Architect Homes: Paul Starrett
Who knew the North Shore suburb of Kenilworth had a connection to the Empire State Building? Paul Starrett (1866-1957), a master builder with architectural training who forever shaped New York’s skyline, constructed this Classical Revival residence at 519 Warwick Road for his own family in 1896. Four years earlier he married Anna Therese Hinman in Wilmette. They had two daughters, Pauline and Therese, before Anna’s death in 1903 at the age of 32. By then the family was living in New Jersey due to Paul’s work there so one can only assume they lived in Kenilworth for a short time. Paul would go on to marry his deceased wife’s niece Elizabeth Root in 1920.
In 1889 industrialist Joseph Sears purchased 223 acres of Daniel Mahoney’s farm in Wilmette for $150,300 and formed the Kenilworth Company to execute what he called “his suburban dream.” He had four requirements for this tranquil escape from city noise and pollution: “Large lots, no alleys, high standards of construction, and sales to Caucasians only” (which also excluded Jews). Sears invited his in-laws and twenty personal acquaintances, mainly prominent Chicago bankers and businessmen, to buy property at sixty dollars (later the price went up to $250). It was a high price but all available lots sold within the year. The village was officially incorporated in 1896 after the population reached 300 residents.
From reading the book Kenilworth: First Fifty Years I suspect Paul Starrett came to this new suburb because his father-in-law Benjamin P. Hinman was an original resident, having built a now-demolished home at 241 Kenilworth Avenue. Hinman had lived in Hyde Park not far from the Starrett family. The book says the “loveliest of homes” in Kenilworth was Paul’s own, which he designed as a wedding gift for his new bride. He was also responsible for building other homes in the area like Daniel Burnham’s Root-Badger House (1896) at 326 Essex Road, a Neoclassical design on a double lot that was nearly demolished in 2004. The home was originally built for music publisher Frank Kimball Root, uncle of Paul’s second wife. In 1907 Starrett constructed a lakefront mansion at 219 Sheridan Road, which will soon be torn down (if it hasn’t been already) for new construction by H.O.Y.D. Builders.
Although born and raised in Kansas, in 1880 Paul Starrett moved with his family to the Chicago area, first settling in suburban Highland Park then the Kenwood neighborhood. Paul graduated from Lake Forest Academy in 1883 (his obituary claimed he dropped out of school and was a Texas cowboy). His mother Helen was an educator and suffragist, who founded the Kenwood Institute (located at 5001 Lake Park Avenue) in 1884. Nine years later she started Mrs. Starrett's Classical School for Girls, one of the city’s oldest and best-established private schools. It moved from Oak Park’s Scoville Mansion before finally settling at 4707 Vincennes Avenue in Chicago. A fire completely destroyed one of the school’s buildings but the institution survived until finally closing forever in 1941.
It’s worth noting that Paul was not the only one in his family who worked as a builder or architect. All five Starrett brothers as well as the husbands of the two Starrett sisters were “all in the business,” all making a name for themselves as pioneers in the exciting new engineering development known as the skyscraper. Paul’s older brother Theodore (1865-1917) was a site superintendent for Burnham & Root, then left to work as a contractor after learning the basic techniques of new steel-frame construction. With his brother’s connections, Paul got a job as a tracer and stenographer at Burnham & Root in 1888. Later he became a draftsman and superintendent on two buildings for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, specifically Machinery Hall and the Mines & Mining Building. He later recalled in his memoir that "Daniel Hudson Burnham was one of the handsomest men I ever saw. It was easy to see how he got commissions. His very bearing and looks were half the battle.”
Paul Starrett probably realized his talents weren’t in design but in building, a more lucrative business for people like his brother Theodore, who was vice-president for George A. Fuller, the largest U.S. construction company. In 1899 Theodore started his own contracting firm, the Thompson-Starrett Company in partnership with Henry Sofle Thompson. Their best-known project, the Woolworth Building, was the tallest skyscraper from 1913-1930 until Paul’s Empire State took the title. Just like with Burnham & Root, Theodore’s prior relationship with Fuller is probably how Paul got his foot in the door at the company (their younger brother William started there as an office boy and would go on to oversee construction of U.S. Army bases during World War I). Between 1900 and 1914, the Fuller Company erected over 600 buildings across the country. Under Paul’s leadership (he served as president from 1903-1922), many of the firm’s biggest projects took place including Penn Station, the Biltmore hotel, the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, the Plaza and Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building.
But let’s not forget about the brother-in-laws. In 1895 Paul’s younger sister Helen married William “Bill” Dinwiddie, a young civil engineer and architect from New Orleans, at James Scoville’s mansion in Oak Park. Lured away from government employment in Louisiana, Paul promised Bill a job as construction superintendent on a major project. The Fuller Company was erecting the new Chicago Tribune Building (1902) located at the SE corner of Madison and Dearborn (I took a photo of its demolition in 2001). After the Tribune Building job, Bill went to work as the vice president and general manager of his other brother-in-law’s firm (this time it was Theodore). Paul’s sister Katherine was married to Frederick Whitton, a Berkeley-based architect who designed a number of structures like the Exchange Block Building (1918) in San Francisco’s central business district as well as local hotels. He also worked for both Theodore and Paul’s firm; and even supervised Fuller’s construction of large commercial structures for the Japan Oil Company in Tokyo in 1920.
A two-page New York Sun article in 1918 declared “In the sphere of steel skeleton construction their surname (Starrett) means as much to the nation over as Edison’s name in the sphere of electromechanical invention.” It was the same year that one of Starrett brothers died, Goldwin (1874-1918), who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and worked for Daniel Burnham (I’m beginning to see a theme here). He then joined the family at their various businesses while also holding an engineering position with Vermont’s E. B. Ellis Granite Company, which provided the stone for Theodore’s Woolworth Building. In 1908 Goldwin set up his own architectural practice known as Starrett & van Vleck, which specialized in flagship department stores and hotels. Their most famous work include Bloomingdale’s and the Alqonquin Hotel in NYC. Goldwin was one of the 21.5 people worldwide who died during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.
It would make sense that Paul followed his brother Theodore’s footsteps (yet again) by starting his own company. After all, skyscrapers were big business as cities like Chicago and New York kept building taller and taller. In 1922 Paul founded Starrett Brothers Inc. with his brothers William (1877-1932) and Ralph (1868-1930) as well as Arthur J. Eken, an associate from George A. Fuller. For a fee of $500,000, Starrett demolished the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and erected the Empire State Building in its place in less than a year, putting it up at the rate of a story a day and completing the job in 1931 at $2 million under the original estimate. Starrett later wrote that he “suffered a rather severe nervous breakdown” and blamed William’s death at the age of 55 on overwork. His other brother Ralph, based in Winnetka, died of heart disease two years earlier. Paul’s company would be responsible for other well-known projects like the Lincoln Memorial and large NYC residential complexes (Parkchester in the Bronx, Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Starrett City in Brooklyn). A hundred years after Paul started the company, the real estate development and construction firm still exists today as the Starrett Corporation.