Monday, August 31, 2015

John M. Van Osdel, Chicago's First Architect

John Mills Van Osdel was Chicago’s first professional architect, shaping the city from its earliest days through the Chicago Fire and beyond.  Although Van Osdel’s output was huge, only a small number of his buildings remain today to remind us of this seminal figure in the development of Chicago’s architectural profession.

Van Osdel was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1811, the son of a carpenter.  He took up his father’s profession at an early age, carpentry at that time also including architecture, and he became deeply interested in the subject.  At the age of 19 he opened a school for prospective draftsmen and three years later published a book on carpentry.  In 1836, he relocated to New York, where he met William B. Ogden, a New York State assemblyman.  When Ogden moved to Chicago soon after, he invited Van Osdel to come with him to design his house, built on the block surrounded by Rush, Erie, Wabash, and Ontario.  This proved to be an important commission – Ogden was elected the first mayor of Chicago in 1837.

Frank Randall, in his volume History of Chicago Building, recounts the challenges the young Van Osdel faced when he first arrived in Chicago, as told by Van Osdel to Inland Architect in 1883:

“Passing from the landing toward Mr. Ogden’s office on Kinzie Street, he noticed a block of three buildings, three stories high, the fronts of which had fallen outward, and laid prone upon the street . . . the frost of the preceding winter had penetrated to a great depth below the foundations, and the buildings having a south front, the sun acting upon the frozen quicksand under the south half of the block rendered it incapable of sustaining the weight of the building.  At the same time, the rear or north part of the block, being in shadow, the frozen ground thawed gradually, and continued to support the weight resting on it. . . The front settled fourteen inches more than the rear, making all floors fourteen inches out of level from front to rear.  This movement pressed the upper part of the front wall outward beyond its center of gravity and it fell to the ground.”

Van Osdel’s first task was to restore this “ill-fated structure” and convert it to dwellings.  Over the next two years, Van Osdel designed two steamboats, built the first bridge across the north branch of the Chicago River, and assisted with the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal by building water pumps powered by a horizontal windmill, receiving the first patent ever issued for a citizen of Chicago.  He returned to New York for a year to serve as building department editor of the periodical American Mechanic (later Scientific American), but was back in Chicago in 1841.  After designing some of the first grain elevators in the city and co-founding an iron foundry, he opened his architectural office, the first in the city.  

Van Osdel recalled:

“In the winter of 1844 when builders were their own architects, some leading builders proposed to me that I open an architect’s office, pledging themselves not to make any drawings or construct any building of importance without a plan.  With this promise, I undertook to do so, and opened an office on Clark Street between the City Hall and the Post Office, occupying the site of the present Sherman House.  No one had ever used an architect and it was difficult to convince the owners of the necessity of such a branch of the building business.”

City Hall/County Building 1853

Van Osdel’s reputation quickly grew and he was awarded important commissions including both the 1848 and 1853 city hall and county courthouse, in addition to hotels, business blocks, and residences.

Executive Mansion, Springfield, c. 1860

Van Osdel designed many additional buildings throughout Illinois and the Midwest including the McHenry County Courthouse in Woodstock (now the Old Courthouse Arts Center), and a residence for Governor Joel Aldrich Matteson in Springfield, which serves today as the Executive Mansion for the State of Illinois.

Starting in 1856, Van Osdel meticulously recorded the information about his buildings and his career in large ledger books.  Henry Ericsson, in his autobiography Sixty Years a Builder, recalls how Van Osdel preserved his books during the Great Chicago Fire:

“When, on that fateful and tragic night of October 8, 1871, John M. Van Osdel saw across the sky the flames advancing so menacingly toward the business section of the city, he hurried from his West Side home to his office where he gathered his priceless books, papers and records, and took them to the Palmer House . . . Two stories of the Palmer House were up, and from his working office there Van Osdel scooped up its plans, and with his other materials, went to the basement, where he dug a pit into which he carefully packed his books, instruments and papers.  He covered them with sand two-feet deep, and over all he patted down with his hands a thick layer of damp clay.  It is doubtful if any other incident of the great fire influenced building in a more important way, as we shall see, than Van Osdel’s tamping down with his hands this layer of clay over his precious working materials. . .”

Van Osdel's ledger books;
now at the Chicago History Museum

Just two years after the fire, Van Osdel encased the iron beams of his Kendall building with hollow clay tiles – the first fireproof building in Chicago.

Palmer House, completed 1875

Van Osdel’s office took in as many commissions as it could possibly handle in the years immediately following the Fire.  Significant projects included the rebuilding of the Palmer House Hotel, the 1872 and 1885 City Halls, and countless office buildings and hotels.  The buildings at 129-139 N. Wabash Avenue, built for the Burton Estate, Peck family, and Couch Estate between 1872 and 1877 still stand, their classic Italianate facades typifying much of Van Osdel’s work of this period.

1834 S. Prairie Avenue

Van Osdel designed two houses on Chicago’s exclusive Prairie Avenue.  The first of these, at 1834 S. Prairie Avenue, was built in 1866 for one of Chicago’s earliest pioneers – Fernando Jones.  Jones was head of the abstract firm of Fernando Jones and Company, which merged with firms in 1877 to form Chicago Title and Trust Company.  The Italianate style house was razed in 1942.

2140 S. Prairie Avenue

The second home was constructed in 1876 for William F. Tucker at 2140 S. Prairie Avenue, at the northwest corner of Twenty-Second Street (now Cermak Road).  The sizeable, Gothic-style residence was sold in 1881 to Byron L. Smith, founder and president of the Northern Trust Company.  It was razed in 1936.

Van Osdel received other commissions from Prairie Avenue residents as well, including a four-story office block for Silas B. Cobb at 165 W. Lake Street in 1872, and an office building for Robert Law at 230 S. Franklin in 1887.

His last commission was the Monon Building, located at 436-444 S. Dearborn Street.  It was the first 13-story building in the world. 

In the early 1880s, Van Osdel moved to the south side, residing for a short time at 2401 South Park Avenue before making his final move to a residence at 2310 S. Indiana Avenue.  It was here that he died on December 21, 1891 at the age of 80.  He was interred at Rosehill Cemetery.  His wife remained in the house until her death in December 1895.  It was razed in the early 1900s during the rapid transformation of the neighborhood, and a business structure was constructed on the site.

Page Brothers Building

Several of Van Osdel’s surviving buildings have been landmarked.  Among these is the Page Brothers Building, constructed in 1872 at 177-191 N. State Street.  The main entrance of the building was originally on Lake Street, and today that north elevation is one of only two cast-iron facades remaining in the city.  It was landmarked in 1983.

Atwater Building

The Atwater Building was constructed in 1877 at 28 S. Wabash Avenue and was landmarked in 1996.  The red brick Italianate façade was restored in 2009 by Harboe Architects as part of their massive Sullivan Center project.

1516 and 1514 W. Jackson Boulevard

Three surviving residences stand on the 1500 block of West Jackson, part of the Jackson Boulevard District designated in 1976, including the Chisolm house at 1531, and the pair of houses shown above at 1516 and 1514 W. Jackson for the Merriman and Ross families. 

The McCarthy Building in 1951

The McCarthy Building at 32 W. Washington Street (corner of Dearborn) was constructed the year after the Fire and was designated a landmark.  Amid much controversy, the landmark status was revoked in 1987, and the McCarthy was demolished as part of the project to clear Block 37 for redevelopment by the city.

Couch Mausoleum, Lincoln Park

Other familiar commissions around the city include the Couch Mausoleum, the last remaining structure from the Old City Cemetery.  Built in 1857-1858, it now stands near the Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park, the sole reminder of the era in which this was the main burying ground for the city.

Van Osdel also completed the façade and interior of Holy Family Church at 1080 W. Roosevelt.  Started by another architect in 1857, Van Osdel stepped in soon after and completed the building in 1860.

A Chicago Tribute Marker of Distinction was placed at the site of his former home at 2310 S. Indiana Avenue.  The marker program, a joint effort of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the Chicago Tribune, Foundation, and The Chicago Cultural Center Foundation, began in 1997, placing more than 80 markers around the city at sites connected with prominent Chicagoans.  Unfortunately the marker for Van Osdel is no longer standing, but the text can be viewed at

 For more information on Van Osdel, see A Quarter Century of Chicago Architecture by John M. Van Osdel and Conrad Bryant Schaefer, published in 1898.  Also consult the online image library of many of his buildings available at,%20John%20M./mode/exact

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Faded Grandeur and Mystery

While researching the dovecotes at Glessner House recently, we stumbled across an image of a dovecote tower in the Rivington Terraced Gardens, located in Lancashire, England.  The story of the gardens and the recent efforts to preserve their “faded grandeur and mystery” piqued our interest.  This week, we share the story of the Rivington Terraced Gardens, referred to as “one of the largest and most impressive examples of landscape design in Edwardian England,” in the hopes of raising awareness for this little known treasure.

The story of Rivington Terraced Gardens begins with Lord Leverhulme, born William Hesketh Lever in 1851 in the town of Bolton, Lancashire.  Along with brother James, he founded Lever Brothers in 1885 to manufacture soap and other products, under the names of Sunlight, Lux, and Lifebuoy to name but a few.  (The company survives today under the name Unilever).  In 1887, Lever purchased a large tract of land at Cheshire, where he constructed Port Sunlight, a company town for his employees, along the lines of the Town of Pullman in Chicago.  Lever worked with several other large soap manufacturers to form a soap industry trust in 1906, making him one of the wealthiest and most powerful English industrialists of the era.  That same year he was elected to Parliament, and in 1917 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Leverhulme, the latter part of the name being in honor of his wife, Elizabeth Ellen Hulme.  He was a noted philanthropist and was especially generous to his home town of Bolton.

In 1900, Lever purchased the nearby Rivington Hall estate, which consisted of 2,100 acres of land comprising tenanted farms and moorland.  Lever donated 364 acres of the property to the people of Bolton for use as a public park, personally supervising and funding its landscaping and maintenance.  Lever Park opened in 1904 and contained a boating lake, a zoo, and a network of tree-lined avenues and footpaths.  An interesting feature was a folly known as Rivington Castle, which was a scale replica of Liverpool Castle.  

Lodges were built at the entrances to the estate, including Stone House Lodge at the main driveway. 

For his private use, he began terracing 45 acres of the site for elaborate gardens and construction of a large frame bungalow designed by architect Jonathan Simpson, known as Roynton Cottage.  An admirable work of the Arts and Crafts movement, it was destroyed in an arson attack in 1913, led by suffragette Edith Rigby.  A new house, built of stone, was completed in 1915.

The prominent English landscape architect Thomas Hayton Mawson (T. H. Mawson) was hired to design the private gardens between 1905 and 1922.  

The gardens included numerous terraces and a pool, a great lawn, a Japanese lake and pagoda, Italian-style gardens, an impressive seven-arched bridge, a man-made ravine and cascade, and the Dovecote Tower (commonly known as the Pigeon Tower), completed in 1910. 

The Dovecote Tower stands at the northwestern edge of the Terraced Gardens.  The first two floors were designed to house ornamental doves and pigeons.  

The top floor contained a small sitting room with spectacular views overlooking the boating lake.  Lady Lever also used the space as a sewing room and music room.  An interesting feature of the room is the ornate stone fireplace engraved with the initials of William Hesketh and Elizabeth Ellen Lever, which spell the word “WHEEL” set into a circular wheel carved above the family motto, “Mutare Vel Timere Sperno.”  

The three floors are connected by a spiral stone staircase located within the semi-circular tower of the structure. 

It is the semi-circular tower that bears a similarity to the tower set within the courtyard of Glessner House.  Like Lever’s structure, the tower contains a spiral staircase, and leads to the third floor, where the Glessner’s sewing room (and other spaces) is located.  There is no evidence that Lever or Mawson would have known the Glessner tower.  The inspiration for the tower would have come from Italy, the same source of inspiration that would have influenced Richardson’s design of the tower at Glessner House.

Lord Leverhulme died in 1925 and later that year the property was purchased by John Magee, a local brewery owner.  Magee died in 1938 and the property was put up for sale.  During World War II, the bungalow was requisitioned as a billet for wounded troops, and Nissen huts were erected on the grounds.  By the time the war ended in 1945, the significant damage to the stone bungalow led to its demolition.  However, the gardens were opened to the public in 1948 and eleven of the remaining structures are now listed by English Heritage. 

Although the landscape was considered to have national significance, it became heavily overgrown and the structures deteriorated over the years.  In 1997, the Rivington Heritage Trust was organized to oversee the preservation of the landscape, and in 2013 a grant was received to develop a full proposal, which will focus on preserving the “faded grandeur and mystery” of the site for future generations to enjoy. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

An Encounter with Poet Robert Frost

Robert Frost, circa 1910

Exactly 100 years ago, members of the Glessner family were enjoying their bucolic summer estate, The Rocks, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  John Glessner noted in the journal for Sunday, August 8, 1915:

“Frances, George and Alice, George Macbeth, Robert and Anne von Moschzisker at supper, Anne much pleased at having ‘discovered’ and met Robert Frost, a poet, now living on 40 acre farm near Franconia.”

(George Macbeth was Frances Glessner’s brother and lived on a nearby summer estate known as Glamis.  His daughter Anne was married to Robert von Moschzisker, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; he served as Chief Justice from 1921 to 1930).

One can imagine Anne’s delight at “discovering” the poet Robert Frost while touring through the countryside.  Frost (1874-1963) was not yet widely known in the U.S., which may account for John Glessner referring to him as “a poet” as opposed to “the poet.”  Frost and his family had travelled to Great Britain in 1912, and his first two collections of poetry were published there.  He returned to the United States at the start of World War I in 1915 and purchased the property at Franconia, New Hampshire, which included a modest frame house built in the 1860s.  The Frost family would live in the home for five years, and would continue to spend their summers there until 1938.  It was here that Frost launched his successful career as a writer, teacher, and lecturer, eventually being awarded four Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry. 

In 1976, the town of Franconia purchased the house and nine acres of land, restoring it and giving it the name The Frost Place.  Added to the National Register of Historic Places later that year, it opened as a museum in 1977.  

2015 Conference on Poetry and Teaching

It is operated as a nonprofit educational center and hosts annual events including a Conference on Poetry, a Poetry Seminar, and a Conference on Poetry and Teaching.  Each year, Frost Place awards a resident poet award to an emerging American poet; the award includes a stipend and the opportunity to live and write in the house during July and August.

The non-profit organization that operates Frost Place has worked hard to preserve the ambiance that drew Robert Frost to this location.  Situated on a quiet north country lane with a spectacular view of the White Mountains from the front porch, visitors won’t encounter fancy multi-media displays or cafes, but rather “a sense of the kind of place where a young poet could concentrate.”  The collection includes signed first editions of Frost’s works and other memorabilia from his years in the home.  There is also a half-mile nature trail with plaques displaying poems that Frost wrote during his years in Franconia.

Frost Place is located about six miles from the Glessners’ summer estate.  As an interesting note, until earlier this year, the organization maintained their offices on the second floor of Frances Glessner Lee’s home, The Cottage, at The Rocks Estate.

Frost Place is open from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October each year.  For further information, visit    

Monday, August 10, 2015

Helping Hands . . . that talk!

On Thursday August 6, 2015, the Jane Addams Memorial in the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens, entitled Helping Hands, took on new life as part of an innovative program known as Statue Stories Chicago.  Through the program, visitors to the park will be able to use their mobile devices to receive a “call” from the statue to learn more about Nobel Peace Prize winner and social reformer Jane Addams (1860-1935).

Helping Hands was sculpted in 1993 by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), an internationally recognized French-born artist who lived and worked in New York.  For this work, the first major work of art in the Chicago parks to honor a significant woman, Bourgeois chose to create carved black granite hands that sit atop a series of rough hewn stone pedestals set into a circle.   

The sculpture was original installed in 1996 in Jane Addams Memorial Park at Navy Pier.  The site proved to be a less than ideal location for the work, and following vandalism in 2006, it was removed and the damaged pieces were recarved by the artist, then in her mid-90s. 

In 2011, the Chicago Park District, working with Mimi McKay, the landscape architect for the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens, chose the Park as the site for the sculpture.  Located immediately north of the Clarke House Museum, Helping Hands sits within a beautifully landscaped setting, the arrangement of the sculptures and their pedestals being the same as the artist intended for their first location.  

It was dedicated on September 24, 2011 with a ceremony that included a speech by an actress in the guise of Jane Addams herself.

The plaque at the site is entitled “Jane Addams Sculpture Garden – visionary” and summarizes her life and contributions as follows:
SOCIAL PHILOSOPHER – Jane Addams envisioned a peaceful world community based on cooperation, mutual understanding, and acceptance of differences.
PRAGMATIST – She advocated the participation of all citizens in the creation of a just and democratic social order.
WRITER – She authored eleven books and hundreds of articles.
LECTURER – A compelling public speaker, she drew upon her experiences at Hull-House as a touchstone for larger social concerns.
DEFENDER – Committed to civil liberty, she deplored violence, stressed compassion and multicultural understanding, and promoted a vision that valued life over death and liberty over coercion.
MEMORIAL – This first monument in Chicago to a woman is dedicated to Jane Addams and the many she served.
SYMBOLS – It depicts different ages of humankind – gentle baby, vulnerable child, able adult, aging parent.
HANDS – Comforting, helping, strong in solidarity, the hands recall Addam’s words: “Perhaps nothing is so fraught with significance as the human hand….”
GIFT of the B. F. Ferguson Fund of The Art Institute of Chicago, established in 1902 to honor great figures or events in American history.

The Ferguson Fund is named for lumber merchant and philanthropist Benjamin Franklin Ferguson, who left a $1,000,000 charitable trust gift that has funded many of the most important public monuments and sculptures in Chicago.  Among the first works to be funded were the Fountain of the Great Lakes by Lorado Taft in the South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Statue of the Republic by Daniel Chester French in Jackson Park.  Lorado Taft’s monumental Fountain of Time at the western edge of the Midway Plaisance in Washington Park, Henry Hering’s relief sculptures known as Defense and Regeneration on the south pylons of the Michigan Avenue bridge, and Ivan Mestrovic’s Bowman and the Spearman on the Michigan Avenue Plaza in Grant Park were all funded during the 1920s.  More recent pieces include Nuclear Energy by Henry Moore at the University of Chicago, and I Have a Dream by Abbott Pattison at Chicago State University.

Statue Stories Chicago is the first U.S. version of a project that began in London in 2014 and showcases 30 sculptures throughout the city.  Funded by The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation in cooperation with the Chicago Park District, the project allows pedestrians to swipe their smart phone on a plaque and get a call back.  For Helping Hands, the narrative was written by author Blue Balliett and recorded by Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton.  Balliett noted that “I think Jane Addams, who never stopped reaching out, connecting, and helping, would have loved what Louise Bourgeois created in her honor, and also what this sculptor said: ‘I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands. . .’”

Statue Stories Chicago will remain in place through the summer of 2016.  For more information on Statue Stories Chicago and a listing of all the sculptures included, visit

Monday, August 3, 2015

Marriott Marquis breaks ground

On Tuesday July 28, 2015 ground was broken for the new Marriott Marquis Chicago Hotel at the northeast corner of Prairie Avenue and Cermak Road.  The hotel is being built as part of the new McCormick Place Entertainment District, which will include the McCormick Place Event Center on the northwest corner.

Arne M. Sorenson

The ground breaking began with remarks from several individuals involved in the project including Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) CEO Lori Healey, MPEA Chairman Jack Greenberg, and Arne M. Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International.

Alderman Pat Dowell

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell noted that “the Marriott Marquis Chicago and the McCormick Place Entertainment District represent phenomenal opportunities for the community.” 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel reminded attendees that just a few years ago, Chicago was quickly losing its hold on the convention business to places like Las Vegas and Florida, but in the past year, it has regained its position as the number one city for conventions in the country.  As such, a new hotel adjacent to McCormick was essential to maintain that competitive position. 

After the Mayor’s comments concluded, the assembled group of dignitaries grabbed their shovels for the ceremonial spading of dirt.  The event concluded with the Mayor pressing the red button to start up the massive drill which bored a hole into the ground for the first of many piers.

The 40-story hotel is designed by Gensler.  Prairie District3 Partners is the design/build team, which includes Clark Construction Group-Chicago, LLC, Bulley & Andrews, LLC, Old Veteran Construction, Inc., McKissack & McKissack Midwest, Inc., Goettsch Partners, Inc. and Moody Nolan, Inc. 

Containing 1,206 rooms, the hotel will be the only Marriott Marquis in the metropolitan Chicago area.  It will include specialty suites, 90,000 square feet of meeting room space (including two 25,000 square-foot ballrooms), a great room-style restaurant and bar as well as a Marketplace food court which will feature local food and retail entrepreneurs. 

An important part of the project is the incorporation and renovation of the landmarked American Book Company building at 330 E. Cermak Road.  That company had been formed in 1890 with the consolidation of four of the five largest textbook publishing houses in the United States.  In 1911, the company acquired the land at Prairie and Cermak (then 22nd Street) for their new five-story plant.  Architect N. Max Dunning was commission to design a fireproof building which featured a prominent center tower that concealed a water tower.  

The building is finely detailed with brick laid in various decorative patterns, as well as limestone and terra cotta trim, including small “plaques” depicting open books.   The main entrance is executed in the Renaissance-Revival with a tympanum above containing a beautiful multi-color terra cotta crest for the company featuring symbols of intellectual and spiritual illumination. 

The scheduled completion date for the hotel is August 2017. 

The 2100 block of Prairie Avenue in the 1890s;
site of the new Marriott Marquis Chicago Hotel.

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