Monday, October 5, 2015

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra 125th Anniversary Season

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1926

Over the weekend of September 18-19, 2015, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched its 125th anniversary season.  John and Frances Glessner were deeply involved with the orchestra from the time of its inception in 1891, raised considerable funds for the erection of Orchestra Hall in 1904, and were generous supporters throughout their lifetimes.  Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock, the first two music directors who led the symphony for more than 50 years, were intimate friends.

John J. Glessner

Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a proclamation in August 2015 honoring the symphony for its 125th anniversary.  Appropriately, the proclamation acknowledged the significant support provided by John Glessner in the first decades of the symphony’s history.  In honor of the CSO 125th anniversary season, we reprint the proclamation in its entirety below.




WHEREAS the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs its annual free Concert for Chicago in Millennium Park this year on Friday, September 18, 2015, and the Symphony Ball gala at Symphony Center on Saturday, September 19, 2015, as it launches its 125th Anniversary season; and

WHEREAS the first meeting for the incorporation of The Orchestral Association was held at the Chicago Club on December 17, 1890, during which a board of five trustees was elected to serve and a group of fifty-one businessmen, including Chicago pioneers Armour, Field, Glessner, McCormick, Potter, Pullman, Ryerson, Sprague and Wacker volunteered to serve as guarantors, each pledging their continued financial support; and

Theodore Thomas, Music Director, 1891-1905

WHEREAS Theodore Thomas, then the most popular conductor in America, was engaged as the Orchestra’s first music director and led the Chicago Orchestra’s first concerts at the Auditorium Theatre on October 16 and 17, 1891, conducting music of Wagner, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák; and

Fundraising brochure for the new Orchestra Hall, 1903

WHEREAS Orchestra Hall, designed by CSO trustee and Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham and completed in 1904 at a cost of $750,000, saw its dedicatory concert, led by Thomas, on December 14 of that year; and

Frederick Stock, Music Director, 1905-1942
Photo inscribed "To my best friends,
Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Glessner"

WHEREAS the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a long-standing international cultural ambassador for Chicago and the United States of America having completed 58 international tours, performing in 29 countries on five continents, and

WHEREAS in 2011 the CSO and the Chicago Symphony Chorus’s recording of Verdi’s Requiem led by Maestro Muti won two Grammy awards, and, to date, recordings by the CSO have earned a total of 62 Grammy awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; and

WHEREAS the Chicago Symphony Orchestral Association has been an active collaborator with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in the development and execution of a Cultural Plan for Chicago, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultat, Yo-Yo Ma, and the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute continually work to share live classical music with all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RAHM EMANUEL, MAYOR OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, do hereby proclaim September 18-19, 2015 to be CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA 125TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON OPENING WEEKEND CELEBRATION and encourage all Chicagoans to participate.

Dated this 3rd day of August, 2015.

Rahm Emanuel


Monday, September 28, 2015

Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler

Glessner parlor, photo by James Caulfield

On Sunday October 4, 2015, George Radosavljevic, a member of the faculty at the DePaul University School of Music, will perform a recital on the Glessners’ 1887 Steinway grand piano.  Featuring works by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, the performance is reminiscent of the many musical entertainments hosted by the Glessners.  In this week’s article, we will look at a musical given by Frances Glessner in 1890, at which the great pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler was the performer.

Fannie Blumenfeld was born in Bielitz, Austria (now part of Poland) in 1863 to Jewish parents.  When she was four years old, her family emigrated to the United States, and in 1870 they relocated to Chicago, where her father opened a dry-goods store.  She began her piano studies at that time and in February 1875, at the age of 11, gave her first public performance.  Three years later she travelled to Vienna with her mother to study under Theodore Leschetizky; she remained there for five years.

In 1883 she returned to Chicago by which time she had changed her name to Bloomfield.    She gave her first full concert in Chicago in 1884 and made her debut in New York the following year, the same year that she married attorney Sigmund Zeisler.  (Also a native of Beilitz, he earned his law degree at Northwestern University.  In 1886-1887, he served as the associate counsel for the defense of the Haymarket anarchists.)

Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler was one of the featured solo artists at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, receiving praise for her performances.  She then toured German cities, her first European tour, earning the reputation as a first-rank pianist.  Of her abilities, the Britannica Online Encyclopedia says, “Acknowledged as one of the foremost concert pianists in the world, she combined flawless technique with a fiery and powerful expressiveness that enabled her to render the classical and Romantic masterworks with entire authority.”

She made several additional tours through Europe and made annual tours of the United States, performing each season with Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Together they championed the German repertoire.

She gave her final performance in Chicago in 1925.  Her program included Beethoven’s Andante favori which she had played at her first public performance 50 years earlier, as well as concertos by Chopin and Schumann.  She died in Chicago on August 20, 1927.

A biography, entitled Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler: The Life and Times of a Piano Virtuoso, written by Beth Abelson Macleod, was published by the University of Illinois Press in July 2015. 

In late November 1890, Frances Glessner wrote to Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler asking her to give a recital in her Prairie Avenue home.  She received the following reply, dated December 4th:

Mrs. John J. Glessner,

Dear Madam:

I received your kind letter and turned it over to my manager, who will write you about dates and terms.

I am not in the habit of accepting such engagements, but I do so at rare intervals and should be pleased to play in your home, as I know you to be one of the few really musical patronesses of my art in Chicago.

Yours sincerely,
Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler

The musical was set for Friday December 19, 1890.  Frances Glessner sent invitations to 103 ladies, of which 75 attended.  As Glessner noted in her journal:

Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler played most splendidly – I never heard better playing.  She said she was inspired by the audience – they were most appreciative – she played a half hour then took a short rest, then played another half hour, then we had our breakfast – it was all prepared in the house and was delicious.

Unfortunately Frances Glessner did not record the program but she did note the breakfast menu:

Chicken broth – eggs a la crème – breasts of partridge – potatoes mashed with cream and browned – jelly – brown and white bread – rolls, olives, pickles – hen – risotto – frozen oranges – sand tarts – coffee and tea

Tables seating six were set up throughout the first floor and were presided over by Mrs. Carpenter, Mrs. O. R. Keith, Mrs. Edson Keith, Mrs. A. A. Sprague, Mrs. Otho Sprague, Mrs. Charles Hutchinson, Mrs. Dudley, Mrs. Potter, Mrs. William Armour, Mrs. George Armour, Miss Lunt, and Mrs. Stone.  The ladies “all were beautifully dressed, wore no hats – and, helped me to make everything go smoothly.”  Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler sat to Frances Glessner’s right at the main table.  The flowers were live violets, a large dish on the main table, and a pot on each of the smaller tables, wrapped in green crinkled paper and tied with violet ribbons.

Drawing by Harold R. Heaton, 1896

Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler became a good friend and was a frequent guest in the Glessners’ home, and, of course, the Glessners attended her many performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In February 1896 she presented Frances Glessner with a signed drawing done by Harold R. Heaton, cartoonist for the Chicago Daily Tribune.  Frances Glessner hung the picture on the wall along with other photos and drawings depicting many of the musicians she welcomed into her home through the years.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

John J. Glessner, Builder of Roads

In September 1915, exactly 100 years ago, a New Hampshire newspaper entitled The Spur published the following short article about the Glessners’ summer estate, The Rocks:

“Every motorist who journeys through the White Mountains comes to know ‘Glessner roads.’  These are the thoroughfares crossing and adjacent to The Rocks, the magnificent estate of J. J. Glessner, of Chicago, between Bethlehem and Littleton, which is regarded as the show place of the hills.  Each road has been placed in fine condition at a cost of much time and personal thought as well as money.  Not a little of the cash expenditure has gone into a substantial wall of cobble stones and granite, four feet high and nearly as thick, which defines the ‘Glessner roads.’  All along the walls shrubs and flowering plants flaunt their colors against the gray background.  The Rocks, which was created by throwing several old farms into one large estate, is stocked with blooded cattle, sheep and hogs and there are also many fowls of high quality.”

The Glessner roads attracted a good deal of attention, and various descriptions of them appear in numerous newspaper articles both in New Hampshire and in Chicago.  Travelers would note that they always knew exactly when they came upon the Glessner estate because of the roads and their beautifully crafted stone walls. 

An article which appeared in The Littleton Courier on October 24, 1907 provided interesting information on the creation of the roads, with a bit of road building history and geology thrown in for good measure.  We reprint it in its entirety.

The Glessner Roads a Boom to Bethlehem
Rebuilt by Chicago Millionaire in Most Permanent Manner

Two very important pieces of road work have been done in Bethlehem this year, one by the town, taking advantage of the state aid law, and the other by J. J. Glessner, the Chicago millionaire, who has been rebuilding the main highway between Bethlehem and Littleton, for nearly the entire distance where it adjoins his estate.

The work done by the town, in making a ten foot fill at the foot of what is known as the big hill, widening and straightening the road, and taking off some of the grade at the top, has already been described in the Courier.  The work done on the same road by Mr. Glessner is fully as extensive, covers a much longer stretch, and changes a very bad piece of road into one of the finest stretches of highway in the entire state.

In fact during the last few years Mr. Glessner has rapidly been acquiring fame as a road builder.  He is now able to show three miles of probably the finest road in the White Mountains, all within or adjoining his own estate and all public road, although it was all built or built over by Mr. Glessner at his own expense.

During the present fall he has been working on the half mile of road on the main highway from Bethlehem to Littleton and during most of that time has had a crew of seventy men, thirty horses and twenty oxen engaged on the work.  Part of this road looks like pictures of the modern French or the old Roman roads, and it is built fully as solidly as the Roman roads used to be, in fact, after the same plan.

Macadam and other modern authorities on the building of roads have pronounced Roman methods extravagant, but it is noticed that when the Romans built a road they built one to stay, so that if permanency is considered they were not so extravagant.  Moreover, the use of large amounts of heavy stone is not so extravagant as it might seem on Mr. Glessner’s part, since all of the rock comes out of his own fields.  In fact, for several years he has been cleaning up pastures and making them into mowing land, and the rock that he has pulled out of the pastures has gone back into the roads. 

There is no dearth of rock anywhere in New Hampshire, and certainly not in Bethlehem, nearly all of which is declared by geologists to be nothing but a terminal moraine.  The glaciers made one of their last and longest stands in New England here near the foot of the big mountains, and they unfortunately left their debris of rocks and boulders strewn all over the town.  Mr. Glessner did not exactly originate the idea of pulling the rocks out of the field and putting them into roads, for the town of Bethlehem made use of the same idea quite a number of years ago, but by putting on a big crew he has carried the idea farther than anyone else ever did here, and has undoubtedly built some of the finest roads.

Starting in a moderate way a good many years ago, Mr. Glessner has gradually bought up surrounding farms for one reason and another, until he now has probably the largest, as well as the finest, private summer estate in the White Mountains.  He has not done this to make a park and fence himself in, but has generally bought additional land to prevent timber from being cut off, when such plans were on foot, in order to keep the locality around “The Rocks,” his summer home, from being spoiled from a scenic point of view.  Having extensive farms, he farms extensively, and is one of the largest employers of labor in this vicinity.  Through these farms quite a number of old town roads used to run, and several years ago Mr. Glessner secured permission to build these roads over about as he saw fit.  Needless to say the town was very glad to have him assume the work, and has shown its gratitude by conferring upon the roads the name of “The Glessner Roads.”

One of those roads leads to Franconia, and is on an entirely new layout as far as it goes through Mr. Glessner’s land, the old route having been abandoned for a better one.  The portion built by Mr. Glessner is three-quarters of a mile long, and is a solid stone, bottom highway 25 feet wide.  On one side, for quite a distance, runs one of the most massive stone walls in New Hampshire, six feet thick on top, about 10 feet on the bottom, and in many places 13 feet high.  It was made entirely of stone taken out of the adjoining field.

Road to West Farm, 2013

On another road near by, leading to the West farm, is a beauty spot where a cut was made through a knoll, to avoid a bad grade.  The cut was forced upon both sides with some very fine stone work, and when the sun shines through upon the white birches and other trees it furnishes a very pretty sight.

The most important work done on the Littleton-Bethlehem road by Mr. Glessner this year has been an extensive fill of quite a stretch of road over some low land, where bad travelling had generally been the rule.  At the lowest place the road was filled in six feet with stone and the stone wall on each side was carried three feet higher, the wall in places being ten feet high on the back side, or side towards the fields.  The wall is three feet wide on top and is strongly built.  The road is 25 feet wide between the walls, and four teams, by actual test, can pass abreast.  This wall extends for 400 feet, and at one part describes a beautiful curve, a curve is all the more wonderful from the fact that it was laid out by eye, no instrument being used. 

As has been previously said, the method used by Mr. Glessner in his road building is practically the old Roman method, so much criticized by modern writers, and undoubtedly generally impractical today under present conditions and with the tremendous mileage to which public roads have now attained.  Unless it is desired to make a fill in the road, an excavation of several feet is first made, and Mr. Glessner’s men and oxen then begin to dump in immense stones taken out of the nearest fields.  A fairly level course is made of these and then another layer of somewhat smaller stone is dumped on.  Then comes a still smaller layer, and then last the stone work is leveled and all openings are filled in with very small stone, so carefully and thoroughly placed that animals can be driven over it without hurting their feet.  Then the rock is entirely covered and the road finally shaped up with a good layer of “hard pan,” which packs solid and is practically impervious to water.  Drainage at each side is always provided for, the roads are well rounded, and these features, combined with the solid foundation of rock underneath, and the impervious layer on top, give an ideal road.  It is probable that these roads will have to be resurfaced more often than Macadam roads, but the resurfacing will not be so expensive and there is no probability that the sub-structure will ever have to be renewed.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Glessner are very popular with all who know them, as they are exceedingly democratic.  They know by name every employee who works on the place any length of time, and seldom fail to have a pleasant word for each when they pass.

Many of the walls still stand today, defining the boundaries of the original estate.  They stand as a testament to the enormous efforts undertaken by John Glessner and his crews to provide roads for travelers that were both beautiful and pleasant to drive upon.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lettuce and peppers and bees! Oh my!

Residents of the Prairie District were treated to a recent tour of one of the best kept secrets in the neighborhood – the rooftop garden atop the West Building of McCormick Place.  Covering 20,000 square feet of space, it is the largest farm-to-fork rooftop garden in the Midwest, providing fresh produce to some of the three million visitors at McCormick Place each year.  The garden also features spectacular views of the surrounding neighborhood and the Chicago skyline.

View north on Prairie Avenue showing construction for the
DePaul Arena (left) and Marriott Marquis Hotel (right)

The garden is operated by Savor . . . Chicago, the exclusive provider of food and beverages at McCormick Place.  Working in partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden, the garden fulfills Savor’s mission to promote local sustainable agriculture and to train city residents for careers in urban agriculture.  It was designed and planted by staff from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture program.  

Last year, the garden yielded 8,000 pounds of produce including tomatoes, beets, kale, carrots, lettuce, peppers, beans, and a variety of herbs.  

Although that only represents a small fraction of the food served to McCormick Place guests, the garden and other green initiatives undertaken by Savor . . . Chicago have attracted business from industries looking for green convention options. 

Composting is an important element of the garden and a portion of the coffee grounds used on site are incorporated into the process.  Nearly 2,000 Red Wiggler worms create more than 200 pounds of vericompost annually.  In addition, shells are used as the base for the soil, and natural soaps are used to spray the plants, as the garden works toward organic garden status. 


Additional features of the garden include three hives containing 20,000 honey bees which produced 50 pounds of honey last year.  (Frances Glessner would like this part of the garden in particular – she was an active beekeeper at her summer estate in New Hampshire, and produced 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of honey annually).  

The garden has started growing hops – one of the most beautiful plants on the rooftop – and is partnering with a local brewery to produce a unique McCormick Place brew.  The beds also contain a variety of flowers including nasturtiums and several types of perennials.

The garden has been tended by Darius Jones since its inception.  This is truly a great success story.  Raised in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood, Jones became interested in urban agriculture while serving a five-month sentence in Cook County’s Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center’s garden program in 2010.  The next year he completed his nine-month certificate program through the Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program.

Jones has been honored several times for his work with the McCormick Place garden including an “Eco-Hero” award from WBEZ radio and a “Golden Beet Award” from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.  In 2014, he was named one of the Botanic Garden’s Employees of Distinction. 

Savor . . . Chicago provides limited tours to local organizations and industry groups.  For more information, visit

Monday, September 7, 2015

Unity Hall gets a new lease on life

Unity Hall today (courtesy Alderman Pat Dowell)

The recent news that the Chicago landmarked Unity Hall at 3140 S. Indiana Avenue has been remodeled for student housing is good news for all those with an interest in Chicago history and architecture.  The fate of the building, which played an important role in both the Jewish and African-American communities, was uncertain in recent years, leading to its listing on Preservation Chicago’s Most Threatened List in 2012.

The Lakeside Club was organized in 1884 as a Jewish social club for young men living south of Twenty-Second Street.  The club initially occupied a pair of houses at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Thirtieth Street, but as membership grew, the necessity of a larger facility became apparent.  Architect L. B. Dixon was commissioned to design a building to cost $40,000 and a lot was secured on the 3100 block of South Indiana Avenue.

The club officially opened on December 31, 1887 with an elaborate New Year’s Eve banquet and ball.  The Chicago Tribune covered the festivities:

“The Lakeside Club opened its new club-building last night with much pomp and festivity.  There was a grand banquet, a little speech-making, a full dress ball, a splendid orchestra, an abundance of pretty girls, plenty of wine, plenty of flowers, and everything else that man or woman could desire for a New-Year’s Eve jollification.”

The journalist covering the event apparently felt compelled to explain why a Jewish club would choose to hold their opening activities on a Saturday.  He went on to note:

“A Hebrew club that has a ball and banquet Saturday evening may be presumed to not be particularly observant of the Jewish Sabbath.  The fact is, 99 percent of the members of the Hebrew clubs do not belong to the orthodox Jewish synagogues.  The great bulk of them belong to independent Hebrew congregations – congregations that worship Sunday and observe Sunday in a general way as the Sabbath, and that have thrown aside all the old trammels of Jewish ceremonialism and identified themselves with methods and forms in keeping with modern times and customs.”

The building was constructed of pressed brick with brownstone and terra cotta trim, set above a basement faced in rusticated stone.  The Tribune article described the interior:

“The finish, furnishings, and decorations are exceedingly pretentious.  The interior work is mostly in antique oak.  The large front room to the left is the ladies’ parlor, furnished with modern French art furniture and a grand piano.  The front room on the right is the library and reading-room.  Between these rooms and the dancing-hall in the rear are the reception and cloak rooms.  The portiere at the end opens into the assembly-hall, with a dancing floor 47’ x 94’.  The hall has a series of high arched trestles of antique oak pattern.  The general design is Gothic; and, with the clusters of gasoliers and hundreds of lights, the place is strikingly brilliant. 

“The basement comprises the billiard-room, with three tables, a bowling alley, a small dining-room, barroom, kitchen, carving room, and the main dining-room.  The second floor has half a dozen or so card and recreation rooms.  The third floor is used for storerooms and servants’ quarters.”

The clubhouse was the scene of many prominent social events in the Jewish community, including the 50th anniversary of the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (KAM) congregation in 1897.  Their iconic synagogue building, designed by Adler and Sullivan, stood just 1-1/2 blocks to the south.

The building is best known for its second owner/occupant, the Peoples Movement Club, founded in 1917 by Oscar Stanton De Priest.  De Priest was the first African-American to be elected to the Chicago City Council, serving as alderman of the 2nd Ward from 1915 to 1917.  The Peoples Movement Club was organized to give voice to the African-American community politically, and it became one of the best organized political groups in Chicago’s Black Metropolis neighborhood.  

Oscar Stanton De Priest

In 1928, when Republican congressman Martin B. Madden died, Mayor Thompson chose De Priest to replace him on the ballot, and he went on to serve three consecutive terms in the U.S. Congress representing the 1st  Congressional District covering the Loop and part of the South Side.  De Priest was the first African-American elected to Congress from a northern state, and the first in the 20th century.

After the Peoples Movement Club left the building, it became the political headquarters for William L. Dawson.  Dawson, like De Priest, served as alderman of the 2nd Ward, and then served in the U.S. House for 27 years until his death in 1970.  From the mid-1950s onward, the building was occupied by various churches, and it slowly deteriorated from deferred maintenance.  

Photo by Frederick J. Nachman

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and was designated a Chicago landmark on September 9, 1998, one of nine buildings included in the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville Historic District. 

By 2012, the building was sitting vacant and for sale, the upper windows boarded up, and scaffolding erected across the façade.  Although protected from demolition as a city landmark, there was widespread concern that the deferred maintenance and exposure to the elements could cause its demolition by neglect.  

Photo by Andrew Jameson

The small congregation that owned the building had moved out due to building code violations and could not afford the repairs needed.  That year, Preservation Chicago listed the building as one of their “7 Most Threatened Buildings” in the city.

Recently, an extensive restoration has returned the exterior of the building to its original 1880s appearance.  The interior has been dramatically transformed into modern student housing, a successful example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

The architect of the building, L. B. Dixon, is not a well-known name today, but in his time, was a well-respected and prolific architect in Chicago.  Dixon was born Laban Beecher Dixon on January 16, 1834 in Boston.  He was orphaned at a young age and placed under the guardianship of Ammi B. Young, a prominent Boston architect.  In 1851, Dixon accompanied his guardian to Washington, D.C. where Young had received an appointment as the first Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department.  In that position, Young designed numerous custom houses, post offices, hospitals, and courthouses across the country in styles ranging from Greek Revival to Neo-Renaissance, all utilizing fire-proof construction methods.  From 1854 to 1864, Dixon served in the Department of Construction for the U.S. Government in Washington, D.C.  

Dixon was a member of the National Rifles, who offered their services on the first call for volunteers at the onset of the Civil War.  He was mustered in on April 15, 1861 for three months service and was present at the Second Battle of Bull Run, serving in the ambulance corps under Gen. McDowell.  He married in 1862, and in December 1864 moved to Chicago where he opened his architectural practice.  He and his wife Ella joined the socially prominent Second Presbyterian Church in 1867, and for many years they resided at 3212 S. Calumet Avenue, just two blocks from the site of the Lakeside Club.  His projects were many and varied, from the Cook County Asylum for the Insane in Jefferson Township to several business blocks in downtown, and from the Lakeside Club to numerous residences throughout the city. 

Among his residential commissions were two houses on Prairie Avenue.  The first of these, constructed in 1870 for Daniel Thompson at 1936 S. Prairie Avenue, received a great deal attention for being the first house in the south part of the city to cost $100,000 to construct.  

The building dominated the avenue with its soaring tower rising more than 70 feet into the air.  Later owned by meatpacker and banker Samuel Allerton, it was razed in 1915.

The second residence on Prairie Avenue was built for O. R. Keith in 1882 at 1901 S. Prairie Avenue, immediately to the north of the Marshall Field mansion.  Within a few years, Keith sold the Second Empire style house to Norman B. Ream.  It was demolished in 1929. 

Among Dixon’s buildings that survive today are a pair of red sandstone Romanesque row houses at 1224 and 1228 N. Dearborn Street, and two houses at 3736 and 3740 S. Michigan Avenue. 

Lichstern House, 3736 S. Michigan Avenue
Photo by Frederick J. Nachman

Dixon practiced architecture until his retirement in 1896 due to ill health, after which time  he focused on the management of his real estate.  He died on June 28, 1912 in Riverside, California. 

Note:  There is some inconsistency regarding Dixon’s first name.  During his lifetime, he was referred to simply as L. B. Dixon.  A. T. Andreas, in his 1885 History of Chicago, and Frank Randall, in his 1949 History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago, both refer to him as Lavall B. Dixon, however, research has confirmed that his first name was Laban.

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. 

For more information, visit
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