Once fit for a captain of industry, Mayslake Hall has a mystique about it.
The 39-room mansion contains a hidden passageway, ornate carvings, marble floors, relatively plain servant quarters and a solid-stone massage table for the former man of the house: Chicago coal baron Francis Stuyvesant Peabody.
Mayslake Hall landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, shortly after the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County acquired what remained of the Peabody estate – 87 acres insulated from the subdivisions of Oak Brook.
After years of piecemeal repairs and donor-funded improvements, the forest preserve district has made significant strides in restoring the Tudor Revival-style mansion to its past splendor.
The medieval-looking portcullis at the front entrance was removed when the previous owner, a Franciscan order, converted Mayslake Hall into a religious retreat house. The heavy, grilled gate has been re-created for the arched doorway into the main hall, where Peabody’s larger-than-life portrait hangs above a painstakingly restored, hand-carved walnut staircase.
As part of a $6.4 million project, old stucco and decayed wood have been replaced on the facade. The slate roof was repaired with salvaged tiles to closely match the originals. All the mortar joints between the bricks and limestone have been replaced.
The district had windows and doors restored or reproduced. Crews are installing double-pane windows in the dining room, library and breakfast porch. Other materials are modern versions of what was used in Peabody’s time.
More than a century after his death, forest preserve officials are developing long-term plans for the use of the Peabody residence, an adjacent retreat wing built by the Franciscans in the 1950s and the surrounding property.
“There’s so many opportunities with the restoration of the outside to now turn our attention inside and think about how we can expand the use of the facility,” said Jessica Ortega, the district’s manager of strategic plans and initiatives.
The major challenge with using the structure now is accessibility, she said. There are a lot of stairs in Mayslake Hall. Some rooms have two steps to enter and three steps to leave through another door. Many rooms are still unfurnished.
“Currently, only a fraction of Mayslake Hall and the retreat wing are in use,” Ortega said.
The district has asked volunteers and others interested in the mansion’s history for their ideas on expanding programming. Mayslake traditionally has served as an education and cultural center, providing space for art exhibits, theatrical productions and lectures.
“I want to hear what the public has to say because this building was saved by the public,” said Keith McClow, the district’s heritage experience manager. “It would have been torn down when the Franciscans sold this property and this would have been a subdivision of big houses like you see all around it.”
Peabody made his fortune in coal and retreated to the countryside, as did many of his contemporaries, Chicago industrialists turned gentlemen farmers. Peabody commissioned architect Benjamin Marshall to design the showpiece of his estate, an 848-acre spread from what is now Ogden Avenue north to 31st Street.
Built between 1919 and 1921, the mansion resembled an English manor overlooking one of the man-made lakes on the grounds. While her husband had what historians call the “ultimate man cave” – a billiard room and a Turkish steam room – Mrs. Peabody had the best view in the house.
As legend has it, on the day he died in 1922, Peabody was riding horseback past the rear of the mansion and waved up to his wife, Mary, in her chambers.
“Then he made his way over the other side of the second lake and had a heart attack,” McClow said in Mary’s sun-drenched room. “This was the last place they saw each other.”
Behind an arched panel, a spiral staircase winds up to the sitting room in Peabody’s master suite. Inside the secret passage, a second staircase is hidden behind a false cabinet and leads down to the basement. It was said to offer Peabody a quick escape route in case of a coal miner revolt.
Peabody’s company became one of the nation’s largest coal producers.
“Security and safety is a theme of this house,” McClow said.
In 1924, Peabody’s heirs sold the estate to the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart for $450,000.
His family also built a replica Portiuncula chapel in his memory. The original is in Assisi, Italy, where St. Francis received the call to serve God in 1208.
‘A great balance’
Over time, the Franciscan order sold off sections of the estate. DuPage County voters agreed in 1992 to a $17.5 million tax increase to buy the remaining Mayslake property.
“At that time, past boards decided to stabilize the building, to obviously vacate the wildlife that had taken hold of that building,” DuPage Forest Preserve President Daniel Hebreard said.
The current board prioritized the exterior restoration on a list of master plan projects. The district also received a $750,000 state grant for the restoration effort.
The Mayslake project began in July 2022 to address water infiltration issues and improve drainage around the mansion. Crews also replaced windows that weren’t original with thermal-pane ones meant to blend into the edifice.
“I’m really proud to say that we did pick a great balance of historical components, ecologically friendly, environmentally friendly and better components,” Hebreard said.
Consultants recently assessed the interior of the mansion as well as the interior and exterior of the retreat wing, the chapel, a garage and the entrance gate.
According to a preliminary estimate, the structures need about $6.1 million in mechanical, electrical and plumbing work and other infrastructure repairs – not including costs to upgrade or modify Mayslake for any expanded programming.
The district will conduct an online survey to gather feedback on what visitors want. Officials will craft a plan with funding and phasing options.
“We want to continue to have book club discussions,” Hebreard said. “We want to continue to have photography. Weddings are an important part of it, too.”
McClow said a traditional English garden will grace the front of the mansion. Native plants will go in the back.
“We want to start talking about how this house fits into nature and how nature comes into this house,” he said.