Monday, August 5, 2019

John La Farge's Sleep returns to Glessner House

John La Farge
Sleep, 1884-1885
Watercolor on paper
8 in. x 6 1/2 in. (2032. cm x 16.51 cm)
The Lunder Collection
Accession Number: 011.2011
Colby College Museum of Art

The Glessners were avid collectors of steel engravings but did acquire a small number of paintings and drawings to decorate their home.  John Glessner, in his The Story of a House written in 1923, noted that they possessed a painting by John La Farge, but little was known about it, as it is not currently in the Glessner House collection.

John La Farge (1835-1910) was an American painter and stained-glass designer who enjoyed a considerable reputation throughout the last decades of the 19th century.  Although largely remembered for his stained-glass work and rivalry with Louis Comfort Tiffany, he produced a significant number of easel paintings and murals during his career.  His extensive decoration of Trinity Church in Boston, designed by H. H. Richardson, gave him a national reputation, and the Glessners saw his murals and stained-glass windows while visiting the church with Richardson in 1885.  La Farge was also among the first American artists to be directly influenced by Japanese prints.  The Glessners had two books by La Farge in their library, Considerations on Painting: Lectures Given in the Year 1893 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1896), and An Artist’s Letters from Japan (1897).

Frances Glessner provided clues about the painting and its acquisition in her journal.  On June 26, 1887, she noted:
“Today we have enjoyed looking at twelve of La Farge’s water colors sent to us by Wunderlich.”
H. Wunderlich & Co. was a New York gallery founded by Hermann Wunderlich in 1874.  It dealt mostly in prints as well as the works of selected contemporary artists including James McNeil Whistler.  Frances Glessner first noted visiting Wunderlich in October 1883 when she went to see a collection of fifty etchings by Whistler.  In March 1885, Wunderlich sent several engravings to the Glessners for review.  They purchased three, including two “Dutch Admirals” they had been anxious to acquire for quite some time.  During a trip to New York in February 1886, they visited the gallery again, so clearly had developed a relationship with the owner.

The most significant clue to the identity of the painting is revealed in a journal entry from May 4, 1892, which recounts a visit by John La Farge to the Glessner home:
“Mr. Norman Williams brought the great John La Farge to call on me and see the house.  He was much astonished to find his painting of the sleeping woman here – he didn’t know it was even in Chicago.  He was delightful and I greatly enjoyed the call.  Mr. Williams told me in confidence that Mr. La Farge is to make a stained-glass window to the memory of John Crerar to put in the Second (Presbyterian) Church.”  (The large rose window was installed in 1893 but was lost in a March 1900 fire that destroyed the sanctuary).

La Farge's watercolor study for the Ascension window at Second Presbyterian Church

Taking Frances Glessner’s description of the work as depicting a sleeping woman, an internet search uncovered a La Farge painting entitled Sleep, now in the collection of the Colby College Museum of Art.  With an image in hand, it was possible to locate the historic location of the painting in the house.  It was revealed that the painting hung over the south music cabinet in the parlor, and appears in the earliest photos taken in 1888, and later photos taken in 1923 for The Story of a House. 

Glessner parlor, 1888 (Sleep at left, centered over music cabinet)

Detail of Glessner parlor, 1923, Sleep at upper center

Another photo provided a valuable clue.  A descendant of the Glessners’ son George donated a photograph of George and Alice Glessner’s home, The Ledge, at The Rocks in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.  Taken about 1940, by which time Alice was a widow, the La Farge painting can clearly be seen on the wall behind her over a table lamp, confirming that the painting went to her when the Prairie Avenue house was broken up following John Glessner’s death in January 1936. 

The Ledge, home of George and Alice Glessner, The Rocks, Bethlehem, New Hampshire
Sleep shown at left above table lamp

In March 2011, the painting was placed for auction with Christie’s in New York.  It was acquired by collectors Peter and Paula Crane Lunder, who gifted it to Colby College, along with seven other La Farge watercolors and two oils, part of a huge donation of more than 500 works of art given to the Art Museum.  In July 2019, the Museum graciously provided Glessner House with a high-resolution scan of the artwork, so that it could be framed and hung in the same location in the parlor where the original hung for nearly fifty years.

The watercolor on paper, executed in 1884 or 1885, measures just 6.5” x 8” and is based on an oil painting (now destroyed) John La Farge completed in 1869 depicting his wife.  Exhibition records indicate the watercolor was exhibited at least three times in 1886 and 1887, prior to the Glessners’ acquisition of the piece.  As noted on the Colby College Museum of Art website:
“Intimate in scale and private in mood, the watercolor Sleep combines realistic representation with decorative arrangement.  The artist’s wife, Margaret Mason Perry, is shown reclining in a shallow, interior space, her limp arms and gracefully turned head suggesting complete repose.  Repeated patterns and soft washes of color connect the figure with the surrounding space.”

John La Farge
Sleep, 1884-1885
Watercolor on paper
8 in. x 6 1/2 in. (2032. cm x 16.51 cm)
The Lunder Collection
Accession Number: 011.2011
Colby College Museum of Art
This full image shows the artist's brush wipe marks and signature
that are concealed by the mat when framed.

We are delighted to have Sleep return to the Glessner House parlor, so that visitors can enjoy La Farge’s work of art, just as guests of the Glessners did for half a century.  Special thanks to the staff at the Colby College Museum of Art for their assistance in making this project possible.

The reproduction of John LaFarge's Sleep as reinstalled in the
Glessner House parlor on August 2, 2019.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Happy 150th birthday Howard Van Doren Shaw!

May 7, 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw.  One of the best-known architects in his day, Shaw’s distinctive blending of traditional elements with his own personal style, led to his reputation in the architectural community as the most radical of the conservatives, and the most conservative of the radicals. 

Glessner House, in partnership with Friends of Historic Second Church, will honor Shaw by hosting a half-day symposium on May 11, 2019, with five scholars exploring various aspects of Shaw’s career.  The symposium will take place in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church, Shaw’s masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the only one of his designs to be designated a National Historic Landmark.  For more information on the symposium, or to purchase tickets, click here.  In this article, we look back at Shaw’s life and several commissions he received in the South Loop which exhibit the breadth of his abilities.

Howard Van Doren Shaw was born on May 7, 1869 to Theodore and Sarah (Van Doren) Shaw.  Theodore was a successful dry goods merchant and a descendant of an early Quaker settler who came to America with William Penn.  Sarah was a talented painter and a descendant of a prominent Dutch family that included the first mayor of Brooklyn, New York.  Shortly after Shaw’s death, fellow architect Alfred Granger noted that Shaw had inherited his father’s “strength of character and quiet firmness” while receiving “his artistic taste, his love for color and fantasy” from his mother.  

Shaw’s parents married in 1865 and established their home at 66 Calumet Avenue (later 2124 S. Calumet).  By the time Howard was a young boy, the house sat in the midst of the most exclusive residential district in the city.  He received a privileged upbringing, attended the exclusive Harvard School for Boys at 2101 S. Indiana Ave., and became a member of Second Presbyterian Church, which his parents had attended since the time of their marriage.  Shaw earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale in 1890 and that fall, entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he completed the rigorous two-year architecture program in just one year. 

He returned to Chicago in 1891 and quickly obtained an apprenticeship in the prominent firm of Jenney & Mundie, an outstanding training ground that had produced architects including Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.  The office was located in the Home Insurance Building, Jenney’s most prominent building, widely regarded as the first true skyscraper.  In the summer of 1892, Shaw headed off to Europe for an extended journey studying and sketching architecture.  While in Spain, he met and traveled with James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

Shaw house, 2124 S. Calumet Avenue

Returning to Chicago in early 1893, he rejoined the firm of Jenney & Mundie, and in April, married Frances Wells, the daughter of a pioneer Chicago boot merchant.  By early 1894, Shaw established his own practice, setting up his office on the top floor of his family home on Calumet Avenue.  He hired a draftsman, Robert G. Work, and quickly established a reputation for designing distinctive residences in a variety of architectural styles.

In 1897, Shaw received his first large commission through his Yale classmate Thomas E. Donnelley.  The building at 731 S. Plymouth Court housed the Lakeside Press, later R. R. Donnelley & Sons.  The vaulted fireproof structure with reinforced concrete floors showed Shaw’s ability to design a building that was both beautiful and highly functional. 

That same year, he received his first commission from Second Presbyterian Church, to design the Crerar Sunday School Chapel at 5831 S. Indiana Ave.  The building, designed and built at the same time as Shaw’s summer house, Ragdale, in Lake Forest, features a similar façade with twin gables sheathed in a smooth stucco finish.  The Chapel and Ragdale both exhibit Shaw’s early mastery of interpreting the English Arts & Crafts style. 

The first of three houses Shaw designed in the neighborhood stood at 1900 S. Calumet Ave. and was commissioned by Charles Starkweather in 1899.  Although based on classic Georgian design, interesting features such as the Palladian window cut into the pediment over the main entrance show Shaw’s interest in, and mastery of, introducing his personal touch into each commission he received. 

In March 1900, Second Presbyterian Church suffered a devastating fire which destroyed the sanctuary but left the outer walls intact.  Shaw was commissioned to rebuild the sanctuary, the design of which was inspired by his love of the English Arts & Crafts.  He and his wife traveled to England that summer for inspiration, and the completed designs were presented to, and approved by, the church board of Trustees that fall.  He engaged several talented Chicago craftsmen, including muralist Frederic Clay Bartlett, lighting designer Willy H. Lau, and the leaded glass firm of Giannini & Hilgart, to execute his vision for the space.  Shaw carefully incorporated several motifs including grapevines, pomegranates, and angels to create a unified appearance throughout the sanctuary, from the lighting fixtures and windows, to the carved wood ornament and cast plaster panels.  The result, completed in late 1901, is a gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, that was an essential tenet of the Arts & Crafts movement.

As work on the church was nearing completion, Shaw received a commission from his father-in-law, Moses D. Wells, for a commercial office and warehouse building at 1249 S. Wabash Avenue, known as the Eiger Building.  The façade of the five-story structure was almost entirely glass, with huge groupings of windows set back between thin vertical brick piers that clearly express the structural frame of the building.  The windows on the top floor, smaller in scale, are set within a long horizontal frame, giving the façade a carefully balanced composition which, combined with the simple but distinctive ornament, made the building stand apart from similar nearby structures. 

In 1902, he designed the Henneberry Press building one block to the north at 1139-1143 S. Wabash Avenue for a printing company.  The eight-story structure, again exhibiting huge amounts of glass on the façade, displays a clearly articulated base, middle, and top.  Shallow pediments at the base and cornice give a sense of verticality and lightness to the composition.

Shaw designed two additional houses in 1903.  The first was built for John B. Drake, Jr. and stood at 2106 S. Calumet Ave., just a couple of doors north of his family home.  For the Drake house, Shaw turned to the Tudor style creating a pleasing asymmetrical brick façade, anchored by a central recessed entryway and wrap-around porch. 

The second house designed that year was more controversial.  Built for his Yale classmate Ralph Martin Shaw (no relation) at 2632 S. Prairie Ave., the narrow brick rowhouse was stylistically different from its neighbors, but more importantly, addressed the need for housing an automobile.  The ground floor was centered by the entrance to the “motor room” or garage that featured a large turntable set into the floor so that the auto could be turned around when it was time to exit.  The ground level was visually cut off from the rest of the house by a projecting limestone lintel above which was set a large grouping of three windows, denoting the main living spaces on the second level.  Although praised by architects, Shaw’s handwritten note next to a photo of the house in his scrapbook read “very avant-garde and criticized.”

Shaw’s later commissions in the neighborhood reflect its rapid transformation from residential to commercial in the first decades of the 20th century.  In 1907, he designed a printing plant for the publishers, Ginn & Co., on the 2300 block of South Prairie Avenue.  Built of reinforced concrete in the Classical Revival style, the most notable feature was a series of three-story brick columns which lent a grand effect to the façade.  The building was the center of two preservation battles at the turn of the 21st century; the reconstructed façade survives at 2203 S. Martin Luther King Dr.

In 1911, Shaw received another commission from the Donnelley company, which had outgrown its Lakeside Press building on Plymouth Court.  That year, the company acquired all of the lots on the east side of the 2100 block of Calumet Ave., directly across the street from the house in which Shaw’s widowed mother was still living.  Considered one of the finest examples of “Industrial Gothic,” the building’s design reflects Shaw’s directive to design the structure “so that it will not be beautiful only today, but one hundred years from now.  We want to build it so people will say that it is art, intelligence and beauty rather than a flashy display of money.”  

Brick and limestone piers are clearly articulated as buttresses with recessed spandrels and large expanses of glass in between.  Ornament includes rich stone carving and terra cotta plaques depicting historic printers’ marks.  It was built in four phases, the last completed after Shaw’s death, but true to his original design. 

Shaw’s final commission in the neighborhood was for the Nyberg Automobile Works at 2435-37 S. Michigan Avenue, reflecting the growth of “Motor Row” along that street.  Completed in 1912, the building featured huge plate glass windows at ground level to showcase the automobiles, with a variety of Shaw ornament enlivening the façade above. 

Although Shaw never designed another building in the neighborhood, he remained active throughout the Chicago area and beyond, designing everything from houses to industrial buildings, and from the planned company town of Marktown in East Chicago, Indiana to the first modern shopping mall, Market Square, in Lake Forest.  Shaw died on May 6, 1926, one day before his 57th birthday while being treated for pernicious anemia in Baltimore.  He was awarded the prestigious gold medal from the American Institute of Architects the day before his death.  Shaw was only the fifth American to receive the medal, which is awarded by the national AIA Board of Directors “in recognition of a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.”  

His wife later wrote, “It was said about William Morris, ‘You can not lose a man like that by his own death, only by your own.’  I know his family feels this to be true of Howard Shaw.”  The architectural community felt the same – he was highly regarded by his peers for his distinctive style and was still actively engaged in his architectural practice at the time of his final illness.  He was buried at Graceland Cemetery, the family plot centered by a marker of his own design, surmounted by a copper orb displaying the words of the 23rd Psalm. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Glessners in Paris - 1890

Panorama of the seven bridges

As this article is being written, the iconic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, continues to burn, the images of the building devastation heartbreaking for Parisians, Christians, and all those who love and appreciate historic architecture.  As stewards of a Chicago landmark (designed by H. H. Richardson, who received his architectural training at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris), we sympathize with all those who are impacted by the irreplaceable loss of this internationally significant architectural treasure. 

John and Frances Glessner and their daughter Fanny (accompanied by her paid companion Miss Scharff) had the opportunity to visit Notre Dame during a trip to Europe in the early part of 1890.  Below are selected excerpts from the Glessner journal (written by John Glessner) detailing their time in Paris.  (All images, other than that of Notre Dame Cathedral, taken from an album of photographs assembled by the Glessners during their trip).

Place de la Concorde

Monday February 24, 1890 (in Havre):
“At 7:30am left by train for Paris . . .Had telegraphed Hotel Baida to send man to meet us at RR station in Paris and soon after arrival were comfortably placed in our hotel with two good sunny communicating rooms, fire lighted etc. . . We went for a long drive through Paris. . . We drove for four hours through places of great interest – only stopping once or twice.  We were most impressed by the Madeleine, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe.  We drove on the Champs Elysses to the Bois de Boulogne to Café Cascade where we got out and had a cup of delicious hot chocolate. 

Venus de Milo

“Tuesday Feby. 25 was spent – morning at the Louvre with antique statuary and some old paintings.  The enormous galleries are full of wonderful and beautiful historical works.  Were most impressed by the Venus de Milo and Melpomene.  The Venus is larger than we had expected, and most beautiful from every view.  The coloring of Van Dyck and Titian and Tintoretto and the great works of Rubens impressed us . . . Murillo’s Immaculate Conception kept our attention for as long as we could spare. . . Dined table d’hote at the Continental and from there to Port St. Martin Theatre to see Sarah Bernhardt in Joan of Arc.  Small theatre, so that everybody was close to stage.  Four balconies or galleries and the 1st floor gave seat space.  The play was fine and well given. 

A gallery at the Louvre

Wednesday February 26:
“The ladies, Fanny included, started out shopping immediately after breakfast and I wandered about until 11, when I went to meet Fanny and relieve her from further shopping, but they had been delayed so we all lunched together at Café Voisin.  From there drove to Notre Dame Cathedral and went through that beautiful building and saw the wonderful 
treasures it contains.  After that all four took top of street car and rode across Paris. 

Thursday February 27:
“After breakfast went to Ste. Chapelle, the oldest church in Paris.  Then to the Cluny Museum where we were more than delighted with the collections of furniture, embroideries, laces, porcelain, etc.  Then to the Pantheon and walked hastily through looking at the frescoes but did not go down to the underground tombs nor up to the tower.

Eiffel Tower

Friday February 28:
“Went to the Luxembourg at once after breakfast.  Saw the large bronze St. John by Paul Dubois and some fine pictures.  Liked best Jules Dupre’s Eleaner, Rosa Bonheur’s Cattle Plowing, Bonnet’s portrait of Lion Cogniet, and Bastien-Lepage’s Haymaking.  Saw also the Oyster Gatherers by Feyen-Perrin of which we once had an etching.  From there the ladies went to Au Bon Marche after walking through the gardens, and I to the bankers for letters.  Lunched at the Binda, left Fanny here and we went shopping and to call on (Mihaly) Munkacsy at his studio.  The reception room was furnished with screens and sofas and hangings, had a bright fire burning and was filled with French callers. . . He took us into his studio, through a door draped with three or four thicknesses of hangings, and we sat there on a corner sofa a while talking with him through Miss Scharff. . . The studio had a stuffed horse in it and some stuffs and was very light.  Visited many old shops and Theodore Deck’s place, but found nothing to buy.  Bought at Barbedienne’s a bronze Sitting Mercury.  We are getting quite in conceit with our own bric-a-brac, as it compares well with what we see, or is reproduction of what we see. 

Saturday March 1:
“Went to Louvre after breakfast to have another look at the art treasures. . . After that to a private exhibition of paintings at The Cercle de L’Union Artistique 5 Rue Boissay D’Anglas. . . Neglected to say above that we went Friday night to the Grand Opera, L’Africaine and found the performance magnificent.  Had never seen such stage setting.  Over 100 players in orchestra and at one time at least 175 people on the stage, perhaps more.  A Chicago audience on a similar occasion will compare favorably with this one, though perhaps not so many jewels worn by the ladies.  Generally the dresses here were not so low at the neck as at home, but a few were lower.  The men wore hats between the acts. 

Foyer of the Grand Opera House

“Sunday morning went to the Greek church and staid through the service.  The church is in shape of Greek cross about 35 feet square and contained many paintings some at least of which were very good and perhaps more, for we couldn’t see them very well.”

(On Monday March 3, the Glessners traveled to Cannes and then to Italy, returning to Paris on April 2, during Holy Week, spending ten days there before boarding their ship at Havre for the passage home).

Friday April 4:
“Good Friday.  We all four went shopping together this morning.  Bought a bureau and writing table for bedroom at home. . .

Notre Dame Cathedral in the 1890s

Sunday April 6:
“On Sunday morning – Easter Sunday – Frances and Miss Scharff went to service at Notre Dame, which they found interesting. . . Fanny and I staid at home and wrote letters.  After luncheon we drove to St. Cloud and on the Bois de Boulogne until dinner time.  Fanny wore her Bersagliero hat and cloak, supposing that anything might be worn here without remark, but found it unpleasant because of the attention it seemed to attract.”

“On Wednesday morning April 9th, I visited Central Halles the great market, the Tower of St. Jacques, Sainte Chappelle, and Notre Dame while the two ladies and Fanny went to dressmakers, bought embroideries, etc.  After luncheon, Miss Scharff and Fanny drove to the Jardin d’Acclimatation to see the animals and birds. . . At 7 we took carriages four ourselves and our guests the Hutchinsons and went to our dinner.  When we came home Miss Scharff and I from our cab saw the blaze from a large fire, so got Mr. H. to join us and drove to it.  Some large sheds of second hand building material were burning, with great heat and blaze, and quite a crowd had gathered.  A number of men and boys had climbed into the trees for a better sight.”

Newspaper clipping:
“Big Blaze in the Rue Daru”
“Last evening, between nine and ten o’clock, by the lurid appearance of the sky in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe, it was plain that a large fire was raging somewhere in that part of the city, and excited crowds hastened along the boulevards to the scene of disaster.
“On the rue Daru, near the Russian church, stood a row of sheds and ware-houses used by a firm of dealers in second-hand building materials.  These were found to be in flames, and owing to the inflammable nature of the contents, straw, piles of boards, etc., the fire blazed fiercely, lighting up the whole neighborhood.
“The flames threw out such volumes of heat that it was almost impossible for the firemen to hold their ground.  For an hour or so water and fire fought for the mastery, while thousands watched the struggle with admiration.  Finally the water won, streaming down in a deluge from many lines of hose.  The light died away, the heat diminished, the multitude dispersed, and the fire was out.”

NOTE:  A large engraving, depicting Notre Dame Cathedral, always hung over the bed in George Glessner's bedroom, as seen in this historic image below.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fiction in the Household

Guest Author:
Helene Julian is a post graduate student at the University of Lincoln located in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom studying conservation of cultural heritage. As the Fall 2018 intern, she cataloged and evaluated the books in the schoolroom. She graduated in January 2019.

You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep, but what about their books? I think a person’s dreams, aspirations, goals and desires can be understood by examining their book collection. Glessner House, the former home of John and Frances Glessner and their two children, holds a vast collection of books that were treasured by family members. There is one book that caught my eye in the schoolroom. It is bound in red cloth and displays gold lettering on the cover. The title of the book is Achilles and Hector: Iliad Stories Retold for Boys and Girls. The book is in good condition showing evidence that the Glessners cared for it when it was in their possession and ensuring that it could be read by their children and future young readers.

Hector held his little son close

The Glessners were avid readers and were presented with numerous books by authors and friends. Frances Glessner founded a Reading Class in 1894 composed of Prairie Avenue residents as well as the wives of professors from the University of Chicago. They would meet in the library of the Glessner home to discuss literature and socialize. John and Frances Glessner were also well received and active in scholarly circles in the city of Chicago including the Chicago Literary Club and The Fortnightly. Authors wanted the family to read their pieces of work and provided gift copies for their permanent collection.

The author, Agnes Cook Gale, gifted Achilles and Hector to Frances Glessner.  The gift inscription reads, “To Mrs. Glessner with the sincere regards of Agnes Cook Gale 20 November 1904”.   Gale was the wife of Henry G. Gale, who was appointed to the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago in 1899 upon receipt of his doctorate there.  He served the University in various capacities until his retirement in 1940.  Agnes Cook Gale served as president of the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago and was a member of the Artists Equity Association and the Chicago Society of Artists, being primarily known as an artist and sculptor.  The illustrations in the book are by Helen Maitland Armstrong, a talented illustrator regarded as one of the finest American stained glass artists of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. 

There came a sudden darkness over Achilles' eyes

Achilles and Hector is a book of Greek mythology filled with stories of adventure, love, imagination and the perseverance to complete impossible goals. The titular characters of the book, Achilles and Hector, are both portrayed in Homer’s The Iliad, an epic poem written in ancient Greece. It is a tale of war between the Greeks and Trojans over a woman named Helen, the immortal “face that launched a thousand ships.” The story is a work of fiction, but like any other story the reader takes away something from the literature. In my case after reading the Iliad in high school, I took away the power of using reasoning to achieve an objective. Odysseus’s idea to build a wooden Trojan horse and fill it with soldiers to sneak behind enemy lines was a clever tactic that has always stayed with me.

At last came Helen

By observing the Glessners’ book collection, specifically in the schoolroom, it is evident that the parents encouraged their children to read the classics and tales of triumph. They wanted their children to be well rounded individuals who not only gained knowledge through life experiences but through the pages of a book. Among the other works of fiction in the schoolroom are The Two Penniless Princesses and Boat No. 2631: The Story of a Mississippi River Adventure. Both involve the protagonist resolving a conflict or defeating the antagonists with will power and perseverance.

Glessner schoolroom, c. 1888

The schoolroom contains numerous books beyond fiction, including a great deal of non-fiction ranging from history to biography, and several from the children’s studies of foreign languages.  The children were educated by private tutors at home, so it would make sense to see many books related to their studies. But thankfully fiction can be seen throughout the shelves of the schoolroom as well. I think reading fiction opens one’s mind to creativity, imagination and empathy. Possibly, the Glessners would agree with me that fiction can positively impact your life by giving you the confidence to attempt new things and meet new people.

Maybe these are reasons why George decided to go into politics in New Hampshire to have a positive impact on his community. Or this might explain why Frances Glessner Lee had an active and open mind and became interested in crime scene investigation with her creation of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths. You can truly tell about one’s life through the books they read. From my review of working within the school room’s collection, the Glessners read books on a wide variety of topics, both fiction and non-fiction, which encouraged their children to dream and achieve their goals.  

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Fire destroys two buildings at The Rocks

Tool Building (courtesy Littleton Fire Rescue)

The same view in June 2010

A devastating fire at The Rocks on the evening of Wednesday February 13, 2019, destroyed two century-old historic structures on the property, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.  No one was injured in the fire, and the nearby home of long-time property manager Nigel Manley, escaped damage.  The Rocks, located in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, was the summer estate and working farm of the Glessner family for several generations and since 1978 has been owned and operated by The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF).

Electric Plant in foreground, Tool Building behind to the left
(courtesy Littleton Fire Rescue)

The same view in June 2010

The two structures destroyed were historically known as the Tool Building and the Electric Plant.  The Tool Building served as the North Country Conservation and Education Center for SPNHF, and housed staff offices and a large multi-purpose room used for programs and events.  The Electric Plant functioned as a gift shop.


Tool Building, front, circa 1904

Tool Building, rear, circa 1910

The Tool Building was built to house a variety of power-driven machines used in the production and repair of equipment for the estate.  The large, gable-roofed structure was two stories high on the west front, and three stories on the rear.  It was clad in wood shingles which were stained a dark red, like other buildings on the estate.   An L-shaped wing on the north side of the building functioned primarily as an ice house.  

Ice house, June 2010

On September 12, 1903, Frances Glessner noted in her journal, “we commenced work on the new tool building.”  Work proceeded rapidly, as she noted on October 3rd, “we gave the annual dinner to the men on the place.  The table was set in the new tool building.”  Later that week the exterior was shingled. 

Tool Building, 1905 (Togo the mule in foreground)

The building was the site of numerous social events, one of which was recorded in some detail in a journal entry dated September 18, 1906:
“Friday evening, we gave a party to the working people in the Tool building.  We took everything out and made a little stage.  We hung branches of evergreen in among the iron strips and put two large vases of sun flowers and asparagus fern on each side of the stage.  We took lamps down and put one on each side of the stage and put hanging chimes around from the ceiling.  We asked our people and their wives – and many who have been connected with the place, and many of the neighbors.
“We hired omnibuses to bring them out from town.  There were one hundred and sixty-five here.  Mr. Tramonti (harpist with the Chicago Orchestra) was very nervous but pleased the audience very much.  John introduced him very nicely and the audience was very appreciative and attentive.  After the concert ice cream and cake was served.”

Tool Building in 1978, showing the bay added in 1907 at right

In June 1907, Frances Glessner noted “we commenced to build the addition to the tool building.”   That addition, consisting of one additional bay located at the south end of the building, was constructed to provide a blacksmith shop (used in recent years by a Glessner descendant).  

The upper floor contained a fully equipped woodworking shop with a variety of early equipment, originally belt-driven from a central power source.  A gas pump was installed outside to provide fuel for farm vehicles.


The Electric Building, circa 1910

The Electric Plant stood immediately to the east of the Tool Building and was constructed to house the original power plant for the estate.    Laid out on a T-plan, the plant was a low hip-roofed frame structure with a clerestory at the central roof ridge.  It was clad in the same dark red-stained wood shingles.  

The foundation for the building was set in place in July 1910 as work was underway to electrify the various buildings as noted in this journal entry dated July 16, 1910:
“Some progress has been made on the Cottage improvements, and the electric light work has been started.  The foundations are in for the power building.  Wynne the Chicago electrician began on Wednesday or Thursday and has a good deal of the tool building piped for wiring.”
By August 21st, “the electric and power building is completed except the chimney and the “help” in our different houses have asked for a dance there next Thursday” (which did take place).  Electric was apparently fully functional by September 18th when the first electric lamp was lighted at the Big House (the Glessners’ residence) as an experiment. 

Electric Plant, June 2010

After John Glessner’s death in January 1936, the estate, which had grown to 1,500 acres, was divided equally between his daughter, Frances Glessner Lee, and his daughter-in-law, Alice Hamlin Glessner.  Following Alice’s death, Lee reassembled the estate and continued to operate it as a farm until her death in January 1962.  (Her tax returns each year listed her occupation as “farmer.”).  Lee’s children, John Glessner Lee and Martha Lee Batchelder continued operations of the farm until 1978 when the property was donated to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, of which their grandfather, John J. Glessner, was an early member.  

A stipulation of the gift was that there always be a crop in the field.  The Forest Society noted, “for more than three decades, that crop has been Christmas trees, and people come to The Rocks from near and far each year to find their perfect tree.”  (Continuing a tradition begun by the Glessners in the 1880s, Glessner House acquires its Christmas tree each year from The Rocks).

The famous Budweiser Clydesdales in front of the Tool Building,
January 2010 (Courtesy of The Rocks Estate)

Glessner House docents in front of the Tool Building, August 2017

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