  The sale was made in 1953 and the Langsdorfs moved to Schaumburg Township.Schweikher

Not only was the house a gem, but it was a hidden gem as well.  Mr. Schweikher acquired the property around 1936 when he remodeled a barn into a house for a landowner in rural Schaumburg Township.  On a lovely, remote piece of land that abuts Salt Creek off of Meacham Road, Schweikher proceeded to design and build a house from 1937 to 1938 with the Japanese influences that he loved.  The Langsdorfs continued the love affair after they purchased the home and worked zealously to maintain its originality and condition.  Their respect for the house and its architect is to be noted in the way that the house is known as The Schweikher House.

Martyl painting 1For the next 60 years Martyl continued to pursue her art and, as the Chicago Art Institute says, “embraced painting, printmaking, drawing, mural and stained-glass design.” Her world travels influenced her work and it was reflected in a steady stream of solo exhibits in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and her hometown of St. Louis to name a few.  Her works are part of the collections of the “Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Illinois State Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.” Locally, you can see a collection of her paintings near the Rasmussen Meeting Room at the Schaumburg Township District Library.

In the late 1980s she and her husband faced their biggest challenge when the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago threatened to condemn their property and their unique home.  Fighting for its life, the Langsdorfs were able to obtain National Register in 1987 before the house was purchased by the District in 1989.  As part of the negotiated contract with the District, the Langsdorfs were granted life tenancy in the house.  With foresight and appreciation for this local landmark, the village of Schaumburg purchased the home in 1996–the same year that Alexander died–and allowed Martyl to maintain the house as her residence in between her travels.

Her love for her home was strong, tenacious and palpable.  She enjoyed giving tours and insisted on shoeless feet moving across the floors.   The Japanese garden on the side and the unique peonies in the backyard were an easy enticement to leave the house.  She knew every intricacy and detail of the home and was insistent about the care and upkeep.  Her amazing memory and recall allowed her to regale visitors with stories of others who had come before to tour her home.  It is fitting that she passed away still attached to the house that she enthusiastically embraced for so many of her 96 years of life.  As so often happens with the ebb and flow of life, Schaumburg lost a gem and gained a gem all in the same day.

Jane Rozek
Local History Librarian

From a personal point of view, I’d like to add—

“I met Martyl in 2007 when the library sponsored a program to honor the oral historians of SchaumburgTownship.  Not only did she participate in the program but she also invited me to her home for a personal tour.  For an architectural neophyte like myself, she was very patient and answered every naive question I threw her way. 

One day I spent the morning with her in my favorite room of the Schweikher House. We had tea in the sunny kitchen with its open shelves stocked with so many unique bowls, platters, pitchers, dishes and crockware that I wanted to examine.  We talked about our enjoyment of St. Louis and how my husband and I had recently taken our daughters to Ste. Genevieve for spring break.  We talked about how we both loved to shop for clothes when we travelled and that it was a great excuse to indulge when we did.  And, of course, we also discussed Schaumburg–the old and the new.  She talked about Alma Panzer who served as a housekeeper for the family and what it was like to live in such a remote, quiet area for so many years.  We also spoke of the goings on in Schaumburg as well as the restaurants she liked to take her visitors to. 

I loved her no nonsense attitude, her sly sense of humor and the way her artistic side found its subtle way into the clothes she wore.  She seemed to effortlessly envelop people into her circle.  And what a circle it was!  Her confidence and easy laugh were a delight and it was just a pleasure to know her.

I will miss her.”

This blog posting was written with the assistance of the following websites:
http://www.martyl.com
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomsday_Clock
http://www.greatriverroad.com/stegen/sgattract/stgart1.htm
Jeff Whyte, ALA

For Martyl’s online tour of the house, please go to the library’s Local History Digital Archive at http://archives.stdl.org/digitalarchive/digitalarchive.asp
>Browse Videos
>Oral Histories
>Schaumburg Township Landowners 1935-1959
>Langsdorf Family

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