Monday, January 25, 2016

A ewer and basin by Gien

In October 1875, John and Frances Glessner attended the Interstate Industrial Exposition, located in a cavernous W. W. Boyington designed building on the present site of the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was here that the Glessners saw a collection of artistically designed furniture organized by Peter B. Wight and William Le Baron Jenney, much of it carved by Isaac Scott.  The long collaboration between the Glessners and Scott that began at the exposition is well-known.  Often overlooked, however, is the fact that the Glessners acquired one of their favorite pieces of faience earthenware at the exposition.

The Glessners purchased several photographs of the furniture they saw at the exposition, including a sideboard designed by architect Asa Lyon and carved by Isaac Scott (shown above).  Prominently displayed at the center of the main shelf is a stately ewer and basin which the Glessners acquired soon after and placed at the center of the mantelpiece in their Washington Street parlor (shown below). 

The piece was manufactured by the French firm of Gien, considered one of the finest faience manufacturers in the 19th century.  The company dates back to 1821 when Thomas Edme Hulm (or Thomas Hall) left his factory at Montereau, which had been operated by his family for nearly half a century, and purchased the property of the old convent of Minimes.  It was here that he opened his new factory to produce faience using English methods. 

The earliest pieces were more utilitarian in nature such as crockery, but later he began producing decorative pieces and dinner services, often copying older objects that combined both old and new decoration inspired by other manufacturers in Europe as well as pieces from the Far East. 

Photo by Susan Einstein for the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Glessners’ piece is a close copy of Rouen ware produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries which made Rouen a major center of French pottery.  A ewer that is very similar to the Glessners’ piece was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012-2013 as part of their exhibit “Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection.” Shown above, the piece was made about 1700 and is virtually identical in shape including the applied handle, although some freedom was taken in creating the decorative designs on the Glessners’ ewer. 

The period between 1855 and 1900 is generally considered to be the pinnacle of faience production in Gien.  Their pieces became known around the world as the firm won many awards at international exhibitions in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. 

The mark on the underside of the basin, consisting of three crenelated towers with a ribbon beneath bearing the name GIEN, indicates that the piece was produced in the first half of the 1870s.  The three towers design was introduced as a mark for the firm in 1856, and in the Glessners’ piece, it also features prominently in the decoration.  The three towers motif is painted into a medallion beneath the lip of the ewer, and also serves as the central motif in the basin.  

Additional decoration includes a royonnant design inside the basin and a variety of richly detailed floral decorations and foliate scrolls across the body of both the ewer and basin.  The heavy lip of the ewer is decorated with a twisted rope design.  

One of the most unusual features of the piece is the pair of grotesque masks forming handles for the basin, which sits atop four pyramidal peg feet. 

During the decades that the Glessners lived on Prairie Avenue, the ewer and basin appear to have always been on display on the south bookcase in the library near the doorway to the cork alcove, as shown in the photo below, taken in 1923.  Today, the piece is displayed on a side table in the courtyard bedroom.

In 1986, the Gien Museum opened in an old clay body cave dating back to the 16th century.  Telling the story of Gien from 1821 to the present, it consists of two large rooms showing both popular and artistic faience, along with special pieces created for the various World’s Fairs.  Click here for more information on the museum, located in Gien, France, 78, Place de la Victoire. 

Gien is still produced today and is considered among the highest quality earthenware in France.

Monday, January 18, 2016

John J. Glessner and the CSO

On January 21, 1936, the Chicago Tribune reported the death of two men well known in their circles – King George V of England and John Jacob Glessner.  Glessner had died the previous day in his beloved Prairie Avenue home just six days before his 93rd birthday.   In the weeks that followed, tributes were written and published by a number of organizations in which he was prominently involved, including International Harvester which he had helped to found in 1902, and Rush Medical College, where he served as president emeritus. 

One of the most heartfelt tributes came from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which had been at the center of John Glessner’s life for 45 years.   The full-page tribute was written by Charles H. Hamill, president of The Orchestral Association, and placed opposite the program page for the concerts of January 23 and 24, 1936.  In remembrance of the 80th anniversary of John Glessner’s passing, we reprint Hamill’s beautiful tribute in its entirety.

John J. Glessner

On the 20th of January, 1936, came the end of the long and useful life of John J. Glessner.  To no one man has The Orchestral Association been more beholden.  He was one of the small group of men who in the Association’s first years of struggle were loyal in their support and generous in their gifts.  The depression following 1893 made the early years a time of great difficulty for both the Association and its friends, but Mr. Glessner never flinched.  During those years before Orchestra Hall was built he contributed over $12,000 and then was one of the largest contributors to the building and the later reduction of the mortgage.  Only last year he made his latest gift, bringing his total to nearly forty-five thousand dollars.  But it was not only by his contributions he showed his interest.  Since 1898 he has served as a Trustee and by his constant attendance on meetings and his sound judgment has brought much needed help to his associates.  Modest to the point of self-effacement, he was clean of thought, and, when occasion required, vigorous in expression, and always with the Association’s welfare vividly in mind.

He and his devoted wife while she lived were always in their box to delight in the music their generosity made possible, and in their hospitable home men of the Orchestra and their musical friends found frequent and charming entertainment.  The loss to the Association of his wise counsel and the loss to his fellow Trustees of his fine companionship find their only comfort in the reflection that he has been discharged from the pains and penalties of extreme old age.

Charles H. Hamill,

The tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” by Richard Strauss was played in Glessner’s memory at the concert on Tuesday February 11, 1936, conducted by the Glessners’ dear friend, Frederick Stock.  In the program for January 7 and 8, 1937, The Orchestral Association gratefully acknowledged the receipt of a $50,000 bequest under the will of John J. Glessner. 

BELOW:  Two photos showing one of the Glessners’ great-great-great granddaughters exploring their box at Symphony Center during Glessner House Museum’s 125th Anniversary Gala on September 13, 2012.  (Photos by Tim Walters)

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Death of John Wellborn Root -- January 15, 1891

January 15, 2016 will mark the 125th anniversary of the death of one of Chicago’s greatest architects – John Wellborn Root.  His unexpected passing sent shock waves through the city and the architectural community.  Not only had Root just turned 41 years old five days earlier, but he and partner Daniel H. Burnham were in the early stages of planning the World’s Columbian Exposition – by far the largest and most important project their firm had ever undertaken.

The tragic story of Root’s death has oft been retold.  As recounted in the death notice published in the Chicago Tribune on Friday January 16th:

“Chicago will be shocked at the news of the untimely death of John W. Root, easily its most distinguished designing architect, if indeed he had his superior in the whole country.  In the prime of his life, his vigor, and his usefulness; in the midst of his invaluable services to the World’s Columbian Exposition, he seemed to be the man of all others who would be sure to continue for many a day one of its most esteemed and beloved citizens.  In the flower of his days pneumonia has suddenly ended his life, as it has during late years ended the lives of so many men young and strong like him.  Less than a week ago he was in the best of health.  Saturday he took a Turkish bath and later at his own house thoughtlessly stepped into the street to hand a friend to her carriage, becoming slightly chilled in so doing.  During Sunday he received at his hospitable home a visit from the Eastern architects visiting the scene of the World’s Fair, and that night he was seized with a severe chill, which proved the beginning of a fatal illness.  Even as late as noon of that day of his death he seemed in a fair way of recovery, but death came suddenly last evening.”

Daniel Burnham, an intimate friend and business partner of nearly 20 years, paced the floor of Root’s house, waiting for each update from the doctor.  When the end came, Burnham is supposed to have responded “Damn, damn, damn!”  considering not only life without his talented partner, but how he would proceed alone with the monumental task of planning and executing the World’s Fair.  Root had been appointed as the “consulting architect” for the Fair, which gave him supervision over all architectural related matters.  Lyman Gage, one of the directors of the Fair, noted that “In general it may be said that there is no man in any profession whose place cannot be filled.  But it really seems to me that John Root was an exception.”

The funeral took place on Sunday January 18th from the family home at 56 Astor Street (now 1310 N. Astor Street.)  Root had designed the house in 1888, one of a series of four charming Queen Anne row houses for James L. Houghteling.  

Following the service, conducted by Bishop Cheney, the casket was sealed and the remains taken to Graceland Cemetery for internment.  Pall bearers included Burnham, Art Institute president Charles L. Hutchinson, and William Pretyman, a talented English designer and close friend of Root (who would later execute the hand-painted wallcovering in the Glessner parlor).


Burnham and Root were responsible for the design and remodeling of more than a dozen residences on and around Prairie Avenue.   Their first commission on the street in 1873, the residence for John B. Sherman, president of the Chicago Union Stockyards, was the second commission ever received by the new firm.   (Burnham met and married Sherman’s daughter Margaret during construction and the couple moved into the house upon its completion).

In 1880, Root married Mary Louise Walker, a daughter of James M. Walker of 1720 S. Prairie Avenue.   The newly married couple took up residence with the Walkers, but Mary Root died a month later at the age of 21. 


The Glessners were long-time friends of Daniel Burnham and would have known Root through that friendship.  Frances Glessner and Root’s wife were both members of The Fortnightly.  She sent flowers and a note of condolence to Root’s widow, which were acknowledged with the following note on March 18th:

“Dear Mrs. Glessner
I thank you from my heart for the beautiful roses, and above all for the sweet sympathy which I know accompanied them.  I shall never forget that you thought of me when I most needed help.
Always faithfully yours,
Dora Louise Root”

John Root and John Glessner were also fellow members of the Chicago Literary Club.  At the time of Root’s death, the Club occupied rooms on the third floor of the Art Institute, a Burnham and Root designed building at the southwest corner of Michigan and Van Buren.  At the meeting of the Club on February 16, 1891, the following resolution was read, which sums up in a few words Root’s importance to the architectural community, as well as his value as a friend and Club member.

“In the death of JOHN WELLBORN ROOT the Literary Club has lost a valued member and Chicago has lost a gifted man.

“Everybody knew him as an architect and artist.  Our city is full of his work; his great buildings tower above our business streets, monuments of the strength and breadth of his genius; and quiet homes along our residence streets bear witness to his grace and refinement.  All of us and all of the members of his chosen profession knew his ability as a writer.  But the full scope and range of his versatile nature were less well known.  Only a few knew him as a musician, and yet he had rare musical gifts.  Many surpassed him in mere brilliance of execution, but he had few equals in interpreting the spirit of the great composers.  To hear him play from memory Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” was a revelation.  It stirred the deepest emotions.

“He died at the age of 41, young even for his years, doing the best work of his life, and giving promise of still greater development; like all true artists, dissatisfied with what he had accomplished, and hoping yet to do something great.

“As our fellow member and our friend has gone from us, and we shall never see another design from his hand, it is a pleasure to remember that this home of our club is all his work, the building, which was perhaps his most artistic creation, and the decoration and arrangement of these rooms, to which he gave much loving thought and much of his precious time.

“We shall remember him not only as a great architect and a versatile genius; but as a modest gentleman, a delightful companion, and a faithful friend.

Bryan Lathrop,
William L. B. Jenney,
Irving K. Pond,

NOTE:  Among those who gathered in Chicago in January 1891 for the planning of the World’s Columbian Exposition was landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who planned and supervised the landscape design for the fairgrounds.  Frances Glessner noted in her journal on January 12th, “At dinner time Mr. Olmsted came with his satchel to stay with us.”  He remained with the Glessners until January 18th, leaving Chicago after Root’s funeral. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Bit of Chicago History in Rockford, Illinois

In 1993, Jim Vitale opened the Cliffbreakers Restaurant in Rockford, Illinois.  Four years later, he opened the adjacent hotel.  One of the distinguishing features of the establishment was Vitale’s extensive collection of antiques and architectural fragments from around the world, including several from Chicago.  Although Vitale sold the business in 2006, and some of the pieces have been sold off, many remain, making it worth a visit for those interested in seeing pieces of Chicago’s history.  Below is a summary of the pieces with a Chicago connection.  The descriptions are taken directly from a brochure acquired at the hotel in 2009 (no longer available).

Crane Company Building
836 S. Michigan Avenue
Holabird & Roche, architects

“These massive 10-foot bronze doors weight 750 pounds each and were the original entry doors to the famous Crane building in Chicago.”

Corn Exchange Bank Building (demolished)
122-136 S. LaSalle Street
Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, architects

“This magnificent window was discovered above a plaster ceiling during the demolition of the Chicago Corn Exchange at LaSalle and Adams Streets.  It contains over 7,000 pieces of leaded glass.  An amazing stroke of luck for Cliffbreakers!”

Germania Club
108 W. Germania Place (at Clark St.)
Addison & Fiedler, architects

“These massive oak beams on the ceiling of the lobby, the hanging bronze light fixtures, along with the balcony railing and registration desk came from the old Germania Club in Chicago.  This was a private men’s club until its closing in the late 50s.  The 50-foot carved oak grand wall with leaded windows was the original entry to the Club.”

Continental Bank (demolished)
208 S. LaSalle Street
Burnham & Root, architects

 “These two canvasses flanking either side of the lobby are 8 feet high and 27 feet long.  They were painted by American artist George Marshall for the famous Continental Bank of Chicago, at the turn of the century.  One features pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock; the second, a hillside view of Florence in the springtime.”

Standard Club
320 S. Plymouth Court
Albert Kahn, architect

“These magnificent bronze chandeliers once hung in the Standard Club in Chicago.”

Edith Rockefeller McCormick Mansion (demolished)
1000 N. Lake Shore Drive
Solon S. Beman, architect
Note:  The house was built for Nathaniel S. Jones and purchased by John D. Rockefeller in 1895 and presented to his daughter as a gift

“A pair of glazed terra cotta lions in superior condition.  From the original McCormick Mansion torn down in 1953.”  (The lions have recently been painted white, the earlier photo dates from 2009).

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