Monday, July 26, 2010

Reggie's Rooms IV: The Wheeler Library

Lest you think, given the previous three installments in this series, that Reggie admires only rooms decorated in styles predating the turn of the 20th century, today's essay is about a favorite room that was decorated not only well in to that century, in the 1930s, but done up in a manner that could only have occurred after the advent of modernism.  It is a room that has much to recommend it, I believe, and there is much to be learned from it, too.

Wheeler library, gallery view

The room in question is the library in the Lake Forest, Illinois, house of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Wheeler.  Designed by David Adler (1882-1949), one of the greatest residential architects of the first half of the twentieth century, the room was decorated by his equally talented sister, Francis Elkins (1888-1953), with whom he collaborated extensively.  What an exceptional team they were, this superbly gifted brother and sister, and how lucky we are that so much of their work was photographed (in the case of this room, in 1934) and recently published in books by Stephen Salny and the Art Institute of Chicago.

David Adler in 1904                           Francis Elkins in 1938

I first came across David Adler's work, and the Wheeler library in particular, in the early 1980s when leafing through the pages of an out-of-print monograph on the architect that belonged to my dear friend George Pinckney, a fellow appreciator of traditional architecture.  Looking for the first time at the photographs of the Adler houses featured in the monograph was an astonishment for me.  Not only had I never heard of the architect, but I had also never seen such a concentration of handsome, well-appointed houses and interiors of the featured period, and all by the same hand.  At the time, I was certainly familiar with the work of McKim, Mead and White, as well as other illustrious architects of their and earlier eras, but this was the first time that I saw a book with the work of an equivalent master of traditional residential architecture of a more modern and, for me, accessible period.  Lots of books were available at the time featuring the twentieth century work of the masters of the International style of modern architecture, but little had yet been published on the work of their then less-celebrated, classically-inspired counterparts.  This has only been remedied more recently, in the last fifteen or so years.

The coveted Adler monograph; photo by Boy Fenwick

Written by Richard Pratt and published in 1970, the monograph is David Adler: The Architect and His Work.  It was and remains much sought-after by collectors, libraries, and practitioners of traditional (or classical) architecture, as it was the only book on Adler and his work available until recently.  It was, as it turns out, a very valuable book, too, and could only be had at a price that reflected its rarity and the fevered demand for it.  Looking through it for the first time I was determined to own a copy of it, but I was only able to do so many years later when my pocketbook could support such an extravagance.  It remains to this day one of the treasures of our book collection at Darlington House.

Wheeler library, fireplace wall

The Wheeler library is a room that I return to again and again in my mind's eye, as it is not only a handsome room, but the stuff of fantasy for me: a special-purpose room dedicated to the pleasures of reading, set apart from the owners' other sitting and entertaining rooms.  We have a room at Darlington, which we call our Snuggery, that holds many of our books; but I would not say that it is a library, per se.  For our Snuggery is not the sole repository for our books, which are scattered throughout our house in bookcases and piles, and in it resides, also, our lone television.  Frankly, we use our Snuggery more as a cozy, personal sitting room than we do as a place to read, contemplate, and study books.  I would be thrilled to live in a house that had an actual library, such as the one the Adler/Elkins duo created for the Wheelers.

Our copies of Adler/Elkins books; photo by Boy Fenwick

So, what is it, exactly, that I so admire about the Wheeler's library?
  • It is an attractive, symmetrical, well-proportioned room, embellished only with severe moldings and restrained architectural elements; it relies on the integrity of the materials for its beauty rather than surface decoration;
  • It is a special-purpose room, designed for the holding and studying of the Wheeler's extensive collection of books, set away from the house's more public rooms;
  • While clearly within a residence, it attractively resembles an academic library, with stacks projecting into the room at regular intervals;
  • It is paneled and fitted out with pickled pine, a great favorite of mine;
  • It is filled with an array of handsome furnishings spanning several hundred years, including English furniture from the eighteenth century and modern chairs and lamps by Jean Michel Frank--the modern master whose work Mrs. Elkins introduced and championed in this country;
  • The modern upholstered seating is both stylish and commodious, and a comfortable place to wile away hours reading;
  • The windows are hung with the simplest, plain curtains;
  • It is fitted out with good, modern lamps and the niceties of comfort and convenience--one need not look too far for a place to rest one's drink or set one's pipe, if one smoked such a thing;
  • The gorgeous, polished, antique parquet-de-Versailles floor is bare of carpets, giving the room a clean and fresh look, and it is scattered with boldly graphic Zebra skins--long before such skins had become the decorating cliche of the first decade of this century;
  • And it has a gun rack!  And not just any gun rack, either, but one built into the paneling and surrounded by a frame based on ones found on early English Georgian mirrors.
Wheeler library gun rack

Finally, the Wheeler library channels for me on a very personal level a number of academic libraries that I spent many pleasant hours in years ago, first as a student at Sherborne School, a boys' public school in England, and later as an undergraduate at Yale.

Sherborne School library
Image courtesy of Sherborne School

Sterling Memorial Library Reading Room
Image courtesy of Yale University

Unless noted, all images are courtesy of Francis Elkins: Interior Design by Stephen M. Salny, published by W. W. Norton & Company.  Additional images of the talented Adler/Elkins partnership can be found in Stephen M. Salny's The Country Houses of David Adler, also published by W. W. Norton, and in the Art Institute of Chicago's David Adler, Architect: The Elements of Style, published by the Art Institute in association with the Yale University Press.  


  1. LOL, the Dilettante is in a snit. He also had a post underway about this room, also one of his favorites.

    I bought my copy of David Adler at Lauriat's in Boston when I was 17, for the then astounding sum of 21 bucks. It has since been my standard for such a book---superb design, superb printing.

  2. Thank you for bringing this room to my attention. I, too, dream of having a library at home. And I would like to learn more about David Adler and Frances Elkins.

  3. I agree with everything you've writtten about this rooms original state, and wish more people today understood this kind of subtle chic. If I may, I would like to add that this library is actually a hall. It serves as the main artery of the house, connecting the entrance hall to the living room and dining room. It is the "great room" as they say, and in house with very few rooms life revolves around it.

  4. The Wheeler Library is quite exquisite.
    I love the fine architecture of McKim, Mead and White but Richard Morris Hunt has my heart.
    Reggie you have impeccable taste..have a lovely one, cheers.

  5. It's surprising, when you think about it, that so few architects think to put libraries -- or something like that -- in transitional spaces.

  6. DED: Please do not refrain from doing a post on the Wheeler library, as I am sure you will have much to add to Reggie's feeble attempt. I look forward to reading your essay.

  7. I was just looking at this library a couple of days ago and I really do find it very beautiful. I had been looking for the Kuppenheimer Estate in The Country Houses of David Adler because of a comment I received over the weekend on my Friday post. I have the book I mentioned above and the Frances Elkins.

    Great post, Reggie.

  8. Reggie, Darling-I love the stacks too and would LIVE in this room if permitted,well any library. I could tuck a little "cot" in somewhere. Never wanting to be of that noble profession- Librarian, I missed my calling-shhhh! The fireplace wall I adore-nix the head and clear out the guns for a mineral specimens case. Much to admire in this room,Gaye

  9. Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful space and to the work of David Adler. I feel I should have known about him but I did not.

    I have a question for Reggie - completely off-topic but I hope you don't mind. The question is: if Reggie were visiting Venice, where would he stay? I've looked back in your posts and don't see a reference to Venice, but I can't believe you have not visited. I'd be fascinated to know your recommendation(s)!

  10. I'm in the ambiguous category of agreeing uncivilly, so we shall have to see how that goes. Pratt's book on Adler sold very briskly from the Art Institute's store in Chicago, and broadly in independent bookstores in California, now defunct and with many customers who would be, too -- Scott Martin Books, Tillman Place, Minerva's Owl in SF come to mind. I would be pretty confident of finding a copy at a collector's shop in San Francisco; there are many, still, who can't be bothered with sales networks. I never contemplated the book (which I have) as especially gorgeous, but you're right. I have always thought Adler to be gorgeous, however, especially for his scale, and especially on his smaller scale. Do you recall the house Cukor allowed Cary Grant to occupy in "Philadelphia Story," as his "own design"? It always felt very David Adler to me. Maybe it was the drinks in the library.

    I appreciate your support of Adler's values; that is the "main thing."

  11. Laurent: Not quite sure what you mean by agreeing uncivilly, given your comment. The price of the Pratt book is all over the map, I've seen it listed for as little as $180 and as high as $1,400. I bought mine somewhere in the middle. The reason it is so coveted is that, although available as you say initially, it is more often today locked away in its owner's library, and difficult to pry out, except under extraordinary or sad circumstances.

  12. Reggie, you attended Sherborne Boys School. I knew you were a 'decent chap' as my father would say. I was at Sherborne Gels... I never saw that library, but ours was pretty fine in an oaky arts and crafts way. I could reminisce happily about the Sherborne years for hours.

    But thank you for this David Adler post.

  13. Now that is a library. Magnificent. Thanks for the education. Off to do a bit of research.

  14. Dearest Rose: I attended Sherborne (as you know correctly pronounced "Shuh-bn") for one year, under the auspices of the English Speaking Union, which at the time sponsored an exchange program (or "programme") between US and UK boarding schools. Remarkably, the ESU accepted my application, and I spent a delightful school year at Sherborne before attending Yale. I remember the "gels" from the sister school you attended fondly, although I recall that in my day fraternization, unless chaperoned, was frowned upon. Best, Reggie

  15. Yes, Reggie there was strict segregation between the two schools that inhabited the charming Dorset town of Sherborne. My early romance with one of the boys foundered because my housemistress confiscated all letters with a Sherborne postmark. As I write this, it is hard to believe. By preventing the right to 'association' between the pupils, the net result was two hot houses of repressed desire! Well, I suppose that was quite entertaining in itself.

  16. Truly, The Waiting Room For Heaven, if heaven there be. Frankly, if it were an option, I’d hang out in the Library for eternity.

    Someone (you know who you are) pinched my copy of Pratt’s DAVID ADLER, which I paid $50 for about twenty years ago. Interesting that Frances Elkins gets little, if any, mention in that book. I have a plaster albatross ceiling fixture over my desk that Giacometti designed for her exclusive use. I bought a pair of them in Santa Barbara in the ‘70s. You’ll see two of them applied as wall decorations in Salny’s FRANCES ELKINS on page 174. Rather effective, sont-ils pas?

    Lovely blog you’ve got here.


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