By Patrick Schwarz, Ph.D.,
Professor Emeritus, National Louis University, Chicago;
President, Creative Culture Consulting LLC;
Homeowner, Mary Adams House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1905
Spirited Leader with Purpose
Wright attracted interesting clients, and Mary McKean Willoughby Adams was no exception. She was 70 years old in 1905 when she commissioned then 38 year-old Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house for her in Highland Park, Illinois, one block away from a bluff that overlooks Lake Michigan. She hoped that the innovatively-designed home would be a help to her in her mission to attract converts to the Christian Science movement.
Mary was a teacher and practitioner in the then newly-formed Christian Science movement who worked and studied with Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science religion. Mary Adams had degrees in Christian Science Education and Metaphysical Obstetrics and was intending to bring her religion to Highland Park. Through her studies she had learned that disciples of Mary Baker Eddy needed to be seen as innovative in the religious world. Wright wanted to be seen as innovative in the architectural world. This led to a fascinating collaboration.
Mary was born in 1835 in New Hampshire and had been a widow for several years when she hired Wright to design her home. She had no children and was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
At that point in her life, she was well into her involvement in the Christian Science movement.
Her beliefs had led her, along with others from the new religion, to spread across the country to both practice the principles of Christian Science and to teach. The house that she commissioned from Frank Lloyd Wright and ultimately built was specific to these purposes.
- At age 70 and a widow, possibly Wright’s oldest client
- Was a Daughter of the American Revolution
- Had degrees in Christian Science Education and Metaphysical Obstetrics
- Had extensive correspondence with Christian Science Founder Mary Baker Eddy
- Intended to use her Frank Lloyd Wright house in her proselytizing
- Had significant input into her house’s design
Correspondence with Mary Baker Eddy
Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Church in 1879 and it quickly attracted a large following, particularly among women. From 1885 to 1887, when she was in her early 50’s, Mary Adams went to Boston four times to study Metaphysical Obstetrics with Mary Baker Eddy. Mary Adams also collaborated with Elizabeth Webster, another student in the Christian Science movement who also became a teacher of the religion in the Chicago area. Mary Adams’ passion and energy can be found in the numerous pieces of correspondence available between her and Mary Baker Eddy, housed in the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston. In the letters, Mary Baker Eddy very fondly and often referred to Mary Adams and Elizabeth Webster as “the twins.”
Wright’s Only “Flying Buttresses”
Although no correspondence between Wright and Mary is extant, the plans show that she had significant input into her home design. She had Wright remove the south porch extension and swap the original location of the kitchen and dining room. She also made the dining room an open view. The house’s unique Wrightian design element, the diagonal corner “flying buttresses,” are not structural, but dramatically emphasize the horizontal lines of the home, making the roofline extended.
Two years later in 1907, Wright incorporated many of the ideas from the Mary Adams House into the “Fireproof House” he designed for the Ladies Home Journal.
Home Reflected the Times
Prominent on the Mary Adams House plans was the “reception room” for Mary to receive visitors. There were also rooms for both a maid, labeled “maids room,” and a manservant, labeled “man’s room.” Relics of those days, including floor buttons and a call box for the servants, still remain in the house, as do the original sidewalk panels for Adams’ horse and carriage.
A Short Stint in the Home
Mary died in 1908, three years after the house was built, and is buried with her husband in Lowell, Massachusetts. She willed her home to her brother Charles Willoughby who kept it between 1909-16. He then willed the home to niece Katie Belle Hallowell Kingsbury. After Charles died, his niece sold the home immediately upon inheriting it in 1916. There were five owners of the Mary Adams House after Mary Adams and her brother Charles Willoughby.
More History to be Explored
There are several aspects of the history of Mary Adams that are of interest but can’t yet be verified. For instance, to the question of how Mary Adams and Frank Lloyd Wright originally met, since Wright at the time was a young architect of 38, we can only speculate. One theory is related to Adams’ brother: prior to the time Mary Adams came to Highland Park, Charles Willoughby was an established Chicago entrepreneur in real estate development and the textile business. He also had projects in Boston and Rhode Island. No known correspondence between Mary Adams and Wright exists. It may be that Charles Willoughby introduced the young architect to his sister.
Possible Alice and George Millard Connection
Another area for more research is the connection between Mary and the growth of the local Christian Science community. A local Highland Park historian (now deceased) introduced the theory that Mary’s Christian Science beliefs and proselytizing might have contributed to the presence of booksellers George Madison Millard and Alice Millard in Highland Park. The Millards, who were devoted to their Christian Science beliefs, commissioned a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Highland Park in 1906, just a year after Mary’s home was built. The Alice and George Millard House is located on the same street as the Mary Adams House.
An Extensive (and Green) Restoration
The Mary Adams House was extensively restored/renovated by its current seventh owners Bill Levy and Patrick Schwarz in 2011-12.
- The exterior stucco was returned to its original color
- The exterior cypress wood trim was stripped and returned to its original stain color
- Original interior paint colors were identified, and the original plaster walls were returned to those colors
- The original interior wood trim color was identified and brought back
- The stairway was brought back to its original configuration
- Structural support that appeared on Wright’s plans but was never installed was put in place after the house was jacked and leveled
- The stairs to the north porch door that were not original to the house were eliminated
- Walls for a terrace that were found in Wright’s landscaping plan were added
- Wright’s original kitchen cabinet design was utilized
- Mary Adams’ call box was restored
- The home is now green, embracing nature with geothermal heating and cooling, a recyclable aluminum roof (which looks like cedar shingles), insulated custom storm windows, LED bulbs for lighting, and a significant amount of insulation
The current owners of the Mary Adams House, Bill Levy and Patrick Schwarz, received a Wright Spirit Award from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2022 for their restoration and rehabilitation efforts.
Read More Homeowner Stories
The SAVEWRIGHT: Notable Women Homeowners Project tells the stories of the remarkable women who have stewarded houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Posted August 28, 2023