Albert Mussey Johnson Residence
Albert Mussey Johnson Residence
1032 W. Sheridan Road (In 1919 the address was 6353 N Sheridan Road)
Currently Piper Hall, Loyola University
In 1919, John Mallin decorated the residence of Albert Mussey Johnson, a wealthy business man and co-owner of the National Life Insurance Company. The marble mansion, situated next to Lake Michigan on the far north side of Chicago, was originally built for Albert C. Wheeler in 1909. Johnson purchased the residence in 1916 and three years later had Mallin decorate it. Johnson had a very religious upbringing and was very devout. Perhaps it was his religious background that led him to hire Mallin, who was known as both a church decorator and a decorator of residences. Johnson wrote Mallin a letter in 1919 praising his decorations, thus providing him with a reference early in his career as a decorator.
Johnson had invested in some gold mines in California in 1904 from a con artist named Walter Scott. The mines were eventually found to be a hoax. Johnson took many trips to California to inspect the mines, which led him to invest in some 1,500 acres of land there, as the climate was beneficial to his health. He remained friends with Scott, and built Death Valley Ranch. It eventually became known as Scotty’s castle and became a large tourist attraction. Johnson eventually moved permanently to the ranch with his wife Bessie.
In 1933 the National Life Insurance Company went into receivership due to investments that were hit hard by the crash of 1929. Johnson sold the Chicago mansion in 1934 to Mundelein College, a Catholic Women’s college founded by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). The residence was converted into a College library. The building later became a student center, and in 1975 a Religious Studies Center. It was renamed Piper hall, after Kenneth and Virginia Piper, who were Mundelein supporters. In 1991, Mundelein College became part of Loyola University, and the building was used for University events. In 2005, Piper Hall was renovated and portions restored to its original design. The building now includes the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership on the 2nd floor, and the Women and Leadership Archives on the 3rd floor. Tours of the building are available, which can also be rented out for events.
The Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University provided copies of photos of the Johnson residence taken in the 1920s. These photos give some indication of Mallin’s interior decorations. Which interior decorations he did is not known, but his early advertisements and letterhead mention interior decoration and design, including ornamental plastic relief decoration, furniture and draperies, sketches, remodeling, and wood finishing. The restored painted ceiling in the breakfast nook, and the elaborate ceiling in the dining room were likely done by Mallin. The contemporary photos of the first floor show the detail in the ceilings and woodwork.
In one of the photos of the Ladies parlor on the first floor, you can see a Mallin painting in the Great Hallway next to the parlor. This is a copy of a famous painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, the Madonna Della Sedia. The painting depicts Mary embracing the Christ child, while John the Baptist watches. A similar copy of this painting is on display at another Mallin church, St Edmunds in Oak Park, Illinois, and there is another copy owned by Mallin’s granddaughter. The Ladies’ parlor was converted into a library by Johnson at some unknown date. The current photos of the library show where the Ladies’ parlor used to be.
The Loyola Women and Leadership Archives have letters between Mr. Johnson and the BVM sisters, who wanted to purchase the painting from him. A BVM sister wrote to Johnson in 1934, and included a check for $500 in order to purchase the painting, “which would be the masterpiece of the Community and will be an inspiration to generations of girls.” When that did not convince Johnson, they promised to care for the painting with the understanding that it would belong to Johnson. Johnson would not sell them the painting, but allowed them to keep it until 1940, when he had it sent to Death Valley, where he planned to hang it in the music room of the Castle in Death Valley. An historic furnishings report from the National Park Service mentions the painting hanging in the music room.
After the Johnsons died in the 1940s, they willed the Castle to the Gospel Foundation of California, who continued to run the Castle hotel and tours. In 1970, the Gospel Foundation sold the ranch to the National Park Service. Severe flooding in Grapevine Canyon in 2015 led to the closing of Scotty’s Castle, which will not reopen until 2019 due to flood damage. The Museum Curator, Gretchen Voeks, stated in an e-mail that the Madonna painting was hanging in the Upper Music Room of Scotty’s Castle until December, 2016, when the painting and the contents of the house were moved to a professional museum storage facility. The painting will return when the building reopens in 2019.
Many thanks to the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University in Chicago for providing early photos of the mansion as well as historical information.
Greene, Linda Wedel. Historic Furnishings Report: Scotty’s Castle: An Interior History of Death Valley Ranch—Death Valley National Monument. https://archive.org/details/historicfurnishi00dval
Legends of America. California Legends. Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ca-scottycastle.html
Piper Hall. Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University, Chicago. http://www.luc.edu/wla/piperhall/
Scotty’s Castle, the story behind the Castle. National Park Service Death Valley. https://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/historyculture/scottys-bts-pag11.htm