Ellen Newby and Lambert Ennis House


Susan S. Benjamin


Benjamin Historic Certifications


Chicago, Regional Spotlight
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The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929-1975, by Susan S. Benjamin and Michelangelo Sabatino, published by The Monacelli Press. Expected in August 2020.

Use code MODERN20 to receive 20% off pre-orders of the book through the Monacelli website.

Modern in the Middle Part Three:
Ellen Newby and Lambert Ennis House

The house William Deknatel designed for prominent Northwestern University English literature professor Lambert H. Ennis and his spouse, Ellen Newby Ennis, reflects Deknatel’s training at the Taliesin Fellowship. Deknatel—along with his spouse, Geraldine, John H. Howe, and Wesley Peters—was among the charter applicants for membership at Wright’s school when it was established in 1932. While in temporary quarters, he and his colleagues worked directly under Wright on construction of the Fellowship buildings.(1) This gave Deknatel hands-on experience with Wright before setting out to establish his own practice.

Deknatel was born in Chicago in 1907 at Hull House, a settlement house where his father was Jane Addams’s volunteer secretary-treasurer and his mother a kindergarten teacher. He graduated from Princeton University in 1929, leaving the following year for Paris to attend the École des Beaux-Arts. It was here that he met his spouse Geraldine Eager, an interior design student. The couple returned stateside in 1932, and after spending two years at the Taliesin Fellowship, they returned to Paris in 1934 for two years in André Lurçat’s office. In 1937, Deknatel settled in Chicago and opened his practice. During the 1940s and ’50s he designed a number of suburban houses that incorporated both Wrightian and International Style elements. Geraldine often served as interior designer. William Deknatel’s most prominent commission was for Celeste McVoy and Walter J. Kohler Jr., a member of the Kohler family whose company produced bathroom and kitchen fixtures and who served as Governor of Wisconsin from 1951–57. The modern estate house “Windway” in Kohler, Wisconsin was built in 1937–38 and reflects the collaboration with Geraldine for its interiors.(2) In 1939–1940, Deknatel designed Good Housekeeping’s “Better Living” House.(3)

The design of the Ennis House, which was completed in 1942, bears a strong family resemblance to the Libertyville house Wright designed for Kathryn and Lloyd Lewis two years earlier. These houses of Chicago common brick, wood, and glass both “break the box,” with interlocking volumes, several levels, and broad overhangs. But Deknatel designed a house that is distinctly different, suited to its suburban setting. Unlike the Lewis House, which stands adjacent to the Des Plaines River in a rural setting, the Ennis House faces the street in a small subdivision of the former estate of city planner Daniel H. Burnham, with a prominent garage and access from the front door to an office where Professor Ennis could meet with students without having them walk directly into the family living area. The backyard is strictly for family enjoyment, with French doors and bands of tall windows opening onto a raised stone terrace.

Light and fresh air are plentiful. As homage to Wright, Deknatel embedded red concrete squares in the sidewalk that leads to the front door. Accompanied by a photograph of the rear of the house and section drawings, an article on the windows of the Ennis House was featured in Windows in Modern Architecture.(4) Because they were hung to the outside face of the house, the outward-swinging casement windows could operate in pairs, each one of a pair closing on the other without need for any fixed vertical meeting rail. This allowed for two-window-wide clear openings.

Even though Wright’s influence on the design of the Ennis House was profound, the home’s openness, with walls of windows and glazed doors, is also characteristic of the International Style. Deknatel was influenced by his early professional experience in the office of André Lurçat, a French modernist architect who had been a founding member, along with Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, Adolf Loos, and architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM, International Congresses of Modern Architecture). Lurçat’s Hotel Nord-Sud in Corsica was shown in 1932 in the Modern Architecture: International Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.(5)

The Ennis House was published in the March 1947 issue of Architectural Forum in a story titled “Professor’s House Features Separate-Access Study for Students.”(6) It was also included in an exhibition catalogue on William Deknatel’s and Paul Schweikher’s architecture, Architecture in Context: Avant-Garde in Chicago’s Suburbs, published by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago. The publication accompanied a 1984 exhibition and lecture series at the Foundation’s headquarters in the historic Elsa Seipp and Albert F. Madlener House.(7) Lambert Ennis was a distinguished member of Northwestern’s faculty from 1936 until his death in 1954 at age 48. An authority on seventeenth-century English literature and nineteenth-century prose fiction, he was the author of Thackery: The Sentimental Cynic, published in 1950. The current owner, Barry Alberts, is a retired attorney and lecturer at the University of Chicago. He and his wife Susie have thoughtfully retained the integrity of the house.

  1. John Sergeant, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: Designs for Moderate Cost One-Family Homes, the Case for Organic Architecture (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1984), 199: Appendix E “Taliesin Memorabilia, Charter Applicants.”
  2. “William F. Deknatel, Architect: House for Walter J. Kohler Jr.,” Architectural Forum 71 no. 1 (July 1939), 50–53.
  3. Helen Koues, “Functional Modern at Its Best,” Good Housekeeping 110, no. 4 (April 1940): 138: in the Good Housekeeping’s “Better Living” House Studio section, Architecture, Building, & Furnishings, 137–38; now digitized through the Albert R. Mann Library, Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition and History (HEARTH), Ithaca, NY, Cornell University, October 30, 2018, dlxs2.library.cornell.edu.
  4. Geoffrey Baker and Bruno Funaro, “Windows Hung Outside Frame,” in Windows in Modern Architecture (New York: Architectural Book Publishing, 1948), 80–81.
  5. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, “André Lurçat: Hotel Nord-Sud, Calvi, Corsica, 1931” in The International Style (New York: Norton, 1966), 173, originally published in 1932 under the title The International Style: Architecture since 1922.
  6. Architectural Forum 86, no. 3 (March 1947): 84–86.
  7. John Zukowsky, ed., Architecture in Context: The Avant-Garde in Chicago’s Suburbs: Paul Schweikher and William Ferguson Deknatel (Chicago: The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and Art Institute of Chicago, 1984). Published in conjunction with an exhibition and lectures of the same title, organized by John Zukowsky, Curator of Architecture, with Betty Blum, Project Coordinator, 100 Chicago Architects 1920–1970, Oral and Video History Recording Project.

About the Author

Susan S. Benjamin is a noted historic preservationist and published architectural historian based in Chicago. Her office, Benjamin Historic Certifications, has initiated the landmarking of notable historic buildings of all periods, in Chicago as well as throughout Illinois. Benjamin lectures frequently on a wide variety of topics, from historic landscapes to Chicago's residential architecture of the nineteenth century to the present. She is coauthor, with architect Stuart Cohen, of two important books on historic residential architecture in Chicago: North Shore Chicago, Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs: 1890-1940 (2004) and Great Houses of Chicago: 1871-1921 (2008).

Modern in the Middle Part Four: the Brownson House