PAUL SCHWEIKHER COMES TO SCHAUMBURG TOWNSHIP

It was a farmhouse that drew Chicago architect Paul Schweikher to Schaumburg Township but it was the countryside that kept him here. Today, the home he built on the banks of Salt Creek is on the National Register of Historic Places and belongs to the Village of Schaumburg. It is a masterful combination of Japanese, modernist and prairie elements all rolled into a striking house and studio.  Schweikher built it when he was working in Chicago where architecture is, most assuredly, a veritable feast for the eyes. How amazing then, that he intentionally chose remote, rural Schaumburg to build this most unique structure to be his personal residence.

He had arrived in Chicago in 1922 as a young man of 19 and studied at both The Art Institute of Chicago and the Armour Institute of Technology, while also working with noted architect, David Adler.  Eventually moving on to Yale University, he completed his degree in 1929. He returned to Chicago in 1930 and worked with a number of local architects before settling in as principal and senior partner at the firm of Lamb & Elting in 1934.

Schweikher came to Schaumburg Township in 1936 to study a farm that had recently been purchased by L.D. Kern and his wife, Dorothy. The farm was on the east side of Meacham Road and the Kerns invited him with the hopes that he could renovate the house on the property.  After walking through the farmhouse and most likely deeming it too small for the Kern’s growing family, he turned his attention to the barn.  It showed much more promise and potential–both for the family and for his architectural skills.  He had to have been intrigued because he accepted the commission and rolled up his sleeves to begin work on the design.

In conjunction with local builder Emil Sporleder, the house was built and ready for the Kerns by December 1936.  During that time Schweikher likely became intrigued with the farm because, on February 1, 1938, (according to a Cook County title record) Schweikher obtained seven acres from L.D. and Dorothy Kern.

It has never been determined whether Schweikher purchased the property from the Kerns or received it as payment for the work on their house. Martyl Langsdorf, a later owner, always said it was an in kind payment for the work he did for the Kerns. The Kern’s son, Jerry, said it never came up in conversation while his parents were alive. Consequently, we are still left wondering.

Nevertheless, the plans for purchase must have been happening for some time because earlier, in 1937, he had begun the design of his house on a return voyage from Japan. Having visited the country with his wife, he was powerfully influenced by the architecture he encountered on the trip and included a number of Japanese elements in the design.

Construction began in 1938 with Emil Sporleder once again serving as the main contractor. An October 7, 1938 mention in the Roselle Register states that “Mr. Sweitzer [sic], a Chicago architect is beginning construction of a home on Meacham Road, a few blocks south of Schaumburg road. The ground formerly belonged to L.D. Kern’s Willow Brook Farm.” We do not know when the house was finished or when he and his wife moved in, but we do know that he eventually named it the Willow House. This name was reflective of both the willows that grew along the banks of Salt Creek and of a particularly striking specimen that grew in the front yard. The willows were clearly a powerful influence for both the Kerns and Schweikher.

Once the house was completed, Schweikher commuted back and forth to Chicago for work until after the outbreak of World War II.  His architectural firm dissolved in 1942 as a result of the war and Schweikher joined the Naval Reserve, serving as a Naval Lieutenant Commander. For a time, he served locally but, by 1945, he was based in Monterey, CA. According to a July 6, 1945 Daily Herald mention, Schweikher came home for a 15 day leave because, in June of that year his wife gave birth to their son, Paul Jr. in Chicago.

After the war, Schweikher and Winston Elting opened a firm in 1946 under the name of Schweikher & Elting. It was based in the studio at his home in Roselle, which was the legal address and nearest incorporated village. (Theodore Lamb, who had been the first partner in Lamb & Elting, was killed during the war in 1943.)

The majority of the design projects undertaken by the firm were private family residences, with most of them developed in the Chicago area. Various draftsmen and architects were employed such as Edward Dart, who went on to be part of the firm of Loebl, Schlossman, Bennett & Dart and designed Water Tower Place.  Hired for secretarial purposes was Doris Klausmeyer, the wife of architect Thomas H. Klausmeyer who worked for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Schweikher was also asked to take on a couple of local contracts.  Considering he did most of his local business in Roselle, it is no surprise that during the school referendum process in December 1951, the Roselle School District commissioned the firm to do the design. After the referendum passed Schweikher designed a school that was built into the side of a gentle slope at the corner of Maple, Howard and Pine. Roselle School (later Parkside School) consisted of four classrooms, a play assembly room, a health and staff room and, on a lower level, bathrooms and a boiler room.

In 1953, Schweikher was called on by the newly formed District 54 in Schaumburg Township to design a school on Schaumburg Road, just west of Plum Grove Road. At the time, his own 7-year-old son was attending Schaumburg Center School, the one-room schoolhouse in the heart of Schaumburg Township.  It had to have been obvious that a new school was definitely needed. You can see the school off to the right in the distance.

Schweikher put the plans together during his last months in Schaumburg. The design for Schaumburg School was somewhat reflective of Roselle School, although the stones on the chimney and the east and west walls are certainly distinctive. This school, too, had four classrooms, as well as an office that was part of a large assembly area. It was certainly unique for rural Schaumburg Township.

Around this same time George Howe, Chair of the Yale University Architecture department, who had earlier visited the Schweikher home with architect Mies van der Rohe, was actively recruiting Schweikher to succeed him at Yale. After some consideration he decided to accept the post.

The career move made it necessary to find buyers who would truly appreciate both the house and the surrounding acreage that was so much a part of the design. In 1953, Martyl and Alexander Langsdorf visited the property. They were, respectively, an internationally acclaimed landscape artist and a physicist who worked with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago. Both appreciated the special house and agreed to the purchase. They, in turn, became faithful, passionate owners of the property for many years and worked successfully to place the house on the National Register of Historic Places. After Alexander’s death, Martyl eventually sold the house to the Village of Schaumburg who maintains it to this day as the Schweikher House Preservation Trust.

Schweikher stayed at Yale until 1958 when he left to become Chairman of the Carnegie School of Agriculture at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie–Mellon) in Pennsylvania. While there, he continued to design a variety of buildings. He retired in 1970 and, with his wife, subsequently moved to Sedona, Arizona where he, once again, designed and built his own residence. He is pictured outside of the home in the photo below. Even with this small view, it is possible to note some similarities between the two houses. He lived there until his death in 1997 at the age of 94.

In his oral history, Schweikher was asked “Of all the buildings that you’ve built, which ones do you think come closest to expressing who you are?” His response: “I feel that one of the most successful still, was my Willow house in Roselle… It seemed to handle the material most knowingly of anything that I did before or after. It was knowledgeable, it was plain spoken, it fits the site, adapted well to human use.”

How fortunate we are to have his own, self-ascribed gem still in existence in Schaumburg Township. If you get the chance, take a tour. It will be an experience you won’t forget.

Jane Rozek
Local History Librarian
Schaumburg Township District Library
jrozek@stdl.org

My thanks to Susan Benjamin for contributing the photo of Paul Schweikher outside of his home in Arizona.  Photos of him are rare and it is nice to be able to include this one!

In the next two weeks you can find blog postings on the Roselle and Schaumburg schools that he designed.  

One Response to “PAUL SCHWEIKHER COMES TO SCHAUMBURG TOWNSHIP”

  1. Fred Luft Says:

    Thank You Jane for posting this wonderful history.

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