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Toby Nicholson, former Sybil Shearer dancer, teaching “Time Longs For Eternity” to the New Trier Men’s Dance Group, 2012

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. A new studio is planned at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest.

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 it 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 is 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, on which some of the work was 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, IL. 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.