Alonzo Mather &
the history of Mather LifeWays

In 1941, Mather LifeWays was established as The Mather Foundation by Alonzo Mather—a humanitarian, philanthropist, and patron of the arts who created a home for “ladies of refinement” who lost their incomes when their husbands passed away.

Mather was truly an innovator, consistently thinking of new ways to do or improve things, and today, our efforts at Mather LifeWays echo his commitment to meaningful pursuits for better living.

With Mather’s legacy in mind, Mather LifeWays is dedicated to developing and implementing Ways to Age WellSM, including award-winning programs, places, and residences for today’s young-at-heart older adults. We are a unique, non-denominational not-for-profit organization that brings to life the values that our founder set forth many years ago—and his past fuels our future.

About our founder, Alonzo Mather

  • Born on April 12, 1848, in Fairfield, New York, into a famous lineage. Descendent of Richard Mather, a Puritan who came to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1635 and wrote the first book printed in America five years later. Richard had six sons, among them Increase, president of Harvard College from 1681 to 1701. Increase was father of Cotton Mather, a minister involved in the Salem witch trials; author of 383 books; and significant in the founding of Yale University. Mather High School in Chicago was named after National Park Service founder Stephen Mather, a relative.
  • Started his career by foregoing college at the age of 16 and going straight to work in Utica, New York. After gaining experience there, he moved to Quincy, Illinois, and then to Chicago in 1875 to start a wholesale mercantile business.
  • At the age of 31, had an experience that set the direction for the rest of his life—during an all-night train journey, witnessed a bull killing weaker animals in the same freight car. The “shocking sight” inspired his fortune-making invention of a more humane animal stock car, for which he earned a gold medal from the Humane Society in 1883. The stock car enabled livestock to be shipped without being unloaded, with food and water provided en route, thus preventing suffering.
  • In 1927, built the 43-story Mather Tower in Chicago—a Chicago landmark—and the 10-story Mather Building in Washington, DC. Planned a bridge spanning the Niagara River from Buffalo, NY, to Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. The International Peace Bridge was dedicated in 1927, and today, the Mather Arch stands as the only monument in Canada dedicated to an American.
  • Earned 31 patents for his work, for a variety of items from his most famous—a humane stock car for transporting livestock—to ladies’ boot shoelaces and the gas engine for canal boats. Knew air transport would be the wave of the future, so, at the age of 93, worked on a plan to produce a single-person aircraft that would sell for less than $1,000. Applied for a patent to mass-produce metallic wings.

The foundation of the foundation

With these words, spoken before the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1933, Mather described the beginning of The Mather Stock Car Company:

“[On a buying trip to New York] in March 1879, on account of a wreck ahead of our train, we were delayed over 10 hours. During the night, I was kept awake on account of a stock train on the siding directly opposite my section in the sleeper. As dawn approached and there was sufficient light to see, I raised my curtain and saw the most shocking sight: In the car opposite my berth were five dead and bleeding animals and a furious bull working his way from one end of the car to the other, horning the weaker animals that got in his way.”

He was so moved by the sight of the battered animals that by the time his train arrived in New York, he’d designed a new stock car. Mather’s design, which later won an award from the Humane Society of the United States, separated weaker animals from the strong during shipment. The railroad companies of the time were unwilling to buy his idea, so he manufactured and leased the stock cars himself. The business became more successful than he ever could have dreamed.

Auspicious beginnings

Born on April 12, 1848, in Fairfield, New York, Alonzo Clark Mather descended from Richard Mather, a Puritan who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635. Richard had six sons, among them Increase and Timothy. Increase became the father of Cotton Mather, who was instrumental in the founding of Yale University. Alonzo was a descendant of Cotton Mather’s uncle, Timothy.

Mather’s family history was a source of great pride for him. He named his yacht in Lake Michigan’s Burnham Harbor, Toxteth, after the family seat in England. Portraits of ancestors adorned the walls of his office on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, along with a genealogical chart, complete with the family coat of arms, which traced 10 generations down to him.

Charting a course for success

Young Alonzo spent the first 19 years of his life in upstate New York, in the company of his brother, William, and his sister, Martha. Their father, also William, was an educator with a medical degree, although he never practiced medicine. William Mather headed Fairfield Academy and lectured at what is now known as Colgate University. When Alonzo graduated from Fairfield Academy, his father offered him a choice of either attending college or accepting $100 to start a business. Alonzo chose business.

With the grant from his father, 16-year-old Mather started a business in men’s furnishings in Utica, New York. The business succeeded from the start. In 1867, it moved to Quincy, Illinois, where the Midwest offered even greater promise. By 1875, Mather had moved to Chicago, where he stayed for the rest of his working life.

Builder, innovator, and visionary

Even though Mather’s stock car company was very successful, he wasn’t content to limit himself. He created other inventions as well—with varying rates of success. One of his more spectacular ideas concerned the Niagara River. Late in the nineteenth century—before Niagara Falls was harnessed to provide electric power—Mather had an idea about building a bridge with great water wheels underneath it to supply power to surrounding areas. Because of opposition in the US Congress, Mather wasn’t able to build the bridge he wanted, however, in 1927, the Peace Bridge was dedicated to him at almost the exact spot Mather had in mind. Mather is the only American to have a statue dedicated in his honor in Canada.

In 1927, he built the Mather Tower at 75 E. Wacker Drive in Chicago. At the time, this 43-story structure was the Windy City’s tallest building. Today, it’s a notable building on Chicago architectural tours.

Mather was a frugal man—when entertained by business associates at exclusive downtown restaurants, he often returned the favor by hosting business guests at chain cafeterias in Chicago’s “Loop,” favoring places such as Pixley and Ehlers. Once, on a business trip to Indianapolis, he canceled a room reservation after he found out the cost of the room was $50. After checking other hotels and finding nothing else available, Mather returned to the train station and slept on a bench.

Before his death at age 93 in early 1941, Alonzo was working on a plan to produce a personal aircraft that would sell for less than a $1,000. In fact, he’d taken out a patent to mass-produce metallic wings. At the time, the US was involved in World War II, but once more, as unmindful of his years as he’d been in his youth, Mather faced the Interstate Commerce Commission. He’d surely anticipated the market.

Eight years prior, Alonzo Mather bequeathed his fortune to build “a home for aged ladies of refinement and from good families.” The wording was his own and appeared precisely in his will as such. It was established because Mather had noticed that some of his business friends were leaving their widows without the means to support themselves, so he used his estate for the widows’ benefit.

The Mather Home for Aged Ladies came into existence as a legal entity on January 25, 1941, the day Alonzo Mather died. It would be March 1952, however, before the actual building was opened. Because of World War II and an inflationary economy during the second half of the 1940s, the planning and building of the Mather Home stretched out 11 years.

The opening of the Mather Home

“It is a tragedy that in our aging population, the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of older adults have not been met and solved. We intend to do just that in our Home, and we intend to call upon the best talent available to help us do so.”

—Forrest Williams, then-president of the Mather Home board,
upon the opening the Mather Home, June 11, 1952

Williams’ statement expressed a philosophy that originated with Alonzo Mather and has guided Mather trustees and administrators for seven decades.

Today, Mather LifeWays leads the way in best practices for senior living, as well as for older adults who live in the larger community.