Biography in Buildings

Ancestor architecture is like the DNA of cities or towns, as well as the families that built or lived in them. A visual biography through dwellings can tell a story of choice, circumstance, and progress. Where we live is also like a self-portrait. It speaks to our values, personality, and dictates our lifestyle.

Biography in Buildings: the Schmitt family, from 1500s to the 1800s, lived in three southwestern German towns. Then, Johann Peter Schmitt immigrated to Illinois in 1840.

While working on genealogical research, the trail always involves locations. Learning about village history is the backdrop to understanding decisions that ancestors made and where they lived. Authenticity is a challenge when telling a story through progressive domiciles because there were no photographs pre-1850s to use for reference. However, there are surviving examples of the genre that represent accurate possibility. For our study today, that is sufficient for most historic appetites.

With experience and imagination, I can transform your family data into a visual story through illustrating homes. All you need to give me is your chosen ancestor’s birth dates and places. (If you have old photographs of where family lived, this will make creating the portrait more specific.) Biography in buildings makes your history visual in a way photographs can’t.
Most illustration fees are between $200 and $300, depending on parameters and research. To discuss, please email me at

I have created a biographical sketch of my 3x great uncle, Johan Peter Schmitt. The story begins with Specific Schmitt: Surname Origin” that discusses the family German source. To illustrate their pre-1800 houses, I approximate with those that have survived from the same era. Not only would the Schmitt ancestors recognize Obergaße 15 in Meisenheim or Haupstraße 16 in Sötern, they would have lived in similar. Comparative authenticity is essential, especially where accuracy is unknown.

Once the Schmitt family immigrated to Chicago, the illustrations of their dwellings became specific. Many are preserved today. So their story evolves from approximate to exact, which is the case for most depictions.

A Biography through Homes

As luck would have it, the town of origin for this Schmitt family has been preserved. Meisenheim escaped the devastation of the 17th and 18th century battles raging around them. Today, 15th and 16th century houses of every status are living treasures. This half-timber house was built in the late 1600s as the house of a tradesman family. It is the smallest of a cluster around it, and in an effort at modesty, I chose it for the home of a blacksmith. The Schmitt surname was derived from the trade. Descendants were all in related professions to support the ironworking industry of the Hunsrück Mountains. On the edge of the Black Forest, the region had ample timber to build wood houses, made more durable by an evolution of materials. Descendants moved from this central location to towns nearby as they followed opportunity. Meisenheim continued to produce many Schmitt cousins, and remained the center of Schmitt growth.

Not far north of Meisenheim, a young blacksmith, with his apprenticeship complete, set up shop in Sötern, Saarland. With the forges and mines sprinkled throughout the mountains, the ironworking trades thrived when the political climate was favorable. But, sadly, they were targets in many wars because of their rich resources. Iron ore and corresponding hammer mills makes civilizations powerful. The French wanted the ownership that the Germans usually held. Hence, both sides destroyed what they fought over due to their frequent conflicts! The evidence of war’s devastation shows in the Schmitt family records. Living in Sotern in the 1700s meant defending against invading armies, plague, and starvation. It was not a good place to be. The Schmitt family had a very high infant mortality rate and reported the deaths of many young adults. Theirs became a story of survival while they continued to respond to the winds of opportunity. After the 30 Years War ended with the treaty in 1648, the nearby ironworks were rebuilt, including Züscher-Hammer. The Schmitt family moved closer, again for opportunity.

An ancient village, the origins of Züsch go back to the Neolithic stone age. At a cross-roads of old Roman roads, it has always been a place of continual habitation. When the Romans left, the town became smaller until the 17th century ironworking industry experienced a building boom. Unfortunately, the village was destroyed in the Thirty Years War. The Schmitt family contributed to the pre-industrialization of rebuilding. This house is one of the preserved oldest in town that conveys the kind of dwelling the Schmitt family would have constructed. Efficiently built without lavish decoration, these “huts” were built quickly and cost-effectively. One and a half stories, they must have looked quite modern compared to the earlier half-timbers. The Schmitt family rode through the ups and downs of the next 200 years, probably in a house much like this one. It was from here that they engaged in the German Revolution of 1848. The price of being on the losing side is a breakup of family. (I write about the specifics of this in my blog “Rascal’s Revolt.”

Johann Peter Schmitt had no choice but to leave Germany. Already a middle-aged man, the youngest of his children, as teenagers, were in danger. So in 1840, he arrived in Grosspoint Illinois (which later became part of Chicago) with his wife and three children. As luck would have it, the cabin that he built on Ridge Avenue, after clearing the wilderness and setting up a farm, has survived. It has been moved to the Winnetka Historic Society. From this point in Peter’s biography of buildings, accurate sources are available. I can ride my bike up Ridge Avenue from my house to visit this cabin, now located in a park. The chisel-marks I can see on the walls make Peter seem more accessible. The roughness of the cabin makes us appreciate central heating and running water! Life on the Ridge was probably not as tough as what the family left behind in Germany. Peter was followed by nieces and nephews who fled, once the Revolution was lost after 1848. This Schmitt family saw the majority of the generation born in the 1820s/30s leave Germany in the 1850s. They settled from Pennsylvania to Michigan to Illinois to Minnesota. (Today, there may be more Schmitt descendants in America than Germany.)

Peter’s son built a house next door to the cabin in 1855. I have not found anyone with a photo of that house, but have not given up on it. In the meantime, there is a surviving similar house. Built in 1855, the Gaffield House showed a great improvement from a log cabin. Though Peter and his wife stayed in their cabin while their children moved out and built better homes, their finances continued to improve. They evolved from their large farm to farming in greenhouses, to a business of building the greenhouses. Then they sold off portions later in real estate ventures. (Their grandchildren are today architects and builders in the community, though the Schmitt surname ended in this branch. The male line of the Schmitt surname continues in Minneapolis and Pennsylvania.) Representing the “new” house of 1855 introduced the vernacular style that exploded in the buildings of the 1870s. No many of the wood homes earlier have survived, though this one is well preserved while still being a private home.

Imagine moving from that rustic cabin to an elaborately appointed Italianate new house! As a sign of Peter’s success, at the end of his life, he was able to enjoy building the house of his dreams. Although he only got to live there for seven years, his daughter raised her family there. The older members of that branch tell stories of their childhood memories in the house. Today, it is a private sanatorium. I am told that the structure is well preserved, though the contents of the house were all sold. There is potential to obtain photographs of the house in the early 1900s—a mini project! At this time, the house is not a declared Landmark, but deserves to be. Surrounded by a large iron fence, it perches elegantly over Ridge Avenue—reflective still of the man who built it with such joy. Drawing it, hopefully, captures some of that essence as well. Now, Chicago absorbed the neighborhood, though the house itself has not moved. Peter saw the changes of Grosspoint becoming Ridgeville, Rogers Park, and then Chicago. This house witnessed residence in four towns!

Architectural Ancestry gives a visual anchor to family history. Along with the Family Tree, Genealogical Databases, and family photographs, telling a story through houses gives a deeper backdrop to time and circumstance. Creating illustrations of houses that they would recognize makes them more real to understanding. History enthusiasts share the belief that it is through where we have been that we can know where we are going, knowing where ancestors lived is essential to that insight. —always inspired, Liane

The Story of Schmitt: The Series

The history of the Schmitt family is ubiquitous. As their “Schmitt” name is common, they also share experiences that are part of almost every American’s family tree. Schmitt descendants left the oppression of their homeland for the freedom of choice. The patterns of prosperity and devastation had become intolerable—especially when there was an escape. All immigrants to the United States want the same things: opportunity, prosperity, and a better life for the next generations.

The Schmitt family is unique in how much they exemplify these qualities. As people with deep convictions, they stood up for their beliefs and helped to shape their communities. Their achievements, versus their names, can be found in the history books. Theirs is a story of building, developing industry, following opportunities, participating in change, and taking risks. They hold a mirror up to ourselves, as their past is our past. Their story is both worth remembering and honoring:

Symbolic Schmitt” gives an overview of the series and how it developed.

A Boast of Modesty” shows the first Schmitt house that I drew, representative of where the family lived the longest.

Specific Schmitt: Surname Origin” portrays the family origins in an ancient, and preserved, German village.

Pioneer Schmitt: A Visual Biography” follows the courageous journey of a Schmitt family to the wilderness of the new world.

Please see the overview of the series Ore and Origins: A Biography.



Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.