“We’re thrilled to be here!”, writes Ann Ponce. “Phil and I have loved every second of this adventure and we are so grateful that the Foundation gave us the opportunity to live in and restore this historic property.”
The summer of 2023 was a momentous season for the Morrison-Shearer Foundation that would mark a turning point for the organization and renew the path for its mission in the years ahead. A most significant event was the decision made by the Board of Trustees to consider selling the real estate that has long served as the Foundation’s headquarters in Northbrook, Illinois. In many ways, these two properties have been the heart and soul of the organization since they were originally developed more than seventy years ago. But by selling the properties, the Foundation might more nimbly address its mission of inspiring and nurturing the creative processes of dance artists, media artists, and their collaborators.
The house was lovingly built by Helen Balfour Morrison and her husband Bob Morrison in 1940 on what was then a quiet, rural lane set amidst adjacent farmland, forest preserves, and the verdant expanse of the Green Acres Golf Club. Their home became a vibrant artists’ sanctuary where Helen worked long hours in her photo darkroom while Bob pursued his passion for letterset printing in his log cabin studio. There they played host to countless luminaries and fellow artists including a fateful visit in 1941 by the noted dancer and choreographer, Sybil Shearer. Immediately sensing their artistic kinship, Shearer and Balfour Morrison would begin a lifelong collaboration that would mark this place as a midwestern magnet of creative energy. Over the years, the home would host visits by noted artists such as Jens Jensen, Richard Lippold, Ray Johnson, John Cage, Ruth St. Denis, and countless others.
The studio was a brilliantly imagined structure that would merit a two-page photo spread in the May 1952 issue of Dance Magazine, heralded as “Sybil Shearer’s Dream House…perfect in proportions, perfect in lighting, perfect in locale.”
Designed by Balfour Morrison and built by Shearer with the help of dancer friends and a professional carpenter, the building was an ingenious, concise dwelling that would serve first as Sybil’s home and dance studio then as the duo’s workspace for years to come.
Now, seventy years on, the studio must be razed as the result of longstanding structural issues. The adjacent Tea House, designed by noted Chicago architect, Howard Alan, will be preserved in-situ. The property’s new owners are planning the construction of a larger home, set to rise on the site in the coming year.
The fabled house on Lee Road faces a very different future. The decision was made to list the property as a way of testing the market and gauging the level of interest in a home that was still in its original 1940’s form. While the trustees understood that the red-hot real estate market of the moment would most likely bring multiple offers to buy the property as a “tear-down”, they held out hope that someone would choose to preserve the unique nature of the home and its history.
Ann and Phil Ponce
Enter Ann and Phil Ponce. Phil is the noted television journalist who has most recently served as the long-time host of Chicago Tonight on WTTW11 and Ann is an accomplished portrait and landscape artist.
A second fateful visit to the house on Lee Road would take place in May of 2023 when Phil and Ann decided to have a casual look at a North Shore real estate listing that intrigued them. Maybe they could downsize to a smaller home with a large yard near their growing extended family who live nearby. Ann sensed something extraordinary from the moment they entered. “The spirit of creativity was palpable.” They immediately began to imagine themselves as the home’s next stewards, hoping to build upon the history created by the Morrisons, Sybil Shearer, and the Foundation. They fell in love with the residence as it exists and made plans to only update the kitchen and bathrooms. Likewise, they would renovate the log cabin and keep it true to its character.
Ann enthusiastically shares that, “The design of the house and its relationship to the land continue to speak to us loudly and clearly.”
The surrounding area has already undergone profound transformation with the removal of all the invasive Buckthorn trees that had overtaken the lot to make way for the implementation of Jens Jensen’s original but never-realized landscape design for the front section of the property. “Clearing the buckthorn out has revealed a straight view over to Sybil’s studio and the gentle landscape where Helen first discovered how she could collaborate artistically with Sybil.” The log cabin is being incorporated into their plans for a new studio where Ann can continue her work as an artist and painting teacher.
The Morrison-Shearer Foundation wishes the Ponces a wonderful experience as they settle into their new home and many rich encounters with the creative spirit of their house on Lee Road.