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Cuneo Mansion

WHERE THE WOODBINE TWINES
Cuneo Museum and Gardens, Vernon Hills

getaway-chicago logoDesigned by Benjamin Marshall, architect of Chicago’s  Drake and Edgewater Beach Hotels and occupied in 1917 by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Insull, Hawthorne Farms, the palazzo now known as the Cuneo Museum and Gardens (www.cuneomuseum.org) in Vernon Hills, Illinois, is fascinating  and close by. Except for small portions of this 32 room mansion, little evidence of Sam and Gladys Insull remains however. cuneo1About 17 years after moving in, the Insulls retreated into exile in Paris and the vast Insull electric utilities empire lay in ruins, brought to its knees by leveraged deals, the Great Depression and the Roosevelt Administration’s determination to use Sam Insull as a whipping boy for everything wrong with the economy.

In 1937, Hawthorne Farms passed into the hands of John Cuneo, the enterprising owner of The Cuneo Press. Despite its grand seigneur appearance and atmosphere while occupied by the Insulls, Hawthorne Farms was a real farm, albeit a rich man’s avocation (profit optional). Unlike Insull’s interests in what electricity could do for farmers and what they could do for his bottom line, Cuneo made Hawthorne Farms into a money maker when he began to market dairy products with the Hawthorne-Mellody label. The Farm and its products were apparently a great success: many Chicagoans remember drinking Hawthorne-Mellody milk.

cuneo2Today’s Hawthorne Farms (The Cuneo Museum and Gardens) is much smaller than it was, but it’s still larger than many contemporary estates. Laid out by the indefatigable Jens Jensen, the Cuneo grounds today look more like a Poussin arcadia than a signature Jensen gurgling brook primitive. Replicas of classical sculpture and architecture (most in a state of advanced age) dot the grounds, giving it a theatrical atmosphere.

The poured concrete (a Roman concept) mansion is essentially the way the Cuneos left it. John Cuneo died in 1977 and Julia Cuneo died in 1990. It is furnished with reproduced Louis XIV, XV or XVI furniture and genuine pieces from the late Renaissance and Baroque periods. A substantial art collection focuses on thematic religious subjects along with ancestral portraits. It’s not the Uffizi or the Farnese Palace, but it’s impressive anyway. A surprising number of objects come from former Chicago estates and an excellent self-guided tour brochure by John Byrne answers many questions about where the Cuneo’s got this object or that.  

cuneo3Cuneo  is a pleasant place to spend several hours trying to figure out which tycoon to empathize with, Insull vs. Cuneo. Alan rooted for John Cuneo, while Neil thought Sam Insull more interesting.  The house is conceptually fascinating with it’s orientation around a classical Roman atrium. Originally the glass roof of the atrium opened, but during the Cuneo years it was sealed shut because of leakage. Neil, a former blacksmith, spotted what he thought might be ironwork by the legendary Sam Yellin of Philadelphia. Regrettably, nobody on the staff knew where these masterpieces of blacksmithing may have come from or who made them.

Unfortunately, little evidence of the Insull family remains. Neil seems to remember a guide saying the Ship’s Room is the only room largely intact from the Insull period. In a basement gallery dedicated to a visual survey of the Hawthorne-Mellody Farm operation, a case is devoted to photos and papers related to the Insulls. Along with  a lot of invaluable and informative material about the Cuneo dairy operation, the Insull papers and pictures help fill in some blanks about the original owner. An excellent source of information about Insull and his empire is The Merchant of Power by John F. Wasik. cuneo4

Who knows? Maybe Insull was the monster the Roosevelt Administration made him out to be. John F. Wasik’s book paints a more sympathetic picture of this young English immigrant, who for all practical purposes was the embodiment of the American Dream. Insull was an up-by-the-boot-straps kind of guy who built an empire on an invisible commodity, a commodity he convinced millions to subscribe to because it could make life easier. From electric lights to high speed transportation to labor saving appliances, Samuel Insull changed the lifestyles of millions, but ironically you can’t get to his and John Cuneo’s house by public transportation, despite Insull’s futuristic plans to make boondock towns like Libertyville into bedroom communities. Visitors have to (more rather than less) go by car.  From the Loop take I-90/94 to the Edens Expressway and continue on I94 to IL 60, then west to Milwaukee Road. Turn north on Milwaukee Road and about a mile on the left is the Cuneo Museum and Gardens. The entrance fee is about $8.00, a bargain. Cuneo isn’t a likely all day venue and finding someplace nice or interesting for lunch is a bit of a challenge. The Getaway Guys chose Lamb’s Farm, a place with an interesting history in its own right. cuneo5It was a little late in the day, so they had the place almost to themselves. The service was very attentive and the food, although basic, was good, plentiful and very reasonable in price. Lamb’s Farm is located at the intersection of I 94 and IL 176 and about 15 minutes from Cuneo.

“Where the Woodbine (honeysuckle) Twines” refers to a comment made by Insull about the whereabouts of his lost millions. Despite Federal investigations into and inquiries about Roaring Twenties millions that seemed to evaporate in almost every business sector, nobody really knew where all the dough went, including Insull’s. “Where the Woodbine Twines” is as good an explanation as the next.     July 2008

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