David Adler was born on January 3, 1882 at 175 Prospect Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Therese Hyman Adler and Issac David Adler, a successful wholesale maker of men’s clothing. David had one sister, Frances Adler Elkins, who became a noted 20th century interior decorator.
David attended public schools in Milwaukee until age 16, when he left to attend prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. He then attended Princeton University, graduating in 1904. After graduation he traveled and studied widely in Europe, including architectural studies in Berlin and Paris. Adler was not a star student. His academic career was undistinguished, and he did not obtain an advanced degree from any of the architecture schools he attended. Nevertheless, his innate talent, eye for detail, and acute visual memory proved more fundamental to achieving excellence in his field. Adler did develop a post card collection of all the European buildings he admired, and he would often refer to those models in creating elegant homes for his clients. He also acquired one lasting tangible benefit from his time in Paris – his partner and friend, Henry Dangler, who was a fellow student during Adler’s brief tenure.
Adler’s love affair with Europe, European architecture and decorative arts would continue throughout his life. On his many trips to Europe he would acquire architectural details, including marble fireplaces, entire wood parquet floors, cornices and art.
In 1911, Adler and Dangler both returned from Europe and went to work for the famous Chicago architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw. Shaw, 42 years of age and educated at Yale and MIT, was a residential architect of the “great house” period. Shaw also built many private residences in Lake Forest, which now stand as neighbors to Adler’s finest works.
Adler and Dangler were eager to set out on their own professionally, so within a year they opened up an office in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall at 220 South Michigan Avenue. Adler would maintain this office throughout his career. Dangler had taken all his studies at the Ecole seriously and had been awarded his diploma par le government francais and became a member of the Societe des architects diplomes par la gouvernment. Dangler also had obtained his Illinois architectural license. Adler did not have a professional license and thus Dangler’s name appeared on all the building plans issued by their office. Adler’s drawings, which are in large measure archived at the Art Institute of Chicago, were drawn on a 1:1 scale. This is highly unusual but underscore Adler’s interest in ornament and absolute perfection in getting the details right.
Adler’s first commission was for his Uncle Stonehill in Glencoe. It was a splendid house sited high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and clearly visible from Sheridan Road. Unfortunately, it was razed in 1962 to become the site for North Shore Congregation of Israel. It was Henry Dangler who introduced the young architect to his future wife, Katherine Keith, of Chicago. Katherine Keith was described by her friends as attractive and high-spirited. Katherine had attended Coulters School before going to the University of Chicago from which she graduated. They were married in 1916 and lived at 1240 N. State Parkway in Chicago. In 1917 they purchased their country house in Libertyville and led a very happy life until her untimely death in 1930 in a car accident in Europe. They had no children. Katherine was a writer and excellent horsewoman. One of Katherine’s written works, The Crystal Icicle, was published and is in the collection of the Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville. It is said that David Adler built the gazebo on his estate so that Katherine could sit by the river and pursue her writing in a very picturesque setting. This gazebo remained on the estate until the 1970’s when it was vandalized and burned.
A year after Adler’s marriage, Henry Dangler died. Adler not only lost a partner but a good friend as well. Besides his personal grief, he was faced with an unsettling professional problem. Despite years of highly visible and successful commissions, he had no professional license. Adler was thus forced to take on another partner, Robert Work. Lack of professional license did not stop him from being elected to the prestigious American Institute of Architects in 1926. Finally on April 9, 1929, David Adler became licensed as Illinois Registered Architect no. 2229. From that point on Adler’s plans bore Adler’s name only.
Although less than an expert on the technical requirements of his work, Adler spent long hours on the fine details of his designs. Adler designed all aspects of a house. He was meticulous and creative about landscaping, often using terraces to step down a site from a building on high to a dramatic view of Lake Michigan or another great body of water. On his European trips, he collected furnishings, decorative arts and paintings for clients and often designed rooms with architectural niches to conform to the specific measurements of those furnishings. An exception to this practice of designing all features of his residences is the great creative collaborations Adler did with his sister, Frances Elkins, an established interior decorator from Monterey, California. It was Frances who did many of the interior furnishings for the exquisite Kersey Coates Reed house.
Adler’s love of symmetry was well known. He often created doors that led nowhere just to achieve visual balance in a room. This is apparent in the beautiful facility for the Shore Acres Country Club in Lake Bluff. The success of this building, which was lovingly restored after a fire in 1982, comes from the fact that Adler treated it as a house, achieving a sense of familiarity and comfort often lacking in such institutional settings.
By far the most ambitious project in David Adler’s career was a home built in 1927 for Mr. and Mrs. Richard Crane Jr. in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The main residence contains 59 rooms and required an inside staff of 19 servants. The ballroom in this house seats 300 people. Adler also designed a battery of tenants’ houses, stables, garages and gatehouses for the estate, and was responsible for the selection of furniture and furnishings. The whole project took almost four years – 18 months for design, two years for construction. Castle Hill still stands and is now a public property used by the Castle Hill Foundation.
Adler’s most ambitious project in the Chicagoland area was the estate he designed just west of Lake Forest for the Lasker family. Adler created a magnificent estate including a swimming pool, theater and private golf course.
An intensely private man, Adler shunned the public spotlight. He did not market himself, or his work. Most of his commissions came as the result of referrals from satisfied clients and friends. He did not appear at public ceremonies in his honor, and he never took a commission from a client whose tastes he did not like.
In 1925, Adler was made a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago after recruitment by his client, friend and subsequent founder of The David Adler Music and Arts Center, William McCormick Blair. He served in this role with particular interests in drawings and decorative arts, until his death. In 1926 he was elected to the American Institute of Architects, and in 1945, the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
In 1930, after the death of his wife, David Adler gave up his Chicago townhouse and moved permanently to his Libertyville home. Adler laid Katherine to rest at his beloved Libertyville Country Estate. He designed an obelisk along the Des Plaines River and in the base interned Katherine’s ashes. The inscription on the obelisk read, ” In memory of Katherine Keith/wife of David Adler/born at Chicago on April 18, 1893/died at Evreux in France on May 25, 1930.
David Adler died September 27, 1949 at his Libertyville home as he was preparing to leave to visit his sister in Venice. He died peacefully in his sleep and is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago with his wife under an obelisk that he designed for her. In an oration at his funeral, his friend and client Alfred Hamill stated, “At the bottom of all this accomplishment lay great energy and pitiless self-criticism,” David Adler was never satisfied with what he had done or with what he was doing. He wanted always to do it better. Imagination was fortified by broad knowledge and craftsmanship. He was a traditionalist and loved intensely the finest of the past. He had an extraordinary grounding in these traditions. He followed them with infinite care but not slavishly. From his store of observation his genius was able to combine, rearrange, modify and in the end, to create something that was as definitely his own, as had his great predecessors. Adler houses were immediately recognizable. His art was a very clear challenge itself, but of undoubted benefit to American domestic architecture of which he was the most distinguished exponent of his period.
The David Adler Estate at 1700 North Milwaukee Avenue, Libertyville, Illinois was the residence of architect David Adler. He lived there in the 1864 farmhouse from 1918 until his death on September 27, 1949.
Although he continually made changes to his property, the major ones were made in 1926, 1934, and in 1941, during the property’s period of historic significance. In 1926 he built a garage; in 1934 he added a two-story section to the servants’ cottage, connecting it to the barn on the second floor. In 1941, he added a two-story section connecting the servant’s cottage to the remodeled farmhouse and moved a dining porch that he added to the house to the east end of the new addition. At the same time he remodeled the interior of the servants cottage, converting the servants bedrooms on the first floor to a pantry and kitchen. The house currently looks much as it did when Adler died in 1949. The estate is located on the east side of Milwaukee Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare that forms Libertyville’s main street. The house is approximately 20′ from the street, with the 1918 remodeled farmhouse, the servant’s cottage and the barn forming a “U” shape around a courtyard. The historic property is reported to have once included 240 acres and extended east to the Des Plaines River, as well as south on property now managed by the Libertyville Park & Recreation Department and north where a school is currently located. There are extensive remnants of the formally landscaped grounds to the east of the property that Adler first laid out in 1918. These extend to the edge of a road at the east end of the historic property and include formal gardens at the back of the house and allées that extend both east- west and north- south. Adler is known for his eclectic approach to the architecture of estate houses, and that is certainly reflected in his own home. The house is predominately Colonial Revival but has Classical Revival and French Renaissance Revival elements, as well as numerous signature design features.
Today, the historic property, nominated to the National Register of Historic Places on November 22, 1999, includes the home and 11 acres. The integrity of the David Adler Estate is excellent. All of the public spaces are intact, and the major historic features remain. In 1981, Adler’s grandnephew David Boyd donated a considerable amount of original furniture to the house. The property continues to reflect Adler’s eclectic approach to architecture, his great sensitivity to proportion and design and reflects the relationship of his home to the many others that he subsequently designed. Restoration could easily be documented from the availability of the multitude of original drawings and early photographs. Restoration of the house and grounds could even more clearly reflect the inherent beauty and significance of the residence that Adler called his home.
When Chicago architect David Adler died in 1949, he left a physical legacy, his 23-room farmhouse and 240-acre estate, to the Village of Libertyville. Visual artists began to use the house for exhibits, classes and meetings, founding the Libertyville Arts Center in 1957. In 1975, the Libertyville School of Folk and Old Time Music began sharing the house, and instituted a regular weekly open stage/jam session and a series of folk music classes.
Under the guidance of William McCormick Blair, President Emeritus of the Art Institute of Chicago and long-time neighbor and friend of Adler, The David Adler Music and Arts Center was founded in 1980. In 1983, The David Adler Music and Arts Center officially merged with the two organizations that regularly used its facilities.
From small beginnings, the Center grew at an ever-accelerating pace, its activities gradually embracing a broad range of cultural programs for children and adults including art and music classes and workshops, art exhibitions, concerts and participatory dances primarily focused on ethnic and folk music, outreach activity, folk life documentation, historic preservation, lectures, recitals, tours and arts advocacy. While most programs took place in and around The David Adler Music and Arts Center, many larger concert events began to be presented at the Libertyville High School studio theater, the Libertyville American Legion Hall, and eventually the College of Lake County. Further, the community has embraced the Center as an extraordinary resource, appreciated and commended for bringing prestige to Libertyville, and enhancing the lives of children and adults alike across Lake County and beyond.