Monday, June 27, 2011

Asparagus Tongs, Saratoga Chip Scoops, Bon Bon Servers! Why all the utensils?

In the early 1830s the popular dining style was service à la russe which originated with the Russian Prince Kourakin. This dining style called for multiple courses, which were presented to each guest by a servant.  There could be six or more courses served in an evening and the flatware was changed with each course. It was highly unusual to touch food with your hands; instead there were cucumber servers, strawberry forks, olive spoons, and lemonade spoons, among many other utensils. Service à la russe encouraged new flatware designs and created a demand for a variety of utensils to assist with the plethora of dishes.

To the modern eye, it is rather difficult to identify the use of each silver scoop, server, ladle and spoon. Is this a bon bon scoop or is it used for tomatoes? And it seems decadent to have a serving tool for potato chips! A recent acquisition to Glessner House Museum includes just that - two Saratoga Chip scoops. The first scoop is gold wash sterling silver in the Dauphin pattern, with flowers and vines and the initials BFB (for its owner Bertha Fisk Botsford of 2100 S. Calumet) engraved on the back. This scoop was made about 1899 (the year of Miss Botsford’s marriage to Dr. Robert H. Harvey) by William B. Durgin Co., of Concord, New Hampshire. The second silver server features a pierced scoop in the shape of a shell with sea inspired ornamentation. This Saratoga Chip scoop is from the Whiting Manufacturing Company, based out of the home of potato chips, New York! 

During the early 1850s potato chips were quite the delicacy. They were only served in restaurants or made at home. As the story goes, in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, NY, a customer at Moon’s Lake House restaurant preferred his potatoes to be sliced thin and sent his thickly cut potatoes back to the kitchen. Out of spite, the chef, George Crum, sent out paper thin potatoes which it turns out the customer enjoyed. Within a few years Crum opened his own restaurant where he was known for his famous potato chips. The next time you pop open a bag of Lay’s or Kettle Chips, just think how amazing it would be to pour them in a bowl and serve them to your guests with a sterling silver, sea inspired, Saratoga Chip scoop. Those Victorians really knew how to live!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Decorative tiles depict Arthurian legend

Perched high atop the rail in the main hall, a set of five decorative tiles tells the story of Lancelot and Elaine, as told in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Idylls of the King.  The tiles were favorites of the Glessners who originally acquired them to adorn the library fireplace in their home on Washington Street (shown above).  When they moved to Prairie Avenue in 1887, they had the tiles carefully removed and put on display in the main hall, where they may be found today.

The tiles were produced by Minton, Hollins, & Co., located in Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire, England.  Herbert Minton established Minton and Company in 1830.  Later the company split into two firms – Minton & Co. which produced china and floor tiles, and Minton, Hollins, & Co. which produced wall and floor tiles.  By the 1850s, the latter firm was the largest tile manufacturer in England, and installations included the Royal Palaces of Windsor, the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, and the U.S. Capitol.  The company survives today as a prestigious line of Johnson Tiles.

The artist for this series of tiles was John Moyr Smith (1839-1912), who served as the head designer of picture tiles for Minton from 1872 to 1879.  Smith produced over twenty series of transfer-printed tiles which drew their inspiration from Greek mythology, English history, the works of Shakespeare and other authors, and fables.  His execution of simple classical figures and background imagery in sharp outline show the influence of a group of artists calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 

Minton’s block transfer technique was used to create these tiles.  A copper plate etched with the design was inked with a solution containing pigments, linseed oil and resin.  This image was transferred by rolling and pressing paper onto the copper plate and allowing it to dry.  The paper was then removed from the plate and applied to a tile to transfer the image to the surface of the tile.  It was then permanently affixed to the tile through firing. 

The tragic love poem by Tennyson depicting the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Elaine is told in five parts:

The first tile shows Lancelot meeting Elaine and her brother after being lost in the woods.  Elaine instantly falls in love with Lancelot, who informs Elaine’s father, Lord of Astolat, that he will participate in a tournament.  To return the Lord’s kindness to him, Lancelot agrees to wear Elaine’s favor in the diamond jousting competition.

In the second tile, a victorious Lancelot returns from the tournament, suffering from a lance wound in his side.  Sir Gawaine gives Elaine the victor’s diamond, informing her that it was the legendary Lancelot who had fought for her.  Elaine goes to find Lancelot.

The third tile shows Elaine following her confession of love to Lancelot, who has been restored to health by Elaine’s care.  Although Lancelot cares for Elaine, he cannot put aside his deep love for Guinivere, and refuses Elaine’s proposal of marriage.  Elaine mutters, “Him or death, death or him,” sings The Song of Love and Death, and collapses.  Lancelot departs with no goodbye, hoping this will end her love for him.

In the fourth tile, Elaine will not be dissuaded of her love for Lancelot.  Her father and brothers tell her that Lancelot is Queen Guinivere’s lover, unbeknownst to her husband, King Arthur.  Elaine refuses to believe them.  Unable to attain Lancelot’s love, despairing Elaine wills herself to die.

The last tile follows Elaine’s death.  Her body is being prepared for burial in the sacred graveyard by King Arthur; Guinivere stands by his side.  Lancelot confesses to her in death that all of his accomplishments mean nothing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Honoring Four Decades of Service

On Sunday June 12, 2011 during the reception following our popular annual “A Walk Through Time” tour of the mansions of Prairie Avenue, the museum took the opportunity to mark an important milestone in our history.  The formal tour program at the museum, with trained docents at its core, turned forty years old and it was an opportunity to celebrate.

On June 12, 1971, the first docent class graduation was held, on the steps of what is now the Chicago Cultural Center.  At that time, Glessner House Museum was owned and operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), so the curriculum for the class was much different from today.  In addition to Glessner, docents received an in-depth training about Chicago architecture, with a focus on downtown, as CAF also offered a walking tour of the central Loop.  The docent class was the brain-child of Marion Despres (shown above in the foreground), one of the small group of individuals who saved Glessner from demolition in 1966, and Jeanette Fields, the first executive director of the museum.  It was a revolutionary idea that ushered in the concept of architectural tourism in Chicago and elsewhere.

One member of the original 1971 class continues as a docent today.  Robert F. Irving has provided thousands of hours of service to countless numbers of visitors to Chicago who have come to see not only Glessner House Museum, but Clarke House Museum, Second Presbyterian Church, Charnley-Persky House, and the city as a whole.  Irving, who spent the first part of the afternoon regaling visitors with stories as he led them through the Wheeler Mansion at 2020 S. Calumet was on hand for a special tribute.

After opening remarks by museum director William Tyre, the floor was given over to Jason Neises, who spoke about Irving’s enormous contributions to the CAF tour program, helping to make Chicago a destination for visitors from around the globe, who come to learn more about the amazing architecture of this city.  As Neises noted, Irving’s greatest single contribution to CAF was his development of the now immensely popular river cruise, which had its genesis in a private tour given by Irving nearly 30 years ago during the annual NEOCON conference.  Today, the river cruise is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.

Jackie Walker-Dunscomb, chair of the Glessner House Museum Docent Council, spoke next.  In her brief and inspiring remarks she summed up the high level of esteem in which Bob Irving is held by the docents, citing him as an inspiration to all who have followed, and declaring him a true legend. 

Ann Belletire, speaking as chair of the tour program for Friends of Historic Second Church, regaled the audience with amusing emails sent to her by Bob Irving, reporting on his experiences during weekly tours of the church.  As Ann noted, Irving’s mastery of the English language and use of words and phrases usually found only in the great English classics, often sent her to the dictionary to fully understand what Bob was trying to say.

Bill Tyre returned to the floor to share a story from Kevin Harrington, long-time professor of architectural history at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Harrington recalled being interviewed by Irving in 1978 and soon after being treated to his first tour of Glessner house by Bob, an event which left a deep and lasting impression.

Finally Tyre read an excerpt from “My Life,” the autobiography of Bill Clinton, who was privileged to have Irving as a professor during his years at Georgetown University.  Of Dr. Irving, Clinton writes:

“My other two teachers were real characters.  Robert Irving taught English to freshmen who were unprepared for his rapid-fire, acid commentary on the propensity of freshmen to be verbose and imprecise.  He wrote withering comments in the margins of essays, calling one of his students “a capricious little bilge pump,” responding to another’s expression of chagrin with “turned into a cabbage, did you?”  My papers received more pedestrian rebukes: in the margins or at the end, Dr. Irving wrote “awk” for awkward, “ugh,” “rather dull, pathetic.”  On one paper I saved, he finally wrote “clever and thoughtful,” only to follow it by asking me to “next time be a sport” and write my essay on “better paper”!  One day Dr. Irving read aloud an essay one of his former students had written on Marvell to illustrate the importance of using language with care.  The student noted that Marvell loved his wife even after she died, then added the unfortunate sentence, “Of course physical love, for the most part, ends after death.”  Irving roared, “For the most part! For the most part! I suppose to some people, there’s nothing better on a warm day than a nice cold corpse!”  That was a little rich for a bunch of eighteen-year-old Catholic school kids and one Southern Baptist.  Wherever he is today, I dread the thought of Dr. Irving reading this book, and can only imagine the scorching comments he’s scribbling in the margins.”

After a few remarks by Bob Irving where he commented on the joys of service and the many life-long friendships that have been formed, guests were treated to cake, and Irving was presented with gifts in grateful appreciation for his 40 years of service.  A fitting tribute to an extraordinary individual who is an inspiration to us all.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Museum recreates groundbreaking of 125 years ago

On Wednesday June 1, 2011, over ninety members, friends, and volunteers of Glessner House Museum gathered in the coach house to launch the 18-month celebration to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the building of Glessner House.  A highlight of the evening was the recreation of the groundbreaking ceremony which the Glessner family held on June 1, 1886.

From John Glessner’s The Story of a House, written for his children George and Frances (Fanny), we know the following regarding the events of that day:

“The house was built in 1886.  On the morning of June 1st of that year, I sent word from my office to your mother that wheelbarrows, spades and picks had just then been sent to the site of our proposed new home, that digging would begin at one o’clock, and if she would take Frances and nurse, etc. in the carriage, and let George drive my horse and buggy and stop at the office for me, and all of us reach the site soon after twelve o’clock, you two children — George then fourteen and a half years and Frances a little more than eight years old — might throw the first soil from the foundation trenches.  And that we did.”

A highlight of the recreation of this ceremony was to have the Glessners’ eldest great-grandchild, John Maxim Lee (pictured above), now 84, participate by turning the soil, just as his grandmother and great-uncle did 125 years ago.  John Maxim Lee and his wife Rosalie traveled from their home in Connecticut for the event.

Two Madame Alfred Carriere white climbing roses will be planted in the two holes dug by John Lee during the ceremony to represent John and Frances Glessner and to commemorate the 125th anniversary.  This particular rose was chosen because it was developed in 1879, and would have been available at the time the house was built.

The event also marked the official launch of the museum’s 125th anniversary fundraising campaign, the goal of which is to raise $125,000 for restoration projects by December 2012.  By the end of the evening, $21,000 in pledges had been received, a glorious and encouraging beginning to the campaign.

The unveiling of the reprint of Glessner’s The Story of a House and two exhibits – one on H. H. Richardson, and one showcasing architecture and design books from the Glessners’ library - provided an exciting sequence of events.  The evening closed with a presentation from museum director and curator Bill Tyre, who provided a fascinating look at events in the world, the nation, Chicago, and Prairie Avenue in 1886, placing the building of the Glessner House into its proper context.
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