With curiosity my middle name and serendipity my game, I talked Jimmy into driving by Peabody’s more modest Hinsdale home which still looks much as it did almost a hundred years ago. I can't vouch for the inside. If you knew anything about the wealthy Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, this fact would not appear bizarre whatsoever. We’re talking old money. Old money begets old homes and old mansions, family heirlooms passed down from one generation to the next; kind of like my family heirlooms.
After my mother’s death, my three siblings and I divvied up the two dozen or so watercolors my mother had painted in her later years. These were the most prized of her possessions. No mansions or millions to speak of in my family; but enough about me.
Restoration efforts to address the architectural and structural damage (students from the Art Institute in Chicago learning restoration techniques come in periodically to volunteer their time and expertise)have been and will continue to be ongoing for years. And yet the focus from the folks at Mayslake, as per our delightful tour guide Linda, is “providing cultural and educational opportunities in a historic setting.” I think Peabody would be very proud of his legacy at Mayslake. Weddings happen quite frequently in the Portiuncula Chapel built and dedicated to Peabody’s memory. The wedding receptions are held in the first floor of Mayslake; the dining room, library and breakfast area lend themselves well to such extravagant affairs.
Peabody would have undoubtedly enjoyed the “Best of the Best” Art Exhibit on display in the dining room the day Jimmy and I toured Mayslake given Peabody’s interest in photography. The exhibits included photographs, paintings, and sculptures, many from members of the Oakbrook Art League. Peabody was a rather renowned black and white photographer in his own right.
Peruse the Mayslake website for a full listing of the educational and cultural opportunities. I mentioned the award-winning First Folio Theater productions yesterday, but there is so much more: classes devoted to acting, photography, writing and painting; musical performances covering the gamut from a cappella to jazz to symphony; workshops and professional retreats for encouraging team building and exploration of new and existing skills. A native plant sale is scheduled for this weekend. Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Mayslake programs or with the DuPage Forest Preserve District. I just like what they've done with the place. I really liked what Ann Grill's Watercolor class (offer through Mayslake and the DuPage Forest Preserve District) did via this mosaic rendition of the cross atop Mayslake's Portiuncula Chapel.
Peabody was also a connoisseur of books. In the day, his extensive library included a private collection of over 200 books, manuscripts, letters and unpublished poems from Robert Louis Stevenson. That collection is now part of Peabody’s alma mater, Yale University.
Of all the rooms in this empty mansion, the library, with its rich English Oak bookshelves and beautiful stucco-duro ceilings evoked the greatest sense of loss for me; a room without books is like a body without a soul. Thanks for that insight, Cicero.
4. The Secret Staircase
On April 1, 1922, just months before Peabody’s death in August, Herrin, Illinois was the scene of one of the bloodiest riots (called the Herrin Massacre) involving striking coal miners. Twenty people died in that riot. That riot in Peabody’s back yard (well, actually Peabody’s 848 acres didn’t quite extend to the southern tip of Illinois where Herrin is located) was part of a nationwide strike by the United Mine Workers.
The times were a changing. Safety was undoubtedly on Peabody’s mind when he had Mayslake built to include a secret staircase (Peabody could access the staircase through a hidden panel in the wall of his upstairs library adjacent to his bedroom, or from a similar hidden panel in his private office adjacent to the foyer on the first floor directly below) for quick getaways.
Jimmy and I did get to see their separate bedrooms during our tour of Mayslake.
5. The History and the Mystery
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The Bottom Line on Mayslake Peabody Estate
Verdict: A resounding Yes! This estate is so much more than an aging albatross reminiscent of America’s Gilded Age. The DuPage County Forest Preserve District is my new hero. There is so much to see, to do, and to enjoy year round at this National Historic Landmark. The fact you get a little bit of the Peabody legend while you’re there just adds some panache to the package. Tweens might not be as keen about the mansion, but if you spice it up the history with a bit of the mystery, I bet they’d make it through the one-hour tour. Toddlers and probably teens; not a good idea.
How to Get There: It’s a 20 minute commute from the city of Chicago via the Congress Parkway and I-88. Exit I-88 on Route 83 heading south. Take the Oakbrook Road/31st Street exit and turn right heading west on 31st Street. The entrance to Mayslake will be on the left less than half a mile down 31st Street. The docent guided “Restoration in Progress Tours” are only available on Wednesdays (11 am and 12:30 pm) and Saturdays (9:30 am/10 am/11 am/11:30 am). There are no tours during the months of January and February.
Insider Information: This may seem silly, but I don’t want you to look silly (like Jimmy and I did) when you arrive for your guided tour and try to enter through the front door of Mayslake. That would be a no-go (maybe restoration efforts would be compromised). The brick-paved sidewalk at the front of mansion leads to two different doors. Don’t follow the sidewalk to the grand front door of Mayslake. Follow the sidewalk along the two-story retreat wing to a rather non-descript door to enter the premises, then take a left down the hall to make your way into Mayslake Hall proper where you can sign up for your tour. Tours are a very reasonable $5 per person.
Nearby Food: Nothing available on the estate grounds, but historic downtown Hinsdale offers everything from fast food to fine dining with a short 10-minute drive via Route 83 and Ogden Avenue. Jimmy and I had lunch at Cosi, a gourmet coffee bar sans sophisticated, eclectic café housed inside the original Burlington Train Station. More to come on Cosi in the next few days.