American banker championed Irish Georgian architecture


Gordon Mark:GORDON MARK, one of the staunchest supporters in the United States of Irish architectural heritage, has died following a boating accident near his Nantucket summer home less than a fortnight before he was due to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Although his father’s family was long settled in Chicago, he was proud of his Irish ancestry; through his maternal grandmother he was a direct descendant of the St George family of Tyrone House, Co Galway. Now a gaunt ruin, this square stone-cut 18th-century property was already in decline by 1912 when it supplied Violet Martin with inspiration for The Big House of Inver, the novel written after her death by her writing partner Edith Somerville.

But even before that date Gordon Mark’s widowed great-grandmother, Honoria St George, had abandoned the lower rooms and retreated to the third floor of the house where her food was prepared by the cook over an open fire. Tyrone House was eventually burnt out during the War of Independence but its former splendour was remembered by the family, not least Gordon Mark, who always hoped for its eventual restoration.

In 1976 he wrote a long and scholarly article on the house’s history which was published in Volume XIX of the Irish Georgian Society Bulletin.

Born in 1929, Gordon Mark was the grandson of Chicago industrialist Clayton Mark, owner of the Mark Manufacturing Company of Evanston, Illinois, and enlightened developer of a model town suburb called Marktown, designed in 1913 by the era’s leading architect Howard Van Doren Shaw.

Gordon Mark grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, where his father Clarence Mark worked with the Belgian-born inventor of instant coffee, the improbably named George Constant Louis Washington. After attending Lawrenceville, one of the oldest American private secondary schools, and then Harvard University, Mark began his career working for Acme Steel with the intention of going into the family business.

However, after realising he would be better suited to the world of finance, he joined the brokerage firm of MacDonald and Co and, after this underwent a succession of mergers, eventually retired from Morgan Stanley in 2001.

In 1958 he married Barbara Wedelstaedt with whom he had four sons. Two years after her death in 2005, he married Martha McCreary Cray.

Although living and working in the United States, he always felt a powerful affinity for this country and in particular through diligent attendance at sales, sought to collect items associated with Tyrone House and its occupants. In 1976 he lent four St George family portraits to Castletown, Co Kildare, followed by a further six in 1980; all but one of these, together with a picture on loan for the past 10 years, remain on public display in the house to this day.

Given his keen interest in Ireland, it was inevitable that Gordon Mark would become associated with the Irish Georgian Society immediately after the organisation’s founder, the Hon Desmond Guinness, came to Chicago in 1970 to lecture and canvas support for the preservation of architectural heritage. Following the retirement of the Chicago chapter’s first head, Republican state senator John Conolly, in the mid-1980s, Gordon Mark took over that position and thereafter assiduously strove to raise funds for the society’s work. As one local observer noted, over many years and through a variety of fund-raising endeavours in Chicago, “he squeezed out every cent he could in order to mend a roof, shore-up the timbers or repair the plaster of an Irish masterpiece. He was consequently a devotee of using cheap wine”. No wonder Desmond Guinness was moved to comment, “Ireland’s treasures had no finer champion”.

Under his guidance, the Chicago chapter grant-aided Castletown on a regular basis, with funds from this source ensuring that the unendowed Castletown Foundation could survive. In particular, in 1985-86, the Chicago chapter underwrote the significant costs involved in rehanging the silk in Castletown’s Green Drawing Room and the house’s Long Gallery also benefited from Chicagoan generosity. But Castletown was by no means the only Irish house to benefit from the efforts of Gordon Mark. A miniature gem, Ledwithstown, Co Longford, which was built in the first half of the 18th century and had fallen into near-total decay by the second half of the 20th, was restored from the early 1980s onwards thanks to contributions from the Chicago chapter.

Likewise Killadoon, Co Kildare, and Hamwood, Co Meath, two 18th-century houses that remain in the families of the original builders, benefited from the largesse of Gordon Mark and the Chicago chapter. The former had the sumptuous textiles in one of its bedrooms conserved and the south front of the house fitted with protective sun blinds; the latter received financial help to replace the 18th-century glazing and repair the unique twin pavilion doors.

Gordon Mark invariably visited these projects when in Ireland and took enormous pleasure in their transformation. He would meticulously plan each visit to this country months in advance, looking up members of his extended family, revisiting favourite properties and going to see other houses that had long been on his to-do list. As his fund-raising skills demonstrated, he was a persistent man and even the most reluctant historic house owners eventually admitted him into their homes and were won over by his knowledge and patent love of all things Irish. As evidence of his devotion to this country, Gordon Mark’s family requested that in lieu of flowers at his funeral mourners should make a donation to the Irish Georgian Society.

He is survived by his wife Martha, his four sons Gordon, Christopher, Michael and Peter, and four grandchildren.

Gordon Mark: born August 20th, 1929; died August 7th, 2009.