A Visit to the Old Neighborhood

November 25, 2012 § 4 Comments

835 South Fourth Street

Tim Smith, president of the Dana-Thomas House Foundation, announced this week that the vacant house at 835 South Fourth Street (one-half block south of the Dana-Thomas House) has been donated to the Foundation. According to The State Journal-Register, Smith said, “We have a mission to improve the area around the Dana-Thomas House.” If the Foundation Board plans to restore the block to its original grandeur, they have a big job ahead of them.

According to the 1902 Springfield City Directory, there were 16 families on the west side of the 800 block of South Fourth Street the year Susan commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to remodel her father’s home. The house now owned by the Foundation was the home of the Lucius M. Castle family that year. Mr. Castle was the principal at Springfield High School. He had been on the faculty for several years before assuming the principalship in 1899. His wife was on the Board of Directors of the Springfield Woman’s Club, and presented a program at the Lawrence House for the Art Department of the Club (Susan was chair of that department.) on “How to Hang a Picture” in December of 1895.

Their neighbors to the north were the family of Christopher Columbus Brown, an attorney who was admitted to the bar by none other than Abraham Lincoln. Brown’s wife Betty was the daughter of John Stuart, one of Lincoln’s law partners. Lincoln attended their wedding. The William L. Gross family lived on the south side of the Castle home. Gross was a respected judge and close friend of Rheuna Lawrence, Susan’s father. Both Brown and Gross were honorary pall bearers at Rheuna’s funeral. The house on the other side of the Gross home was occupied by the family of George (another attorney) and Leigh Gross Day, artist, author, and close friend of Susan (see Chapter 16 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House).

The Day home was on the south corner of the block, and the family of Mathias Bartel, manufacturer and dealer of boots and shoes, lived on the north corner, across the street from the Lawrence home. A diverse group of Springfield citizens inhabited the elegant homes in between. Among them were an engineer, a teacher of elocution, an entrepreneur, two widows, and a jeweler/optician. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood was called “Aristocracy Hill.” Today many of the houses are replaced or gone. (The site of the Day home is a parking lot.)  Most of the eight buildings remaining have been converted to apartment houses or vacated.  Improving the neighborhood seems a monumental task. I wish the Foundation Board well.

801 South Fourth Street Now

801 South Fourth Street (Bartel Home) Then

Susan’s Thanksgivings

November 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

It occurred to me that the dining room table in the Dana-Thomas House would be an elegant place to serve Thanksgiving dinner. I could find no reference to Susan entertaining at Thanksgiving, but since the holiday was and is a private family affair, a Thanksgiving celebration at the table would probably not be public record. However, I found two newspaper accounts that give us a glimpse into a couple of Susan’s Thanksgivings before she had a Wright-designed dining room table. This report was in the December 2, 1876 Illinois State Journal:

That roller skating has become a very popular exercise or amusement in Springfield, is evidenced in the large attendance the past two days at the rink–Armory Hall. On Thanksgiving afternoon a matinée was held, affording much pleasure to the numerous participants and spectators. In the evening the regular weekly assembly or reception took place, and included in the program was the contest for the prize medal to the best lady skater of the evening. Miss Minnie Stockfield was awarded the prize by the judges, the announcement eliciting hearty applause.

Susie was 14 years old that year, and according to another newspaper account, she was awarded the medal for the best lady skater the next week.

Seemingly Thanksgiving highlighted the opening of the social season in 1901. Here is an excerpt from The Springfield News, November 16, 1901:

Persons who are mixed up in society’s whirlpool this fall are having about all they can attend to, especially the women. Everyone is remarking that they never saw Springfield so gay so early in the season, and if the round of parties, receptions and dances keeps up, society devotees will certainly have nothing to object to by the end of the season…. The Assembly committee issued invitations for the five dances to be given this season the first of the week. The first dance will be given on the eve of Thanksgiving, and the dates for the others have not been settled… The Assemblies will be conducted the same as last season. There will be dancing for those who care to dance and progressive euchre for those who play cards and do not care to dance.

Since Susan had recently lost both her husband and father, she probably did not participate in the hectic social season of 1901. However, after the Lawrence House was completed in 1904, she and the house were in the midst of Springfield’s annual social whirlpool, and I imagine she started each season with a Thanksgiving dinner at her grand dining room table with friends and family.

The House that Welcomes the World

November 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the past month I have met two sisters from Ireland, a family from the Czech Republic, a couple from New Zealand, and students from Japan and China. Although it sounds like I was visiting the United Nations, I was volunteering at the Dana-Thomas House. From the beginning, the house has welcomed visitors from around the world, and Susan’s first international visitor was especially interesting.

I note in her biography, Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House, that the first recorded social event in the Lawrence House was described in the October 3, 1904, issue of the Springfield News when Susan hosted a dinner party for out-of-town guests. The diners included visitors from Madison, Mississippi; Springfield, Ohio; Oakland, California; New York, New York; and Vienna, Austria.

According to the newspaper story, the gentleman from Austria was “Dr. Paul Cohn of Vienna, Austria, editor of the Vienna Die Zeit, and chairman of the jury of awards, group 13 of the Fine Arts Building at the St. Louis Fair.” I could find no connection between Dr. Cohn and Die Zeit in my Google search for him, but I did find that he was a man of many other interests. For example, one of the events at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was an International Congress of Arts and Sciences, and the American Library Association (ALA) hosted a library section within that Congress from October 17 to 22, 1904. The ALA “Papers and Proceedings” of that conference reported that the president of ALA appointed Dr. Paul Cohn, a professor of the Technical Industrial Museum of Vienna, Honorary Vice President of that Congress along with other foreign dignitaries.

Furthermore, an article in the June 9, 1906, New York Times discusses two papers which Dr. Cohn wrote after he returned to Austria from the St. Louis Fair. One was a study of the educational system in the United States, and the other was a report to the Austrian Minister of Commerce on the state of the chemical industry in this country. Click here for his conclusions. Finally, I found that Dr. Cohn was a life member of the yacht club in Nice, France. In 1907 he owned two sloops and a yacht and claimed his own private signal (a horizontally divided red and black flag).

This journalist, art critic, librarian, educator, chemist, and mariner has to be one of the most intriguing individuals to have visited the Lawrence/Dana-Thomas House from any country. Perhaps it’s just the current James Bond resurgence that is infecting my imagination, but I am conjuring up visions of a wealthy international spy. Susan certainly had interesting men in her life.

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