The Cuneo Mansion in Vernon Hills was originally built in 1914 for Samuel Insull, the founder of the General Electric Company. It is situated in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago. Originally, the mansion was part of the town of Libertyville, but zoning and other changes resulted in the Mansion now being part of the town of Vernon Hills.
The mansion was designed by architect Benjamin Marshall in the Italianate style, and the gardens were designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen. After Insull lost his fortune and property during the depression in 1937, John Cuneo purchased the mansion and estate. He lived there with his wife Julia and two children, John Jr. and Consuela. Mr. Cuneo, a wealthy business man, owned the Hawthorn Mellody Farms Dairy, the National Tea Company and the Cuneo press.
Not long after he purchased the mansion, Cuneo decided to transform the mansion’s sun parlor into a private, consecrated chapel. Mr. Cuneo was a devout Catholic, and a friend of Cardinal Stritch from the Chicago archdiocese, who obtained a permit from Rome for the chapel. Cuneo hired John Mallin in 1940 to decorate the chapel, which included paintings of the Stations of the Cross on the vaulted ceiling. Mallin also designed the stained glass windows for the walls. Two of the more interesting windows include a portrait of John Jr. and Consuelo Cuneo as children under the protection of their Guardian angel, and Miss Liberty draped in the American flag crushing the head of the serpent under her heel. The chapel was completed and consecrated by Cardinal Stritch on July 8, 1941, which is also the date of the children’s confirmation. A Mallin portrait of Pope John Paul II hangs inside the chapel as well as a portrait of the Virgin Mary. A Mallin portrait of St Joseph also exists.
Cuneo’s association with Mallin lasted many years, as the artist was commissioned to paint murals on the ceilings of the ballroom, the formal dining room, and the south dining room. The south dining room at the mansion was the last work Mallin did for the Cuneo family and he was assisted by his son John Jr. The ballroom was completed in 1950, the north dining room in the 1950s, and the south dining room in 1960-61.
According to the Cuneo Museum, the north dining room was designed and decorated by Mallin as a formal dining space whereas the South Dining Room was intended to serve as the breakfast room. The birds and flowers on the dining room ceiling were painted for the Cuneo children to enjoy during meals. Reportedly, Consuela asked Mallin to paint the birds on the ceiling. The museum description states, “According to Mallin’s daughter and secretary Mildred Mallin Fritz, John A. Mallin painted the ceiling and the three lintels over the doors. Her brother, John O. Mallin, decorated the cornice with 23 carat gold leaf. There has been much controversy regarding the ceiling decorations in the formal dining room. It was rumored that John A. Mallin hired an assistant to paint the lintels while he painted the ceiling. Through a detailed conservation analysis, it was discovered that John A. Mallin, in fact, did paint the lintels as well as the ceiling. This examination also indicated that the entire ceiling was repainted, and looking closely, one can see the outlines of the over-paint around the vines and foliage. It is unknown under what circumstances the painting was repainted. John A. Mallin experts agree that Mallin himself did not repaint the ceiling because it is far too linear and crisp for his style. The lintels epitomize Mallin’s love of cherubs and his naturalistic style.”
In the south dining room, or breakfast room, Gardens of Italian Villas are interspersed with classical and biblical scenes. A carousel depiction was said to have been designed for the Cuneo children.
The ballroom of the Cuneo Museum was used for formal occasions at night, and as a playroom for the Cuneo children during the day. The fresco style pictures painted by Mallin celebrate the joy of life including scenes of Venus at her bath, Elysian picnics, and Terpsichore dancing with her attendant Putti.
The following information about the murals is from a letter dated January 25, 2002, to Elizabeth Hedsund, the Curator of the Museum, from Anthony Kartsonas, an art conservation expert, who worked at Evergreene Studios in Oak Park, Illinois.
“The murals in the house are quite handsome and fit in well with the rest of the interior and its ornamentation. They are very well executed and are a superb example of the work of John Mallin. In addition to the murals by Mallin, the interior contains a large variety of different applied decorative finishes. Some of these significant finishes include the cement sgraffito and the plaster faux caen stone. The murals hold a significant historic and aesthetic value. For these reasons, the maintenance and conservation of the interior finishes should be an important consideration.”
“A cursory onsite examination of the murals in the ballroom, breakfast, dining room, format dining room, chapel, and east entrance were carried out in December. The original technique utilized to create the murals was an oil medium painted on prepared canvas. The canvas was then mounted on plaster. Some of the decorative painting was painted directly on to the plaster surface, such as the East entrance.”
The murals would benefit from conservation treatment (details explained)…
It is important to understand the conditions and appropriate treatment of the murals. There murals are a rare and beautiful example of Mallin’s work. They show a great level of artistic merit as to the other decorative finishes. “
In 2009, John Cuneo Jr and his wife Herta donated the mansion and estate to Loyola University of Chicago. The $50 million gift included the art and furnishings in the museum. The mansion is used for corporate meetings, wedding receptions, and special events, as well as occasional public tours.
- Cuneo Museum and Gardens Administrative Records 1948-2006. UH 2010.03 Box 2, Folder 2-11 2002. Loyola University of Chicago Archives, Chicago.
- Cuneo Mansion and Gardens, Loyola University Website. http://luc.edu/cuneo/about/