Imagine gables roofs, dormers, oriel, French Provincial windows, black marble, wrought iron, cypress beams, gold plating and turreted outlines framing 355feet of Lac La Belle lake shore. Picture traveling through 30 rooms with seven fireplaces and 17 chandeliers in a time still suspended in the year 1928.
Now picture yourself owning incredible KNOLLWARD; the former summer home of Marjorie Montgomery Ward Baker, a monument paying tribute to an unsurpassed era of glamour, grace and style.
Marjorie Montgomery Ward Baker was the adopted daughter and only child of Aaron Montgomery and Betty Ward. Aaron Montgomery Ward was the founder of the nationally known mail order firm and first “wishbook.”
Commanding the east bank of Lac La Belle, the mansion is located at 800 N Lake Road, Oconomowoc. Known for its picturesque lakes and historical integrity, Oconomowoc captures the beauty of small town America combined with the sophistication of metropolitan Milwaukee just 30 miles east.
The story of Knollward is as fascinating as the house.
Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1844 in Chatham, New Jersey. When he was about nine years old, his father, Sylvester Ward, moved the family to Niles, Michigan, where Aaron attended public schools. He was one of a large family, which at that time was far from wealthy. When he was fourteen, he was apprenticed to a trade to help support the family. According to his brief memoirs, he first earned 25 cents per day at a cutting machine in a barrel stave factory and then stacking brick in a kiln at 30 cents a day.
Energy and ambition drove him to seek employment in the town of St. Joseph, a market for outlying fruit orchards, where he went to work in a shoe store. Being a fair salesman, within nine months he was engaged as a salesman in a general country store at six dollars per month plus board, a considerable salary at the time. He rose to become head clerk and general manager and remained at this store for three years. By the end of those three years, his salary was one hundred dollars a month plus his board. He left for a better job in a competing store, where he worked another two years. In this period, Ward learned retailing.
In 1865, Ward located in Chicago, worked for Case and a lamp house. He traveled for them, and sold goods on commission for a short time. Chicago was the center of the wholesale dry-goods trade.
In the 1860s Ward joined the leading dry-goods house, Field Palmer & Leiter, a forerunner of Marshall Field & Co. He worked for Field for two years and then joined the wholesale dry-goods business of Wills, Greg & Co. In tedious rounds of train trips to southern communities, hiring rigs at the local stables, driving out to the crossroads stores and listening to the complaints of the back-country proprietors and their rural customers, he conceived a new merchandising technique: direct mail sales to country people. It was a time when rural consumers longed for the comforts of the city, yet all too often were victimized by monopolists and overcharged by the costs of many middlemen required to bring manufactured products to the countryside. The quality of merchandise also was suspect and the hapless farmer had no recourse in a caveat emptor economy. Ward shaped a plan to buy goods at low cost for cash. By eliminating intermediaries, with their markups and commissions, and drastically cutting selling costs, he could sell goods to people, however remote, at appealing prices. He then invited them to send their orders by mail and delivered the purchases to their nearest railroad station. The only thing he lacked was capital.
After several false starts, including the destruction of his first inventory by the Great Chicago Fire, Ward started his business at his first offices at the corner of North Clark and Kedzie streets, with two partners and using $1,600 they had raised in capital. The first catalog in August 1872 consisted of an 8 by 12 in. single-sheet price list, showing 163 articles for sale with ordering instructions. Ward himself wrote the first catalog copy. His two partners left the following year, but he continued the struggling business and was joined by his future brother-in-law Richard Thorne.
In the first few years, the business was not well received by rural retailers, who considered Ward a threat and sometimes publicly burned his catalog. Despite the opposition, however, the business grew at a fast pace over the next several decades, fueled by demand primarily from rural customers who were attracted by the wide selection of items unavailable to them locally. Customers were also attracted by the innovative and unprecedented company policy of “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back”, which Ward began using in 1875. Although Ward turned the copy writing over to department heads, he continued poring over every detail in the catalog for accuracy. Ward himself became widely popular among residents of Chicago, championing the causes of the common folk over the wealthy, most notably in his successful fight to establish parkland along Lake Michigan.
In 1883, the company’s catalog, which became popularly known as the “Wish Book”, had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items.
In 1896, Ward acquired its first serious competition in the mail order business, when Richard Warren Sears introduced his first general catalog.
In 1900, Ward had total sales of $8.7 million, compared to $10 million for Sears, Roebuck and Co., and the two companies were to struggle for dominance for much of the 20th century. By 1904, the company had grown such that three million catalogs, weighing 4 pounds each, were mailed to customers.
In 1908, the company opened a building stretching along nearly 1/4 mile of the Chicago River, north of downtown Chicago. (The building, known as the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog House, served as the company headquarters until 1974, when the offices moved across the street to a new tower. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and a Chicago historic landmark in May 2000.)
At age 50, A. Montgomery Ward retired from the business a very wealthy man.
Seven years prior to his retirement, he came to Oconomowoc and purchased Colonel Durand’s three hundred acre horse breeding farm on the southwest corner of Lac La Belle, in what is know the Mary Lane area and he named it La Belle Knoll. For the next twenty years he carried on there an extensive horse breeding operation and sold many horses. He also hitched them to his elegant carriages and drove in numerous horse shows in the country, acquiring a great number of trophies and ribbons.
The Wards had no children, but in 1892 when Mrs. Ward’s sister died in childbirth, they went to Michigan and adopted her daughter, who became Marjorie Ward. As a small girl, she went along with her parents to the International Horse Show in London, where her father won the world champion trophy with his tallyho drag and team, a four horse hitch, winning over the King of England and the Czar of Russia.
Ward had a love for the city of Chicago and fought for the poor people’s access to Chicago’s lakefront. In 1906 he campaigned to preserve Grant Park as a public park. Ward twice sued the city of Chicago to force it to remove buildings and structures from Grant Park and to keep it from building new ones. Ward is known by some as the “watch dog of the lake front” for his preservationist efforts. As a result, the city has what is termed as the Montgomery Ward height restrictions on buildings and structures in Grant Park. (However, Crown Fountain and Jay Pritzker Pavilion were exempt from the height restriction because they were classified as works of art and not buildings or structures.) Ward is said to continue to rule and protect Grant Park from his grave.
In 1909, while the Wards were at their California winter home, the home on the La Belle Knoll estate burned to the ground, but the stables remained unharmed. Mr. Ward returned to Oconomowoc, but he never rebuilt a home there. Instead he rented a double suite at Draper Hall Hotel and each morning he bicycled out to the stables to watch the coachman working with the horses. In 1911, he drove a Modoc four cylinder touring car, which was sold by his company.
In late 1913 Ward broke his leg, and death soon followed. He died at the age of 69. Ward willed $20 million to his widow, Betty, and $2 million to his adopted daughter Marjorie.
In 1926, the Simmons property, with 700 feet of Lac La Belle frontage, came on the market. This land is where KNOLLWARD now stands. Mrs. Ward purchased it and had the existing buildings razed.
Mrs. Ward engaged architects and builders to erect the gracious mansion at a cost of $80,000 just before the country sunk into Depression. The elegant touches that such money bought are evident from the moment you set your eyes upon it. It was considered the finest example of French-Provincial Manor type architecture in the Midwest and still carries a reputation as a “Showplace of the Midwest”.
It took two years to build, and when it was finished, Mrs. Ward and Marjorie were in California. They returned to the Midwest, but before they got to Oconomowoc, Mrs. Ward died at their Chicago home. So, Marjorie came to live at Knollward, given the name of the family home on the other side of the lake, which had burned.
Marjorie, by all accounts, lived a fairy-tale life at the mansion. She filled the dream house with treasures such as 17 crystal chandeliers, walnut paneling in the salon, a marble bathroom, seven fireplaces (all real, emblazoned with the Ward coat of arms), Cyril Colnik wrought iron and gold plated telephones and faucets, a private telephone booth, fountains, garden frescoes and even a miniature marble tub for her dog. She imported students from the Chicago Art Institute to hand paint walls and even the ceiling of her bathroom.
The elder Wards did not give many parties, but Marjorie didn’t share her parent’s aversion to social whirl. She became famous for entertaining the glittering folk of Hollywood, kings and politicians. Her housewarming skills were memorable. She hired a nine piece band, minstrel singers, and a cabaret show. Chicago caterers served 200 guests on Crown Derby and Dresden china. Small tables were set up on the lantern-lit patio all around the grounds. And there were other parties, too. A Gypsy Party for one hundred and fifty guests had two bands, fortune tellers giving out favors, acrobats, and clowns. And then, of course, there were those affairs where guests were in formal attire and arrived at the front door in black limousines.
In 1932, Marjorie married Robert Baker, an Oconomowoc man whose family “made their money in coal.” The couple met in 1913, but all four of the couple’s parents disapproved of this match, so the courtship was a long one. They waited for the demise of all their parents before marrying, at which time they were both forty years old.
The Baker’s built an addition to Knollward, an elegant wing for the mister, including the master bedroom suite, library, curved halls, turrets, spiral staircase and his own front door. The Zebra Lounge, a party lounge complete with black and silver art deco-style fireplace was also added under the library along with a tunnel through which the butler replenished the liquor supply unobtrusively (during the Prohibition era.)
The Bakers spent time at Knollward, living most of the winter and spring in Chicago, until Marjorie’s death in 1959. Her will stipulated that her husband could use the mansion during his lifetime. Instead he moved to Chicago. He died, at age 85, in Bronxville, NY.
After he moved out the estate became property of the Montgomery Ward Foundation, which was offered to the Milwaukee Episcopal Archdiocese first, and then to the City of Oconomowoc as a library and civic center. The gift was valued at $300,000. Lutheran Homes of Oconomowoc was a willing recipient in 1961, as long as the home was used as a home for elderly people for 25 years. The Foundation’s gift included fund for construction of a new two story wing to match the original exterior, remodeling and decorating.
By the early 1990’s, government guidelines and restrictions caused Lutheran Home to build a new building, Shorehaven Tower, across the lake. It opened in 1996. Thus, Knollward was put up for sale and purchased in June 1997.
In 1997, with new owners and a vision to “get it back to what it was”, a complete renovation began to restore the integrity and bring the house into the modern century. The house needed a complete overhaul, including a new electrical system, new plumbing, new mechanicals, including the entire heating system and the addition of air conditioning. About 9,000 square feet of hardwood and marble floor also needed refinishing. Further, because it had last functioned as a retirement home and the graciously sized rooms had been subdivided to create more bedrooms, multiple wall partitions needed to be torn down.
A symbol of beauty in a bygone era, the existing owners also updated the kitchen and baths with modern facilities while maintaining the revel and character. The original detailed ironwork of the world famous Cyril Colnik remains, as do the fountains, urns, the original Montgomery Ward coats of arms, as well as many of the chandeliers, sconces, and marble floors.
Now in 2010, Knollward becomes available to a new family who will appreciate the splendor and history of this estate. Knollward, with its 30 some rooms (50 if you count baths and storage areas) encompasses 15,222 square feet, boosts 8 bedrooms, 10.5 bathrooms, 4.5 car garages located on 335 feet of sparkling frontage on Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc which offers exquisite lake views, crystal clear waters and gorgeous sunsets.
Today’s value is estimated at between 5.5 and 6.5 million
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