Friday, March 6, 2015

Americus B. Melville House
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Americus B. Melville House (1904) E. E. Roberts, architect / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Americus Bell Melville had a good law practice going in Huron, South Dakota. The New York born attorney had written and published a 587 page treatise in 1885 on Dakota Justices' civil and criminal court practice, was a member of the State Senate, and very busy. The ink dot that marked Huron on the Dakota Territory map had barely dried when Melville first arrived. The Chicago & North Western Railroad had bridged the James River in 1880, and the company decided to create a division headquarters on the river's west bank at Ragtown. But future C&NW president Marvin Hughitt apparently thought that as one of the nation's most prominent road lines Ragtown wouldn't do, so he changed the name to Huron. When the railroad arrived Ragtown was a tiny hamlet of 164 people, but in just 10 years the population increased 1,752% to just over 3,000 inhabitants, and Huron fought hard to be named the capital of South Dakota when the southern portion of the Dakota Territory achieved statehood in 1889. Melville had been there for all of the excitement but the times they were a changin', so he decided to pack up his family and head to Chicago.

  [Americus B. Melville House, 437 N. Kenilworth Avenue, Oak Park / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

By 1891 this former frontier town had become the nation's second largest city, and one of its fastest growing. The recent U.S. census had put Chicago's population just behind that of New York City - which consisted of just Manhattan Island back then - and it was predicted that the Midwestern metropolis would be in the top spot by the time heads were counted in 1900. Melville set up his office in the city's downtown business district and searched for a family home in the suburbs for his wife Belle and her twin 13-year-old daughters.

  [Americus B. Melville House, Frank Lloyd Wright - Prairie School of Architecture National Historic District / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

About 10 miles west of his office, Oak Park was home to a number of upper-middle-class businessmen who enjoyed the fresh air and tree lined streets of suburban life within an easy train commute to their city-based offices. The Melvilles purchased a recently completed home in the built-up northwestern section of the suburb on Chicago Avenue. Immediately next door, on the southeast corner of Chicago and Marion Street, stood the home of George Nordenholt who had built the Melville house as well as a number of other Oak Park and River Forest residential and commercial structures. Two houses over to the east stood the newly remolded home of Walter Gage which was next door to Walter's brother Thomas who lived one lot over from the Robert Parkers. Then, at the southeast corner of Chicago and Forest Avenue, sat the very unusual looking home of the architect Frank Wright.

  [Americus B. Melville House, Oak Park, Illinois / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1903 when A.B. and Belle decided to build a home for their recently married daughter Jessie, they chose nearby Superior Avenue neighbor Ezra Eben Roberts as their architect even though they were surrounded by the work of their notable Chicago Avenue neighbor Frank Wright. Wright had designed the Gale houses, the Parker, and a few more down Forest Avenue, making him quite celebrated for his unique approach to architecture as well as his lifestyle. Apparently the free-thinking architect pushed the boundaries a little too far for the Melville's taste. Roberts on the other hand may not have been as renowned as Wright, but he was very well known and highly regarded in Oak Park and by the early 1900s had designed more houses around town than his more conspicuous neighbor. Jessie and Henry Benton Howard's home would stand at the rear of a corner lot Melville had purchased at Chicago and Kenilworth Avenue east of Wright's home and studio. E.E. didn't have as identifiable a "style" as Frank, but by the time the Melvilles came calling Roberts had begun to integrate some Wrightian concepts into his own work. Soon after the Howard house was underway Roberts got to work on a new home for the Melvilles which would sit at the front end of the corner lot facing Kenilworth.

  [Americus B. Melville House / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Here Roberts left his ornate historical revivalism behind him and created a dwelling place that embraced the more simplified geometric shapes and and forms that Wright and other proponents of this new Midwestern style were incorporating into their domestic architecture. He even revamped the traditional Italianate bracket found under many an Oak Park eave and turned it into a less complicated, elongated version of its old self. Apparently the Melvilles were so happy with their large corner home that when they downsized a bit in 1916 and moved into the house next door, they called on Roberts to update the early 1880s-era structure. The Melvilles lived on Kenilworth until 1923 when after Belle's death the sixty-eight year old widower moved to Los Angeles, married a woman 33 years younger than himself, and then moved to Florida.

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