Swing open the massive door at 1800 Prairie Avenue, and step into the Gilded Age. This is the Glessner House. Designed by preeminent American architect H.H. Richardson just before his death in 1886, it is a masterpiece of urban residential design, and enormously influential in American architecture. Now, as a Museum, the Glessner House has received the 2015 President’s Award for Stewardship from Landmarks Illinois’ Richard H. Driehaus Preservation Awards.
“The Glessner House” is how John Glessner wanted his house to be known. He made arrangements for the house to be transferred to the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (CCAIA) to ensure its preservation after his death. He knew he had an important piece of architecture on his hands. He was also aware of the changes taking place in his neighborhood.
Though he and his wife Frances lived in the house until their deaths in the 1930’s, their Prairie Avenue neighborhood, once teeming with mansions, was being decimated. Without zoning laws to prevent it, major manufacturing plants obliterated surrounding residential blocks.
Visit the Prairie Avenue district today and it’s hard to imagine. One of the toniest streets in the country had been transformed into an industrial zone riddled with vacant lots and decrepit mansions. Kodak built a plant nearby.
Unfortunately, in 1936, when John Glessner died, Chicago was in the midst of the Great Depression. Maintenance of the house proved too costly for the CCAIA, and they returned it to the family. The family passed it to the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology), and eventually a Lithographic Design firm, which operated industrial printing presses in the house.
By 1966, with the house up for sale, a group of Chicago architects rallied to save it. They formed the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation and bought the buillding. According to Bill Tyre, Executive Director and Curator at The Glessner House today, the house those years was a kind of center for historic preservation. The AIA, Inland Architecture, Landmarks Illinois, photographer Richard Nickel, and others had offices here.
In fact, the mid 1960’s saw several milestones for historic preservation. The Chicago School of Architecture Foundation became the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was put in place nationally.
The Glessner House has been meticulously restored and maintained and is one of the finest house museums in the country. Recent projects include painstaking reproduction of intricate hand-painted wall coverings in the parlor, a re-gilding of the dining room ceiling with gold leaf – the gold underwritten by the Driehaus Foundation, and the labor a community donation by a group of experts in gold-leaf application.
Many of the home’s remarkable original furnishings were returned by family members when its future as a museum was secured. These objects lend a material authenticity of feeling to the home.
The Glessner House was once, and is again, an anchor of the famed “first Chicago gold coast” on Prairie Avenue – “the sunny street for the sifted few.” Marshall Field lived down the block. George Pullman’s massive estate sat kitty corner. Burnham and Root, William Le Baron Jenney and other leading architects designed mansions all around. The blocks between 16th and 22ndrd streets were the toniest, made exclusive, as one historian put it, by a “newly rich class who had ambition to live in mansions amid fashionable surroundings”.
And fashionable they were. The Glessners were fantastic entertainers. As John Glessner put it, “The House Responds. It seems available for almost any social function.” His wife, Frances Glessner ran “The Monday Morning Reading Class” every week from 1893 – 1930. 37 years. In response to a request from the President of the University of Chicago, she formed the group as a means to introduce wives of new faculty to Society women of Chicago.
Theodore Thomas, founding conductor of the brand new Chicago symphony orchestra was a good friend. On more than one occasion, members of the orchestra were secreted in to the house to give a private concert. Once, as a birthday gift to Mrs. Glessner.
Though a successful businessman and well-connected patron of the arts and culture, John Glessner didn’t think of himself as wealthy. (Understandable, perhaps, considering Pullman’s extravagant pile right outside his door.) His self-assurance and modesty is noteworthy.
“The description of this house may give some indication of how a man of moderate fortune would live in the latter part of the 19th Century and earlier part of the 20th – an average man with a modicum of this world’s material possessions but by no means rich, except in family and friends.”
And the Glessners had a reputation for simplicity. A neighbor said of their house, “It is like themselves: plain and substantial without and a sweet homelike spirit within”. Charmingly, John Glessner describes the move from their old home to the new:
“The hearth typified the home, so we carried the living fire from the hearthstone in the old home at Washington and Morgan streets and with that started the fire on the new hearth, accompanied by a little ceremony … the life in the new home must be a continuation of the life so happily lived in the old, and carry on with out break its customs and traditions. And so it was with the fire: the old did not go out, the new merely continued its warmth and glow.”
My first architectural history professor called H.H. Richardson the “Grand daddy of American Architects”, and Richardson’s lineage can be clearly traced through Louis Sullivan, to Frank Lloyd Wright, and the “first Chicago school of architecture”.
The story is well-known of how Richardson designed the Glessner House. Almost like a doodle on a cocktail napkin, Richardson sketched it out during dessert at the Glessners’. His initial draft, modeled after a building at Abingdon Abbey favored by the Glessners, is closely reflected in the final design.
But with its imposing stone walls crowding the lot line, patterned by small windows and massive arches, the house wasn’t loved by neighbors. The glorious interior sunlight provided by the south-facing and courtyard isn’t apparent until you step inside the home. Richardson’s “lightwell” design scoops up southern sunlight, the glittering interior basks in it.
John Glessner made his money at the intersection of agriculture and industry. He had worked for, and eventually became full partner in Warder, Glessner and Bushnell, manufacturers of agricultural reaping machines. In Chicago, his company and others competed with Cyrus Hall McCormick, who had invented the reaper, and had established a major manufacturing plant in the city.
In 1902, these companies merged, creating the McCormick International Harvester Company, and Glessner became a V.P. (I’ve written about my personal connection to McCormick/International Harvester. I cataloged and preserved their photographic archive at the Wisconsin Historical Society, which you can read about here.)
Interestingly, the same year Richardson designed Glessner’s house, the factories at McCormick were the site of strikes that led to the Haymarket Affair.
In fact the Glessner’s broke ground on their new home less than a month after Haymarket, one of the most notorious moments in U.S. labor history. The nation, and especially Chicago, was in turmoil at the time over relationships between business and workers. Industrialists were deeply concerned about radicals who wanted to dismantle capitalism. Workers advocated for the eight-hour day, and better working conditions. During the strike at the McCormick factory, Chicago police officers opened fire and killed workers. At the Haymarket, an unidentified person threw a bomb into the crowd, killing police and citizens. Seven men were arrested and sentenced to hang.
There’s a seeming disconnect here – labor unrest doesn’t impinge on the gentility of this home and its furnishings. The exterior design presents a protective fortress against the outside world. Within, all is sunshine, light, and cozy comfort. A seduction of these rooms is that they keep unpleasant realities at bay.
This context is interesting. The dichotomy is important.
This is the crux of why preservation and informed stewardship of a site like this is essential. Yes, the building marks an important moment in Architectural design. Yes, these people were significant historical figures, their lives a rich reflection of the values of their time. And also yes, spending time in this place imparts unique knowledge – a material understanding of our culture and history. Embedded in feeling.
And these rooms also deserve to be re-embedded, if they can, both into the times from which they came, and also into the times in which they now exist. It’s worth asking; what would it take for a visitor to walk through the Glessner house today with a keen awareness of the world that rumbled outside these walls when they were built? To understand the relationships between those times and today? How would such an experience be formed?
Bill Tyre, Director at Glessner, acknowledges this is a challenge the Glessner House Museum wrestles with – how to bring visitors in “beyond the velvet ropes” to engage with the home, and to return often. They are working on ways to reconnect the House and these contexts – both historical and current.
And not just at the Glessner House, this is a challenge for house museums today – to broaden missions and the interpretation of what stewardship means. It’s been described as walking a tightrope between preservation and engagement.
Prairie Avenue is once again fashionable; luxury condos have filled vacant lots and replaced factories. The Prairie Avenue District is an historic site. Walking here today reflects something of what it might have felt like when the Glessners first moved in. And the house bustles again on occasion with parties and social engagements. The courtyard is a popular site for weddings – though the Glessners didn’t use it much. Chicago was their winter home. Yes, you read that right, winter. During the summer, the stinking Chicago stockyards drove them to “The Rocks”, their estate in New Hampshire. Holiday-themed tours and events, including special events coinciding with the Chicago Architecture Biennial (see below) are on the docket.
The Driehaus Award is a prestigious recognition for the Glessner House, and well deserved. It marks the dedication and commitment of this Museum, its staff and volunteers as they shepherd the home through these realities.
When John and Frances Glessner deeded the house to the Chicago AIA On December 1, 1924, they intended for it to be used “solely for the purposes of architecture and the allied arts and sciences… The house is to be known as GLESSNER HOUSE.”
Special events at the Glessner House museum for the Chicago Architecture Biennial:
Lecture by architectural historian Justin Miller: “Not so convenient or artistic as we had expected”: The Glessners Build Their Dream House”
- Tuesday, November 10th at 7 PM
Exclusive, two-hour tours focusing on the architecture, from basement to attic, and covering areas not usually available on tours:
- Saturday, November 21 10:00AM – 12:00PM
- Saturday, December 19 10:00AM – 12:00PM
Glessnerhouse.org for more information. Call 312-326-1480 for reservations to either of these events.
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