METTAWA – The white noise of the present fades as you turn onto the winding road off North St. Mary’s Road in Mettawa.
Each bump – the crunch of dirt under your tires – slowly transports you back in time to the late 1930s. Finally, you turn around the final bend and the white, flat-roofed house of Adlai E. Stevenson II welcomes you home.
From the outside, the 6,000-plus- square-foot home is inauspicious and unassuming, but it hides the sprawling layout and edgy (for its time) design, featuring minimalist, art deco styles that placed the house on the cutting edge of architecture and style when it was built in 1938.
It was the private residence of former Illinois governor turned U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, his wife, Ellen, and their three children, Adlai III, Borden and John Fell. Today, it and the property upon which it sits belongs to the Lake County Forest Preserves and has been converted into a museum dedicated to Stevenson’s legacy.
“He’s a little more well-known in Illinois, but it’s still surprising the number of people who don’t know who he was now because of his popularity at the time,” said Nicole Stocker, museum educator with the Lake County Forest Preserves. “He’s not just a United States historical figure, he’s a world figure, which is really astounding.”
Stocker and her team of archivists are responsible for maintaining the property and its many artifacts in the private residence as well as the exhibit housed in its neighboring service building – once Stevenson’s garage and stables.
After Stevenson’s death in 1965, the family sold the property to close friends Jane and Edison Dick. Nine years later, the Dick family donated it to the forest preserves. The property had a variety of purposes after that – at one point it was leased to the Lake County Health Department. Finally, in 2000, the Forest Preserves received a grant and began steps to restore the home and grounds, converting it into the museum it is today.
“The family also worked with us and the caretaker’s family too – the Holland family,” Stocker said. “They supplied pictures and artifacts and different things. It took quite a few years to restore the house and grounds to how it would have been when he lived here. Restoring different landscape elements as well as the buildings. If you really think about it, though, the house is in really good shape for as old as it is.”
It took eight years to complete restorations, Stocker said, painstaking attention being paid to returning it as close as possible to the home Stevenson knew. His study is re-created, complete with his desk and the high-backed black leather chair he sat in as U.S. ambassador for the United Nations.
On Stevenson’s desk sit many artifacts he had placed there himself, including his Rolodex, a miniature bust of Abraham Lincoln and a family Bible dating to the mid-1800s. The Rolodex is of particular interest, containing the contact information for several notable historical figures, including Jackie Kennedy, Lauran Bacall, F. Scott Fitzgerald and The White House. Several of these prominent personalities visited and stayed at the Stevenson home as guests.
At one point, Stocker said, Stevenson welcomed then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in his study for a private 45-minute conversation.
“(Kennedy) was in Libertyville, coming back from Oregon after a primary and he stopped here because he wanted Stevenson’s support in his run for president,” Stocker said. “They supposedly met in here for 45 minutes alone, and we still don’t know entirely what was said, but Stevenson did not back him at that moment.”
Stevenson withheld his support at the time, waiting to see whether the Democratic Party would select him as its presidential candidate for a third time. He ran two campaigns – one in 1952 and a second in ’56 – against an “almost unbeatable” Dwight D. Eisenhower. A large component of his party, led in part by Eleanor Roosevelt, wanted him to run for a third time, but the nomination ultimately went to Kennedy, at which point Stevenson pledged his full support to Kennedy and campaigned on his behalf.
The remainder of the home is largely unfurnished, save for a modern dining table in the formal dining room, but the walls are adorned with enlarged black-and-white photographs of Stevenson’s world tour after his unsuccessful presidential bid in ’52. Hired by “Look” magazine, Stevenson traveled – by plane, boat, car, camel and helicopter – to 30 countries in five months.
“It was a pretty significant trip and it’s not really discussed, but he went to places in Asia, in Europe, and also in the Middle East,” Stocker said. “Once different countries heard that he was going to be visiting – because the goal of the trip was to get to know local people just to see what the social and economic conditions were in those countries – and once they heard that he was coming, he got invited to meet with pretty much every single leader of every country he was going to and … he was greeted by a huge number of fans almost everywhere he went.”
The photos were part of a private collection taken and compiled by one of Stevenson’s assistants, who accompanied him on the trip. For decades, Stocker said, they sat in photo albums. Now they are placed throughout the house – both upstairs and down – in practically every room, accompanied by quotes that share Stevenson’s experiences with museum guests.
The exhibit area housed in the converted stables and garage is open daily until sunset and is free for guests to visit. The touring season for the private residence launches May 17. The residence will be open to the public for tours from noon to 4 p.m.
“He was such a powerful and important figure in his time,” Stocker said. “His ideas and policies that he came up with and discussed over 50 years ago, they’re issues that still affect us today. … It’s one thing to read about it or see a panel about it, but then to come here and you’re actually in the space, it’s pretty neat.”