BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“When I was a little boy, my great-grandfather told me my roots in Illinois go as deep as the giant bur oak that graces the bluff overlooking Peoria.”
With a life intertwined with Illinois history, extensive expertise in historic preservation, a gift for creating beautiful houses and gardens, and the ability to give a great party, Todd Schwebel has proven already to be a valuable member of Governor Bruce Rauner’s Bicentennial Commission.
The Governor met recently with the 40 commissioners he has appointed (with another 11 added by other state officials) to discuss the far-reaching mission of the Illinois 2018 Bicentennial. As there are no funds in the state budget for this celebration, commissioners are committed to raising many millions of dollars to observe and promote the history, people, and communities in each of Illinois 102 counties.
It is a bipartisan, apolitical group. All contributions are fully tax-deductible as the Bicentennial operates under a 501(c)3 agreement with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. The Governor has called the Bicentennial a “way of working together to make our great state the best place to live in the country.”
Each Commissioner commits not only significant time but also key areas of expertise and contacts to ensure that the Bicentennial will be celebrated statewide and be a launching pad for future growth.
As founder of The Schwebel Company, Todd has been a national force for historic preservation and conservation, a designer with a true sense of place, and a champion of Illinois oaks. After the Stu Hirsch Orchestra finished entertaining 250 guests at his gala 40th birthday dinner dance, all were sent home with an Illinois bur oak sapling to plant in the city, suburbs, or country. Much to his delight (now “several” years later, as Schwebel will soon celebrate his 53d birthday), some have matured into good looking trees.
In addition to international projects and those across the country, his work in his home state has taken him from helping to save and preserve Howard Shaw’s Quadrangle Club at the University of Chicago to the development of Prairie Crossing (the conservation community in Grayslake) and to many significant residential architectural projects from Rockford to Lake Forest and Peoria. Best known in Chicago for his work with high-profile civic and social leaders, Schwebel resides in a beautifully restored 100-year-old landmark house in Hyde Park where he frequently hosts parties himself, often in aid of one of his nonprofit causes.
“Under the leadership of Stuart Layne, the wonderful Bicentennial executive director Governor Rauner appointed, we are working hard to reach all corners of the state, working with many groups, like The University of Illinois, The Illinois Humanities Council, and the Junior League, and hoping to engage many more. The Bicentennial’s mission is to support, create, and implement events and programs that celebrate all that is great in Illinois. The crowdsourcing money we hope to raise will fund Bicentennial grants in each of the 102 Illinois counties used for projects, which might be refurbishment of a library, the restoration of a historic building, a computer enhancement program at the local high schools, or whatever is a priority for that county.
“In a true bipartisan effort, many of us, including Illinois First Lady, Diana Rauner; State Representative Barbara Flynn Curry (D-Chicago); State Representative Tim Butler (R-Springfield); conservationist Jerry Adelmann; and civic leaders Vicky and George Ranney, Joe Gromacki, Louis Margaglione, and John Bryan, among others, have been focused on initiating this celebration for the last few years. An early manifestation of our efforts was designating the restoration of the Springfield Governor’s Mansion, a Bicentennial project.
“There are so many important things for our citizens to learn. For example, the first NAACP in the country was in Springfield, early women’s movement leaders like Betty Friedan came from Peoria, and the historic role of the French was so significant and yet mostly forgotten. How many know about Fort des Chartres near Kaskaskia, the greatest colonial site in middle of the country? And we must never lose sight of our place as the world’s leading agricultural center: our combination of grain production in all its formats, equipment manufacturing/technology, and the commodity exchanges have not been replicated anywhere else. If we focus on maintaining this lead on a global scale in the agricultural area, we can better Illinois’ economic future.
“The Illinois Bicentennial is a marvelous opportunity to turn around many of the current negative narratives about Illinois and determine how we begin to thrive for the next 200 years.”
The Bicentennial will have its soft launch in August 2017 with many wonderful surprises for everyone, and culminate in a Gala Celebration at the United Center on December 3, 2018, the 200th anniversary of the date Illinois was admitted to the Union.
Other Chicago commissioners include former mayor Richard M. Daley; team owners Jerry Reinsdorf, Tom Ricketts, and Rocky Wirtz; business leaders Richard Edelman, Oscar Munoz and Jim Kinney; and community leaders such as Gloria Castillo and Shirley Madigan.
From “Lincoln to Obama,” and everything in between, has already become the frequent shorthand for the celebration.
The Bicentennial Commission couldn’t have found anyone with prouder or deeper Illinois roots—those on his father’s side of the family go back further than Abe’s. An eighth-generation Illinoisan, Schwebel loves the study of early state history, when the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were our superhighways, and Illinois was an international destination of great heroes such as George Washington’s best friend, the Marquis de Lafayette.
“I often imagine how exciting the times were when my first Illinois ancestor, Foster Millenton Reynolds, arrived in antebellum Illinois from Virginia in the late 18th century. Foster’s great-great-grandfather, Christopher, was the first Reynolds in the New World. He landed in Jamestown in 1622, and served in the House of Burgesses. Foster received a Spanish land grant for property in Missouri but decided to come back across the Mississippi River to ‘civilized’ Illinois and the area called Little Egypt at the time (or the land of milk and honey, after the phrase in the Bible), as it was so desirable for growing cotton and tobacco. All the crops went down the Mississippi River on flat boats to be sold in New Orleans. On one such trip in 1842, his son Millenton David Reynolds, my fourth great-grandfather, was ambushed and killed by river pirates!
“At the time, that area was on the cutting edge of international politics because the rivers controlled North America. When the Marquis de Lafayette sailed down the Ohio River on his farewell tour of our country, he was hosted by a prominent member of the family, John Reynolds, the fourth governor of Illinois. Later, he led the militia on the battlefield during the Black Hawk Wars of 1832. While in office, he also signed the land grant for Harlowarden, the Higinbotham’s beautiful estate near Joliet, which is still in their family almost 200 years later. A slightly latter-day ancestor, the capitalist Joseph van Cloostere, was a founder of a The First National Bank in Murphyboro in 1889. I always like to remind certain friends from another Old Chicago family that it was the same year as the founding of the Northern Trust. Louis Tiffany did the windows for our family mausoleum standing in St. Andrew’s Cemetery in Murphysboro.”
It was on his mother Marjorie’s side that his first relatives pioneered the Peoria area not so long after statehood. Peoria was a major city, first for the Indians and then for the French, long before Chicago because of its felicitous location on the Illinois River where the river dramatically opens into a stunning large lake. In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it “the most beautiful drive in the world” after motoring up Grand View Drive overlooking the panoramic view onto Peoria Lake.
They joined other relatives from Alsace-Lorraine, already in the beer business there, and have developed property, mined sand and gravel, farmed large grain spreads, and raised pure-bred Black Angus cattle for generations since. An Illinois Centennial Farm still in the family (and blessed with an ancient bur oak picnic grove, likely planted by the Indians) was purchased by Todd’s great-grandmother, Anna Geier Willy, remarkably as a young single woman, before she married at the dawn of the last century. Exceptional women seem to hail from the area: Lydia Moss Bradley not only founded Bradley University in Peoria, but she was the first woman in the United States to sit on a National Bank board starting in 1875.
“The Peoria Women’s Club is the oldest such club in the country with its own dedicated building. Peoria was the whiskey capital of the country with more distilleries than any other city until The Whiskey Trust was broken in 1895. And of course there was all the big deal manufacturing: from Duryea who produced America’s first gasoline-powered autos to ‘Big Yellow’ Caterpillar. And there’s that phrase ‘how will it play in Peoria’—at one point it was at the crossroads of the country, with Vaudeville shows vying for top billings and openings in Peoria.
“Our family house on High Street, next to the 400-year-old giant bur oak, is built on a site first documented in the 17th century because it’s the place where the French explorers and the Indians pow-wowed under the oak. We built a Jens Jensen-style council ring in their honor on the bluffside overlooking the city.”
“While the house was in danger of demolition when we took it on, today it is a lovingly restored Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation (CILF) designated landmark property resplendent throughout with hand-blocked William Morris wallpaper and furnished with late-19th century American antiques. The house looks onto a large formal rose garden that I also designed for my parents. My retired CEO father, Richard, was an avid rosarian. While he was alive, we had gorgeous hybrid tea roses, including some our family friend, the late Peggy Carr, gifted him for the garden. Commanding the bluff, the whole place is backdropped by the ancient giant bur oak and is surrounded by acres of private woods miraculously located in the center of downtown Peoria. It’s an amazing property!
“Look for one of our carved oak dining room chairs made by A.H. Davenport (famous for furnishing Glessner House) on permanent display in the American galleries at the Art Institute. Another treasure is the library partner’s desk, one of only four designed by Stanford White and made for his robber baron clients by A.H. Davenport.”
Whether it’s a Gilded Age petit chateau built for Sir Lomer Gouin, the premier of Québec, in Murray Bay (where he has summered for many years); a belle époque apartment in Paris; a modernist Harry Weese Chicago townhouse; or an important Washington family-owned Virginia estate bearing a marble mantelpiece gifted by LaFayette, Schwebel wants his projects to represent not only the owners but also resonate with the property’s location geographically and historically.
“I want first to learn the vernacular of the place—what is different there, what is special—and bring that out; extrapolate from there and be true to the unique architectural vocabulary of the project while enhancing the connections between the inside and the outside. The gardens, terraces, and porches are always critical components of my work.
“Whether we’re rehabilitating an old family house designed by Howard Shaw in Winnetka or building a new master bedroom wing and kitchen addition on a historic house in Virginia, our goal is to always have our work be ‘at one’ with the client’s contemporary living needs while respecting the original architecture of the house and its site. This organic layered sense of authenticity is so important to my work. It’s how we achieve a deep sense of place for our clients. It’s the ‘couture’ business in other words. We’re not for everybody—this work is generally expensive and time-consuming, but at the end of the day each client receives a unique and timeless product brought up-to-date with all the modern conveniences. One client needlepointed a pillow that says: ‘It’s a joy to wake up in a work of art every day!’”
Being a Bicentennial Commissioner is only one of his many civic commitments, with the Old Masters Society of the Art Institute, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Facets Film Center, Openlands, and the Illinois Society of Colonial Wars among the organizations where Todd has taken on major board roles, chairing events and captaining tables for more than 25 years. Very quietly, through the Jeffrey A. Schwebel Memorial Foundation, his family helps take the lead in sending more than 450 children with cancer to the COSI Camp each summer at Lake Geneva that is run in affiliation with Lurie Children’s Hospital.
Appointed by Alice Hayes, Howard Shaw’s granddaughter, he followed her in serving as President of the Howard van Doren Shaw Society, an architect he greatly admires and with whom he shares a deep commitment to civic engagement and the creation of an enduring sense of place through their work. Todd has restored many of his houses.
Schwebel has co-chaired the Designer’s Committee and served on the Opening Night Committee for the gold standard Winter Antiques Show in New York for years and also served on that city’s Lennox Hill Hospital Committee, thus appearing in Bill Cunningham’s former New York Times column with some regularity for a Chicagoan.
For balance, he is an avid runner, yoga practitioner, and a hands-on gardener.
Although many of the concepts to celebrate the Bicentennial are slated to be announced in August, Schwebel was excited to share with Classic Chicago readers one of his own ideas (one that Governor Rauner has already personally expressed enthusiasm for) being penciled in to carry forward the amazingly popular preponderance of cows around the city many years ago:
“Working with the Daniel Chester French Lincoln statue in the Art Institute’s collection, we hope to model it for an inexpensive, life-sized poly Lincoln, like the Chicago Cows. Continuing to partner with the Art Institute and other arts organizations across the state, we will pair donors with artists who will paint each Lincoln for display and the donor’s use during 2018.
“At the end of celebration the Lincolns will be auctioned off, just like the cows were, but this time to help fund Bicentennial legacy projects. Imagine one in front of every museum, historic site, and government building, not to mention on university, school, or corporate campuses all over the state. And a Lincoln greeting all who arrive at the end of each bridge when they cross into Illinois. Heck, I can see one on the grounds at Buckingham Palace and The White House. Lincoln is our state’s biggest brand, and it’s time to celebrate Illinois around the world!”
For further information on the Illinois Bicentennial, visit www2.illinois.gov/sites/illinois200.
To learn more about The Schwebel Company, visit www.theschwebelcompany.com.
Bill Cunningham, Patrick McMullan, Peter Taft, Keith Cotton, Collection of Todd Schwebel, and The Schwebel Company