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)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Parlor restoration part III - the Morris draperies

William Morris textiles and wallpapers were used extensively by the Glessners for their new home when it was completed in 1887.  Although the original wallpaper in the parlor was not a Morris design, the Glessners did select a Morris textile for the window draperies and the portieres in the doorway leading to the dining room.  In addition, two pairs of exceptional hand-embroidered Morris portieres were selected for use on the twin doorways leading to the main hall.  (These portieres were donated to the Art Institute in 1918 by the Glessners and were not reproduced in the current restoration).

The Kennet design chosen for the draperies was a popular Morris design registered by the company in October 1883.  Available in a number of colorways in printed cotton, velveteen, or woven silk, the design consisted of a large 27.5” repeat of two types of flowers with distinctive foliage vining upwards on the fabric.  The textile for the parlor, produced by Morris & Company at their Merton Abbey Works, was executed in tones of coral and light pink, which coordinated beautifully with the Italian Sienna marble on the fireplace.  It was a silk, satin weave with self-patterning ground wefts bound in twill interlacing.  Silk brush fringe and large tiebacks completed the ensemble at the windows.  Historic photos show that the draperies were always pulled open, with the only other covering on the windows being simple linen shades.  This would be consistent with Richardson’s idea for the house whereby the main rooms, including the parlor, faced south to capture abundant natural light and bring it into these spaces.

In 1971, the Glessners’ granddaughter Martha Batchelder donated a large fragment of one of the drapery panels (shown above) to the Art Institute of Chicago where it was displayed as recently as 2010 during the Apostles of Beauty exhibition.  This fragment was used to correctly identify the five colors used to create the textile.  The design itself was created digitally and printed on a sateen fabric to closely replicate the sheen of the original.  Production was executed by Trustworth Studios of Plymouth Massachusetts, the same company that produced the digital version of the Morris & Company Blossom wallpaper installed in Fanny Glessner’s bedroom in August 2009. 

Work is rapidly being completed in the parlor.  This week the wall covering is being installed and the drapes are being assembled.  The formal dedication of the restored parlor will take place on Friday October 14 beginning with a reception at , followed by the dedication and a talk by architect/historian John Waters on William Pretyman, designer of the wall covering.  For reservations, call 312.326.1480.
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