By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
The spring of 1901 found the grounds of Fernwood Villa chilly and damp — warmth was slow to come after another of Chicago’s cold winters. Although daylight lengthens by May, the month is notorious as the winds often shift off the lake and temperatures suddenly fall. Yet Maria Scammon was content, sitting with friends in the parlor of her lovely cottage on a shady lawn as the late afternoon light fell. Two days earlier this handsome woman donated a large parcel of her beloved land to the young university, and their purchase of the remainder of the property meant she could live out her life in comfort.
It was said Mrs. Scammon had a remarkable social gift, and her fireside was always at the center of an attractive group. No doubt that Sunday afternoon friends gathered as always, but she was like the spring winds and did something unexpected to those surrounding her. Maria became quiet, sank back into her parlor chair, and died.
For decades Fernwood Villa was the beloved home of Maria and Jonathan Young Scammon; he was for a time one of the richest men in America. Scammon came to the fledgling city of Chicago at the age of 23, arriving in 1835. It was a year that witnessed the last war dance of the Potawatomie Indians, as they gathered in the city to receive their final annuities before relocating westward. From the time when the population numbered only 1,500, Scammon began to prosper. He was a lawyer by trade and a partner of the venerable Norman Judd, a successful banker and friend to Abraham Lincoln. It was rumored that Scammon was active in the Underground Railroad, offering sanctuary to escaping slaves in the years before his friend won the presidency. The founder of the Swedenborgian Church and the Inter-Ocean newspaper, Scammon offered Robert Lincoln employment with his law firm the summer that he and Mary Todd Lincoln stayed at the Hyde Park House following the assassination of her husband. And long before the University of Chicago was founded, Scammon donated funds for the structure of the first Chicago University.
When Scammon married the widow Maria Sheldon Wright in December 1867, it was an affair noted in the society pages. The bridegroom was one of the city’s most prominent citizens and the bride dressed her part, appearing in church in a rich lavender silk dress. She had assets of her own, including a wooded stretch of twenty acres some eight miles south of the city. Called Fernwood Villa, the property fronted directly on the Midway Plaisance between Woodlawn and Madison, now Dorchester, avenues. Three years after the nuptials, Scammon commissioned Horace William Shaler Cleveland to develop a landscape plan for this property, on which stood only a small gardener’s cottage.
Cleveland’s natural plan for the terrain included groves of trees, vegetable gardens, a laundry yard and croquet grounds. Cleveland (1814–1900) was an important force in landscape architecture, although the work of Frederick Law Olmsted often overshadowed his. Cleveland was a skilled and practical designer, but also a visionary known for his writing on landscape design. The development of his organic aesthetic was related to ideas about landscape that were explored in literature of the time. Henry Wadsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson influenced Cleveland’s thinking; Emerson in particular maintained that the landscape should be true to the place in which it was located.
Cleveland was also a pioneering critic in the subject of city planning and advocated a departure from the rectangular system of planning that dominated the landscape. Within Chicago are hundreds of miles of streets that run due north-south and east-west, intersected by a few diagonal streets that follow old country roads and Indian trails. “No fact is better established,” wrote Cleveland is his book “Landscape Architecture, as Applied to the Wants of the West,” “than the necessity of sunlight to the highest degree of animal health.” Urban houses planned under the rigid grid system did not allow for an abundance of sunlight to permeate the structure. “But every house on the south side of a street running east and west must have its front rooms, which are generally its living rooms, entirely secluded from the sun during the Winter, and for most of the day during the Summer. This fact, coupled with that of the indoor life of American, and particularly Western, women, is enough to account for a very large share of the nervous debility, which so generally prevails.”
Cleveland saw Chicago as a vast collection of square blocks, with roads “whose weary lengths become fearfully monotonous to one who is under frequent necessity of traversing them.” He questioned the city’s layout and was concerned with how streets could be best adapted to the natural terrain, thus economizing the cost of construction and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by nature.
Cleveland came to Chicago in 1869 two years before the Chicago Fire destroyed the center of the city. The Scammons left the ruins of their Terrace Row house at 209 Michigan Avenue to make Fernwood their permanent residence, where their cottage slowly grew into a country house with a number of additions over the years. Whether Cleveland’s lush plan was ever fully conceived is doubtful for Scammon had invested large sums of money in development projects prior to the fire. In order to rebuild his holdings after the destruction, Scammon borrowed heavily in amounts to be repaid in gold. The panic of 1873 and a subsequent fire in 1874 were financially devastating. Scammon staggered under immense debt until his death in March 1890. “The man who commanded millions and gave away many thousands,” a friend commented to the Tribune, “told me that at this time he knew not where he could raise $5.”
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When the Scammon family first moved to Fernwood it was described as like going into a wilderness. However, the rectangular streetscape that Cleveland denounced slowly filled in around the property, and by the time of Scammon’s death Fernwood had increased in value enough to provide for the needs of his widow.
On May 4, 1901, Mrs. Scammon deeded the tract to the University of Chicago to serve as the site of the Laboratory Schools’ Blaine Hall. In return the university paid half of its financial value to her. She decreed that the Scammon Garden should always remain an open space for the students, for school gardening, and as a location of outdoor play. Two bronze tablets later installed at the school read:
This Enclosure Is Named in Memory of
A Public Spirited Citizen of Chicago
And a Liberal Friend of Education
JONATHAN YOUNG SCAMMON
And in recognition of the Generosity
Of His Widow
MARIA SHELDON SCAMMON
Just two days after her donation was finalized, Mrs. Scammon died in the parlor of her home at 5810 Kenwood Avenue. As for Cleveland, who had planned the magnificent grounds — his wife suffered poor health, his books and records were destroyed in the Chicago Fire, he endured legal battles over his work for the South Parks, and his son died—all of which combined to make Chicago far less appealing than it once had been. In 1886, at the age of 72, Cleveland moved to Minneapolis, where he worked to create the city’s park and recreation system.
Over the passing years increased pressure for land has made the outdoor garden perhaps a bit less spacious than Mrs. Scammon intended as the Lab Schools continually expand. In that vein, an impressive new structure is rising and set to open in late 2015. Named for American photographer, musician, writer and film director Gordon Parks, the facility will support programs in theater, music and the visual arts. Parks first came to Chicago in 1929 at the young age of 17, and his experience of urban life for African Americans helped to shape his view of the world. An encounter with the wife of boxing champion Joe Louis in the early 1940s helped launch his photography career, and some of his most recognizable images were captured on the south side of Chicago.
Schoolchildren rush out to Scammon Garden to play doubtful knowing the legacy of the grounds, yet another history will soon be honored on the property once known as Fernwood.