Historic Ragdale House Poised For Preservation
Foundation Seeks Support to Renovate Community Treasure and Artists Retreat.
Heading north on Green Bay Road from the Lake Forest business district, nestled among gracious mansions and elegant estates, rests a precious gem.
Ragdale House, the historic summer retreat built by Arts and Crafts architect Howard Van Doren Shaw – and now home to the nation's fourth largest artists' community – is poised for polishing by means of an ambitious $3 million renovation project.
The Ragdale House Project, an undertaking of the Ragdale Foundation, seeks to elevate the building to 21st century infrastructure and safety standards, while accurately preserving its unique and inestimable historic value.
"We know that if we don't preserve the property now, we will begin to have major problems," conceded Jack Danch, Ragdale director of property. The renovation is expected to take nine months, with a start date slated for the first quarter of 2011.
The city of Lake Forest extended a loan to the Ragdale Foundation to fund the entire $3 million project so planning and construction could move forward. In 2009, the Foundation began a capital campaign to fund the restoration, which will be accomplished entirely through private donations.
The "quiet phase" of that campaign is concluding and has, to date, garnered $1.2 million, according to Eric Thompson, Ragdale Foundation director of development. The Foundation hopes to acquire the remaining funds through the public phase of its capital campaign starting in 2011. The public phase will entail numerous public and private fundraising events, as well as exploration of financial support through grants and foundations.
The Ragdale Foundation relies on private donations to finance 75 percent of its general operating expenses. The remainder of the budget is met through fees collected from public programming.
Ragdale Foundation executive director Susan Page Tillet anticipates enthusiastic community support for the restoration. "I want the community – which actually owns the property – to see Ragdale as its own 'Home of the Arts' and to support its renovation so it will last for the next century or two," she said.
Originally Built as Summer Home
The charming, double-peaked, white stucco structure has been a treasure to the Lake Forest community since its completion in 1897. Shaw built Ragdale as a summer home for his parents and his own growing family to escape city summers and serve as a private retreat.
"The Shaw family was deeply committed to and involved in the arts," Danch said.
He explained Ragdale provided creative inspiration, gallery space and stage for three generations of Shaw family architects, painters, poets, playwrights, cartoonists, cabinet makers, weavers and sculptors. In addition, the Shaws entertained many creative friends at Ragdale, including poet Carl Sandburg, who penned a poem to the family that remains on display in the house.
Visitors to Ragdale often comment that it's a place where time seems to stand still. Danch agreed.
"The property has essentially not changed in more than 100 years," he noted.
Tradition Remains Intact
And all of Shaw's trademark architectural styling remains: the house's large exterior columns recessed front doors and barreled ceiling in the front hall. Other Shaw trademarks include windows – 75 in all – and fully screened sleeping porches attached to all but one bedroom in the home. All in keeping with Shaw's original purpose of creating a home that blends seamlessly with the natural setting, exudes an aura of peace and provides a haven for the creative mind.
This "haven" welcomed its first artists-in-residence in 1976, as Howard Shaw's granddaughter, Alice Judson Hayes, converted the family home into a nonprofit artists' retreat – and the Ragdale Foundation was born.
Ten years later, Hayes donated Ragdale House and the other buildings to the City of Lake Forest. The city, in turn, gave the Ragdale Foundation a 99-year rent-free lease, with the Foundation responsible for operations on the property. The Lake Forest Open Lands Association retains custody of the 50 acres of pristine prairie adjacent to the house. Danch said the native expanse is one of the few remaining virgin prairies in the state.
Variety of Artists Occupy Ragdale
Today, Ragdale is home to as many as 12 artists at one time. Writers, visual artists, composers, choreographers and performance artists are accepted for residencies of two to eight weeks. The retreat setting allows the artists to focus on their work and contemplate new areas of exploration. Since spring in anticipation of construction, Ragdale currently has no artists on site.
Poet Robin Behn, a Ragdale alumnae, says, "I don't just write more here; I write more wildly, like the prairie itself."
Community outreach is a core element of the Ragdale mission. Page Tillet explained, "In a world where so many things are generic and mass produced, Ragdale provides the opportunity to visit an artist in his or her studio, to see the materials, to see various stages of the process and to understand what it takes to create a painting, symphony or novel."
Events open to the public include periodic open studios, workshops, readings, visiting school programs and public tours of the buildings and grounds. In addition, the Foundation sponsors a Family Day event and the popular "A Novel Affair," a weekend of private dinners with bestselling authors in Lake Forest homes.