Monday, April 27, 2015

Remembering Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln funeral procession in Chicago

The nation was in deep mourning 150 years ago following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  At 11:00am on Monday May 1, 1865 the funeral train arrived at Union Depot in Chicago.  The procession, which proceeded down Michigan Avenue to Lake Street and then on Clark Street to Court House Square, was said to rival New York’s in terms of size and grandeur.  The coffin was placed in the Court House and opened for public viewing at 6:00pm, remaining open through the night and all of the next day.  It is estimated that 7,000 people per hour filed passed the coffin.  At 8:00pm on Tuesday May 2, a hearse carried the coffin to the depot of the St. Louis and Alton Railroad and the funeral train departed for its final destination - Springfield.

One of the most popular objects on display in the house is the bronze life mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln, which occupy a place of honor on the library desk.  The following information relates how the objects were made and how John Glessner came into possession of his set.

Chicago sculptor Leonard W. Volk first met Lincoln in 1858 during Lincoln’s historic debates with Stephen Douglas.  During that meeting, Lincoln promised to sit for the sculptor.  In April 1860, Volk saw a newspaper article announcing Lincoln’s arrival in Chicago to argue a case.  Volk went to the courthouse and reminded Lincoln of his old promise.  Lincoln readily agreed to begin sitting, paying a visit to Volk’s studio each morning for a week.  If he could take a mask of Lincoln’s face, Volk explained, the number of sittings could be greatly reduced.  At the session where the mask was made, Lincoln sat in a chair and carefully watched every move Volk made by way of a mirror on the opposite wall.  The plaster was carefully applied without interfering with Lincoln’s eyesight or breathing through the nostrils.  After an hour, the mold was ready to be removed.  Lincoln bent his head low and gradually worked it off without breaking or injury, although in the process he did pull a few hairs from his temples, causing his eyes to water.  Lincoln continued to sit for Volk for five days after the mask was prepared, Lincoln entertaining Volk with “some of the funniest and most laughable of stories.”

The next month, Volk was on the train to Springfield when he heard the news of Lincoln’s nomination by the Republicans.  He arrived in Springfield and rushed to Lincoln’s house, announcing to the astonished candidate, “I am the first man from Chicago, I believe, who has the honor of congratulating you on your nomination for President.”  Volk insisted that he now must execute a full-length statue of Lincoln, and Lincoln agreed to provide Volk with appropriate photographs of himself, while Volk would take his measurements as well as make casts of his hands.  Volk appeared at the Lincoln’s home on the next Sunday morning and set to work in the dining room.  He suggested that Lincoln should be holding something in his right hand for the cast.  Lincoln disappeared to the woodshed and returned whittling off the end of a piece of broom handle.  When Volk said that was not necessary, Lincoln remarked cheerfully, “I thought I would like to have it nice.”  Volk noticed that the right hand was still severely swollen from the handshaking of Lincoln’s latest campaign – a difference that is visible in the casts.  Volk commented on a scar on Lincoln’s left thumb, and Lincoln explained that it was a souvenir of his days as a rail-splitter.  “One day, while I was sharpening a wedge on a log, the ax glanced and nearly took my thumb off.”  After the casts were completed, Volk set off for Chicago with the molds, photographs, a black suit left over from Lincoln’s 1858 campaign, and a pair of Lincoln’s pegged boots.

Leonard W. Volk

Volk never completed the statue, and later gave the casts of Lincoln’s face and hands to his son Douglas, himself an artist, who later passed them on to a fellow art student, Wyatt Eaton.  During the winter of 1885-1886, Richard Watson Gilder saw the casts in Eaton’s studio and immediately grasped their significance.   

On February 1, 1886, Gilder, along with his friends Augustus St. Gaudens and Thomas B. Clarke, sent out a letter to a select group of individuals which read in part:
“The undersigned have undertaken to obtain the subscription of fifty dollars each, from not less than twenty persons, for the purchase from Mr. Douglas Volk of the original casts taken by his father, the sculptor, Mr. Leonard W. Volk, from the living face and hands of Abraham Lincoln, to be presented, together with bronze replicas thereof, to the Government of the United States for preservation in the National Museum at Washington.
“The subscribers are themselves each to be furnished with replicas of the three casts, in plaster or bronze.  If in plaster, there will be no extra charge beyond the regular subscription of $50; if the complete set is desired in bronze, the subscription will be for $85 . . .
“Those wishing to take part in the subscriptions will notify at once either of the undersigned.”

Subscriptions were apparently received rapidly.  Frances Glessner recorded the following entry in her journal on May 30, 1886:
Last week we got a bronze cast of Lincoln’s life mask and hands made by Douglas (sic) Volk – a few copies have been made to raise funds enough to give the originals to the government.”
The underside of the life mask contains the following inscription:
The stump end of each hand contains the following inscription:

In December 1887, when the Glessners moved into their new home on Prairie Avenue, the mask and hands were placed on display in the library, where they remain today for visitors to appreciate.

In 1888, the original plaster mask and hands, together with the first bronze casts, were presented to the National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution) along with an elaborate illuminated manuscript which read in part:
“This case contains the first cast made in the mold taken from the living face of ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Leonard W. Volk sculptor in Chicago in the year 1860.  Also the first casts made in the molds from Lincoln’s hands likewise made by Leonard W. Volk in Springfield Illinois, on the Sunday following Lincoln’s nomination for the Presidency in May 1860.  Also the first bronze casts of the facemold, and bronze casts of the hands.  Presented to the Government of the United States for deposit in the National Museum by Thirty Three Subscribers.”
The list of subscribers includes the name of J. J. Glessner, as well as J. Q. A. Ward, Frances Glessner’s first cousin, a talented sculptor who created the bronze standing Shakespeare on display in the library.  Ward and St. Gaudens were close friends, and it is possible that Ward suggested that St. Gaudens include John Glessner on the mailing list, when the original subscription letter was mailed in February 1886.

Original mask and hands on display at the Smithsonian
along with an original death mask

John Glessner was a Sustaining Member of the Lincoln Centennial Association, organized in 1909, and renamed The Abraham Lincoln Association in 1929.  His library contained over three dozen books and booklets on Lincoln, which he kept on a shelf in the southeast bookcase in the library.  The books include such standards as Carl Sandburg’s two volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, as well as more obscure titles, many of which were issued by the Association.  An interesting volume, of which only 750 copies were printed, is Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire, which recounts Lincoln’s visit to that state in 1860.  The author, Elwin L. Page, was a friend of George and Alice Glessner, and Alice presented the volume to her father-in-law upon its publication in 1929.

John Glessner also owned a photograph of Lincoln.  The cabinet card, featuring an image taken at Eaton’s Studios, carried the following inscription:  “For Mrs. Lucy G. Speed, from whose pious hand I accepted the present of an Oxford Bible twenty years ago.  Washington, D.C., October 3, 1861.  A. Lincoln.”  Lucy G. Speed was the mother of Lincoln’s closest friend, Joshua F. Speed, and had presented the Bible to Lincoln during his visit to the Speed home in August 1841, in the hopes of relieving his depression and melancholia.  The original photograph remained in the Speed family until the 1990s, so apparently copies were made, one of which was purchased by John Glessner.  The photograph was donated to the Chicago Historical Society in April 1940 by Frances Glessner Lee.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

On Sunday April 26, 1915, exactly one hundred years ago, John Glessner made the following notation in his wife’s journal:

“Frances & I drove out to see the new tuberculosis institute belonging to Cook Co. – a large fine institution.”

The Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium opened on February 16, 1915 and was owned and managed by the City of Chicago (not Cook County).  At a time when tuberculosis was a very serious health threat and there were numerous sanitariums across the country, the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium had the distinction of being the largest in the country with a capacity of 950 beds.

In 1911, the city bought 158 acres of land from Pehr Peterson, who operated a huge tree nursery on the property.  Peterson established the nursery in the late 1800s, providing trees and shrubs to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, as well as most of the trees in Lincoln Park, and the majority of trees planted on Chicago’s parkways and boulevards.

The tract of land was located in the extreme northwest section of the city, running east from Crawford Avenue (now Pulaski Road) and south of Peterson Avenue.  The beautiful natural setting was considered ideal for the treatment of the disease, and well-known landscape architect O. C. Simonds was responsible for the landscape design.  A large section of the land was reserved for farming and gardening.  Architects Otis & Clark designed the buildings, many with a strong Prairie School or Craftsman feel to them.  Jarvis Hunt later designed the auditorium.

The grounds were divided into two main sections - the south section containing cottages for women, the north section for men.  There were originally 28 cottages of which 20 were used for adults and eight for children, with a total capacity of about 380 beds.  Twelve additional cottages were built later.  

To the east of the main administration building were two dining halls, one each for men and women.  For those patients requiring more extensive care, a group of infirmary buildings had a capacity of about 300 beds.  At the far east end of the property were the service buildings including the power house and a laundry.  Other buildings located on the grounds included the nurses’ building, a garage, and a farmhouse and barns.

Vaccines, drugs, and improved public hygiene greatly reduced the incidence of the disease during the 1950s and 1960s, and the last patients were housed at the facility in the 1970s at which time it was closed.   After sitting unused for several years, plans were announced to raze the buildings and construct condominiums and strip malls on the land.  Neighborhood activists rallied support to preserve the property and were successful, leading to the creation of what is known today as North Park Village.  

The property was redeveloped reusing many of the original structures which now provide senior citizen housing and a school for the developmentally disabled, as well as a nature preserve, and parkland.  In 1989, an easement was enacted to prevent any development of the property and to ensure the preservation of the natural landscape for 75 years.

The Chicago Park District began leasing and redeveloping the site in 1977, and in April 2004, it officially became part of the CPD.  Today visitors can experience everything from a forest to a prairie, and a wetland to an oak savanna, in addition to numerous public programs including a Maple Sugar Festival, Harvest Festival, and City Wilds Fest.   It has proven to be a wonderful example of adaptive reuse, preserving the architecture and natural setting of this hidden gem in the city of Chicago.

For more information on the North Park Village Nature Center, visit:

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Marshall Field Wholesale Store

The Marshall Field Wholesale Store, although gone for 85 years now, is still considered among the most important commercial structures constructed during the last half of the nineteenth century.  Virtually every book dealing with American architecture makes reference to this Chicago edifice, both for its own design and for the impact it had on later buildings in the city and across the country.  

By the time of the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871, Marshall Field had established himself as one of the giants of commerce in the city of Chicago.  His company was known for its innovative and groundbreaking policies, and consisted of two divisions for retail and wholesale.  The building which they shared was destroyed in the fire, giving Field the opportunity to construct new buildings for each.  In 1872, he completed a five-story structure at Madison and Water (now Wacker) to house the wholesale division, but within a decade, the division was already outgrowing its space, as Field continued to add new product lines.  By May 1881 he had purchased all the lots on the block bordered by Adams, Fifth (now Wells), Quincy, and Franklin. 

In 1885, Field contacted architect Henry Hobson Richardson with the proposition of designing a new building on the site.  Richardson completed preliminary plans by summer and in October travelled to Chicago to unveil the finished plans and sign the contract.  An article in the Chicago Tribune said in part:

“Beauty will be one of the objects aimed at in the plans, but it will be the beauty of material and symmetry rather than of mere superficial ornamentation.  H. H. Richardson, the famous architect . . . has long had certain ideas which he wished to embody in such a building . . . It will be as plain as it can be made, the effects depending on the relations of the ‘voids and solids’ – that is, on the proportion of the parts . . . The structure will be a distinct advance in the architecture of buildings devoted to commercial purposes in this country.”

By December 1885, the foundation was in and the stonework was underway, but the building did not even begin to approach completion before Richardson’s untimely death in April 1886.  This saddened him greatly, as evidenced by the following account of his final days written by his first biographer, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer:

“The two weeks which passed before he died were weeks of infinite restlessness and pain; but he never complained and never lost his spirits, his hopefulness, or his keen interest in the work that was going on in the offices below.  The day he died he talked confidently to his doctor about his tasks and aspirations, and declared once more that what he wanted was ‘to live two years to see the Pittsburgh Court-house and the Chicago store complete.’  These, he said, were the works he wished to be judged by.”

The statistics for the building were staggering for the time.  The completed structure stood seven stories high, with full basement on spread foundations.  It fronted 325 feet on Adams and 190 feet on Franklin and Wells, and was 130 feet tall.  The plan encompassed 61,750 square feet per floor, totaling almost twelve acres of floor space, which could accommodate 1,800 employees.  The final cost of $888,807 was an enormous sum of money at the time, but just a fraction of the sales of the wholesale division for 1887, which were over $23,000,000.  Marshall Field owned the land and the building personally, and leased it back to his company.  The Wholesale Store opened on June 20, 1887, amid little fanfare in comparison to the opening of the retail store. 

The load-bearing outer walls were brick covered by rock-faced Missouri red granite up to the second-floor windowsills, and East Longmeadow red sandstone above.  The structure was impressive both for its overall size and for the size of the stones used.  Adjectives such as “enormous,” “palatial,” “Cyclopean,” “immense,” and “mammoth” were used to describe it in contemporary accounts.  These terms are not surprising, given that the stones in the granite base were larger than those utilized in any other building in the city.  The first-floor window sills alone were nearly eighteen feet long.

The second through fourth floors were tied together by the main arcade stretching thirteen bays on Adams and seven each on Franklin and Wells between broad corner piers ornamented with boltels.  The fifth and sixth floors were also joined by an arcade having two arches over every one for the floors below.  Groups of four rectangular openings marked the top floor creating a horizontal band above the vertically thrusting arches.  

Above this was the crocketted cornice in Gothic style “vigorously and crudely cut, to be in scale with the whole mass which it terminates.”  The plate glass windows, set in wood framed double-hung sash were recessed to the inner face of the walls to emphasize the thickness of the stone when viewed from the exterior.

Architectural critics and historians have noted the significance of the building from the day it was completed.  Richardson’s biographer Van Rensselaer said in part:

“No cathedral, however magnificent in scheme or perfect in detail, would be worth so much to us as the Pittsburgh Court-house or the great simple Field Building at Chicago . . . The Field Building is in one way his most remarkable. . . No building could more frankly express its purpose or be most self-denying in the use of ornament.  In short, the vast, plain building is as carefully studied as the smallest and most elaborate could be, and is a text-book of instruction in treatment no less than in composition.”

When Richardson’s work was the subject of an exhibit organized by the Department of Architecture of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1930s, its catalog went so far as to say that:

“The Field Store is Richardson’s most important building . . . Richardson shows in the Field Store that commercial architecture might have its own honest distinction, independent both of the past and of other contemporary types of design.”

The Wholesale Store had a profound impact on other architects of the day.  Perhaps none of them was more affected than Louis Sullivan, who immediately incorporated ideas he gleaned from the Wholesale Store into such projects as the Standard Club, the Walker Warehouse and, especially, the Auditorium.  Carl Condit, in his book The Chicago School of Architecture, stated:

“The decisive change in the plans of the Auditorium came as the result of the influence of Richardson’s Marshall Field Store.  Both Sullivan and (Ferdinand) Peck had a profound admiration for the earlier building; in addition, the board of the Opera Association saw many possible economies in the adoption of its simplicity.  Fortunately, for architects everywhere, Sullivan abandoned his propensity for elaborate exterior ornament and concentrated on the architectonic effect of mass, texture, and the proportioning and scaling of large and simple elements . . .”

In spite of all the praise lavished on the building, it was pure economics that eventually led to its demolition.  By the early 1920s, the wholesale division was in serious trouble.  The railroad and especially the automobile made it easier for rural residents to travel into larger cities to shop; spelling disaster for the country merchants who had been wholesale’s best customers.  Additionally, many of the merchants in the small towns succumbed to manufacturer’s appeals to buy direct at lower prices, and the success of huge mail-order houses further contributed to the decline of wholesale.  In an effort to breathe new life into the wholesale division, plans were announced in 1927 for the construction of a huge new facility, covering two city blocks, and containing 4,000,000 square feet of space.  The new building, known as the Merchandise Mart, served as the death knell for Richardson’s Wholesale Store building.

The Merchandise Mart opened in 1930 and the company engaged Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to draw up specifications for the demolition of the old building.  The massive structure was reduced to rubble by mid-summer to accommodate a parking lot.  Little was salvaged other than machinery and equipment, lighting fixtures, brass rails, gates and revolving doors.  The granite and sandstone, so praised for its visual impact, was used as fill to create a level surface for the asphalt parking lot.  

Two sandstone capitals did survive and were later found supporting the “Horace Oakley Memorial Bench” at the Lake Zurich Golf Club.  They were subsequently moved and are now installed amongst other significant Chicago architectural fragments in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Graham Foundation.  A plaster casting of one of the capitals has just been installed in the visitor’s center at Glessner House Museum, adjacent to the permanent exhibit on H. H. Richardson.

Ironically, Richardson’s American Merchant’s Express Building was destroyed by fire the same year that the Wholesale Store was demolished.   The residence designed for Franklin MacVeagh had been razed in 1922, leaving only the Glessner house to serve as a legacy of Richardson’s impact on Chicago.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

Blind Tom and "The Battle of Manassas"

The museum is fortunate to possess a large collection of piano music belonging to Frances Glessner.  She was an accomplished pianist by an early age, continued to actively play throughout her lifetime, and especially enjoyed four hand arrangements which she played with her friends.  Many of the pieces bear the name “Frances Macbeth” on the covers, indicating that they were acquired prior to her marriage in 1870.  This week, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, we will look at the story behind one of these pieces of music entitled “The Battle of Manassas,” composed by Blind Tom.

The First Battle of Bull Run, popularly known as First Manassas by the Confederates, was fought on July 21, 1861 near Manassas, Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C.  It was the first major battle of the Civil War, engaging approximately 18,000 troops on both the Union and Confederate sides.  As it was the first significant battle, the troops had received little training.  In the end, the Confederate forces were victorious, and the Union troops hastily retreated toward Washington, D.C.  But it was a sobering moment for both sides, who were shocked by the large numbers of casualties and the realization that the war would not be quickly won.  An interesting side note is that during the battle, troops serving under the Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson were noted for standing their ground, earning the general the now famous nickname of “Stonewall Jackson.” 

Blind Tom Wiggins was an extraordinary musician and during the mid- to late-19th century was one of the greatest musical sensations of his age.  He was born into slavery in 1848 in Georgia, and being blind at birth, was considered worthless by his master.  Were it not for the fact that soon after, his entire family was sold to another plantation, the story could have ended there.  After the family was purchased by General James Bethune, Tom began to exhibit interesting behavior, mimicking the sounds he would hear around him from a crowing rooster to the sound of rain on the roof.  By the time he was four, he was sneaking into the music room of General Bethune’s home to play the piano.  The general realized the musical gifts of the young boy and moved him into the main house to nurture his talent.  He began performing publicly by the age of six.

One of his amazing abilities was to repeat compositions exactly, after hearing them just one time.  By the end of his career, it was estimated that he could play nearly 7,000 pieces from memory.  Being a blind slave in the 1850s South, Blind Tom was promoted in freak shows rather than great concert halls.  His promoter called him “a gorgon with angel’s wings,” a reference to Tom’s transformation from an awkward twitching young boy once he started to play the piano.  His fame spread and he was invited to play for President James Buchanan, becoming the first African-American musician to officially perform in the White House.   

As the Civil War began to rage, the sounds of war fascinating Blind Tom – from the drum and fife to the boom of the cannons.  Recreating these sounds on the piano, he wrote what would become his most famous composition, The Battle of Manassas, published in 1862 when he was just fourteen years old.  Incorporating bits and pieces of several well known melodies used by both the Confederate and Union troops, the song, with its ingenious improvisations, accurately depicted each part of the battle from the approaching troops through the heat of battle and the victory and retreat.  Audiences were mesmerized by the music, and throughout the remainder of his career, Blind Tom would play the piece at every performance.

Final page of The Battle of Manassas

Following the Civil War, Blind Tom spent many years on the road performing all across the United States, Canada, and Europe.  One of his most amazing feats involved playing one piece with his right hand, a second entirely different piece (in a different key) with his left hand, while singing a third piece (in yet another key), all of them perfectly performed.  After amazing his audiences, he would do it again, this time with his back to the piano!  Mark Twain had the opportunity to ride a train from Galena to Chicago with Blind Tom once, later writing how Tom accurately repeated the sounds of the train during the entire journey. 

During these years, Blind Tom was exploited by his promoters and guardians, and eventually became known as the “Last American Slave.”  In his mid-twenties, he was judged to be insane, and his earnings (estimated at several million dollars today) were given to General Bethune to support his own lifestyle.  After the General’s death in 1884, there was a battle for control of Tom’s earnings, with his daughter-in-law ultimately winning custody.  During the 1890s he no longer performed, many believing he had died in the Johnstown Flood of 1889.  But he did make a brief reappearance on the vaudeville stage in the early 1900s.

Blind Tom died from a stroke in 1908 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery.  Today a plaque marks the burial place of this extraordinary genius.  In recent years, Blind Tom has been the subject of a comprehensive biography, The Ballad of Blind Tom, published by author Deirdre O’Connell in 2009, and a documentary by Andre T. Regan entitled The Last Legal Slave in America. 

For more information on Blind Tom and his music visit the website  To hear a performance of “TheBattle of Manassas” click here.  
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