Jack Simmerling: before he died, he made sure he'd live in the Gilded Age forever

Jack Simmerling:  before he died, he made sure he'd live in the Gilded Age forever
Even at the ripe old age of 16, Jack Simmerling knew enough to lecture about historic preservation. This poster is part of the new Glessner House Simmerling Gallery

One of my first big newspaper assignments--about 35 years ago--was to get myself to the Beverly neighborhood on the far South Side and to come back with a story about what makes it tick.  When I arrived, wading through the lace curtain Irish, the Top Notch burgers and the Beverly Area Planning Association, everyone said a lot.  And they all said one thing:  talk to Jack Simmerling.

So I did.  I'd never heard of him before but he seemed like a nice knowledgeable guy, a successful artist, father of a brood of kids, well known in the area and with a lot of customers who sought drawings and watercolors he did of local landmarks.

His work was sold out of a nice gallery on 103rd Street.  I had a pleasant chat with him and took a lot of notes and then he sent me on my way with a print of a drawing he'd made of the famous "Castle" (a replica of a real Irish castle) on Longwood Drive.

I immediately framed it in a cheap frame and hung it up and it's been hanging ever since.

Years later, when I got involved as a docent at the 1887 Glessner House Museum in the historic Prairie District at 18th and Prairie, Simmerling's name came up again and again.  In fact, he even invited us docents to his huge Beverly home for a party one night--a home filled with art and antiques and memories of raising lots of kids with his wife, Marjorie.  He gave everyone a print he did of the house that we all spent hours volunteering in each month.  That one got displayed in my home, too.

The story about Simmerling, I learned as the years went on, was that he'd been coming down to Prairie Avenue since he was a teenager in 1950, hungrily hovering over the teardowns of  famous Gilded Age mansions--and he kept a lot of the "trash."  As much as he could.  Until he had collected an enormous number of valuable fragments from the homes, some small, some not so small.  He did a lot of art work based on the old mansions, too. Prairie Avenue, it seemed, was the love of his life.  He became an authority on Prairie Avenue history and he became a de facto historic preservationist.

This art work was done by Simmerling.  The reddish house on the left was the first house he watched being demolished 2120 S. Prairie Avenue in 1950.  Note that the house to the right is the now famous Rees House that was moved up the block last month to make way for a new DePaul University basketball arena.

This art work was done by Simmerling. The reddish house on the left was the first house he watched being demolished at 2120 S. Prairie Avenue in 1950. Note that the house to the right is the now famous Rees House that was moved up the block last month to make way for a new DePaul University basketball arena.

In 2012, about a year and a half before he died , Simmerling wanted to make sure his treasures would be kept together after he was gone, safely and respectfully.  Through an illness that kept him in and out of the hospital and rehab, he met regularly with Glessner House Museum Executive Director and Curator William Tyre--someone he was fond of and someone he trusted, relaying to him the history of each piece--from doorknobs to balusters.

He then decided before it was too late  to donate his collection to the museum, knowing everything would live forever on the street where it all belonged.  The street where all of the stuff had lived deeply, beautifully and regally during a brief time in Chicago history.

Home.  Together.  Forever.

Tonight, Glessner House Museum unveils about 15 percent of the collection in a lovely--but temporary--gallery constructed in the Glessner daughter Fannie's one time bathroom and dressing room.  Tyre's hope is to raise close to half-a-million dollars for a build-out (which Simmerling knew about and loved) within the former male servants' quarters over the coach house--so that 100 percent of the collection can be displayed.  Forever.

Some of the things on display from the Marshall Field house at 1905 S. Prairie, rescued by Simmerling during demolition

Some of the things on display from the Marshall Field house at 1905 S. Prairie, rescued by Simmerling during demolition

Tyre will give special tours of the new gallery and its contents to help raise some of the needed money on Saturdays, December 13, 20 and 27 at 10 AM.  Prepaid reservations ($10; $8 for members) are required (only 15 people at a time; call 312 326-1480 to reserve).  A new schedule will be out in 2015.

"Jack couldn't appreciate 'disposable,'" says Tyre.  "He couldn't understand the words, 'get rid of it.'"

Tyre in the new gallery with some fragments from Prairie Avenue that were saved by Jack Simmerling

Tyre in the new gallery with some fragments from Prairie Avenue that were saved by Jack Simmerling

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