Published By Abby Klionsky.
This article is presented as ongoing research into the history of the 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, and its original inhabitants.
A citizen, a businesswoman, a socialite, a mother, and a wife, Eleanor Robinson Countiss’s life has much to tell about life in Chicago during the first part of the 20th century.
Of the nine children born to John Kelly Robinson and Henrietta Barber, only five survived. Eleanor, whose twin died in infancy, was the youngest, born July 26, 1887. The daughter of Diamond Match Company executive (and patent-holder) John Kelly Robinson, and granddaughter of the company’s founder George Barber, Eleanor would become the heiress to a large fortune. Indeed, it was a special building fund set aside by her father that enabled Eleanor to commission the custom-built residence at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive in 1917, now the home of the museum.
Eleanor married Frederick Countiss (in 1910), president of the Chicago Stock Exchange, and later Lawrence Whiting (in 1925), president of the American Furniture Mart. While Frederick Countiss and Lawrence Whiting had formal titles to acknowledge their success in the Chicago business world, Eleanor was called “one of the most energetic business women in the Chicago social register” by The Shield of Phi Kappa Psi. Among her many ventures was the women’s department of the Boulevard Bridge Bank, which she managed. As such, Eleanor did everything from interior design to coordinate staff to pay customers’ bills and examine documents. Likewise, Eleanor was involved in the development of the American Furniture Mart.
The mansion at 1524 was Eleanor’s home from its completion until her early death, at age 43, on March 19/20, 1931. First and foremost, of course, the mansion was where Eleanor raised her four children, Frederick Jr. and Henrietta (children by Frederick) and Lawrence Jr. and Barbara (children by Lawrence.) With nearly 20 years between oldest and youngest, the two sets of children witnessed different phases of their mother’s life.
Modeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles, the mansion was more than just a home for Eleanor and her family. Undeniably a socialite in Chicago’s elite circles, and having attended finishing school in New York, Eleanor hosted lavish parties for and attended operas with Chicago’s most prominent citizens, including the Drakes, the McCormicks, the Mortons, and the Shedds. In accordance with this role, Eleanor was fashionable and well-dressed; the Chicago Historical Society featured her wardrobe in a costume retrospective in 1978, and many of her garments are collected by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Perhaps more important, however, was the mansion’s role as the home-base for many of the civic initiatives in which Eleanor participated and lead. American involvement in World War I was at its peak in the first few years that Eleanor and Frederick lived in the house, and Eleanor was active in the war effort. She was a talented organizer and effective fundraiser, and coordinated support for numerous patriotic charities. Eleanor served as a leader in the Chicago chapter of the Red Cross, coordinating a civilian ambulance service called the Red Cross Motorcorps, and likewise in the local chapter of the Navy League, for which she put together a newspaper to keep others abreast of developments.
It is the combination of these roles – not any one on its own – that make Eleanor the dynamic and interesting figure she was.
Abby Klionsky is currently Collections Intern – Permanent Collection, and Research Intern – Mansion History at the International Museum of Surgical Science.