Jimmy and I visited Francis Stuyvesant’s country estate, Mayslake, now devoted to “providing cultural and educational opportunities in a historic setting,” on a blistery cold day in March (remember, this fun and fascination coming to you from the Chicago area is where the spring equinox and the Julian calendar are rarely ever in synch) to see this product of America’s Gilded Age (1880-1920), now a National Historic Landmark.
I’m here to tell all and leave you to sort fact from fiction with my top ten favorite pictures (tough task whittling down all those images to just ten, especially given what you know of my predilection for digital decadence as of Monday’s post) surrounding this local legend.
If the Yale graduate wasn’t proud as a 24-year-old when he embarked in 1883 (with a partner) on the private retail venture he’d eventually call Peabody Coal Company, with $100 in start-up capital, a wagon, and two mules, certainly he knew he was on his way when he bought out his partner in the late 1880s.
At the time, he knew coal-burning fireplaces and furnaces were the chief source of heat for both private residences and public buildings. He knew too, that railroad and shipping industries relied heavily on the coal needed to power their steam engines. He obvioulsy knew he was in the right place at the right time!
With Peabody’s business savvy (his father, a well-to-do Chicago lawyer, had wanted Francis to follow in his footsteps and practice law), he continued to anticipate and adapt to the advent of electricity by establishing long-term contracts with electric companies across America to supply the coal needed to generate electricity.
The rest is history, as they say, but I do wonder what F.S. Peabody would think of the urban legend that often accompanies any mention of his tomb. I’m not convinced he’s resting in peace (well, maybe now, since his remains, and those of his son, were eventually moved to a more private location, Queen of Heavens Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois in 1992). Oops, maybe not so private now.
2. The Mayslake Estate
Life and Arts and Decoration).
Jimmy’s view of the real deal left him in seventh heaven throughout our visit; actually, he might have reached the ninth or tenth heaven (oh wait, they don't go that high, right?) given his architectural background.
When construction was completed in 1921 it was undoubtedly common knowledge, at least for guests and anybody who was somebody, that Mayslake looked a lot like the fifteenth-century manor house, Compton Wynyates, in Warwickshire, England. Lord Compton had close ties with Henry VIII, King of England.
I’m dropping a few names here to convey the depths to which Peabody and many of his counterparts with European roots would go to instill the necessary social standings their money could buy.
Today, Mayslake is one of the few known surviving homes designed by the noted Chicago architectural firm of Marshall & Fox. Marshall & Fox were credited with designing, at the time, 60 mansions and country homes for Chicago’s wealthy. Were it not for a group of concerned citizens, the passage of a referendum, and new owners, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, this battered and bruised historical piece of the past would have been razed in 1990, the 87 acres of land remaining of the original 848 just enough space to accommodate 130 new luxury homes. Thank you concerned citizens!
3. The Portiuncula Chapel
The entire Peabody estate was sold to Franciscan monks two years after Peabody’s demise for $450,000. What a bargain! Perhaps the second Mrs. Peabody (the first Mrs. Peabody, Mae Henderson, died in 1907 in Nice, France while traveling Europe) didn’t want to remain in a house named after Peabody’s first wife and daughter. Although the asking price of $1.25 million was probably a bit steep for most, I’m sure the circumstances surrounding the sale left any viable buyers a bit squeamish; which is where fact and fiction become a bit blurred.
As the story goes, in the dark of night, the curious as well as the greedy began showing up at Mayslake in search of Peabody's tomb; probably teens driven by boredom and a local legend that seemed to go as far back as the 1930s. Patriarch Peabody was, by all accounts at the time of his death, one of the richest men in the country. Surely he took some of his riches with him. It didn’t help that his beloved Mayslake began to fall into disrepair with all those monastic monks preoccupied with spiritual growth over the growth of the brush and the maintenance of the mansion.
It was reputed by those who made it out alive after their clandestine activities that the Franciscan monks living there for almost sixty years were quick to chase the interlopers, their black robes flowing, their white sneakers flying. I’m thinking Ichabod Crane without the horse but with the head. Long before the Blair Witch Project and the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland there was Mayslake’s monastic monks and one filthy rich millionaire bizarrely interred on his Oakbrook estate.
While legend suggests Peabody might have been buried in a glass casket, floating in oil used for preservation purposes, it is known that the Franciscan monks did have a glass casket with a body floating in it – a relic of St. Innocentius. It’s a shame Catholics don’t believe in cremation. Ashes leave so little to the imagination.
The legend also portends that those caught on the grounds by the agile Franciscan friars were forced to kneel on the hard stones behind the Portiuncula Chapel and pray in abject penitence as an alternative to intervention by local authorities before hours later they were escorted off the premises. It was all grist for the ghost of Peabody and the legend of the riches to be found in his tomb.
Today Mayslake’s Portiuncula Chapel (a replica of the Portiuncula Chapel in Assisi, Italy) has been relocated to its current location on the east side of the Mayslake Estate (Peabody’s body was found in the western portion of the grounds of his estate). Peabody’s remains, as well as those of his son’s Jack, were moved in 1992 to a non-descript location in Queen of Heavens Cemetery, as I mentioned earlier; the legend persists that Peabody is still buried on the Mayslake grounds. I love a good legend!
Today the chapel serves as a quaint Wedding Chapel for very intimate ceremonies (I counted 24 chairs in the chapel the day Jimmy and I were there). Mayslake Hall (during ownership by the Franciscan Monks, a large two-story wing for housing the monks and hosting retreats was added to the original structure; Mayslake Hall now refers to the original Mayslake structure) itself is a beautiful location for hosting a reception.
4. Mayslake's First Folio Stage
Since inception, First Folio’s Educational Outreach program has given over 250 performances of their touring shows for over 125,000 elementary, middle school and high school students in Illinois and Iowa. Their artist-in-residence program also offers aspiring enthusiasts a chance for in-house opportunities in theater productions.
In keeping with the legend surrounding Mayslake, First Folio presented an interactive Halloween experience at Mayslake during the month of October, 2011; it was a perfect civilized alternative to the usual cheesy Halloween haunts. Created by Chrissie Howorth, the Education Site Manager at Mayslake in 2011, her show was entitled, “Searching for Peabody’s Tomb,” which included a 30-minute tour of Mayslake Hall by the butler.
No butler for our less-than-spooky daytime tour of Mayslake Hall; the volunteer docent, Linda, was personable and knowledgeable, but she was not exactly butler material.
5. Mae’s Lake
Rumor has it a grief-stricken Peabody terrified by the prospect of being alone may have rushed into his second marriage two years after the sudden death of Mae in 1907. Stay tuned for more on that rumor.
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OMG! Today's post is becoming longer than Pinocchio's nose! If it's any consolation, I was getting terribly sleepy up all night writing this post; I can't imagine how you're holding up with the reading.
Tomorrow, I promise to provide the second installment/half of my top ten photos of F. S. Peabody's Mayslake. Like any good legend, I need to keep you on the edge of your seat.