July 30, 2000 | By Mary Daniels, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
The four-story brick Italianate mansion sits on a corner of West Aldine Avenue like an architectural grande dame, still elegant and straight of spine, though the patina of age is obvious upon her. Her intriguingly outdated and ornate presence, with an ancient greenhouse jutting out to the east, seems to beg passersby to pause and ask what stories she can tell, what interesting people she's known, what parties she's seen.
A tall cast-iron fence held together by brackets surrounds the property. Later one learns it dates back to 1830 and is not original to the house but taken from an old church, a clue that the house itself is a rich mosaic of original parts, replacements, a few contemporary surprises, and more than one mystery.
A sweep of concrete stairs lead to 9-foot-tall solid wood doors. Above them stained-glass windows once sparkled, until they were stolen and replaced by an iron grate and a more sensitive burglar system, the current owner, Woody Slaymaker explains to a visitor.
He and his wife Fanji, wholesale art dealers, first saw the house while taking a stroll in the neighborhood in 1993.
They thought the house was "neat," went back the next day and spoke to the 96-year-old owner, Lenea Anderson, who had lived in the house most of her life, Slaymaker said. Anderson, who lived elsewhere at the time, sold them the house on the spot.
Slaymaker, an intense man with a deep passion and appreciation for architecture, the fine and decorative arts, archaeology and almost anything related, learned the 22-room house was built by Charles Magnus Netterstrom sometime between 1854 and 1893, when Netterstrom lost his wealth and the house. The house was subsequently sold. Netterstrom helped build several downtown Chicago buildings. At the time, the mansion stood on a large piece of property, with the family cemetery at the side of the house. Today, the property has been reduced to 3 acres.
The house-proud Slaymaker explains the house was modeled after the style of Italian villas. He is eager to point out some of its unique characteristics, for example, the tall, narrow windows in the front parlor, dressed with period-style heavy drapes that echo the low plush red Louis XV sofas and chairs in the room. A zebra mahogany Steinway piano from 1901 sits in the embrace of an alcove of windows.
He replaced the 150-year-old single pane glass in the front windows, though he kept all the original dark wood frames. His, he adds, is a historic home with all the conveniences of a modern home.
"The floors are what most people comment on the most," he says. When he first purchased the house, they were stained black. When they were sanded, "we were amazed to find a combination of parquet and marquetry," he says. Restoration revealed geometric designs in mahogany, golden oak and cherry throughout the house.
Slaymaker respected the original pre-Victorian layout of the house--a small front parlor, connected to a drawing room at the front. "The front parlor was reserved for an important guest, such as President Lincoln, who never came," he says sardonically. It was walled off from the drawing room for a time when rooms were rented to boarders. Slaymaker uncovered the original pocket doors between the two rooms.
Sam Netterstrom also owned Netterstrom and Sons Plaster Co., says Slaymaker, which accounts for the highly detailed crown moldings and ceiling rosettes in the parlor and foyer from which the hand-blown iridescent Murano glass chandeliers hang. The solid hardwood doors and trim throughout the house, says Slaymaker, cost a fortune at the time, but the Norwegian Netterstrom valued fine wood.
A particular standout is the curlicued plaster molding with an Islamic feeling in the archways of the foyer and front parlor, modeled after a Moorish design very popular in Italian villas in the 19th Century.
Another item of architectural curiosity in the parlor is a tall round stand with slatted sides, which looks like some exotic plant stand. It is actually a custom-made radiator, which still works well. The house was originally heated by seven marble fireplaces, all of which remain in good shape, says Slaymaker.
One fireplace, in a room in the rear of the house, originally a gentleman's smoking room and now the offices of Slaymaker Fine Art Ltd., has a mystery to it. It is placed beneath a beautiful stained-glass window. Where does the smoke go? asks Slaymaker. The flues go to the side, up and out--a rare arrangement, he adds.
One could spend hours examining just the eclectic mix of artwork in the parlor and drawing rooms. A 4-foot Ming vase, dating from 1480, sits in a corner, inches from a sleek Salvador Dali sculpture of Christ on the cross. A portrait of Fangji Slaymaker hangs over the fireplace. Dramatic porcelain bas reliefs by Slaymaker's late mother; Martha Slaymaker, dominate the back wall of the drawing room. All of it, from the marble fireplace from a house on the Left Bank of Paris that houses a television set, to the ogre kachinas and Native American fetishes in glass-front cabinets upstairs, are a pastiche of pieces collected over the years.
The juxtapositions continue throughout the house, up to the third floor, reached by a magnificent curving redwood staircase wiht mahogany balustrade.
One notices that the ceiling in the master bedroom--located front and center of the third floor--is low compared to the 13-foot ones on the floor below. Remember, it was a different time, says Slaymaker. "At Monticello, you had high, low, high, in the ceilings. No need for a high ceiling in a bedroom."
Right outside the door to the master bedroom are the clues to a mystery that Slaymaker detected by patterns in the parquet floor, where they ended and where the balustrades seemed to have been replaced. By knocking through a plaster wall in the hallway, he found the risers ro a staircase that continued upward into what must have once been a window's walk, the small room atop a house where women would wait and watch for their husband's ships to return from the sea, if they lived along a coast.
He believes lightning must have struck it and burned part of the top of the house, which was then rebuilt.
On this same floor are the home's other two bedrooms. The bedroom for the couple's first child, Martha, now 21 months old, lies directly across the hall from a room being refurbished for their expected second child. Slaymaker points out the bedroom doorknobs, which are Indian heads that he found while digging in the back yard.
The fourth floor is an unfurnished attic, with a giant round stained-glass window in abstract floral motif.
Perhaps the greatest curiosity in the house is the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Art Nouveau-style fresco in a room on the ground level. Darkened, partly faded, containing lead paint, but still glorious, it fills the walls top to bottom. Slaymaker uses the room to warehouse art for their business.
Why is the fresco there in a room where the ceilings are criss-crossed with rows of copper piping? It may be one of the final secrets a grand old lady like this will take to her grave.