Monday, December 26, 2011

Museums features iconic William Morris chair

NOTE:  Since this article was first posted in December 2011, there has been considerable discussion as to whether this chair was, in fact, produced by Morris & Co.  Although a reputable appraiser in Chicago did identify it as such, it appears that the chair may have been made by A. H. Davenport & Co., the Boston-based company which produced numerous pieces of furniture for the Glessners when they moved into their new home on Prairie Avenue in 1887.  Several key features of our chair including the shape of the spindles and arms, the shape and splay of the front legs, and the cut, color, and finish of the quarter-sawn oak have been identified as iconic trademarks of Davenport work, and not at all typical of the similar chairs being made by Morris & Co.  (January 2, 2014)

The museum is proud to have an example of one of the most admired furniture designs of Morris & Company: the adjustable-back Morris chair. Big, roomy, and incredibly comfortable, it is a chair in which one of the Glessners could easily spend an evening reading by the fire. The chair has wide arms to accommodate books, a loose cushioned seat, and a reclining back that is adjustable by a hinge at the base and held secure with a brass rod across the back (see detail photo below). In a sense, this was the first Lazy-boy (albeit the former is arguably a more striking composition).  The original Morris chair - as it is simply referred to today - was designed by Philip Webb in 1866 for Morris & Co. At the time, the company’s business manager, Warington Taylor, recommended that Webb create a chair based on one he had seen belonging to an old Sussex carpenter.

Eventually many variations of the design were being produced in different styles (Flemish, Spanish, Mission), materials (oak, mahogany), and price points ($4.25- $100).  By 1905, nearly every manufacturer at the New York Furniture Exchange displayed some form of the chair and it went on to become a must-have for every household in America.

Webb’s design is the most common; however it is not the style that the Glessners chose. William Watt, another designer for Morris & Co., designed our Morris chair in 1883. The two styles, though not far apart in age, are quite different. Webb’s design is more formal with beaded scrolling and a slightly curved frame - more reminiscent of the Queen Anne style, while Watt’s simplistic form is a nice example of arts and crafts design.

Our Morris chair, located in the library, has an oak frame and is upholstered in green velvet.  An historic photograph of the library taken in 1888 shows that the Morris chair was originally upholstered in a patterned fabric. It seems highly probable that a William Morris designed upholstery was used to match or compliment the adjacent sofa which also shows a richly patterned fabric. 

Contributed by Jessica Blemker-Ferree (Intern, 2010)

Monday, December 19, 2011

100 years ago, Christmas lights come to the Glessner house

Frances Glessner’s journal records an amazing amount of information on the house, including the yearly Christmas celebrations which took place.  Because of this, we know that it was exactly 100 years ago – 1911 – when the Glessners first used electric Christmas lights on their tree.  The following excerpt from her journal records this modern technology being introduced to the family and their guests:

“Cheney the electrician spent all of Saturday and Sunday (December 23 and 24) over our Christmas tree, and it was wonderfully pretty.  Mrs. Tramonti came to breakfast on Sunday morning and was here nearly all day helping to decorate the tree.  The tree itself was one of six that came from The Rocks, and was placed in an alcove made of curtains in the main hall, had many and various colored lights that “flashed” and twinkled; there were spot lights of various colors thrown on it, and snow fell from the canopy over it.  It was lighted first at 9 p.m. for our company at Sunday supper – 19 in all at table, and again at on Christmas morning for the benefit of the children and our guests and the servants – 36 or 37 in all, so that the tree blazed for about two hours on Sunday night and about two hours on Monday morning and then was taken down.  It had its day and was no more.  And before evening we were back to the original condition with only the memory.”

Guests included architect Hermann H. von Holst and his wife, and a number of individuals connected with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra including conductor Frederick Stock and wife,  Frederick Wessels (Treasurer and Business Manager) and wife, Henry Voegeli (Asst. Treasurer and Asst. Business Manager) and wife, and harpist Enrico Tramonti and his wife Juliette.   The Tramontis, who lived at 2218 S. Prairie Avenue, were favorites of the Glessners, and Mrs. Tramonti sent the following note the day after Christmas:

“My dear Mrs. Glessner,
I have not thanked you half as much as I felt yesterday, for the beautiful Christmas you made for us!  It will be a long remembered one, the beautiful, inspiring tree, the fine family dinner, our beautiful present, and above all the sweet comforting feeling of being in a family (and such a one!) and being made almost to believe you belong to it – all that is above words, but I just want to tell you that we feel it deeply!
Thank you for all, dear Mrs. Glessner and believe me yours, all devoted
Juliette Tramonti”

No photograph exists of the Christmas tree from 1911.  The photo above shows the current tree on display in the museum, which also came from The Rocks estate.  It will be on view through December 31.

Monday, December 12, 2011

125 years ago today, the Glessners christen their new home

On December 12, 1886, exactly 125 years ago today, John and Frances Glessner “christened” their new house at 1800 South Prairie Avenue.  Although they would not move into the house for nearly another year – December 1, 1887 – the house was finished off to the point where they could walk through the entire building and clearly see what Richardson had created for them.  George Shepley, one of the three architects who took over Richardson’s office after his premature death in April 1886 (and the one primarily responsible for supervising the completion of the Glessner house), was visiting Chicago with his wife, so the Glessners seized the opportunity to show them the house.  The following is an excerpt detailing the event taken from Frances Glessner’s journal:

We took Mr. and Mrs. Shepley for their first view of the house.  They were in raptures over it.  Mr. Shepley said we were the first clients he had ever envied – but he would like to live in the house.  We left the carriage at 16th St. and walked down to look at it.  We took down champagne and Italian bread to christen the house and have our first meal there.  We went all over the house.  Then to Field’s to see our rugs and some embroideries – then we dropped Mr. and Mrs. Shepley at the Richelieu.

This evening, December 12, 2011, sixty members, friends, and volunteers of the museum gather for a “re-christening” dinner to mark this notable event in the history of the house.  A full dinner, including champagne, will mark the occasion, after which William Tyre, Executive Director and Curator, will give a talk on the life and accomplishments of John Jacob Glessner. 

The celebration of the 125th anniversary of the building of Glessner house will continue throughout 2012, culminating in December, when we mark the anniversary of the family moving into their beloved home. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Schoolroom preserves Christmas traditions

On Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11, the Glessner and Clarke House Museums will hold their annual Candlelight Tours.  These tours, held at , , and , focus on Christmas traditions and decorations of the mid- to late-nineteenth centuries.  A popular event for many years, the tours allow visitors the opportunity to experience the museums from a different perspective and explore how 19th century families celebrated the holiday.  The Clarke House interpretation is based on extensive research of the period, whereas the Glessner House focuses heavily on the documentation left behind by Frances Glessner in her journal.  Reservations are required for the tours, call 312-326-1480.

A highlight of the Glessner tour is the schoolroom, a space designed specifically for the Glessners’ two children, George and Fanny, who were 16 and 9 respectively when they moved into their home in December 1887.  Since the celebration of Christmas in the family revolved around the children, it is not surprising that the decorations were largely confined to this space in the early years. 

The room is decorated with a small table-top tree, very similar to a tree the Glessner children decorated in 1888.  Such trees were common at the time, and preceded the larger trees which stand on the floor and became popular by the early 1900s.  Homemade ornaments including a tin foil wrapped bird and gold painted walnuts were typical decorations.

A somewhat unique part of the Christmas celebration undertaken by the Glessners was the “Christmas pie,” illustrated above.  Each year, Frances Glessner prepared the pie, which contained small toys buried in rice with rhymes written on paper labels attached.  Her journal entry in 1888 describes the tradition, “We had a lovely Christmas pie covered with holly and smilax.  The presents were buried in the tin pan in rice.  We had a great deal of sport pulling them out, the labels hung out.  There were rhymes on each one.”

Sitting near the pie is a plate with two gingerbread cookies waiting for Santa.  On the plate is a handwritten note composed about 1909 by Frances Lee, one of the Glessners’ grandchildren.  The note reads, “Dear Santa Clause – This year I want surprises.  Thank you very much for the lovely presents you gave me last year.  I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year, and please give my love to all the other children.  Frances Lee.”

Surrounding the tree are gifts typical of what George and Fanny received through the years – a toy stove, a train, metal soldiers and Indians, books, a scarf and mittens, oranges (a luxury food item at the time) and a set of dominoes, the latter of which were made for John Glessner’s company, Warder Bushnell & Glessner, and distributed as a promotional item.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

On Thursday December 1, 2011 at , Corinne May Botz, author of The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, will present a free lecture on her research and photographs of Frances Glessner Lee’s amazing Nutshell Studies in the coach house of Glessner House Museum, 1800 S. Prairie Ave., Chicago.   The program is being held in conjunction with the Crime UnSeen exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.  Botz’s work is included in the exhibition, which runs through January 15, 2012.  For more information, visit

Legal Medicine

Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) became interested in legal medicine through her friendship with Dr. George Burgess Magrath, a classmate of her brother George at Harvard.  She enjoyed listening to his stories of cases where his skill as a medical examiner helped to uncover the true cause of unexplained death.  During his career he personally investigated 21,000 deaths and testified at more than 2,000 court cases.

In 1932, Lee gave a gift of $250,000 to Harvard University for the creation of a chair in Legal Medicine in the Medical School.  The endowment ensured the perpetuation of the department in which Dr. Magrath had taught since 1907. 

Two years later, Lee presented the school with a library of over 1,000 volumes, which was dedicated as the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine.  The library, unique in the United States at the time, was assembled personally by her and contained many rare volumes, some dating back to the 15th century. 

Her continual involvement in legal medicine led to her appointment as a State Police Captain in New Hampshire in 1943, one of many titles that would eventually be bestowed upon her.  For the remainder of her life, she was known affectionately as “Captain Lee.”  At the time of her appointment, she was the only active female state police captain in the country.  She subsequently became the first female member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. 

Nutshell Studies

It was at this time that Lee came up with the idea of creating a series of eighteen miniature rooms depicting crime scenes to be used for the study and analysis of evidence by state police officials.  Known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, the name was derived from an old police saying, “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”  The models were meticulously created on the scale of one inch to the foot.  Doors swung on tiny hinges, windows moved up and down, and a minute mousetrap in the corner of one room operated like the real thing.  Each room took about four months to build in an elaborate workshop set up in her home.  Many of the pieces were crafted by her own hands; other portions were constructed by Ralph Mosher, a carpenter hired full-time to work on the project.  The models were composites pieced together from different cases.  Everything shown had actually happened, albeit under other circumstances.  Some portrayed murder, others accidental death or suicide. 

Seminars in Homicide Investigation

In conjunction with the models, Captain Lee initiated biannual seminars in homicide investigation.  State policemen from around the country vied for the opportunity to attend the seminars.  Outstanding speakers in the field of legal medicine were brought in to lecture, and a major component of each seminar was the analysis of the “Nutshell Studies.”  Attendees were given 90 minutes to analyze the minute clues hidden in each model, and then present their findings.  Graduates of the seminars became Harvard Associates in Police Science, a distinction they would use when testifying in court cases.

Captain Lee planned an elaborate banquet at the conclusion of each seminar, held at the Ritz.  A typical banquet would run $3,000, with the dinner served on a set of gold-leafed china made especially for her use. 

Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, was one of the few “laymen” allowed to attend a seminar.  Afterwards, he dedicated his newest book, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom, to her.  In addition to proclaiming her “one of the few women who ever kept Perry Mason guessing” he went on:

“I have dedicated this book to her as an expression, in some measure, of my appreciation; and in admiration of the manner in which her mind, working with the accurate precision of a railroad watch, has brought into existence the over-all plan of a course in training that is helping to make the competent state police official as much a professional man as the doctor or lawyer.  I herewith tender her my profound respect, my deepest admiration, and my eternal gratitude.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Glessner parlor abuzz with Christmas activity

Christmas is a special time at the museum.  We are fortunate to have extensive documentation on Christmas customs in Frances Glessner’s journal, which allows us to recreate quite accurately how the family would have celebrated the holiday. 

The museum will be decorated for Christmas from Wednesday November 23 through Saturday December 31.  However, the Glessners would be shocked by that!  Unlike today, where the sights and sounds of Christmas appear earlier and earlier each year, in the Glessners’ day, the celebration was confined to just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  In Frances Glessner’s journal, she discusses the decorating of the house on Christmas Eve, and quite often the tree and other decorations are taken down the evening of Christmas Day.  The tree was usually lit briefly (10-15 minutes) on each day. 

Our newly restored parlor features a number of activities that the family would have undertaken preparing for the decorating and gift-giving parts of the holiday.  The game table is opened in front of the banquet, and several activities are underway.  To the left, popcorn and cranberries are being strung to decorate the tree, and this garland may be found on both the small tree in the schoolroom and the larger tree in the main hall.  After the tree was taken down, the strings of garland would be hung outside on tree branches, so that birds could take advantage of the tasty treats.

At the right side of the table, pomander balls are being prepared using oranges, cloves, and cinnamon.  The balls were meant to be decorative as well as fragrant and they were usually placed in a closet, piled in a bowl, or at Christmas, hung on the tree.  They were decorated with ribbons and often small artificial birds or flowers.  The dried fruits would last for an extended period of time. 

Hand crafted items were popular Christmas gifts and several pieces are represented.  The black wool muffler represents a similar piece Fanny once knit and presented to her father as a Christmas gift.  The small red velvet pillow is in the process of having a vintage lace panel reading “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year” attached.

An interesting item, seen in the foreground of the photo, is the Glessners’ “literary salad.”  This parlor game was a popular activity for Victorian-era teenagers.  The host or hostess prepared the “salad” ahead of time by writing a selection of literary quotations on paper and then gluing them to green tissue paper “lettuce leaves.”  Each guest, on being served “salad,” read the quotation aloud and guessed at the author’s name.

Frances Glessner, her two sisters Helen and Anna, and her daughter Fanny, were all extremely talented needle workers, and hand-embroidered items would have been popular gifts from the women.  On the banquette, an embroidered panel of flowers is underway, sitting next to a red work bag.  Frances Glessner had many of these bags, used to hold fabric, needles, thread and other items for her embroidery work.  She also frequently made the bags and gave them as gifts.

To the left in the above photo is the Christmas 1890 issue of Ladies Home Journal.  Periodicals such as this were widely read by women who relied on them to provide useful information on the latest trends in gift giving and decorating. 

Special Christmas-themed tours of both Glessner and Clarke House Museum will be offered on Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11, with tours at , , and .   Learn more about these and other Christmas customs, and conclude the tour with refreshments at the nearby landmark Wheeler Mansion.  Call 312.326.1480 for more information or to make reservations.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Rocks Estate

In August 1883, John and Frances Glessner and their children George and Fanny moved into their new summer home, which they called the “Big House” at their estate “The Rocks” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, mid-way between Littleton and Bethlehem.  The Glessners had first considered the White Mountains for their summer home at the suggestion of George’s doctor, who indicated that George might experience significant relief from his severe hayfever by leaving Chicago and traveling to this part of the country.  When George first visited the White Mountains in 1878, the relief was dramatic and immediate, so the Glessners opted to make the locale their annual destination.  The Glessners continued to make The Rocks their home every summer until their deaths in the 1930s, and both George and Fanny later made the estate their permanent home.  A portion of the estate at the western end of the property is still in the possession of two descendants of George Glessner, making six generations of the family to call The Rocks home. 

In 1977, two of the Glessners grandchildren, John Glessner Lee and Martha Lee Batchelder, made the decision to donate the majority of the property (1333 of the approximate 2000 acres assembled by their grandparents) to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.  The Society had been formed in 1901 to acquire and protect forested lands throughout the state in response to widespread clear-cutting being undertaken by farmers.  John Glessner was a strong supporter of the Society and joined in 1903, just two years after it was founded, so it was a very appropriate choice for the grandchildren to present the organization with The Rocks property.  The estate includes numerous original buildings constructed by the Glessners from the 1880s through the 1910s designed by Isaac Scott, Hermann V. von Holst and others, as well as more than 500 species of trees and other plants. 

The Rocks Estate is supported in large part today by its use as a Christmas tree farm, which satisfies one of the stipulations of the gift requiring the Society to keep an active crop growing on the estate at all times.   Open to the public year round, the estate also offers a number of hiking trails and other activities which help visitors to explore the vast beauty of the property.  Visit for more information.

At the museum, we carry on a Glessner family tradition begun more than a century ago by shipping a Christmas tree from The Rocks every year.  The Glessners originally used small table-top trees (their 1888 tree is pictured above), but by the early 1900s adopted the custom of a larger tree which they displayed in the main hall, where the museum places the tree each year.   Click on the link below to see the tree selected for this year’s celebration:

Glessner and Clarke House Museums will be decorated for Christmas from Wednesday November 23rd through Saturday December 31st.  A special part of the holiday tradition at the museums is our annual Candlelight Tours, scheduled this year for Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11.  During these special tours, attendees will learn about Christmas traditions of the mid- to late-19th century and see both houses decorated in historically appropriate fashion.  Afterwards, participants are invited to the nearby Wheeler Mansion for refreshments.  For more information, visit , or call 312-326-1480 to make reservations.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Novel on Prairie Avenue to be released in 2012

Prairie Avenue is due to receive some well-deserved attention with the release of a novel, The Pursuit of Lucy Banning, in June 2012.  The volume, book one of three in the “Avenue of Dreams” series, has just been added to the online catalog of the publisher, Fleming H. Revell. 

The title character in the series, Lucy Banning, was born on October 8, 1871 (the same week as George Glessner, and also the date of the Great Chicago Fire), and is turning 21 at the time the novel opens.   Banning has enjoyed the privileges of a Prairie Avenue upbringing, but yearns for more than a life of ease and the obligatory marriage to a banker that her family expects.  Although the story is fictional, it is deeply rooted in the history of Prairie Avenue, with countless references to the actual people who lived on the street during its heydays in the 1890s.  Just like Arthur Meeker’s fictional Prairie Avenue, which was published in 1949, the novel brings to life the “sunny street that held the sifted few” during one of the most remarkable periods in Chicago’s history, including the World’s Columbian Exposition.

The series was conceived by Glessner/Clarke House docent Stephen Reginald in collaboration with author Olivia Newport.  Reginald did the research (including frequent inquiries to the Glessner house), and Newport did the writing and character development. 

A release party and booksigning will be held at the museum in June 2012.  If you are a fan of Prairie Avenue and Chicago history, this novel is sure to appeal to you.

For more information, click on the link below to The Pursuit of Lucy Banning on the website of Revell (now a division of Baker Publishing Group) at:

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Glessners' Previous Home

John and Frances Glessner and their family occupied two houses in Chicago before moving into their Prairie Avenue home on December 1, 1887.  This week, we look at their second home, located at the northeast corner of Washington and Morgan Streets, which they occupied from 1875 through 1887.

From John Glessner’s The Story of a House we learn:
“We wished to possess our own home, and bought on Washington Street the house that had been built by Sylvester Lind and occupied by him, then sold to Jacob Beidler, who lived there some years, and sold to me.  Both of these families were well known in Chicago at that time.  This house was of brick, on the street corner, and the grounds extended for half the block frontage on both streets.  Our neighbor, Thomas M. Avery, with a similar lot next east of this, joined with us to remove the dividing fence.  His house on the corner of Washington and Sangamon Streets, close to Sangamon, and ours on Washington and Morgan Streets, close to Morgan, left one glorious lawn between, all grass, with bright flowers at the borders, and the only division visible was a big splendid elm tree that stood just inside of my line.  At the Morgan Street side was a great pear tree, the largest I had ever seen, and several large maple trees.  Again the house was made charming inside.  Frances was born there.  It really was a cross to leave that place, but the changing neighborhood and the demand for a little more room for you growing children made it necessary.”

In a tribute to his late wife that John Glessner wrote in 1932, he adds:
“I bought the brick house 261 West Washington, corner of Morgan Street, and remodeled it, and it was nearly ready to be occupied.  The lot covered one half the block frontage on Washington, and my neighbor, Thomas M. Avery, lumber merchant and President, Elgin National Watch Company, owned the other half.  We removed the dividing fence between the two lots, and if I do say it, we had the most beautiful lawn in Chicago.  (Here later my children played with his grandchild, and it surely was a pretty sight.
“While living on Washington Street Mrs. Glessner arranged a series of meetings of ladies in our library and parlor to listen to talks and readings about the latest books by scholars and experts, which were well attended and interesting and became the nucleus and forerunner of the Monday Morning Reading Class, so that that afterwards vigorous society had its origination and beginning then and there.
“It was in this house our daughter was born, on March 25, 1878, and named Frances for her mother.  Considerable illness of the mother followed.  She was not permitted to nurse the baby and we had to provide a wet-nurse.  With a wet-nurse in it, one cannot control her own house.  She is at the nurse’s mercy.  It was in this nurse’s reign that I first saw my lady really angry – perhaps the only time.  In handling the child the nurse struck her head against the chandelier – such an utterly unnecessary thing that there is no wonder that anger blazed.”

It was in 1875 that the Glessners first met Isaac Scott, and most of the Scott-designed furnishings now on display in the museum were made for the Washington Street house.  The two mantelpieces on display in the Isaac Scott exhibit were made for the master bedroom and library.  When the house was sold in 1887, the Glessners removed the mantels and reinstalled them in their summer home, The Rocks.  Scott also designed the new and much larger coach house as seen in the photo below.

It is interesting to note that one of the motivations behind leaving their Washington Street home was the “changing neighborhood.” Years later, the Glessners would see Prairie Avenue undergo enormous change as well, but at that point in their lives, the opted to remain in their Richardson-designed home for the remainder of their days.  The Washington Street house was eventually torn down and replaced by a large brick loft building which remains on the site today.

Monday, October 24, 2011


One of the many interesting architectural features of the Glessner house is a pair of dovecotes at the west end of the building over the coach house.  A dovecote is a structure built to house the nests of pigeons or doves.   It can be free-standing or built into the end of a house or barn.  The use of these structures dates back many hundreds of years to a time when pigeons and doves were an important source of food (both flesh and eggs) and dung, especially in Western Europe.  Although the Glessners left no record as to why they had the dovecotes incorporated into the design of the house, an analysis of their structure from the inside clearly indicates that they were functional, and not merely architectural ornaments.

During the summer of 2011, museum volunteer Robert Herbst explored the attic space over the coach house to see how the dovecotes were constructed.   The dovecote built into the north facing gable, which consists of nine openings, is accessed from the inside of the coach house by way of a small staircase.  The openings measures 5-1/4” wide by 9-1/2” high and are 23 inches deep.  A sliding wood door measuring 8” by 11” inches provides access to each opening.  Several were found to still contain significant amounts of nesting materials and even egg shells.  

The four-sided dovecote located at the peak of the roof over the coach house is much larger with 48 openings.  This appears to be more of a “communal” dovecote with all of the openings accessing the interior of the dovecote, which has perches.  This dovecote is virtually impossible to access from the inside of the coach house due to the beams forming the structure of the gables, indicating that this one was not accessed by humans on a regular basis.  It is also unclear how the pigeons and doves were prevented from flying into the main attic space.

Although some questions remain about these structures, they are an interesting element in the design of the house.  Be sure to look at them closely on your next visit.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Parlor Reopens Amidst Celebration and Remembrance

On Friday evening October 14, 2011, the restored parlor was officially unveiled to the public.  Over 70 members and friends of the museum were present to witness this long-anticipated event.  Following is the text of the speech prepared by Executive Director William Tyre which was read just prior to the opening of the parlor doors.

In November 2007, exactly one month after starting my position as executive director at the museum, I received a letter and a donation check from long-time docent and supporter Aileen Mandel.  In that letter Aileen expressed her wish that the museum would at long last undertake the important restoration of the Glessner parlor.  I immediately contacted Aileen, whom I had known for many years, to enthusiastically let her know that I too had a dream of seeing the parlor returned to its stunning 1892 appearance.  Over the next year and a half, two grant proposals were written to underwrite the project but were not accepted.

When Aileen lost her courageous battle with ovarian cancer on June 13, 2009, her children designated Glessner House Museum as one of the organizations to receive memorials.  I quickly contacted Aileen’s daughter Ruth, explaining her mother’s particular interest in the parlor, and asking if we could designate memorials toward the project.  She enthusiastically agreed, and the fund grew.

Less than a year later, on May 20, 2010, one of our “charter” docents, Bunny Selig, passed away, leaving a sizable unrestricted bequest to the museum.  A second bequest was directed to the museum in honor of her long-time friend Robert Irving, with whom she had completed the first docent class in 1971.  Bunny had often commented on how horrified Frances Glessner would have been to know we were showing her parlor in such an altered state, so immediately the idea came to mind to use these generous bequests to at last undertake the parlor restoration.  The Board of Directors quickly agreed and work began on a year-long project culminating in tonight’s event.

The undertaking was complex – this was not the restoration of just another 1890s interior – it was the recreation of a very specific space designed to the particular taste and sophisticated aesthetic of the Glessners.  Fortunately, through photographs and written documentation, we knew a great deal about how the space looked.

The Grammar of Ornament, a Denver-based company specializing in the recreation of historic interiors, had been contracted by the museum in 1991 to create a sample of the 1892 wall covering designed for the room by William Pretyman.  You will all recall that sample which hung in the parlor over the doorway to the dining room.  In 2010, I called Ken Miller, principal in the firm, to let him know that at long last we were ready to proceed!  Fortunately Ken was a patient man, and had carefully kept the files and information ready, hopeful that someday he would have the opportunity to create this unique wall covering.  He and his assistant Linda Paulsen meticulously examined an original fragment and historic photographs to determine the intricate process behind the original wall covering.  You will hear more about that and about William Pretyman a little later this evening, when our own John Waters presents “Where’s William: In Search of William Pretyman” back in the coach house following the dedication.

Another major element of the parlor design was the beautiful Kennet draperies designed by William Morris.  An original fragment of one of these drapery panels survived in the Textile Department of the Art Institute of Chicago.  This piece was carefully examined to determine the beautiful and rich colors.  Since the fabric was no longer being produced, we turned to David Berman of Trustworth Studios in Plymouth Massachusetts to bring together 19th century design with 21st century technology.  Using a digital process, Berman reproduced the intricate pattern and five colors, producing a fabric that is true and accurate to the original.  Our own assistant curator, Becky LaBarre, did all the sewing for the panels.

A major piece of furniture for the room had been removed over 100 years ago – the large banquette which occupied much of the south wall of the room.  The piece, originally designed for the room in 1887, had apparently been removed by the Glessners about 1905 when John Glessner inherited his parents’ 1830s Empire sofa after the death of his father.  We felt that the recreation of this piece was essential to give the room its proper appearance.  Long-time volunteer Robert Furhoff, who specializes in historic interiors, spent many hours researching the appropriate construction and fabrics, resulting in a piece that would fool even the Glessners.  Scott Chambers of Fine Woodworks Inc. and Gonzalo and Anna Gamez of G&A Upholstery produced a truly beautiful and unique piece of furniture.

Many other small details required attention as well.  The drapery rods could be found fairly easily, but the original brackets were heavy and unique in dimensions, requiring the careful attention and craftsmanship of master metal smith John La Monica.  The gold leafing of the various elements of the wood trim had deteriorated significantly over the years, and was replaced by Lee Redmond Restorations, who also undertook refinishing of damaged wood mouldings, and refreshing the trim throughout.  Jeffrey Ediger of Oak Brothers refinished the surviving metal pieces.

An enjoyable part of the project was bringing the room all back together.  This involved a careful analysis of the historic photos of the room, identifying objects that were currently elsewhere in the museum that needed to be returned to the space. 

All of the physical work needed to actually restore the room has been undertaken in just four weeks starting with the removal of the old wall covering on September 19th.  An outstanding team of craftsmen kept the project on track, so that we only needed to close the room to the public for a little under one month.

As we get ready to unveil the room, a moment to thank those whose generosity has made it possible.  As mentioned earlier, Aileen along with her family and friends, spearheaded the project, keeping it in the forefront as we set out goals for the museum.  The passing of Bunny brought not only her bequests but additional gifts from her family and friends.  As the project grew, the museum approached the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation who generously provided additional support, primarily to produce the Morris draperies.  Finally, when the decision was made to recreate the banquette, an anonymous donor stepped forward with a generous gift to our 125th anniversary fund, which was applied for this purpose.  Lastly, many of you contributed to this project as well.  The remaining funds needed to complete the room were taken from our House and Collections Committee Fund, which is supported by the proceeds from the various private tours and events held several times per year, and which many of you have attended. 

At this time, I would like to ask Ruth Mandel to step forward representing her mother Aileen.  She is accompanied by her brothers Mark and Eric.  In just a moment, Ruth will be asked to cut the teal ribbon on the left doorknob of the parlor.  Teal is a special color for Aileen – it is the official color for the fight against ovarian cancer.

I would also like to ask Dina Krause to step forward representing her cousin Bunny Selig, accompanied by Dina’s husband George and their daughter Sydnie.  Dina will be asked to cut the purple ribbon on the right doorknob of the parlor.  For all of you who knew Bunny, there is no need explain the significance of the purple ribbon.

(At this point, the ribbons were cut, the room was opened and attendees had their first glimpse to view the Glessners’ parlor as it appeared in 1892.  Following the viewing of the room, the group reassembled in the coach house where John Waters delivered an informative presentation on decorator William Pretyman).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Museum volunteers honored at event held at historic Elmer C. Jensen house

The historic Elmer C. Jensen house in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighborhood was the setting for this year’s event held Sunday October 9, 2011 honoring docents and volunteers for their service to Glessner House Museum during the past fiscal year ended June 30.  During the year, 60 volunteers contributed a total of 2,724.50 hours of service providing tours, working in the collections department, and assisting with various special projects. 

The following thirteen individuals were honored for contributing the largest number of hours:
Dan Smaczny – 260.50 hours
Joan Stinton – 190.00 hours
Jackie Walker Dunscomb – 130.00 hours
Robert Herbst – 124.00 hours
Allan Vagner – 120.50 hours
John Kalmbach – 110.00 hours
Karen Oliver – 99.25 hours
Thressa Connor – 95.00 hours
Rebecca Williams – 80.75 hours
Robert Irving – 74.00 hours
Norman Cutler -  64.00 hours
Stephen Reginald – 53.50 hours
Marilyn Scott – 49.00 hours

Elmer C. Jensen worked as an architect in Chicago for 70 years, earning him the title of “The Dean of Chicago Architects.”  Born in Chicago in 1870, he came to work as an office boy for William LeBaron Jenney at the age of 14, one of his first jobs being to run drawings and messages between the office and the site of the Home Insurance Building, regarded as the first modern skyscraper.  He quit school to start work saying “I don’t feel that I can spare the time, I want to start right now.”

By age 18 he had designed several apartment buildings.  Known as an excellent renderer, at age 20 he won 2nd prize in the annual competition for the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club. 

In 1893, he assisted with the design of a colossal theatre containing a great expanse of water for the presentation of a dramatic story of the discovery of America by Columbus at the World’s Columbian Exposition – the building was never completed as the sponsor lacked sufficient funds to pay for its completion.

In 1895, at the age of 25, he won the AIA gold medal for their annual design competition which that year had the theme “A Building for the Study of Botany.”

He was married in 1900 to Mary Nagle.  In 1905 he was made a full partner in the firm of Jenney, Mundie & Jensen.  In that same year, he completed his home on North Lowell Avenue in what is now Old Irving Park, the most noticeable feature being the massive portico featuring four 18-foot high concrete over brick columns.  Two years later he designed the Irving Park Presbyterian Church a few blocks away, a combination of Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts designs.

In 1909, he moved to a Colonial Revival style two-flat he designed on West Logan Boulevard.

One of the projects of which he was the most proud was to replace the floating foundation under the Fair Store at State and Adams in 1923 – a massive engineering project completed without ever interrupting business in the store.  He was also proud of his design of the current Union League Clubhouse (1925) including the 20th floor swimming pool with a capacity of 50,000 gallons.

He became very active in various professional organizations and held leadership positions in the Chicago Building Congress, the Illinois Society of Architects, and the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. 

He had a deep concern for the poor and did much to help lead the effort to clear slum areas and replace them with affordable and respectable housing.  He was involved in the design of the Jane Addams Homes along Loomis Street (1935-1938), today still considered among the best designs for public housing. 

He helped in the design of or was solely responsible for the  design of 29 skyscrapers in the Loop as well as 26 banks including:
LeMoyne Building
Leiter II Building
105 W. Monroe
Kraft Foods Building
New York Life Building at 39 S. LaSalle (his architectural offices were located here for 55 years)
Equitable Building
Fort Dearborn Building
Singer Building

In the Prairie Avenue neighborhood he designed the Locomobile building at 2000 S. Michigan Avenue (1909) and the Rogers and Company building at 2001 S. Calumet Avenue (1913), both of which have since been converted to residential lofts.

He died April 24, 1955 at his summer home in South Haven Michigan, and was interred at Graceland Cemetery.

He was devoted to Jenney and actively promoted his role in the development of the modern skyscraper.  Of the Home Insurance Building he said “My personal opinion is that while he was fully conscious that his ideas and buildings were developing new forms, his main purpose was to create structural features which increased the effective floor areas and made it possible to secure more daylight within the buildings.  I do not recollect that he made any remarks about creating new forms although he did remark that skeleton construction would bring about a revolution in the design of office buildings.”

He was also interested in preserving the records of the architectural profession in Chicago and launched the Architect’s Microfilm Project at the Burnham Library at the Art Institute of Chicago, where many valuable and irreplaceable drawings and records of Chicago architects are now housed.

His name remains a part of the firm that carries on his work today – Jensen and Halstead.

(Photo by John Waters)
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