Farwells 2: Becoming Pioneers of Utopia



Mary Eveline Smith Farwell.






By Megan McKinney


The Farwell brothers were not alone in their disenchantment with changes in the growing city. In January 1855, the Chicago and Milwaukee Railway began passenger service between Chicago and Waukegan, providing access to open land and pure air. Within months, a group of Chicago Presbyterians ventured out and, finding 2,000 pristine acres of wooded land on the lake 30 miles north of Chicago, they acquired the property and christened the village they would build Lake Forest.

Two years later, John and Charles Farwell each bought properties at public auction and became among the original shareholders in the Lake Forest Association, prefiguring a close relationship between the family and leadership in the community that would continue into a third century.

At the same time, early memories of the unspoiled Chicago to which John had moved as a 20-year-old were also drawing him to the YMCA.


xscan_20160909-22w10John’s idyllic mid-Chicago neighborhood.


He had been lonely as a young single man in the city, missing the warmth and spiritual reinforcement of his family on the farm. It was the bittersweet reminiscence of those days that attracted him to both Lake Forest and the embryonic Young Men’s Christian Association, established in 1858 by a group of reformers known as the Chicago Young Men’s Society for Religious Improvement.

John firmly believed “the Y” could assist young farm boys in adjusting to city life and, when he was able, he donated land on Madison Street between LaSalle and Clark Streets for the world’s first YMCA; he was also instrumental in funding the building itself, which would be constructed in 1867 and named Farwell Hall.


scan_20161009-5Mid-Chicago, 1858.

The land John V. Farwell donated for the site of the first Y.M.C.A. included his former house at 148 Madison St. (See white arrow in upper left corner of the above picture.)



The doomed first Farwell Hall.


The first Farwell Hall, designed by architect W.W. Boyington, was dedicated September 29, 1867. Sadly, the handsome marble-clad building was destroyed by fire on January 8, 1868, little more than three months later.

With the dry goods business well established, John had retired from active participation in John V. Farwell & Co. in 1864, leaving Charles to lead the firm while he devoted an increasing amount of time and attention to such concerns as the Y and visiting Civil War battlefields to “promote religious services.” After the war, he spent a year traveling in England with a fellow YMCA enthusiast, Methodist evangelist Dwight L. Moody, whom he supported with both funds and friendship throughout the charismatic minister’s career.



Dwight Moody, left rear, and John V., in the stovepipe hat, with a group of young boys from “The Sands,” the rough area north of the Chicago River and just east of the lake.


John contributed more than financial support and camaraderie to the culturally disadvantaged Moody, introducing him to members of Chicago’s social and business elite, as well as coaching him in proper dress and conduct to ease his way into their company.


scan_20160909-24Dwight L. Moody.

While in England with the Reverend Moody, John developed an interest in the domestic architecture he saw, and he was particularly taken with Portland cement as a building material. In1868, he imported Leonard Double, an English contractor, to supervise construction of an estate for himself and his family in Lake Forest. Resulting a year later was the first country house in the United States to be built of hand-poured concrete. Known as the “Broomstick House” because of straw-like material reinforcing the cement, it sat on eight acres of land with a lake view and was one of the most expensive houses in the privileged new community. It was described by contemporaries as “a turreted baronial castle, quaint and picturesque,” with a rich interior of black walnut and cherry.


scan_20160928-8The Broomstick House.


In addition to Abby, John’s daughter from his first marriage, his household with Emeret now included three boys, John V. Jr., Francis Cooley and Arthur Lincoln, as well as another girl, Fannie—all beneficiaries of a move that gave them welcome space in the pure country air.

Charles’ wife was in her own way as outstanding as her husband and brother-in-law. A Massachusetts native, the former Mary Eveline Smith had been tutored privately in the classics with the daughters of Williams College president Mark Hopkins. She had studied further at Young Ladies’ Institute in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, before traveling out to Chicago to become a teacher prior to her 1852 marriage to Charles. Coincidentally, while a student and then a teacher at the Institute, Mary had become acquainted with Marshall Field, who worked at a store in Pittsfield before his own move to Chicago.


scan_20160928-11Mary Farwell.


Three of Charles and Mary’s four children were girls, an incalculable benefit to North Shore co-education, at the time a new concept. Mary Farwell—in anticipating the educational needs of her daughters—founded Lake Forest College as a co-educational division of what was then known as Lake Forest University. She urged Charles to underwrite the renovation of the failing Lake Forest Hotel, transforming it into a facility with both dormitories and classrooms, and she convinced him to contribute other buildings and land to the college. In addition to her educational contributions in Lake Forest, Mary’s deep involvement in the community included presidency of the Lake Forest Village Improvement Society.

Although Charles and his family had begun spending summers in a rented Lake Forest property in 1860, he wouldn’t build his own house for another decade. His large Italianate villa, Fairlawn, was situated across Deerpath Road from the Gothic verticality of the house John had constructed the year before, and, like his brother, Charles ordered a massive greenhouse constructed on his property.



The original Fairlawn, destroyed by fire in 1920.


Charles’ house was less costly than John’s, and not as elaborate, but it included such amenities as an art gallery annex with skylit natural lighting. It also boasted a lake view and sumptuous grounds. It’s believed that Fairlawn’s park-like acreage was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who created New York’s Central Park, and with good reason. The grounds were immensely romantic; at the west of the house was Farwell Pond, a body of water large enough for languid afternoon rowing by straw boater and parasol-shaded Victorians. And, to the south, a pair of grape arbors beckoned for leisurely strolls beneath leafy vines.   

Although Charles has been referred to as “Cook County’s first political boss,” it was in a much kinder sense than we would now think of the phrase. His term as U.S. senator, 1887–1891, was rumored to be responsible for some Milwaukee trains during that period running non-stop between Lake Forest to Chicago, trimming the 80-minute trip down to slightly under an hour; this was a direct benefit to both the senator and his brother, as well as many commuters.

In addition to adjacent estates in Lake Forest, Charles and John each continued to maintain a residence in Chicago.


1-farwell-cb-house-1924-michigan-and-pearson-jpegThe Farwell houses on Pearson Street, across from the Water Tower, long before Topshop and Topman. Charles’ house is to the left and John’s to the right.


Again they were neighbors. Charles built a Queen Anne style mansion next door to that of his brother on Pearson Street, just east of Pine Street (now N. Michigan Avenue) and across from the Water Tower; both were designed in 1882 by the architectural firm Treat and Foltz.



A closer view of Charles’ house and a segment of John’s. The Charles Farwell stables and outbuildings are to the left rear of his house.


scan_20160921-2John’s Pearson Street town house close up . . .

scan_20160928-24. . . and John’s house in relation to the Water Tower and Pumping Station.

The modern plumbing, plate glass windows and steam heating system in Charles’ house were greatly admired by his peers, and his library housed one of the world’s finest collections of 16th century books. It was a magnificent setting for entertaining the dignitaries who visited there, including Generals Grant and Sheridan.


The Farwells of Lake Forest, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.


Next Sunday: Owning the Texas Panhandle

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl