When Stephen Salny was an economics major at Lake Forest College in Illinois, he liked to take a break from classes and drive around town, a tony community 30 miles from Chicago on the north shore of Lake Michigan.
Salny marveled at the beauty of the homes in Lake Forest - the sense of proportion they had, the elegant details, the variety of styles. He became intrigued when he learned from a classmate that all of the houses he liked most were designed by the same architect, David Adler.
"He could be excellent in any style - Federal, English Tudor, Italian Renaissance," Salny recalled recently. "It never dawned on me that one architect could be responsible for such an array of styles. That's what made him so popular."
Two decades later, Salny still marvels at the work of David Adler, but now he has a different perspective.
His casual fascination with the homes on Lake Michigan has grown into a lifelong study of the architect and his sister, interior designer Frances Elkins. It also prompted him to write a book, The Country Houses of David Adler, the first comprehensive survey of the architect's career.
Published last year by W.W. Norton & Co., with photographs and drawings of 20 country houses and gardens commissioned by Adler's socially prominent clients, Salny's book has sold so well it has gone to a third printing. Since then, Salny has been busy with speaking engagements from coast to coast, tours of Adler homes in Illinois, and interviews with writers for publications such as W, Vogue, House and Garden and The New York Times. He's even involved with a museum exhibition, one of two about Adler that are opening in the Chicago area in December.
As a result of the book and related activities, the former economics major from Lake Forest College has emerged as an authority on the life and work of David Adler, who lived from 1882 to 1949. In the process, he has been almost single-handedly responsible for putting Adler back in the limelight 53 years after his death and exposing a new generation of architects and interior designers to his country houses.
Because of Salny's efforts, Adler's work may be getting more national attention today that it did when he was alive.
"There is clearly a cult that surrounds David Adler and Frances Elkins right now," he said. "It's magical, what's going on with these two people. It's Adler-mania."
A Baltimore resident who runs a family real-estate business when not researching architectural history, Salny will discuss Adler's work in a talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Meyerhoff Arts Center at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road in Towson. His presentation, the college's annual Irwin C. Schroedl Jr. Lecture in the Decorative Arts and Material Culture, is free and open to the public.
Salny, 47, said he is delighted with the reception to the book, his first, and gratified to think its publication may have sparked renewed interest in Adler.
Although the architect was clearly well known to his patrons in Chicago, Salny said, he never received as much attention nationally as some American architects practicing in the first half of the 20th century, such as John Russell Pope and Charles Platt.
In part, Salny says, that's because he was a classically trained architect, working in traditional styles, at a time when modern architecture was commanding most of the attention in the American press for being "cutting edge."
In addition, Salny said, Adler was a shy man who had plenty of work, so he didn't go out of his way to seek publicity. Also, because he was based in the Midwest, Salny said, he may not have been regarded as highly as architects on the East Coast.
"There was an attitude that if you weren't based on the East Coast," he said, "you weren't important."
Even without national attention, Adler attracted prestigious clients and developed a body of work as impressive as that of any residential designer in America. According to Salny, he left behind a legacy of grandeur and elegance, for clients who represented the inner circle of Chicago society. Many of the interiors were created by his sister, who was based in California.
Adler was in such demand, Salny said, that he could pick and choose his clients, not the other way around.
"If you wanted to be a client, you didn't interview him," Salny said. "He interviewed you. He didn't want wealth or power. He wanted taste. If you didn't have taste, he didn't work for you."
The book grew out of an independent study project that Salny completed in college for Franz Schultze, a faculty member who has written biographies of architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.
In his senior year, Salny wrote to the owners of all the Adler houses in Lake Forest, the community with the largest concentration of Adler houses. He ended up touring and studying 17 of them, including six still occupied by their original owners. He also visited others outside Illinois, and finished his study in the spring of his senior year.