Architect, John Van Bergen Designed Several Homes for Working Class Women, Artists and Authors
With the (re)discovery of the Delia Fricke House in Highland Park, I became again aware at how unusual it was for single, working women and artists, earlier in the 20th Century to commission Architect designed houses. Though several of his clients were well off and could afford more land an larger more expensive homes, Van Bergen was proud of the fact that he could come up with an artistic home and have it built well on a shoestring budget.
Although many noted architects of the same period, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, often had wealthy women as clients (some of them involved in the arts), most of those architects seemed unable to design quality, small, artistic homes within an affordable budget – usually the only kind of budget available to working women in those days.
I believe it shows the sensitivity of John Van Bergen, (as it was related to me by his daughter, Nancy Brigham), that he usually spent more time interviewing the “women of the house” and addressing their needs than any other considerations.
Trying describe his “style”, we might think of it as his lack of “ego” in designing, and his unusual sensitivity to a combination of aesthetics, function and the natural environment. Maybe this is what gave the homes he designed so much of their distinctive character and that sense and clarity.
It seems evident that the only personal “posterity” that Van Bergen intentionally tried to design into his buildings was the quality of materials and construction, understated aesthetics – and the practical, flexible, often versatile and open spaces within the structures – that would enable them to withstand the test of time.
John Van Bergen, from a letter to a friend and former draftsman, Charles Masterson:
In all my work…, I have tried to keep things plain and simple. To me, good proportions means good taste in all forms of art. that’s where I would have clashed with Sullivan, the greatest of the great. Incidentally, I had to keep down the costs, the others didn’t care.
…the Oak Park Playground houses. There Wright was designing monuments to himself. I, not knowing at the time I was in a competition, designed a building to be built within a budget and one that could be maintained where children were concerned.
…no two clients or no two locations, to me, present the same problems in architecture. Each has its own characteristics and I truly believe that an architect should design and build with his individual client – as well as himself – in mind. It’s a big job usually but it can be done. Maybe that’s why yours truly has never had a big income tax to pay. I have been over-zealous to meet each situation in the best way possible.
I think this is an interesting topic for further inquiry and investigation.
Here are some of those designs:
Elizabeth Manson, 1911 – Oak Park, Illinois
Mrs. Charles Yerkes, 1912 – Oak Park, Illinois. Mrs. Yerkes daughter, Agnes was an artist and Van Bergen incorporated a studio into the design of this small house. He even designed some of the interior trim in the living and dining rooms to frame some of Agnes’ paintings. (Unfortunately, these were removed during a recent renovation.)
Mrs. Crosby Adams, 1913 – Montreat, North Carolina.
Mrs. Charles Westcott – Apartment Building, 1917 – Oak Park, Illinois.
Barbara and Rachel Erwin, 1922 – Kenilworth, Illinois. Though pretty well off (their father was the wealthy businessman, Charles Erwin), These two sisters lived quite modestly. Rachel M. Erwin, an amateur naturalist and gardener, published two books of her own poetry, “Her Garden” in 1917 and “Reclaimed” in 1921.
Isabel Bemis, 1924 – Highland Park, Illinois. Mrs. Bemis was Ruth Van Bergen’s mother.
Delius Fricke, 1924 – Highland Park, Illinois. Preliminary research hints that Mrs. Fricke was an artist and art teacher in Highland Park.
Margaret Morse, 1926 – Oak Park, Illinois
Ella Van Bergen, 1927 – Highland Park, Illinois. Ella was John Van Bergen’s mother.
May Theilgaard and Raymond Watts, 1928 – Highland Park, Illinois. Though not a single woman, local lore implies that was she who commissioned this house.
“The Flight Of TIme” Clock, 1929 – Highland Park, Illinois. Designed in tribute to retired teacher, Nell Seyfarth.
Laura and Albert Stoddard, 1930 – Highland Park, Illinois. Mrs. Stoddard was an artist and art teacher for whom Van Bergen designed a studio on the rear of the second floor of this house.
Mrs. Frank Von Geyso, 1930 – Highland Park, Illinois
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Nash, 1938 – Lake Forest, Illinois. Mr. Nash was an artist (see article).
Dr. Mabel McKee, 1946 – Highland Park, Illinois
Dr. Helen Keith Sadler, 1946 – Highland Park, Illinois
Lucille Hansen, 1949 – North Barrington, Illinois. Ms. Hansen, a wealthy widow was an artist and sculptor. She had Van Bergen design a studio into this house for her and her daughter.