Chicago Shimpo
Consulate-General of Japan Celebrates 50 years of History of Its Official Residence in Evanston

• Local celebrities, dignitaries and those with personal ties to the building got together on April 18 to celebrate the house’s 50th year as the Official Residence of the Consul-General of Japan in Chicago.

• Among the guests were former U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson, who is known for his years of dedication to the U.S.-Japan friendship, and Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, as well as Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty and the Residence’s neighbors. Devora Grynspan, President of Northwestern University’s International Relations, and Richard Briggs, grandson of one of the Residence’s previous owners, talked about the history of the house. Joji Kagei, son of the first Japanese Consul-General to have lived in the Residence, Umeo Kagei, reminisced about his childhood days in the Residence.
• In addition, Chicago architect Stuart Cohen gave a presentation about the Residence’s architectural features as well as the architect who designed it.

• The house, built in 1912 as a private residence of Nathan W. Williams, was designed by Robert Spencer, who was a close friend and colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright. After a succession of prominent Chicago business leaders as its owners, the house was purchased by Owen Coon, Richard Brigg’s grandfather and a renowned Chicago philanthropist. The then owner of the Chicago White Sox, Arthur C. Allyn, purchased it after Coon had passed away.

• Gene Honda, widely known as a popular public address announcer for the White Sox and the Chicago Blackhawks, served as MC in the celebration. His uncle, Thomas Masuda, owned the Residence from 1966 until the Japanese government purchased it in 1968. Since that time, it’s been home to 23 Japanese Consul-Generals.

• In his opening address, current Consul-General Naoki Ito noted that the house, created as a modern American residential home, is one of the masterpieces by Robert Spencer. It was designated as Evanston’s historical landmark in 1992.
• Until it purchased the house in 1968, the Japanese government had rented a house in the neighborhood for the Consul-General’s official residence. No documentary records remain today to explain why the Residence had been selected for purchase in 1968, but many foreign consuls had their official residence in Evanston back then, Ito said.
• The house used to have a huge backyard that spread all the way to Lake Michigan, containing a regulation tennis court, a picturesque fountain and a tea house. The yard, however, had been cut off from the house’s main property by the time the Japanese government purchased the Residence.
• “Had the yard still been with the house, we could have been able to use it to host outdoor cultural events like tea ceremony,” Ito added.

• In his presentation, Stuart Cohen said Spencer and Frank Lloyd Wright were so close that they even borrowed each other’s clothes. They had shared an office and worked together, brainstorming for new housing development ideas.
• The house is one of the products of such brainstorming. According to Cohen, it’s a far more modernized residential building rather than prairie-style house. It takes after the contemporary English arts and craft movement, traces of which can be detected in the ornamental exterior and flowery reliefs in interior finish. It also sports modern, new ideas such as windows that slide open horizontally.

• Briggs spoke about his grandfather, Owen Coon, who was the fifth owner of the house. Coon, born and raised in Illinois, enrolled in Northwestern University in 1912, where he was mentored by Clarion DeWitt Hardy, renowned professor of public speaking. He proceeded to the university’s law school, and graduated with a law degree in 1919 after spending a year in the U.S. Navy. As a lawyer, Coon won a lawsuit filed by a farm for damages caused by a switchmen’s strike during 1921 – 1922.
• A trailblazer of the auto loan business, Coon founded Motor Acceptance Corporation in 1925. In 1935, the company acquired General Finance Corporation, a bankrupt Detroit auto loan company, and changed its name to General Finance. His business continued to make profits during the Great Depression, Briggs said. That year, Coon also set up the Hardy Scholarships, named after his mentor, for students learning public speaking and debate. The scholarships continue to provide students with assistance today.

• Coon purchased the house in 1940. Briggs thinks the decision was made (1) to please his wife who was from Evanston; (2) because it was a good deal; and (3) to use it as the place to entertain the Northwestern students who were the recipients of the scholarships and others.

• The Owen L. Coon Foundation was set up in 1946, with the first preparatory meeting held at the Residence on June 1st of that year. The foundation has been making donations to Northwestern University ever since, including the law library.

• Coon passed away from leukemia in 1948. His wife lived on at the Residence for the next few years, until she sold it to Arthur Allyn.

• Briggs, currently a counsel at Masuda, Funai, Eifert & Mitchell’s Los Angeles office, said he took over the Owen L. Coon Foundation in 1991, a foundation set up by his grandfather. He was responsible for its operation until 2017.

What became of the house after 1966?

• After the record snowfall in January 1967, Consul-General Umeo Kagei was transferred to Chicago from Bangkok, Thailand, and he and his family moved into the Residence. Joji Kagei was one of the family’s eight children, spending a total of five years there from grade school to high school.
• During those five years, the Kagei family gathered around the TV and watched many American dramas unfold before their eyes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968; an anti-Vietnam demonstration in Chicago the same year ended in bloodshed; Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in that year’s presidential election; Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969; the Woodstock music festival held that year attracted more than 400,000 people; and the Chicago Cubs, on their way to the World Series, lost steam in the last stretch and hugely disappointed their fans.
• The Residence Kagei remembers was always lively with eight children running around. “Probably the walls of this house felt relieved when they got rid of us kids in 1972,” Kagei concluded. “I’m sure they’ve learned the meaning of the word ‘lively.’”
• Kagei is the Principal of the Masuda, Funai, Eifert & Mitchell’s Los Angeles office.

Official Residence of Consul General of Japan (Photo: courtesy of the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago)

From left: Consul General Naoki Ito, former U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson, and
Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty

Stuart Cohen

Original fireplace still exists in the house.
The family crest of Nathan W. Williams can be seen in the photo.

Richard Briggs speaks about his grandfather Owen Coon, the fifth owner of the house.

Joji Kagei, one of eight children of Consul General Umeo Kagei,
who first resided in the house as a Consul General of Japan