Sunday, November 29, 2015

Chicago's Christmas Tree - 1915

Last week, we examined the history of Chicago’s first municipal Christmas tree in 1913.  This week, we look at the tree erected in 1915 – the only one specifically mentioned in the Glessner journal.

In late December 1915, John Glessner made the following entry:
“The municipal Christmas tree continues beautiful.  It bears no lights but is adorned with glass jewels that are said to have been on the jewel tower at the San Francisco fair, and is lighted by search lights of various colors, across the street and elsewhere.  Hundreds of people stand about on Michigan Avenue in the evenings to see it.”

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco from February 20 through December 4, 1915.  Organized to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal, San Francisco was anxious to host the world’s fair to show how it had recovered from the devastating earthquake of 1906.

The most impressive structure on the fairgrounds was the Tower of Jewels which, at 435 feet, towered over the other buildings at the fair, and could be seen for miles.  The name of the tower came from the 102,000 faceted cut glass “jewels” that adorned the surface of the building.  The jewels, known as “Novagems” were created by Walter Ryan and made in Bohemia in a variety of colors and sizes ranging from ¾” to 2” in diameter.  Each individual jewel was mounted to the building with a small brass hanger that included a small mirror behind to enhance the intensity of the light as it passed through the jewel.  The jewels hung free on their hangers and would move in the breeze creating spectacular effects as they reflected the sunlight.  In the evening, 54 searchlights were directed toward the tower, creating a similar impression. 

In his 1921 history of the exposition, Frank Morton Todd noted an occasional event known as “Burning the Tower”:
“Concealed ruby lights, and pans of red fire behind the colonnades on the different galleries, seemed to turn the whole gigantic structure into a pyramid of incandescent metal, glowing toward white heat and about to melt.  From the great vaulted base to the top of the sphere, it had the unstable effulgence of a charge in a furnace, and yet it did not melt, however much you expected it to, but stood and burned like some sentient thing doomed to eternal torment.”

Novagems were produced in eight colors

Jewels were sold as souvenirs during the fair and were also made into pins, cufflinks, and spoons.   At the close of the fair the actual jewels from the tower were sold for $1 each. 

Walter Ryan brought 4,000 of the jewels to Chicago for use on the municipal Christmas tree, sponsored by the Chicago Examiner newspaper.  They were suspended from the boughs of the tree and clustered to form the huge Star of Bethlehem at the top.  Smaller jewel-encrusted stars were placed on the 30-foot trees which surrounded the base of the main Christmas tree. 

Mayor Thompson

Located in Grant Park at Congress Street, the tree was lit at 4:45pm on Christmas Eve. Mayor William Hale Thompson pressed the electric button which turned on the hundred searchlights directed toward the 90-foot fir tree.   Two huge searchlights each were mounted to the Auditorium and Congress hotels, while dozens of smaller lights in various colors were set about the park.

Forty lights set beneath the tree lit the entire height with colors changing from red to green to blue to purple and back to red again.  As John Glessner noted, there were no lights on the tree itself, but it was constantly changing color with the searchlights.

The festivities began with the mayor’s procession leaving City Hall and heading east on Randolph Street and then south on Michigan Avenue to Congress Street.  Leading the procession was the First regiment of cavalry and eight trumpeters from the Illinois National Guard.  Two companies of militia from the First and Seventh regiments formed a lane from Congress Street to the platform and saluted the mayor and his party as they passed. 

Following the mayor’s remarks and lighting of the tree, the huge crowd was treated to a musical program provided by various groups including the Chicago Band Association, the Apollo Musical Club, the Haydn Choral Society, the Chicago Grand Opera Company, and the Paulist Choir, the latter singing from the balcony of the Auditorium Hotel while being illuminated by twenty searchlights.

Musical selections included Wagner’s “The March of the Holy Grail,” Gounod-Buck’s “Nazareth,” and Chadwick-Noel’s “Allelujah Chorus.”  The crowd joined in the singing of Gounod’s “Peace on Earth,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” “Years of Peace,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”  The program closed with the combined musical groups singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

The tree remained in place until New Year’s Day.  It must have been a magnificent sight to see the richly colored jewels swaying and sparkling in the light.  And one cannot help but wonder what became of the 4,000 jewels when the tree was finally dismantled.  Perhaps they were picked up or sold as souvenirs and some may still survive to this day, buried in the bottom of a drawer or maybe even hung on a Christmas tree in someone’s home.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Chicago's First Christmas Tree - 1913

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015, the City of Chicago will conduct its 102nd annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.  The tree will be located in Millennium Park at Michigan Avenue and Washington Street, just two blocks north of the location of Chicago’s first Christmas tree in 1913.  Since 1966, the official Christmas tree has stood in Daley Plaza (except for 1982 when it was placed at State Street and Wacker Drive).  In this article, we will look at the beginning of the decades long tradition of the placement of the tree in Grant Park.

Charles L. Hutchinson

The idea for the 1913 municipal Christmas tree started many weeks in advance with the creation of the Municipal Christmas Festival Association headed by Charles L. Hutchinson, long time president of the Art Institute.  Hutchinson assembled an impressive list of artisans to assist the effort including architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, and artists Frederic Clay Bartlett, Abram Poole, and Lorado Taft, all of whom “(put) aside their own personal affairs in a public spirited way.”

A large site in Grant Park north of the Art Institute at Monroe Street was selected and christened the “Court of Honor” – a name last used during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  In addition to the main tree itself, a large arcade consisting of a series of arches served as a backdrop, with dozens of smaller trees forming a grove.  

On December 19, the top section of the tree was set in place atop a grouping of three huge telephone poles secured in a concrete base.  The top was a single 35-foot tree donated by F. J. Jordan, a former partner of Captain Herman Scheunemann, the famous captain of Chicago’s “Christmas Tree Ship” which had gone down in Lake Michigan the previous year.   In an article which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 20, Jordan noted:

“This is the best gift I could give to the city.  I have watched this old tree grow for many years.  Many times I was tempted to bring it to some rich family.  But it didn’t seem quite right to the poor girl and poor boy, who had no tree at all.  Now it belongs to the city, and rich and poor alike may enjoy it.”

The telephone company funded the erection of the tree and Commonwealth Edison furnished the elaborate lighting.  As such, the actual cost of the whole project was only $3,000 – funded by businessmen appointed to the Municipal Christmas Festival Association, and their friends.  Henry Blair donated 25,000 tickets on the street railways which were distributed through various social service agencies to children who would otherwise be unable to attend the festivities.

Crowds began to gather by 4:00pm on Christmas Eve, lining both sides of Michigan Avenue between Monroe and Washington Streets.  The Chicago Band provided entertainment.  Michigan Avenue was closed to traffic at 5:30pm and soon after, Mayor Carter H. Harrison Jr. arrived in the company of Charles L. Hutchinson, with a squadron of twelve mounted buglers from the Illinois National Guard acting as escort.  The ceremony began at 5:45pm.  Charles Hutchinson opened the festivities, concluding with the introduction of the mayor, who ended his remarks with the following statement:

“Let us hope the lights on this tree will so shine out as to be an inspiration to Christian charity and to inject new courage and new hope into the hearts of those not so fortunate as we are.”

Mayor Carter H. Harrison, Jr.

At precisely 6:00pm, the mayor pushed a button to illuminate the 600 varicolored bulbs on the tree and the huge star of Bethlehem at its apex.  The crowd, estimated at 100,000, most of whom had been unable to hear the mayor’s speech, “cheered lustily.” 

One of the more creative aspects of the ceremony setting was designed by artist Abram Poole in collaboration with the Illinois Central Railroad.  The railroad agreed to stop all of its trains during the ceremony and installed a half dozen engines behind the Court of Honor.  According to a Tribune article on December 21:

“Abram Poole has designed a scheme of color and lights such as Chicago has never seen since the nights of splendor at the world’s fair.  The colonnade, which is to form a background for the tree, is to be all trimmed with green, festooned with lights of all kinds, steady and flickering, and behind this will be a crimson splendor of Bengal lights on a still larger, more distant background of white, rolling, billowing, changing steam.”

A “motion picture machine” was installed in one of the office buildings on the west side of Michigan Avenue in order to project onto a huge screen installed between the Christmas tree and the Art Institute.  This was probably the least successful element of the ceremony, as the films did not relate to the holiday festivities, but instead were provided by the Public Safety Commission “to show how carelessness may result in accident.”

Following the illumination of the tree, the band, housed at the north end of the grounds, played a “Salute to the Nations” – a medley of national anthems.  

Crowd facing the Chicago Athletic Association

The crowd then turned to hear a trumpet fanfare coming from the Venetian balcony of the Chicago Athletic Association.  An improvised sounding board had been added to the balcony to improve sound quality and the balustrade was draped in rich red velvet draperies borrowed from the Art Institute.  Bass Henri Scott and tenor George Hamlin sang selections from opera, followed by the opera company chorus and Paulist choir singing selections from the north terrace of the Art Institute.   The ceremony concluded with everyone present joining in the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”  The crowd lingered for hours.

The tree was illuminated nightly throughout Christmas week until New Year’s Day.  The Association pronounced the entire event a huge success, with the hopes that it would become an annual event.  More than a century later, we can thank these civic minded individuals for starting what has become one of Chicago’s most anticipated and best loved holiday traditions.

Next week: A century ago – the Christmas tree of 1915 as recalled by John Glessner; perhaps the most spectacular municipal Christmas tree of all.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Maud Howe Elliott

Maud Howe Elliott was an American author and the daughter of Julia Ward Howe.  A close friend of Frances Glessner, she was frequently a guest in her homes both in Chicago and in New Hampshire.  In this article, we will reflect back upon a series of lectures given by Elliott in Chicago exactly 125 years ago.

In November 1890, Frances Glessner pasted the following card into her journal:

Mrs. Maud Howe Elliott,

Wednesday Afternoons at Four O’Clock

Wednesday, Nov. 19 – “The Growth of Art.”
At Mrs. Charles Schwartz’s, 1919 Prairie Avenue

Wednesday, Nov. 26 – “Foreign Art in America.”
At Mrs. Charles Schwartz’s, 1919 Prairie Avenue

Wednesday, Dec. 3 – “Our American Artists.”
At Mrs. O. R. Keith’s, 1808 Prairie Avenue

Wednesday, Dec. 10 – “Late American Literature.”
At Mrs. O. R. Keith’s, 1808 Prairie Avenue

Wednesday, Dec. 17 – “A Glance at Belles Letters in England.”
At Mrs. Charles P. Kellogg’s, 1923 Prairie Avenue

Wednesday, Dec. 24 – “The Ethics of Art.”
At Mrs. Charles P. Kellogg’s, 1923 Prairie Avenue

Course Tickets, $6.00

Mrs. Charles Schwartz                             Mrs. O. R. Keith
Mrs. Charles P. Kellogg                      Mrs. Clinton Locke
Mrs. John J. Glessner
Have the pleasure of sending you a ticket for
course of Informal talks.

Will you kindly return the ticket or its equivalent,
at your earliest convenience, to
Mrs. John J. Glessner
1800 Prairie Avenue

Maud Howe was born on November 9, 1854 in Boston, Massachusetts.  Her father, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, was the founder and director of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.  

Her mother, Julia Ward Howe, was an abolitionist, suffragist, and poet, best remembered today as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  She was privately educated by her mother in the United States in Europe; her mentors included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  In 1887, Maud Howe married the English artist John Elliott. 

On November 10, 1890, the Elliotts arrived in Chicago and settled into the guestroom at the Glessners’ Prairie Avenue home.  During the week that followed Frances Glessner and Maud Howe Elliott attended numerous concerts, lectures, teas, and dinners.  Within a couple of days of the Elliotts’ departure, Frances Glessner received a letter stating in part:

“A home sicker pair than John Elliott and his wife, rarely sat down to a boarding house dinner!  And we were homesick not for Boston but for Prairie Avenue! . . . I shall see you tomorrow.  Goodbye, blessed saint of hospitality.  Your good offices to us, are written in the record book of our hearts and will not be forgotten, while our memories are intact.
                                                                        Your attached

Prairie Avenue, circa 1890 (photo by George Glessner);
the Schwartz (1919) and Kellogg (1923) homes are at far right.

Elliott returned to Chicago to give her first talk at the home of Mrs. Charles Schwartz on Wednesday November 19th.  (Within a few years the house was sold to Marshall Field Jr.; it still stands today).  Frances Glessner noted:

“Last Wednesday I paid some neighborhood calls after luncheon – and then went to Mrs. Schwartz’s to hear Mrs. Elliott’s first South Side reading.  There were nearly a hundred ladies there – it was very pleasant.  I have given Mrs. Elliott $710.00 for this course.”

Following the second reading at Mrs. Schwartz’s, Frances Glessner noted that “Mrs. Elliott said that I inspired her paper by some questions which I asked her at The Rocks.”

The Elliotts had visited The Rocks during the summer of 1890.  Maud Howe Elliott used the opportunity to write; her husband, to sketch.  John Elliott also provided some evening entertainment as noted, “Tonight Mr. Elliott did the polar bear, the monkey, the old lady, and danced.”

Frances Glessner also noted an interesting incident that took place when their piano was tuned:

“This afternoon our blind piano tuner came out and tuned the piano – he proved to be John Denny who was educated at the Perkins Institute for the Blind which was founded by Dr. Howe.  This man had played with Mrs. Elliott when she was a child.  They were very glad to meet – to see her as the blind man expressed it.”

When the Elliotts left The Rocks on August 4th, Maud Howe Elliott made the following entry in the guest book:

“These days passed at The Rocks (days as full of pleasure as the comb of honey) are strong upon our memory as pearls upon the rosary of Time.”

A few days later, Elliott wrote from Newport where she gave a detailed account of a party at the Vanderbilt “cottage.”  She noted, in part:

“My dear Mrs. Glessner,

It has been very hard for me to ‘wait until after the Vanderbilt party,’ as was agreed between us!  I have wanted continually to write you to let my words follow my thoughts back to the beloved Rocks, and the encircling hills blue and mysterious, they haunt my memory, they and the song of the hermit thrush, the genius of the place.

Wednesday night we came down to Newport on the Fall River boat, bringing Miss Gardner with us.  We found my dear mother well.  When Thursday came I felt rather indifferent about the garden party, but my promise was given!  Mama and I went together.  The Vanderbilt’s home is on the cliffs, with wonderful lawn leading down to the cliffs which overhang the ocean.  We passed in . . . across the house and out to the lawn where the hostess stood under a group of tall palms.  She is a prettyish little lady, and looked well in her simple frock of white woolen stuff embroidered with gold thread.  She wore no jewels, and a simple, pretty hat.  There were two bands, one a mandolin band, the other (well out of earshot) a full stringed and brass band.  The refreshments were served in a large red Marquee.  The table was superb.  Two immense silver punch bowls of beautiful repoussé work.  The centerpiece was very lovely, all manner of water lilies.  I never saw some of the variety before.  These were great white lilies shaped like poppies big as a large peony, pink ones of the same color, beautiful tropical looking things besides water lilies of the ordinary shape in every shade of blue and pink, the deepest being claret color.  The food was fine, I believe, I only remember a figure of George Washington in ice cream.  There was a menu upon the table and most wonderful looking dishes savory and sweet, all made by the chefs of the houses Vanderbilt.”

Portraits of Maud and John Elliott by Jose Villegas y Cordero

The Elliotts lived in Chicago for a time and then in Italy for a number of years before permanently settling in Newport in 1910.  In 1918, the Elliotts purchased a mansion at 150 Rhode Island Avenue in Newport which she called “Lilliput.”  She continued her writing here, eventually publishing twenty books.  The best known of her works, The Life of Julia Ward Howe, co-authored by her sisters Laura Richards and Florence Hall, earned them the first Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1917.    

Maud Howe Elliott was a patron of the arts, and was the founder of the Newport Art Association organized in 1912 for “the cultivation of artistic endeavor and interest amongst the citizens of Newport.”  The organization purchased the John N. A. Griswold House on Bellevue Avenue in 1915 (a National Historic Landmark designed by Richard Morris Hunt and completed in 1864); it continues to serve as the home of the Newport Art Museum.  Maud Howe Elliott’s portrait (shown at the top of this article) hangs over the fireplace in the library.  She served as secretary of the Association for thirty years.

John Elliott died in 1925.  Maud Howe Elliott continued writing, publishing her final book, This Was My Newport, in 1944, when she was ninety years old.  She died on March 19, 1948 and was interred at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts alongside her husband and parents.  Her papers were given to Brown University, which had awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1940.

For more information on the Newport Art Museum, visit  

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Singing Bowl

One of the first objects visitors notice upon entering the Glessner house is a large bronze bowl set upon a table in the main hall.  Displaying a dark patinated finish, the bowl measures 9-1/2 inches in height and 14 inches in diameter.  The piece is yet another example of the Glessners’ interest in Japanese design.

Known as a singing bowl, the piece is a standing bell positioned with its bottom surface resting on a cushion.  The rim of the bowl vibrates to produce a beautiful tone, thus the origin of its name.  John Glessner makes mention of the bowl in a manuscript describing the contents of the house:

“ . . . a Japanese temple gong of sweet tone, from the celebrated Captain Binkley collection.”

Postcard showing a Japanese temple gong
Morse Museum, Warren, New Hampshire (closed 1992)

Although the reference to Captain Binkley and his celebrated collection has been lost to time, the reference does verify that the piece is Japanese in origin.  These bowls, or gongs, are found in all Japanese temples.  An important part of Buddhist worship, the bowls are rung to signal the beginning and ending of periods of silent meditation.  They are also used during chanting, and are an important element in traditional Japanese funeral rites and ancestor worship.

The bowls were also widely made and used in Tibet, Nepal, and China.  Accompanied by a mallet (seen in the foreground of the photo at top), they could be rung in two ways.  One was to strike the rim of the bowl with the padded end of the mallet, producing a deep tone.  The other was to slowly rub the wooden end of the mallet around the exterior perimeter of the bowl, gradually producing a sweet higher pitched tone that “sung.” 

Wear on the mallet would indicate that the Glessners rang their singing bowl in both manners.  In addition to using their bowl to call their guests in to dinner, entries in Frances Glessner’s journal would indicate that they also rung the bowl as part of their New Year’s celebrations.

Frances Glessner made the following journal entry for December 31, 1893:

“At nine some invited friends commenced to come.  Then Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Marion came.  Mr. Thomas brought a trio of the best from the orchestra – and the harpist Schuecker.  We had a bright drift wood fire in the hall and turned the lights all out.  There were about thirty guests in all.  We all sat about this lovely fire…The music the trio played was all from Beethoven and Mozart – it was as it was originally written – and was of the most exquisite character.  The harpist played beautifully.  We had him come out in the hall for one number and sit in the fire light.  At midnight Mr. Thomas struck the hour on our Japanese gong.  We all congratulated each other.  John proposed my health in a beautiful toast to me – all drunk it in some hot mulled claret.  Mrs. Stevenson made a very flattering toast.  Then we had more sweet, sweet music – and all went home half after one. It was very rare artistic evening.”

(Notes:  “Mr. Thomas” was Theodore Thomas, first music director of the Chicago Orchestra – later the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and a very close friend of the Glessners.  Frances Glessner’s birthday was January 1, hence the toast from her husband). 

Frances Glessner herself had the honor of striking the gong on December 31, 1909:

“We had our dinner at 8 o’clock.  The Stocks, Johnsons, Wessels, Anne, Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Morron were here.  Frances had a dinner for 10 – all came here at ten o’clock and we had Miss Reid who imitated a passé prima donna, Will Collins who sang songs and told stories, and McConnick who brought his trained dog Bronte.  He also gave clever imitations of bird songs.  We all laughed until we ached.  At midnight we had champagne and claret cup, ice cream and cake and I struck twelve on the gong.  We circled round and sang Auld Lang Syne – hoch etc. etc.  John proposed a beautiful toast to Mr. Stock and another to me at midnight.  I gave Mr. Stock a letter from Mendelssohn, one from Jenny Lind and an old engraving of Jenny Lind.”

(Note:  Frederick Stock, one of the Glessners’ most intimate friends, served as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1905 until his death in 1942.  The New Year’s Eve celebration followed the afternoon premier of his Symphony No. 1 which he dedicated to John and Frances Glessner). 

Singing bowl shop in Nepal

Singing bowls are now widely available and are commonly used in meditation, although most of these are much smaller than the Glessners' bowl so that they can be held in the palm of the hand.  

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Swift Mansion

Like the Glessner house, the Swift mansion at 4500 South Michigan Avenue is a reminder of the period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the South Side was home to many of Chicago’s business and social leaders.  A rare survivor of that era, now set amidst apartment buildings, business blocks, and vacant lots, the mansion’s history reflects the changes that the community has undergone since it was constructed more than a century ago.

On October 2, 1890, Chicago newspapers carried a detailed account of the marriage of Helen Swift and Edward Morris, which had taken place the previous evening at the home of the bride’s parents, 4502 S. Emerald Avenue.  The event was not merely another society wedding – it represented the union of two of the most powerful families in Chicago.  At the time, Chicago was a meatpacking city, and the three largest businesses were operated by the Swift, Morris, and Armour families.  Helen was the daughter of Gustavus Swift and Edward was the son of Nelson Morris.  Swift presented his daughter with a check for $5,000 “with a goodly sum in gold coin to act as a weight for the paper” and the happy couple set off for an extended honeymoon in Europe.

Swift planned another gift for his daughter and new son-in-law as well – a new house.  In 1892, plans were announced for a substantial marble-clad residence at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and 45th Street.  At the time, this portion of Michigan Avenue was lined with large mansions, set along what was considered one of the most beautiful streets in the entire city.  

The exterior exhibits elements of both the Romanesque and Queen Anne styles and features columns with elaborately carved capitals, dormers, a three-storey turret, and a large porte cochere along 45th Street.  Inside the rooms were richly finished with wood paneling, beamed ceilings, a beautiful carved staircase, and numerous fireplaces.

The architect of the house has not been confirmed, but the nomination form submitted when the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 indicated that the house may well have been the design of Willett & Pashley.  The partnership of James R. Willett and Alfred F. Pashley produced a number of distinctive residences in the city during that period.  Several of their published designs are very similar in scale and detail to the Swift mansion.  They are remembered today chiefly for their work with the Catholic Church in Chicago.  Willett befriended Patrick Feehan during the Civil War, and Feehan went on to become the first Archbishop of Chicago, serving from 1880 until 1902, during which time Chicago was elevated to an Archdiocese.  The firm designed his summer residence and St. Mary’s Training School for Boys, both located at “Feehanville” in present day Mount Prospect.  However, their most significant commission was the Archbishop’s elaborate Queen Anne style residence at 1555 N. State Street which still stands today.

Helen and Edward Morris moved into their home just as Chicago was preparing to host the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  Newspapers note that Mrs. Morris gave dances and other parties in her beautiful new home.  Four children were born to the couple, two sons – Nelson II and Edward Jr., and two daughters – Ruth and Muriel.  In 1904, Edward Morris purchased a large lot, measuring 198 by 212 feet at the southwest corner of Drexel Boulevard and 48th Street, and spent nearly $100,000 building a new home.  It was here that he died on November 3, 1913 at the age of 47, leaving an estate estimated at $20,000,000.  Helen later married Francis Neilson, an English actor, and died in 1945.

After Helen and Edward Morris moved from their Michigan Avenue home, it was given to her brother Herbert and his wife, who died in 1911 and 1912 respectively.   The house was then acquired by John W. White. 

When he died in 1916, the Chicago Tribune gave an extensive account of the contents of the house when it was opened by the public administrator.

A “tomb” of art curios in musty surroundings was revealed yesterday when the house of the late John W. White, recluse and connoisseur, was opened by the public administrator, James. F. Bishop.

In the old house, 4500 Michigan avenue, there hung what is pronounced a Gainsborough.  A cathedral clock was standing among Roman bronzes and Italian marbles.  Violins of a bygone age reposed on teakwood carvings.

Mr. White died recently at the age of 75.  He had been ailing for more than a year.  So far as is known he had but one relative.  She is his daughter, the wife of Dr. Charles Chesman of Seattle, Wash., and she is coming to Chicago to close up the estate.

P. H. O’Donnell who for years was the legal adviser to Mr. White, described the art objects that adorn the lonely house which Administrator Bishop now has in charge.

“Mr. White was a man of genius,” said Mr. O’Donnell.  “He was a native of Kansas and at the time of his death had interests in Lyon, Kas.  He had held offices of trust and was a lawyer of ability.  He came to Chicago about fifteen years ago and established the Bankers’ Record Publishing house.  It netted Mr. White and his associates large returns.

“He was intent upon making money only that he might gratify his desires to possess objects of art.  He bought the old Herbert Swift mansion at 4500 Michigan avenue that he might have a model home on his own ideas.  He lived alone.

“So far as I know, no one but myself ever entered his home as a guest.  He employed an old man as a bodyguard and who came in once a day and attended to the housework.  The entire lower floor was given over to his art collection.  This extended to every form of rare object.  He was fond of violas and cellos.  Of these he had about a half dozen of rare make.

“There is a piano which he bought in Germany for $10,000.  It is capable of reproducing the tones of almost every instrument ever made.  Mr. White brought it to American that American piano makers might study it.

“There is a collection of cathedral clocks.  They are all huge, hand carved and wrought.  When Mr. White had them all running they would reproduce for him the chimes heard in the cathedrals of Europe.  One of these clocks alone had twenty-eight chimes.  The clock collection cost more than $100,000.

“He was fond of Irish ware and of this there is a rare collection.  One big rose jar is said to be valued at $15,000.  There is a tea set that cost $2,500.

“Along the walls are pieces of Roman statuary.  One of these is an interlacing of marble and bronze of surpassing handiwork.  He had no American paintings.  All the ten or fifteen paintings are old works, none more modern than a Gainsborough.  There is a room full of paintings, Japanese teakwood carvings, and Japanese vases of great value.

“The rosewood bedroom set used by Mr. White was hand carved and made for the late John Alexander Dowie, overseer of Zion.  Mr. White bought it after the death of the prophet.

“In the great room of the first floor is the cabinet of Otto, the ‘mad king’ of Bavaria.  It was brought to America by Mr. White years ago.  It is hand carved and opens in a peculiar fashion.

“All doors to the house are of oak and heavily barred.  The windows are all double barred.  Mr. White liked to be alone with his collection.  His companion was a little dog that always was with him.

“At the same time he was extremely fond of children and he bought a large sweep of lawn to the south of the mansion which he planned to make into a playground.  He already had expended $10,000 in preliminary work on it.

“It would be too bad to permit this collection of art to be thrown broadcast in an auction sale.  It should become the property of the city of Chicago.  There should be a corner for the collection in the Art Institute.”

Mr. White died alone, save the little dog that was always with him.

Public Administrator Bishop, under the law, where one dies intestate, forced an entry to the house to prepare for the disposal of the property.  This, however, will not be done, as Mr. White’s daughter will soon be in Chicago.

A suit of armor inside the front door greets visitors.
Is this a survivor from the White collection?

After White’s collection was cleared from the house, it was sold and occupied by various individuals including John Powers, who served for nearly 40 years as an Alderman in the City of Chicago.  The house was later used as a funeral home.

For decades following, the mansion served as the headquarters of the Chicago Urban League.  In 1995, it was acquired by the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation, which occupies the building today.  

The Foundation, which provides many services to the community including transitional housing to formerly incarcerated men, graciously opened its doors for curious visitors during Open House Chicago, sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation over the weekend of October 17th and 18th.  Tours were provided by the residents, who proudly shared their home with the throngs of visitors who came to view this relic of Chicago’s early South Side Gold Coast.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Cordon Club

Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue
Home of the Cordon Club

In the first decades of the 20th century, the norm was for men and women to have their own separate clubs.  This did not mean, however, that the clubs for the opposite sexes might not have similar purposes.  Such was the case with The Cliff Dwellers and Cordon Clubs.

A well-known fixture in Chicago for more than a century now is The Cliff Dwellers Club.  Founded in 1907 as the Attic Club, and renamed two years later, the goal of the club was to bring together men engaged in and supportive of the fine arts.  John Glessner was a member, as were leading artists, authors, and architects including Louis Sullivan.  For decades the Club occupied quarters on the top floor of Orchestra Hall (now Symphony Center); since 1996 they have been perched atop the office building at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street.

Forgotten to many is the fact that the women of Chicago had a similar club that occupied nearby rooms in the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Avenue.  This week marks the 100th anniversary of the opening reception of the Cordon Club, of which Frances Glessner was a member. 

Caroline Kirkland, the long-time society columnist who wrote under the name “Madame X” for the Chicago Tribune (she was a close friend of Frances Glessner) provided a good overview of the opening of the club in her article dated Sunday October 24, 1915.

“The much discussed Cordon, the feminine counterpart of the Cliff Dwellers, is to have its opening reception next Thursday afternoon in its highly artistic rooms on the seventh floor of the Fine Arts building.  It is an interesting and promising undertaking, purporting to be a club for purely social purposes and consisting largely of women with some profession or definite calling in life.

Under this caption Mrs. Hobart Chatfield-Taylor is entered on the lists as a bookbinder, Mrs. Tiffany Blake as an expert landscape gardener, Mrs. Robert McGann as a painter, and Miss Helen Birch as a musical composer.

The membership is limited to 400.  It is full now, with a long waiting list of candidates.  It is about evenly divided between women who “do something” and those who lead merely domestic and social lives.  Perhaps the professional women predominate.

The club aims to provide a pleasant gathering place for the members and their friends where they can meet and have luncheon, dinner, or afternoon tea.  The rooms are decorated in the style of the Italian renaissance, modified by modern ideas of comfort and convenience. 

In choosing this period of art as the background for the club’s social life, its president, Miss Clara E. Laughlin, was governed by the thought that in the time of the Italian renaissance women played a larger, more important part in Italian life than ever before – or ever since, one might safely say.  They exercised a sway in politics and the world of learning which makes this period to the student one of the most interesting in history.

So, as far as possible, the ideas that governed the furnishing of interiors at that time are carried out in the rooms of the Cordon.  They have a fine copy of a cinque cento fireplace; also an excellent production of a medieval Italian doorway is one of the features of the main club room.  High, somber wainscoting is the background, and the general effect is rich and harmonious.

The name was chosen because the French word “cordon” means many strands woven together.

Writers, musicians, artists, actresses, business women, reformers, and women of wealth and leisure (if there is such a thing as leisure) are on the club roster.  Besides those already mentioned other well known names are the Mesdames Ogden Armour, Arthur Aldis, Chauncey Blair, Hobart Chatfield-Taylor, John Carpenter, Jacob Baur, Benjamin Carpenter, Robert Peattie, Joseph T. Bowen, Archibald Freer, John J. Glessner, John M. Clark, Kellogg Fairbank, Cyrus H. McCormick, Horace Martin, William J. Calhoun, Potter Palmer, Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, Ella Flagg Young, and the Misses Grace and Edith Abbott, Edith Wyatt, Louise Burnham, Jane Addams, Mary Bartelme, Anna Morgan, Harriet Monroe, Alice French (Octave Thanet), Mary McDowell, Mabel Talliafero, and Frances Starr.  A shining galaxy!”

The club maintained their quarters in the Fine Arts Building for decades.  An article in the Chicago Tribune dated October 20, 1948 noted that the club rooms had been recently redecorated:

“Coral predominates in the new color scheme, and charcoal gray and mist green have been used for accent.  Old furniture has been transformed with slip covers, and several new pieces have been added, including mirrors, lamps, and tables.”

The Cliff Dwellers Club began admitting women many years ago, and in fact, the club has had a woman president.  So the idea of a separate club just for women seems a bit foreign to many of us today.  But in its day, the Cordon Club filled an important niche in the social and artistic life of Chicago.

Note:  The first president of the club, Miss Clara E. Laughlin was a prominent writer, editor, and later a radio personality.  Born in New York City in 1873 she lived most of her life in Chicago, graduating from the Chicago High School in 1890.  She wrote over three dozen books including biographies of Sarah Bernhardt, Ferdinand Foch, and James Whitcomb Riley, as well as her autobiography.  In addition, she wrote extensively for the Ladies Home Journal.  She died in 1941.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Glessner House Museum receives Driehaus Award

On Saturday October 17, 2015, Glessner House Museum was presented with the President’s Award for Stewardship from Landmarks Illinois during the annual Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards.  The award recognized five decades of stewardship for the building since its rescue from demolition in 1966. 

Landmarks Illinois President Bonnie McDonald, in presenting award, noted how the museum serves as a model for its work in restoration, preservation, and interpretation.  Accepting the award on behalf of the museum was William Tyre, Executive Director and Curator, whose acceptance speech is presented in full below.

On behalf of the board of directors and the staff of Glessner House Museum, I would like to thank the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and Landmarks Illinois for this award and the recognition of the many people who have served as stewards of Glessner House for half a century.

Fifty years ago, Glessner house sat vacant and for sale and there was a very real threat of demolition.  In spite of its national significance and its designation as a Chicago landmark, which at that time was purely honorary, the building could easily have been lost to the wrecker’s ball.

But 1966 was also the year of passage for the National Historic Preservation Act and it was in that year that a small group of individuals came together with a dream not only to preserve the building but also to preserve the architectural legacy of Chicago, which was disappearing at an alarming rate at that time.

In the late 60s and early 70s, Glessner House was truly at the heart of the preservation movement in Chicago and the state.  Within its walls could be found the first offices of Landmarks Illinois, as well as those of the Chicago Chapter AIA, Inland Architect, and the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation which had been formed specifically to save the building.  The concept for the first historic landmark district in the city was born there as well, when the idea of preserving the surrounding Prairie Avenue district was considered.

In time, the function of the building changed and the idea of an accurately furnished historic house museum evolved.  Glessner descendants returned not only furniture and decorative arts, but also an amazing archive of materials to help interpret the house and its broader context within Chicago history.  Chicago’s oldest building, the Clarke House Museum, came under our purview as well. 

During all these years, countless individuals have contributed to the success and vibrancy of the institution.  Dedicated volunteers have done everything from coordinating fundraising events to clearing rubbish out of the house and from organizing our archival collection to stuffing envelopes.  Enthusiastic docents have given thousands of tours as the “public face” of the museum, and numerous individuals and foundations have stepped forward to provide financial support as members and donors. 

Talented craftsmen have lavished attention on every detail of the house.  They often donate their talents because they feel it is a privilege to work on such a significant structure.  The board and staff have shaped the vision for the institution from education and interpretation to programming and restoration. 

It has been my privilege every morning for the past eight years to enter through the front doors of this extraordinary building.  Not a day goes by that I don’t marvel at the architecture, the collection of decorative arts, and the remarkable lives of the Glessner family.  Nothing gives me greater pleasure than sharing those treasures with our visitors.  We look forward to sharing them with all of you as we embark upon our next fifty years.  Thank you.

The award, which is based on terra cotta ornament from the Methodist Book Concern building at 12-14 W. Washington St. (Harry Bergen Wheelock, architect, 1899) will soon be placed on display in our visitor’s center for all to enjoy.  
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