This article by Robert Loerzel was originally published in the September 2008 issue of North Shore Magazine.
GAZING AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD today, it’s hard to imagine that as many as 50,000 people once gathered on this 19th-century mansion’s lawn and nearby streets, spilling into the park, pulling boats up along the lake shore, just to hear a political speech by the most famous man in Evanston. The air was still drying out from the drizzle that had fallen earlier in the day. Patriotic pennants and banners fluttered in the breeze. It was Aug. 19, 1924, and the man of the hour was Charles Gates Dawes.
Dawes found fame in nearly every part of his illustrious career, whether it was a stint as a World War I general, jobs as a banker, lawyer and utility executive, or his work as an author, historian and philanthropist. But on this night, all eyes were on Dawes because he had just won the Republican Party’s nomination for vice president, becoming Calvin Coolidge’s running mate.
At 8 p.m., radio listeners around the country heard strains of the national anthem and a cacophony of cameras as news photographers popped their flashes to get a shot of Dawes. Wearing a black pinstriped coat and a robin’s-egg necktie, the would-be-VP stepped up to the microphone.
“This is a campaign of brass tacks — not bombast,” he declared. As Dawes went on, denouncing one of his opponents as a socialist, he clenched his fists and hammered on the table next to him, almost knocking over a potted palm.
That was Dawes, a man who did not pander to anyone and certainly did not mince words. The most storied example was in 1919, when a congressional committee questioned the amount of money Dawes had spent obtaining supplies for the U.S. Army during World War I. In response, Dawes yelled in consternation, “Hell and Maria!”
That was just the beginning of a full-out rant. Dawes jumped out of his chair, paced back and forth and read the riot act to the congressmen who had dared to question his efforts to supply the troops. Some people claimed that Dawes actually said, “Helen Maria,” a euphemism similar to saying “Judas Priest!” instead of “Jesus Christ!” Wherever Dawes got that expression from, it became the most famous quote of his life, symbolic of his refusal to take guff from anyone.
If he were alive today, Dawes might say something similarly blunt about the controversy raging over the 25-room mansion where he lived for the final four decades of his life.
Before he died in 1951, Dawes gave Northwestern University the deed to his house, with the understanding that the university would let the Evanston Historical Society (now called the Evanston History Center) use the building as a museum. And that’s just what Northwestern did for half a century. But then last year, university officials suddenly gave the History Center three chokes: buy the Dawes house, spend $4 million on repairs and improvements or get out.
“Sucker punch is the best word I can think of to describe it. It came out of nowhere,” says Marge Wold, president of the Evanston History Center. According to Wold, Northwestern officials said they planned to use an escape clause in their 1942 agreement with Dawes, allowing them to sell the property.
In April, Northwestern called in Evanston Fire Chief Alan J. Berkowsky to inspect the building. After Berkowsky found code violations, the house was closed to the public. As of mid-August, Wold and other Evanston History Center officials were in negotiations with Northwestern, trying to work out an arrangement to let them stay in the Dawes house, which is a National Historic Landmark.
Meanwhile. Evanston residents Mimi Peterson and Frank Corrado formed a group called General Dawes Returns. Loudly calling for Northwestern to live up to its promises, they’ve staged protests featuring actor R.J. Lindsey portraying Dawes. Insisting that the History Center should take a more militant approach against the university, Corrado says, “You can’t negotiate with Northwestern. They will wrap their arms around you and squeeze you to death.”
Wold, however, is hopeful about the negotiations. So is Eugene Sunshine, the university’s senior vice president for business and finance, “We would love to be able to figure out how to give them what they want,” he says.
Question is, will they get what they need? And if so, who will pay?
AFTER WINNING THE 1924 ELECTION, Dawes spent his four years as vice president crusading for more openness in the Senate’s debating rules. It was a hopeless cause. Dawes also missed an important vote when the Senate deadlocked on an attorney-general nominee. Dawes had the power to break the tie, but he was napping at his hotel during the roll call. Afterward, a prankster put up a sign at the hotel: “Dawes Slept Here!”
Despite that embarrassment, Dawes did experience a triumph while he was vice president, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Dawes and British foreign minister Sir Austen Chamberlain were honored for working out a deal in 1924 to help Germany pay war reparations. Dawes was hailed tor helping to stabilize the German economy, but ultimately his efforts failed to stop Europe from descending into another world war.
On visits home to Evanston, Dawes showed a common touch. A year into his vice presidency, he hosted a Halloween party at his home. With a twinkle in his eyes, Dawes donned a paper cap and led some neighborhood children in a procession. Wearing masks, making noise with rattles and horns, laughing and giggling, they snaked their way up Sheridan Road. When Dawes had finished his revelry, he sat down in his private library with a couple of grown-up visitors. Soon, he was deep in discussion on topics ranging from mob psychology to Julius Caesar’s battlefield tactics. They talked until 2 in the morning.
Dawes once wrote that he’d rather spend his time in his library than anywhere else, “enjoying the quiet things of life — surrounded by books which do not speak until taken in hand and addressed…” During discussions at dinner, Dawes would leap up and rush for the bookshelves. He always seemed to know exactly where to find a quotation he was thinking of, going right to the book he needed.
In 1939, Dawes invited Dr. Dwight Clark, the president of the Evanston Historical Society, to dinner. Clark was stunned to hear that Dawes wanted to bequeath his house to the society. Clark said the society was too small to pay the building’s upkeep. He suggested giving the deed to Northwestern University and allowing the society to use the building. Two years later, Dawes agreed.
The university announced the gift on April 22, 1942. Dawes and his wife, Caro, set up an endowment to pay for upkeep. He also gave his collection of historical documents, books and memorabilia to Northwestern. (Those papers, available for public inspection in NU’s library, include letters from Teddy Roosevelt, in which he tells Dawes: “What a trump you are!” and “You are just about the best fellow going.”)
Although Dawes had given his house to Northwestern, he and Caro were still living in it. Meanwhile, Clark grew worried about an escape clause in the document transferring the house to Northwestern. The clause opened up the possibility that the university could sell the house someday. Clark wrote letters to Northwestern officials and Dawes, seeking assurance that the Historical Society would be allowed to stay. Despite his pleas, the deed remained as it was.
In 1948, Northwestern Vice President Harry L. Wells gave a speech at the North Shore Hotel about the future of the Dawes house. “Countless citizens will visit this center,” Wells said, as Dawes sat in the audience. “We anticipate that this will be one of the rare retreats in this section of America … Northwestern University is happy to be custodian of this citadel of history.” Wells sounded confident about the building’s future, but as Clark’s correspondence shows, that future was far from certain.
ON APRIL 23, 1951, Dawes died of a heart attack as he was chatting with his wife in his home. Six years later, his wife died, and Northwestern renovated the house. In 1960, the Evanston Historical Society moved in, sharing the space for a while with the Evanston Junior League.
In many ways, the house has remained much as it was during Dawes’ life, with the family’s furniture on the first floor. Bronze busts, paintings and stuffed animal heads are everywhere. There are six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a Louis XVI-style parlor and eleven fireplaces. A sweeping staircase overlooks the great hall, a breathtakingly grandiose room that the Lookingglass Theatre recently used as the setting for a group portrait of its ensemble.
“It’s just an amazing house,” says Jenny Thompson, the History Center’s curator of education. “You get a sense of history that you don’t get from a book or a photograph.”
Like many historic buildings, the Dawes house does not meet today’s building codes. “For years and years and years, both the university and the Evanston History Center were putting money into the place,” Sunshine says. “Those expenditures were just the tip of the iceberg as far as what is needed.” Extensive structural work is needed, he says, as well as sprinklers and other safety features.
Fire Chief Berkowsky suggested that the house could open to the public under certain conditions: Limit the number of people on the first floor to 50. Install new exit signs and emergency lights. Allow only five people in the basement research area. Stop storing materials on the third floor or install sprinklers.
History Center officials are trying to meet those requirements so they can reopen the center. In the meantime, they’re holding programs at other locations. Even if the center does everything the fire chief wants, Sunshine says that’s just a temporary fix. And while he adds that Northwestern would be in its legal rights to sell the house, but it would have to use the proceeds to pay for the upkeep of Dawes’ historical collections. Sunshine hopes, however, that things won’t come to that. “It was given to us with certain obligations by a distinguished American,” he says.
Caroline Maxey of Lake Forest, one of Dawes’ last surviving grandchildren and a resident of the house during her two years at Roycemore School in Evanston, echoes those sentiments. In an interview Corrado’s group has posted on YouTube, the 86-year-old said her grandfather entrusted his home to Northwestern and that she hoped that trust would be honored.
Patrick Leary, an Evanston resident who is curator of Wilmette Historical Museum, says the challenges at the Dawes house are not unique to Evanston. “Historical house museums are in crisis and in decline all over America,” he says. These historic buildings are pricey to maintain and difficult to modernize, and they rarely attract return visitors. Leary warns Evanston History Center officials that they could end up in a situation where they remain in the Dawes house but find themselves “mortgaged” to an expensive property. “Be careful what you wish for,” he says.
During his life, Dawes was famous for his ability to cut through red tape. Not only did he speak his mind, he also had a talent for bringing together political opponents. He did not always succeed — that fruitless quest to change the U.S. Senate’s debating rules earned him comparisons to Don Quixote — but Dawes rarely failed to emphasize the need for practical solutions. He might indeed shout “Hell and Maria!” if he knew about the current controversy swirling around his house, but he would probably step in to work out a deal that makes sense for both Northwestern and the Evanston History Center.
In the last years of his life, Dawes spent more and more time in his home library, paging through history books. “There is still a lot of reading I want to do, and I expect I will put in the bulk of my remaining time in this room,” he told an interviewer. Commenting on his reputation for frank talk, Dawes said, “Now, I don’t think I am a profane man. I know that most of the time I am a mild ‘by golly’ sort of man and not at all a ‘Hell and Maria’ fellow.”
The visitor asked Dawes what advice he would give future generations. The former vice president replied: “God give us common sense!”
SIDEBAR: Sheppard’s Folly
Even in its current state, it’s easy to see why director Sam Mendes chose the Dawes home as the estate of Paul Newman’s gangster character in his 2002 film Road to Perdition. With large, round towers anchoring its south corners, the three-and-a-half-story house looks imposing when viewed from the south, but the long porch and windows on its lakefront side give it more of an inviting personality.
The building follows the Châteauesque style, which was popular in the 1880s and ’90s, borrowing elements of 16th century French châteaux.
“There is no better example of this unusual monumental style preserved on the North Shore,” noted the 1988 book An Architectural Album: Chicago’s North Shore, published by the Junior League of Evanston.
Dawes told a friend that the house should be preserved as an example of the sinful lifestyles once practiced by the upper class. He was probably being sarcastic, but there was some truth in his observation. As he noted, “Our home is one of the last in Evanston which is filled with the extravagant and unnecessary trappings with which, in their vanity, the well-to-do of this generation have often surrounded themselves.”
Before it was the Dawes house, some called it Sheppard’s Folly. The original owner, Robert D. Sheppard, dreamed of becoming Northwestern’s president, so he commissioned New York architect Henry Edwards-Ficken to design a house worthy of someone holding such a high post. Sheppard never did become president. A Methodist pastor who made millions in real estate, he taught history and political science at Northwestern, while serving as the university’s treasurer and business manager.
By the time Sheppard moved into the house around 1896, he was already in trouble for filling in Lake Michigan next to his lot. He claimed that he had the right to extend his property into the lake; the Illinois Attorney General and the courts disagreed. That was just the beginning of Sheppard’s problems. In 1903 Northwestern officials complained that Sheppard’s treasury reports did not “harmonize.” Sheppard resigned, but he carried on in a similar post at the Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1906, it became clear he’d been mixing college funds with his personal money.
To cover his debts, Sheppard signed the house over to Garrett, and in 1909, Dawes bought it for $75,000 — half its worth. In the years to come, Dawes’ work often took him away to Washington and Europe, but this was always home for him. On one of Dawes’ returns from Washington, a reporter stopped by, to find him puffing on a pipe, listening to birds in the trees and looking out toward Lake Michigan. “My, how peaceful it is here,” he said. “It’s good to be back home. Of all the spots in the world I’ve ever been in, I like Evanston the best.”
Dawes hosted many famous visitors at the house, including Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, England’s Prince Edward (who later became king), and Sweden’s Prince Gustav VI Adolf and Princess Louise (later king and queen). Dawes held concerts in a ballroom on the third floor, including the July 1915 premiere of Simon Buchhalter’s opera A Lovers’ Knot.
A self-taught musician, Dawes sat down at his piano in 1911 and came up with a catchy melody. For lack of a title, he called it “Melody in A Major.” Later, when he played it for violinist Francis MacMillan, Dawes remarked, “It’s just a tune that I got in my head, so I set it down. I never gave the thing a name. If you want it you can have it.” MacMillan began performing the piece and had it published as sheet music. In 1951, the same year Dawes died, singer Tommy Edwards had a hit with a version featuring lyrics by Carl Sigman called “It’s All in the Game.” The song has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Van Morrison, Isaac Hayes and Johnny Mathis.
After World War I, everyone called Dawes “General,” but he never claimed to be much of a soldier. Joining the Army at the age of 50 when America joined the war in Europe, Dawes was an old friend of Gen. John Pershing, who put him in charge of organizing supplies for the Army and eventually promoted him to brigadier general. Returning to Evanston in 1919, Dawes snapped at a reporter, “Don’t call me ‘General’! The war’s over. I’m not in the Army any more. I’m not a general.” Regardless of what he said, the title stuck.
Northwestern University and the Evanston History Center resolved their dispute, and the Dawes mansion reopened for public use.
Photo of Charles Gates Dawes, at top: Chicago Daily News, Chicago History Museum archives n077967