Skip to main content
The Morrison residence, now the office of The Morrison-Shearer Foundation.The Morrison residence, now the office of The Morrison-Shearer Foundation.


On the outskirts of Northbrook, Illinois, two properties – just a short walk apart – have been important in the history of mid-twentieth century modern dance and portrait photography. Separated by the now-defunct Green Acres Country Club, both properties overlooked the golf course. At the corner of Lee Road and Morrison Lane, the residence built by Robert and Helen Morrison in 1941 was the headquarters of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation until 2023. Just down the Lane is the Sybil Shearer Studio, built a decade later. When the Morrisons bought the land in 1939, this was a remote rural area, a paradise of nature, but its solitude was intruded upon in the 1950s, when the I-90 Eden’s Spur expressway was built immediately to the north. The future of the golf course, vacated in 2016, remains uncertain. Nonetheless, the area retains its charm and historic associations even as the Foundation explores its future elsewhere.

Sybil and Louis Horst having tea on the porch, c.1950

The Experience

A glimpse into the past, as told by Morrison-Shearer Trustee, Sue Boléa:

“For many years, this Northbrook compound was a quiet mecca for renowned artists, theatre personalities, writers, critics, dancers, and musicians, [among them musician/artist John Cage and dancer Ruth St. Denis.] Whether stopping in Chicago for appearances or passing through on tour, they found their way to Sybil Shearer’s studio and Helen Morrison’s door. These and people of all walks of life who struck the fancy of Sybil or Helen were invited for tea — a formalized ritual that initiated you into the magic of their rarefied world. As the afternoon sun waned and the shadows spread across the living room floor, you realized that there existed another kind of light inside and it had been there all along. The dinner hour came and went without notice and the mundane outside world slipped away and relinquished its pull. Sybil got up to dance. Helen quoted her favorite authors. Photographs were shown. It was an interlude out of time. When at last, you gathered the bits and pieces of the person you came in as and stumbled out into the dark night, your heart and soul had the unusual sensation of being both wrung out clean and completely inspired.”

A Sense of Place

Tucked in along a dead-end rural lane, the Morrison residence and nearby Shearer studio occupy little more than three acres. Separated by and yet connected by the now defunct Green Acres Country Club, shared vistas and landscapes made the compound seem more expansive than it actually was. It is impossible to overstate how deeply meaningful this environment became as a center of creativity. Dancing and filming took place on the golf course. Helen’s basement dark room brought to life the portraits of Great Americans. In her studio Sybil created her solos and taught her company to dance. In his log cabin Helen’s husband Robert (Bob) designed and printed programs and posters for Sybil’s performances. Students, performers, designers, critics, friends, and notables from across the country came to visit. Afternoon tea on the porch was a ritual — and there were always dogs. After Sybil’s death, the Trustees continued to use the studio until conditions made it impossible. In 2020 a formal Historic American Buildings Survey document was completed for the National Park Service, memorializing this important mid-century modern building. In 2021, a new Sybil Shearer Dance Studio was built at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois where it now serves new generations of dance artists.

The Morrison Residence

The house on Lee Road was commissioned by Helen Balfour Morrison and her husband in 1939 and completed in 1940. It is the smallest house designed by distinguished architect ROBERT SEYFARTH, and the solidity of the structure matches the beauty of its design. During the year it took to build, the architect and clients developed a warm relationship. ALFRED CALDWELL, recorded as the foreman on the job and later regarded as a brilliant architect in his own right, also became a lifelong friend.

The Log Cabin

Close to the house is an historic log cabin from the 1800s, discovered by Seyfarth at an unknown site from which it needed to be moved. Seyfarth had it taken apart and redesigned to fit the scale of the Morrison house. Helen’s husband, Bob, re-assembled it, working by hand with notched logs and mortar.

The Studio

Just down the road on Morrison Lane was the Sybil Shearer Studio, built in 1951 on land which Sybil purchased from the Morrisons with an inheritance from her mother. There, Helen designed and built the studio-residence, with some of the construction work done by Sybil’s dancers. Her design was ingenious, an oblong form with clerestory windows facing the road and, opposite, a wall of glass fronting the open vistas of the golf course. At night this window became a giant mirror. The interior was a marvelous space where Sybil created her dances and Helen filmed them.

At its center was the dance area, beyond which were the kitchen and dining room on the east. At the opposite end were the sewing/costume room, bedroom, and bath. The west partition was designed to be movable, to enlarge the dance area if needed. After having lived in a series of rented rooms in Chicago and Glencoe, Sybil enjoyed this new modern-style Studio as her home for many years. Her intentions for the Studio’s future were clear. In the “Aims” she wrote that it was to become, “a retreat for a solo artist, a dancer, a poet, a photographer, a landscape painter, a composer – any kind of artist who could use it without destroying its pristine simplicity. Then the purpose for which the studio was built – a place to create – would continue.”

However, by 2016 conditions surrounding the Studio had changed, and renovation costs had mounted. Recognizing that the mission for the Studio could no longer be realized at this location, the Morrison-Shearer Foundation Trustees decided to plan a new Sybil Shearer Studio at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. The Sybil Shearer Studio at Ragdale opened in September 2021 and is now in continuous use as an invaluable creative resource for a new generation of dance artists. For more information, click here.

The Tea House

In the late 1990s, Sybil asked her architect-friend HOWARD ALAN to design a garden storage shed for her near the Studio. However, as the futuristic design unfolded, she began to think of it as a teahouse or meditation place. Tucked into the woods in 2002, this fantastical folly has a dancer as a door handle and is topped by a whimsical spray of glittering metal discs. With its interior still unfinished, it awaits a future use by the property’s new owners.

The Landscape

Noted landscape architect and conservationist JENS JENSEN was a great personal inspiration to Helen, and her portrait of him is one of her finest. After Jensen moved to Wisconsin in 1935 to start his school, The Clearing, the two continued to correspond and visit. After the move, Jensen did very little landscape design, but he did make a general sketch plan for the Morrison residence, fronting on Lee Road, a plan that was never executed. There were no Jensen plans for the back of the property which faces the golf course. However, remnants of a few native plants that are characteristic of Jensen’s naturalistic style do persist – notably wild rose, wild plum, sumac, and red-twigged dogwood. In later years Sybil developed extensive perennial gardens near the Morrison house, but these are long gone.