With the recent publication of the book Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home has come renewed appreciation of Miller’s talents and of the central role he played in the birth of Chicago’s Old Town arts colony in the 1920s and 1930s. Often seen as “Chicago’s forgotten Renaissance man,” Miller is mainly admired for his imaginative renovation of apartments and studios, with Sol Kogen, employing materials from demolished buildings.
His work encompassed mural paintings [portion of Black Sheep mural below], stained glass windows, wood and stone carvings, ceramics, wallpaper, and fabrics. In addition to dwellings, his playful virtuosity in the decorative arts was bestowed upon a number of Chicago’s eating and drinking places, including Harry’s New York Bar and the several outdoor cafes at the Streets of Paris complex in the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition. Following Repeal, when money poured into updating bars and restaurants, he worked with architects such as Andrew Rebori, painting murals for bars in the Northern Lights hotel, the 885 Club, and a Fred Harvey restaurant in Dearborn Station [pictured below]. At the Tavern Club, where Miller was a member and his precocious young son Skippy would later hold “one-man” shows, he created a renowned mural called Love Through the Ages.
Normandy House on Chicago’s near north side became his ongoing project in the late 1930s and through the 1940s. The restaurant occupied the corner structure in a row of five apartment buildings, each four stories in height, at the southern end of Tower Court (aka Tower Place and North Michigan Ave.) opposite the historic water tower. Once the home of the city’s blue-bloods, by the 1920s the entire row had become a commercial property. A restaurant called the Charm House occupied the corner site until about 1937 when Grace Holverscheid bought the business, renaming it Normandy House.
Grace, a widow, operated it with her friend Helen Wing, also widowed. Grace would soon marry a third partner, Richard Tallman. All three were involved with music, Richard as a composer, Grace as a concert vocalist, and Helen as her arranger and accompanist. While running Normandy House, Helen also wrote books and composed operettas for children.
Edgar Miller lived upstairs over the restaurant, perhaps trading his artistic work in exchange for rent. During its incarnation as Charm House, the restaurant had been renovated in quaint style with beamed ceilings, etc., to resemble a sister restaurant in Cleveland OH. An Old English taproom and grill installed in the basement in 1934 – named the Black Sheep Bar by its new proprietors — became the focus of Miller’s decorative elaborations. Over the years when he, and later his family, lived on the third floor, he carved a front door, painted murals, and made stained glass windows, wood sculptures, ceramic plaques, and wall paper for the restaurant. He was assisted by his brother Frank who became the Black Sheep’s bartender.
The Millers’ quarters, up the stairs past the restaurant’s cashier, also served as studio space for Edgar and his wife, the former Dale Holcomb, who translated many of Edgar’s designs into fabrics. At any given moment the whole family, including the two young sons, might be painting portraits, squeegeeing silk screens, or engaging in any number of artistic endeavors. Other artists, musicians, and classes of art students from the Art Institute frequently paid visits.
The Normandy House, like Chicago’s Le Petit Gourmet, attracted a clientele that included club women and professional groups of architects and academics. Its menu featured favorites such as the Pink Squirrel (broiled beef tenderloin with Roquefort sauce) and Eggnog Pie, as well as 1950s innovations such as salad in wooden bowls and individual loaves of bread served on cutting boards.
Helen Wing and the Tallmans closed Normandy House and retired in the summer of 1956. Then, under the management of a long-time employee and with backing from a Florida hotel mogul, it was reopened. In 1960 it moved to Rush Street, reinstalling at least some of Miller’s pieces.
The Tower Court building housing Normandy House along with the other four buildings in the row were razed to make room for a multi-story hotel. In the 1960s Miller and his wife moved to Florida where they ran a motel until her death. Edgar lived in Taos NM, Australia, and San Francisco, then returning to Chicago where he died in 1993 at age 94.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012