Openhouse - Schweikher House
At the end of a gravel driveway on an open field in Schaumburg, Illinois, an elongated wooden house sits hidden amid agrarian terrain. Solid yet intricate, the low-slung, one-story facade adds angular dimension to the rural farmland and an anchored extension to its wide, open skyline. Constructed by and for architect Paul Schweikher in the late 1930s, this pioneering assemblage of timber, glass, and brick embodied the concepts of mid-century modern design before such a term existed. Aside from its aesthetic influence, however, the modest home and drafting studio also introduced the voice of a prescient artist who would come to shape the landscape of residential architecture within the United States.
Paul Schweikher was a Colorado-based engineer who moved to the Midwest in the mid-1920s. Both he and his wife Dorothy had been interested in the arts for some time but had little creative experience, so when Dorothy began taking watercolor classes at theArt Institute of Chicago, Schweikher tagged along and worked his way into an architectural drafting course nearby. With an exceptional eye and a steady hand, he took to the medium quickly and found work at several architectural practices in the city. After building his portfolio, he applied to finish his studies at Yale and eventually graduated at the top of the architecture program, which, in turn, earned him a place at a small design fellowship in Europe. When he returned, he worked for a number of Chicago-based firms and officially struck out on his own in 1934. The following year, Schweikher entered a residential drawing competition held by General Electric and won the grand prize, gaining national notoriety for his burgeoning practice.
Having seen Schweikher’s newly publicized drawings, prominent farmer L.D. Kern commissioned the architect to redesign his family home in Schaumburg, some 25 miles northwest of the city. Kern was taken by Schweikher’s sense of scale and proportion, but what charmed him most was the designer’s equally novel and practical vision. When Schweikher visited Kern’s home to discuss the renovation, he put that vision to the test, proposing to transform the 100-year-old barn on the property into a 14-bedroom, six-bathroom mansion instead. Needless to say, Kern agreed, and once the project was completed, he gifted Schweikher seven-and-a-half acres of his own land as an expression of gratitude.
Searching for inspiration for the vacant plot, the Schweikhers embarked on a voyage to Japan the following summer. The couple had been intrigued by the concepts of traditional Nihon kenchiku design through-out Schweikher’s architectural studies and found solace in the organic materials and minimal yet distinct shapes of the time-honored aesthetic. In examining such compositions first hand, Schweikher was able to gain a newfound perspective, separate from the beaux arts style he had been exposed to at his alma mater and the traditionalist and neoapproaches in which he had been previously mentored. This gave way to a revelation within the architect’s work that would not only influence the configuration of his future residence but the impact of his practice thereafter.
Upon their journey home, Schweikher sketched the first drawing of the T-shaped house and began construction soon after. His vision was to fuse nuances of PrairieSchool, modernist, and Japanese vernacular architecture into a hybrid design style that the heartland had never seen. While this approach seemed contradictory in nature, he thought it would make its constitution all the more interesting. In this way, Schweikher chose to construct the home’s oblong frame using American-barn-style techniques and clad both the interior and exterior with rawCalifornia old-growth redwood panels, fresh off the saw. In doing so, he paid homage to his new village while enabling the geometry and materials to speak for themselves.
Furthering this blend of componentry, Schweikher incorporated dynamic arrangements of glass and masonry throughout the home to create a meeting point between the indoor and outdoor space. By integrating recurring stretches of vertical windows, glazed doors, and textural common brick in each room and outland area, the design-er was able to frame the surrounding acre-age like artwork and wash the open floor plan in the light of the Midwestern sun. Similarly, by choosing to alternate ceiling heights, utilize slight turns in brick- and woodwork, and include floating shelving and benches, he was able to differentiate each space using a series of visual cues rather than structural divides. Such avant-garde decisions lenta subtle complexity to Schweikher’s design and a palpable richness to the home.
While the minimal three-room structure was completed in the late 1930s, Schweik-her House went through a number of small yet significant additions in subsequent years.In the late 40s, Schweikher added on a bedroom for their son Paul Jr., and in the early50s, he adjoined a conference room, a guest bedroom, and a multi-functional outbuilding that would serve as both a garage and model shop. The home and family weren’t the only things to expand at this time, however, as Schweikher’s career began to gain momentum across the U.S.
After years of guest-lecturing, Schweikher was offered the position of Chairman of the Yale School of Architecture in 1953.Due to the distance between Schaumburg and New Haven, the family chose to relocate to Connecticut and leave Schweikher House in the hands of Martyl and Alexander Langsdorf, a couple they had previously met through the Chicago arts community.From Schweikher’s tenure at the ivy league institution, he followed consecutive opportunities farther afield and later retired in Sedona, Arizona. During this time, and after, the Langsdorfs remained the full-time stewards of Schweikher House, caring for the property until their passing. Now, the influential structure belongs to the Village of Schaumburg and has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.Photographed in Schaumburg, IL
Text by Kacie McGeary