Tuesday, August 4, 2020

William Morris and Glessner House - Part III

The use of a wide range of products from Morris & Co., selected by Frances Glessner to decorate her new home in 1887, is an essential factor when considering her design aesthetic. Surviving photos of the Glessners’ previous home show no evidence of Morris’s products being used there, despite her awareness and interest in Morris as early as 1883. As such, Morris & Co. became a virtual partner with Richardson – the architecture and interior furnishings complementing and enriching each other to form a unified whole. This was a basic concept that Frances Glessner and H. H. Richardson both read about in Morris’s writings on architecture just a few years before Glessner house came into being.

In this third and final installment of our series on William Morris and Glessner House, we will explore the range of products used throughout the house. There are far too many to explore in a single article; instead, we will look at one example of each of the major categories of items produced by Morris & Co. - wallpapers, textiles, and carpets.


Perhaps no product line of Morris & Co. is more associated with the name of William Morris to this day than wallpaper. Morris introduced his first designs in the early 1860s, a period in which wallpaper was almost universal in the homes of all who could afford it. Although Morris’s wallpapers were printed using the traditional wood-block process, the designs themselves were far from traditional and marked a gradual shift away from the French realistic papers to those categorized as “reform” papers. At the same time, Morris helped to elevate the status of English wallpapers to one of international prominence, and he directly influenced other designers to the point where the term “Morrisonian” was used to describe all wallpapers created in “his” style.

A total of seven Morris wallpaper designs were used at Glessner house. Upon completion of the house in 1887, both guestrooms as well as the bedrooms of George and Fanny, were all papered with Morris designs. Installation of electrical wiring in 1892 resulted in all the rooms being repapered, with the two guestrooms receiving different Morris designs, in both cases ones that were much lighter in color. At the same time, the Glessners’ bedroom, originally decorated with a non-Morris paper, received its Morris wallpaper. After that, when the rooms were repapered, the same Morris pattern was always reused. The wallpapers were acquired through the Chicago-based decorating firm of John J. McGrath, which began carrying Morris & Co. wallpapers as early as 1876. 

Of particular interest is the Double Bough wallpaper, installed in the corner guestroom after the electrical wiring project was completed. Although several people created wallpaper designs for Morris & Co., this particular pattern is attributed to William Morris himself, and dates to 1890. This date is interesting because the wallpaper would not have been available when Glessner house was completed in 1887 but was available when the repapering was undertaken. This might explain its sudden appearance – Frances Glessner saw the new design, liked it, and found a way to work it into her home. It was used again when the room was repapered in 1916.

In 2010, when the room was being readied for restoration, a large piece of the Double Bough wallpaper was found behind vinyl wallcovering installed in the early 1970s. It was carefully removed from the walls by historic finishes expert Robert Furhoff and preserved. The fragment was of great value as it verified the colorway of the wallpaper. As was the case with most Morris & Co. wallpapers, Double Bough was offered in several colorways, and since the historic photos are all black and white, a surviving fragment is essential to recreate the wallpaper correctly. 

The complete set of carved wood blocks was on hand at the Morris archives in England and were used to print the current paper, installed in 2015. The process was laborious, as the paper must be given time to dry in between the application of each block. For this particular design, 21 blocks were needed; some designs required as many as 30.

Today, four of the five bedrooms feature exact copies of their Morris & Co. wallpapers – Double Bough and Arcadia in the guestrooms, and Poppy and Blossom in the children’s bedrooms.


Textiles represented a huge category of products for Morris & Co. including everything from woven woolens and printed cottons used for draperies and upholstery, to embroidered textiles and tapestries. Historic photographs of Glessner house show no less than nine rooms that featured at least one Morris textile, often used for draperies and portieres, but also for upholstered furniture and bed coverings. Fanny’s bedroom, for example, just reopened after an extensive restoration, features different Morris & Co. textiles for the draperies, upholstery, and embroidered bed covering. 

Perhaps the most widely used textile in the house is one that is often overlooked. Known as Utrecht Velvet, the stamped woolen plush fabric appears in historic photos covering chairs in the library and upper hall, and on the davenport sofas in both the library and the schoolroom (after its conversion to a sitting room). Developed in about 1871, it is based on stamped velvets first produced during the 17th- and 18th-centuries in the Low Countries. The monochromatic design consisted of a bold, stylized pattern of flowers and foliage, the repeat being 26 inches in diameter.

Unlike many of the Morris & Co. textiles, it was not actually produced by the firm, but was contracted out to a firm that produced woolen goods. It was available in at least fourteen colorways. The surviving example of Utrecht Velvet can be found on the seats of a pair of Chippendale style side chairs in the second-floor hall, attributed to A. H. Davenport & Co. It was produced in a rich red color, although it is believed that a green version of the fabric was used in the library. (Fun fact: The fabric remained popular well after the turn of the 20th century and was used as a wallcovering for at least one of the first-class cabins on the R.M.S. Titanic).

Reproductions of Morris & Co. textiles can currently be found in the main hall (both levels), library, parlor, and four of the five bedrooms. An original pair of drapery panels in the Cross Twigs design is stored in the archives, the exact location of its use in the house has not been determined.


Morris & Co. produced numerous carpet designs through the years which can be divided into two categories – machine-woven and hand-knotted. Although Morris generally eschewed the use of the machine, he started designing an extensive line of machine-woven carpets in 1876; several can be seen in the historic photos of Glessner house. In 2013, one of his earliest and most popular machine-woven carpets, Lily, was reproduced and reinstalled in its original location on the main entry stairs leading up to the main hall from the front door.

It is the hand-knotted Hammersmith rug in the main hall itself that is most worthy of note. Frances Glessner wrote about its selection in a journal entry recording the arrival of architect Charles Coolidge on April 19, 1887:

“Tuesday Mr. Coolidge came. He and John spent the morning at the house and came home late to lunch. We spent the afternoon at Field’s looking over rugs and hangings – we selected for the parlor and hall – Morris rug and hangings for the hall, and Morris silks for the parlor. Mr. C. was enthusiastic over our Morris rug. In the evening we talked furnishings and showed him all the things we have gathered up for the house.”

The hand-knotted carpets were extremely labor intensive to produce, and were therefore very costly, so Coolidge’s enthusiasm over the rug is no surprise. An advertisement in the Chicago Tribune that same year promoted the rug department at Marshall Field & Co., considered one of the best in the country. The advertisement specifically noted that Field’s had an exclusive contract “for the entire West” for the “wonderous Hammersmith rugs designed and made under the personal supervision of William Morris.” 

Morris was an expert on, and collector of, rugs from Persia, Turkey, and China, advising the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert) on acquisitions, and offering advice to Richardson on a carpet during their meeting in 1882. The carpet produced for the Glessners is very similar to one that Morris designed about 1883 for Swan House, the London home of Wickham Flower, a prominent solicitor. It is based on a typical 17th-century Persian medallion carpet and features a broad border of stylized palmettes, inspired by 16th- and 17th-century Turkish cut velvets, of which Morris would have also been familiar.

The original carpet, which measures nearly 11’ x 15.5’, was donated to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1974 by the Glessners’ granddaughter, Martha Batchelder. A close approximation of the original, assembled from machine made carpeting replicating both the field and border, was installed in the main hall in 2014.

This concludes our three-part series on William Morris and the significant presence of his designs at Glessner House. There is much to see, we hope you will visit soon!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

William Morris and Glessner House - Part II

Frances Glessner was a faithful customer of the Chicago merchant John J. McGrath, whose firm provided the finest wallpapers in the city. By 1876, he also served as the exclusive agent for Morris & Co. in the United States. While shopping for her Washington Street house, Frances Glessner would have no doubt seen Morris’s wallpaper designs, but there is no indication she considered any of these papers until the early 1880s.

On March 6, 1883, Frances Glessner noted in her journal that she attended a meeting of the Decorative Art Society, where she found a discussion of William Morris and his designs most interesting. Within days, she purchased a copy of Morris’s 1882 Hopes and Fears for Art, and less than a week later had finished reading it.

Before March drew to a close, she recorded the following:
“I took Mrs. Avery down to McGrath’s to see Wm. Morris designs in materials for furnishing. We had a delightful morning. I selected a lovely combination for The Rocks, but it is too expensive.”

A surviving scrapbook from The Rocks, recording the various wallpapers and fabrics used in the main house, shows some beautiful and dramatic designs, but none of them are by Morris & Co., so the cost obstacle was not overcome – at that time.

Hopes and Fears for Art

This small volume, published concurrently in both the United Kingdom and the United States, contains five lecture Morris delivered in Birmingham, London, and Nottingham between 1878 and 1881. The five lectures are titled:
The Lesser Arts
The Art of the People
The Beauty of Life
Making the Best of it
The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization
As noted in our previous article, Morris had strong views on a variety of subjects, and those views are expressed clearly in these lectures. Topics range from the value of handicraft to the evils of industrialization, as well as his thoughts on architecture and historic preservation.

An advertisement for the book (priced as $1.25), published in the Chicago Tribune on February 24, 1882, provided the following quote from “an artist”:
“Is not this book the greatest on Art since ‘Modern Painters?’ The same spirit pervades it, that of the reformer profoundly moved by his mission. It is esthetic – strong drink and food too for the upper classes. How will they accept the principle that luxury is the deadly enemy of Art: that the greater part of their artistic surroundings might well make a bonfire? He writes as one who knows, and his style is superb.”

A review published the next month provided another hearty endorsement:
“’Real art,’ says Mr. Morris, ‘is the expression by man of his pleasure in labor’ – an excellent definition, practical and easily understood. Mr. Morris is well known as a poet, but he is also a hard worker. Whatever he says about ‘art’ is the result of careful consideration, earnest thought, and personal experience, and is therefore entitled to an attentive hearing. The present volume is untechnical and adapted to general use and is commended as worthy the man who wrote it, and as likely to be of great service to the man who reads it.”

One of the most beautifully written passages in the work is the closing paragraph of his lecture, “The Beauty of Life,” where Morris discusses his Cause (with a capital C):
“So to us who have a Cause at heart, our highest ambition and our simplest duty are one and the same thing: for the most part we shall be too busy doing the work that lies ready to our hands, to let impatience for visibly great progress vex us much; but surely since we are servants of a Cause, hope must be ever with us, and sometimes perhaps it will so quicken our vision that it will out-run the slow lapse of time, and show us the victorious days when millions of those who now sit in darkness will be enlightened by an Art made by the people and for the people, a joy to the maker and the user.”

Henry Hobson Richardson and William Morris

When the Glessners met Richardson in 1885, the architect was an enthusiastic supporter of Morris’s work. This admiration was strengthened in 1882, when Richardson made his last trip to Europe and spent time with Morris. Surviving records of the trip note that Richardson visited the Morris & Co. works at Merton Abbey, and he was entertained at the Morris home in Kelmscott. Morris even advised Richardson on a Persian carpet which Richardson acquired for his faithful client, Frederick Ames, in North Easton, Massachusetts.

The year 1882 also saw Morris & Co. commissioned to design and manufacture four stained glass windows for Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston, his acknowledged masterpiece. Designed by Edward Burne-Jones, three of the windows show scenes of the Nativity, while the fourth window depicts “David’s Charge to Solomon.” There is literally a bit of Morris depicted in this last window. In the upper right-hand corner, the famous story of David and Goliath is depicted, and the head of Goliath being held in David’s right hand is none other than that of William Morris!

In September 1885, the Glessners visited Richardson at his home and studio in Brookline, Massachusetts and they gathered in his library to review their house plans. John Glessner noted that “this was the room I liked best” so it is no surprise the design of the Glessners’ library borrows heavily from this room. Amongst the books, “rare and beautiful objects . . . and lovely articles of vertu” could be found textiles from Morris & Co. 

These included the portieres hung in the alcoves to either side of the fireplace. The pattern was “Peacock & Dragon,” the same pattern the Glessners later selected for the drapes and portieres in the first-floor main hall.

At left: detail showing the alcove and portieres in Richardson's library.
At right: Peacock & Dragon by Morris & Co.

It is interesting to note that one of the items Richardson purchased during his 1882 visit to England was a copy of Morris’s book, Hopes and Fears for Art, the same book Frances Glessner read in 1883. Richardson would have been especially interested in the final lecture in the volume, “The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization,” where Morris shared his views on architecture and its relationship to the decorative arts. The lecture begins:

“The word Architecture has, I suppose, to most of you the meaning of the art of building nobly and ornamentally.  Now, I believe the practice of this art to be one of the most important things which man can turn his hand to, and the consideration of it to be worth the attention of serious people, not for an hour only, but for a good part of their lives, even though they may not have to do with it professionally.

“But, noble as that art is by itself, and though it is specially the art of civilization, it neither ever has existed nor ever can exist alive and progressive by itself, but must cherish and be cherished by all the crafts whereby men make the things which they intend shall be beautiful, and shall last somewhat beyond the passing day.

“It is this union of the arts, mutually helpful and harmoniously subordinated one to another, which I have learned to think of as Architecture.”


By the time the Glessners engaged H. H. Richardson to design their Prairie Avenue home in 1885, both Frances Glessner and Richardson had read William Morris’s influential volume, Hopes and Fears for Art. This shared interest in, and appreciation for, Morris’s thoughts on art and decorating, helps to explain the excellent architect-client relationship that quickly developed, and why so many Morris & Co. products were ultimately selected to furnish the Glessners’ new home.

In the last installment of this series, we will explore some of the Morris & Co. wallpapers, textiles, rugs, and embroideries that were selected by the Glessners, many of which can still be seen in the house today.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

William Morris and Glessner House - Part I

William Morris by George Frederic Watts, 1870 (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Glessners owned a photographic copy of this portrait.

A visit to Glessner House reveals the inseparable connection between the designs of William Morris and of Frances Glessner’s decoration for her new home. It has often been said that the Glessners were a bit ahead of the curve in Chicago in embracing the use of Morris & Co. wallpapers, textiles, and rugs, although such items were gaining favor on the East Coast. There is little surprise here as the Glessners were hardly followers of the popular trends of the day including the reliance on anything of French origin. Instead, they actively studied and developed an aesthetic of their own that is still well reflected in their carefully preserved home.

This leads one to ponder what the average Chicagoan would have known about William Morris in the 1870s and early 1880s. In this first of three articles focusing on Morris, we will look to the Chicago Tribune to see what was written about him, only to discover that the decorative arts was only a small part of a larger dialogue that included Morris as poet and Socialist.

The Defense of Guinevere
One of the first references to Morris appears in a review of new volumes of poetry in the Literature column on May 22, 1875. A reprint of The Defense of Guinevere, and Other Poems had just been released “without alteration from the edition of 1858.” The reviewer noted that “admirers of the noble narrative poems, ‘The Life and Death of Jason,’ and ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ will read with interest the volume of Mr. Morris’ earliest metrical compositions.” The reference to other well-known poems of Morris is followed by the note that his first works, which received less attention at the time of their release, as he was an unknown at the time, were now worthy of a second look, no doubt the reason for the reprint. Of the collection, the reviewer concludes, “Most of these embalm in verse the pleasing legends of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, while all of them show the author’s remarkable command of the simple, pellucid Saxon.”

Morris returned to the collection of poems in 1892, when it was reprinted as one of the first volumes published by his renowned Kelmscott Press. Many scholars have noted Morris’s ongoing interest in the story and have made the connection between the love triangle of Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot to a similar triangle composed of William Morris, his wife Jane, and their friend, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This final edition under Morris’s own hand, shown below, is beautifully printed with woodcut borders and initials.

Aeneids of Virgil
Morris was also known for his translations and later in 1875 published his complete translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic Latin poem composed between 29 and 19 B.C. It was no small feat – the original is composed of 9,896 lines of verse written in dactylic hexameter. The review in the Tribune quotes from the Graphic which stated, “it is almost impossible to conceive of a version more fluent, rhythmical, and supremely beautiful.”

The review then goes into a rather extended discussion of Morris’s use of tobacco, noting that “It is an interesting fact that Morris always writes under the influence of ‘the baneful weed’ – tobacco. . . When the smoke is thickest, the poetry is best.”

Household art
In the May 14, 1876 edition of the Tribune, we find the first mention of Morris as decorator, in this case for his wallpaper designs. In an article entitled “Household Art” written by John J. McGrath, the owner of Chicago’s leading decorating firm, he notes:

“I have procured, by direct importation, a large stock of the Morris and Dresser papers, being the only examples of these designs to be found in this country, executed under the immediate supervision of these ‘art specialists,’ and far excelling in purity of drawing and beauty of coloring anything heretofore presented to the disciples of artistic truths, I cordially commend them to the notice of all who are desirous of escaping from the thralldom of ill-conceived and badly executed designs in wall dressing.”

It is interesting to note that Frances Glessner was a regular customer of McGrath, acquiring wallpapers for her Washington Street home at exactly this time, and probably later for the Big House at The Rocks as well. This would have been her introduction to Morris’s designs, although there is no evidence that she considered any Morris wallpapers until 1883, as we shall see next week.

The Morris mantra
“Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Morris’s mantra is carefully written – the usefulness of an object is something that is easily determined – a pitcher can hold and pour water; a clock keeps time. But the beauty of an object is subjective, one person may believe it to be beautiful, another may not. The concept became central to the Arts & Crafts movement in highlighting the significance of the decorative arts, and the importance of giving artistic consideration to the creation of all items – not just fine arts, but the everyday objects that surround the average person in their home.

An interesting article from April 1882, which at first glance has nothing to do with Morris, noted a large collection of “beautiful objects of art in the shape of foreign bronzes, carvings, exquisite china and porcelain, old tapestries, rugs, and odd bric-a-brac from every corner of the world, sent on to Chicago from the well-known establishment of Sypher & Co., New York, and to remain on view until next Wednesday, when it will be sold under the hammer.”

The anonymous writer of the column spends considerable time describing many of the objects and their inherent beauty. However, at the close, he turns to Morris and his famous mantra (which was apparently known well-enough for the reference) to consider both the beauty and usefulness of the objects. He writes:

“If everyone heeded the advice of William Morris, to admit nothing into their houses that they did not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful, some of these would have to be excluded on the score of usefulness.”

William Morris the preservationist
Morris was deeply concerned about the state of preservation in the latter half of the 19th century in England. In 1877, Morris and several friends formed The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in response to what he viewed as “destructive restoration.” This process involved removing later alterations to return buildings to an idealized original state, which may or may not have ever actually existed. Morris felt strongly that the later alterations were part of the history of the structure and advocated for repair and maintenance over the destructive restoration practices. The Society still exists today, and Morris’s principles are now widely accepted.

An article in the February 28, 1883 Chicago Tribune reprinted comments made by Morris regarding the announced demolition of the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy because it was deemed unsafe and might collapse during flooding. Morris’s comments in part read as follows:

“We need hardly point out, the unrivaled historical interest and artistic beauty of this world-famed bridge, with its three graceful arches crowned by a picturesque group of houses, over which is carried the long passage connecting the Pitti and Uffizi Palaces. Not only the arches of the bridge, but portions of some of the houses, are still preserved exactly as designed by Taddeo Gaddi, and built in A. D. 1362 – an object of the greatest beauty both when seen close at hand and as one of the chief features in the glorious distant view from San Miniato . . . it certainly would not be beyond the skill of modern engineers to underpin and secure the falling piers.”

William Morris and his discontent
Morris wrote and lectured extensively on the current state of art. In March 1883, a paragraph in the London Life column of the Chicago Tribune, written by special correspondent Robert Laird Collier, noted Morris’s discontent with the current state of art. It is so well written that it is reproduced here in its entirety:

“William Morris has been talking about ‘blackguardly houses.’ This William Morris is in his way a ‘regular caution.’ He is poet, painter, house-decorator, shopkeeper, lyceum lecturer. He designs wallpapers, stuffs for curtains, carpets, and sells these designs or the manufactured articles. He keeps a shop where one can get the most artistic furniture, and, I believe, one can out of his shop furnish one’s house from top to bottom. He has just been down to Manchester lecturing at a conversazione of art and literary societies. He said he was so discontented at the present condition of art and the matter was so serious that he desired to make other people share in his discontent. He singled out Bournemouth, a fashionable watering seaside resort, and said the houses of the rich there were blackguardly! Whew! What would he say of Vanderbilt’s wallpaper with its diamond dust! What would he say of a Chicago ‘marble front’ house, a ‘back yard’ twenty feet by twenty, and an – alley. But thank God for the iconoclast. He is a nuisance, but he comes before the revolutionists, and the revolutionist comes before the reformer.”

The term ‘blackguardly,’ not widely used today, referred to something lacking principles or scruples, W. M. Thackeray (author of the 1848 novel Vanity Fair) referring to it as “the tyranny of a scoundrelly aristocracy.”

East Cliff Hall, Bournemouth, now the Russell-Cotes House and Museum

Morris the Socialist
The reference to Morris as iconoclast was appropriate. Most of the references in the Chicago Tribune by the mid-1880s referred not to his work as house-decorator, but to his belief in Socialism, of which he was a leading and outspoken proponent. In February 1885, the Chicago Tribune reprinted a song written by William Morris entitled “The March of the Workers” that had just been published in the English Socialist journal, the Commonwealth. Sung to the tune of “John Brown” (the same tune used for the Battle Hymn of the Republic), it consisted of eight verses and chorus. Beautifully written and displaying his talents as a poet, we reprint here the first and last verse plus the chorus.

“What is this, the sound and rumor? What is this that all men hear,
Like the wind in hollow valleys when the storm is drawing near,
Like the rolling on of ocean in the eventide of fear?
‘Tis the people marching on.

“On we march then, we the workers, and the rumor that ye hear,
Is the blended sound of battle and deliv’rance drawing near?
For the hope of every creature is the banner that we bear,
And the world is marching on.

“Hark, the rolling of the thunder!
Lo, the sun! and lo, thereunder
Riseth wrath, and hope, and wonder,
And the host comes marching on.”

Header from the booklet, “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil,” published by William Morris in 1885, the same year he composed the March of the Workers. The header was designed by his friend and fellow Socialist, artist Walter Crane.

William Morris the Socialist was quoted even more frequently in the newspaper following the Haymarket affair/riot in May 1886. A particularly strong statement, issued in the Commonwealth by Morris on November 12, 1887, the day after four of the “anarchists” were executed was addressed “To the Well-to-Do People of America,” and read in part:

“If you are sure that henceforward the workingmen of your country will live placid and happy lives, then you need think no more of the murder you have committed, for a happy people cannot take vengeance, however grievously they have been wronged; but if it be so with you, as with other nations of civilizations that your workers toil without reward and without hope, oppressed with sordid anxiety for mere livelihood, depraved of the due pleasures of humanity; if there is yet suffering and wrong amongst you, then take heed; increase your army of spies and informers; hire more reckless swashbucklers to do your will; guard every approach to your palace of pleasure without scruple and without mercy, and yet you will but put off for a while the certain vengeance of ruin that will overtake you, and your misery and suffering, which to you in your forgetfulness of your crimes will then seem an injustice, will have to be the necessary step on which the advance of humanity will have to mount to happier days beyond . . . You have sown the wind, you must reap the whirlwind.”

William Morris a bit soured
By now we have seen that William Morris was a man of strong opinions on a range of topics. To close this week, we return briefly to his thoughts on art. Perhaps of most interest is how he is introduced in the first sentence of a short Tribune article from May 1886 – poet, Socialist, and artistic designer – in that order. One cannot help but wonder if he would have introduced himself the same way. His quote, from a London talk given a few days earlier:

“During the last forty years people have conscientiously striven to raise the taste in art, yet the world is growing uglier and more commonplace.”

We do not know the extent to which Frances Glessner was aware of William Morris’s Socialist beliefs, or if she read his poetry, but in 1883 she began to study his views on art. The commissioning of H. H. Richardson to design the Glessner home in 1885 significantly strengthened that interest.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Early History of Prairie Avenue - Part IV

Two weeks ago, we looked at the first four houses constructed on Prairie Avenue, all erected in the 1850s. This week we will examine building activity during the years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865.

During an 1861 visit to Chicago, London Times reporter William H. Russell observed the early houses on the street while a passenger on the Illinois Central, noting “houses which must be the retreat of merchants and citizens of means.” Although the Civil War slowed construction activity in general, it is interesting to note that there were no less than nine houses built during that time frame in the 1600, 1700, and 1800 blocks of Prairie Avenue (none of which survive today).

The first of the War-era houses was built in 1862 for the “Widow Grosvenor” at 1637 S. Prairie Avenue. It was the first of four houses constructed on the east side of Prairie Avenue; all the 1850s houses had been constructed on the west side. The widow was Cornelia (Bogart) Grosvenor, a native of Geneva, New York, born in 1809 and widowed in 1849, her husband having been a prominent attorney in that town. She came to Chicago and built her home, which was also occupied by her son Elisha William Grosvenor, a partner in the commission merchant firm of Grosvenor and Forsyth. 

Cornelia Grosvenor (1827 wedding portrait)

Only one known photo survives showing a portion of the house as originally built, it being a typical two-story brick Italianate style home. Her son married in Flint, Michigan in December 1865 and apparently left Chicago permanently. Within a year, his mother moved farther south and rented her home to the William Gold Hibbard family.

South side of the Grosvenor house as built, c. 1870

For many years it was the home of lumberman Jesse Spalding, who remodeled it in a severe manner to such a point that the original house design was completely lost within.

The Grosvenor house as remodeled by Jesse Spalding

The year 1862 also saw the completion of the home of Nicholas O. Williams at 1709 S. Prairie Avenue. He was the head of the firm of N. O. Williams & Co., dealers in hats, caps, furs, and buck goods. No known photos survive, but a description in the Chicago Tribune described the house, designed by W. W. Boyington, as being of brick and stone construction, with a cost of $10,000. It only lasted twenty years before being demolished for the new home of Palmer Kellogg, designed by Burnham & Root.

A significant and long-standing house was built in 1863 for Wirt Dexter at 1721 S. Prairie Avenue, immediately south of the Williams home. The large frame home was described at the time as a “rambling” New England farmhouse, but also sported an Italianate style cupola to take advantages of the uninterrupted views all around. Dexter was a prominent attorney and served in a leadership capacity for many years with the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, including significant service in the years immediately after the Chicago Fire.

Wirt Dexter house prior to front addition, c. 1888 (Photo by George Glessner)

Dexter created quite a stir on Prairie Avenue in 1889 when he added a large brick addition to the front of his house, bringing it up nearly to the lot line. This especially annoyed next-door neighbor George Pullman who preferred large lawns in front of the homes. A later owner tore down the original frame house and moved the large brick addition back on the lot, but that, too, was demolished in the 1920s.

A more modest home was completed the same year at 1635 S. Prairie Avenue for Col. Robert Forsyth, who served as the general freight agent for the Illinois Central and later Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railways. Again, there are no known photos of the house, but a bit of information is provided by Addie Hibbard Gregory, in her book A Great-Grandmother Remembers. (Addie, age 8, moved into the Widow Grosvenor house in 1867 with her parents and siblings). Of the Forsyth house, she wrote:

“In the early days two of our neighbors, the Williamses and the Forsythes, had long bowling alleys in separate one-story buildings stretching down to the track of the Illinois Central, which followed the lake shore then just as it does today. The roofs of these alleys were arranged as pleasant places from which to view the lake . . . The grounds of the Forsythe home were most elegant. There was a fountain in the middle of the lawn which was surrounded by four white stone statues, and the narrow rectangular walks were made of small white clam shells.”

The house later passed through several owners and occupants and was demolished by the early 1900s.

One house of note was completed in 1864, the large brick house at 1736 S. Prairie Avenue, for Granville S. Ingraham. Surviving photos show a third-story mansard roof which may well have been a later addition atop a more typical Italianate style house of the War period. Ingraham came to Chicago in 1856 and made a fortune as a wholesale grocer, later investing heavily in real estate. The 1870 census shows real estate valued at $225,000 and personal property of $100,000 (today the combined value would be well over $6 million). 

Granville S. Ingraham

Ingraham sold the house long before his death at his winter home in Pass Christian, Mississippi in 1892. It is best remembered today as the long-time residence of lead manufacturer Hugh McBirney.

Ingraham/McBirney house as it appeared circa 1890

More modest houses
Although most of the houses being built on Prairie Avenue at this time were substantial, a few modest houses made their way on to the street as well. These included a front-gabled home at 1812 S. Prairie Avenue (shown in the center of the image below) and a frame double house at 1726-1728 S. Prairie Avenue. 

1812 S. Prairie is the short house shown at center in this 1874 illustration

All of these were demolished in the 1880s and replaced with larger homes. Another home, built at 1630 S. Prairie Avenue, survived well into the 20th century and had the distinction of being the smallest house on the street.

Calumet Avenue
Calumet Avenue, which lies one block east of Prairie Avenue starting at 18th Street and then running south, developed a bit later than Prairie. Only one house is known to have been built by the War period and may have been constructed as early as 1859. This was the large brick home of Daniel A. Jones, built at the northwest corner of Calumet and 22nd Street. Jones made his fortune in the packing and real estate businesses. He served for many years as the president of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, being first elected in 1869 and leading that organization through the critical years following the Chicago Fire.

Jones died in 1886 and his house was demolished in 1911, to make way for the American Book Company building, constructed the next year on the site from plans by architect N. Max Dunning. It was designated a Chicago landmark in 2008 and was recently restored as part of the Marriot Marquis hotel property.

J. Q. Hoyt
A small number of homes were constructed on nearby streets during this period. One worthy of note was the home of J. Q. Hoyt, built in 1863 at the southeast corner of Wabash Avenue and 23rd Street. The Hoyt family referred to their home as “Florence Place.” Were it not for the wooden sidewalk around the property, the large Italianate style home with exuberant trim and stately cupola could easily be mistaken for a country home rather than an urban residence.

Florence Place, circa 1865

John Quincy Adams Hoyt came to Chicago in 1856, making his fortune in wholesale groceries, and entering local Republican politics, being a close friend of General Ulysses S. Grant, John A. Logan, and Stephen A. Douglas. He served as alderman for many years and filled the role of acting mayor during a portion of the Civil War, when Mayor Julian Rumsey was absent. In 1868, Hoyt moved to New York City, where he was instrumental in funding the elevated railroad system. (Within weeks after the Chicago Fire, the house was converted into a hotel, maintaining the name Florence Place. In 1874, it reverted to private residential use.)

The Hoyt family enjoying the front porch of Florence Place, circa 1865

There was a building boom on Prairie Avenue following the Civil War. It is estimated that by the time of the Chicago Fire in 1871, there were 40 houses standing or under construction. The fire completely bypassed the neighborhood, leading to a second wave of construction immediately following, led by those whose homes had been destroyed.

We will resume this story in 2021, the year in which the City of Chicago will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the fire. Those articles will focus on the impact the fire had on the residents and their businesses, and more importantly, the extraordinary impact the residents had on rebuilding the city.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Early History of Prairie Avenue - Part III

In last week’s article, we looked at the first houses constructed on Prairie Avenue in the blocks immediately south of 16th Street. This week, we will explore the very different development of Prairie Avenue south of present day Cermak Road.

During the 1850s, several substantial homes were constructed on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Prairie Avenue. The layout of South Township created natural dividing lines to the south at Ringgold Avenue and to the west at State Street. Development west of State focused on workers housing for those employed in businesses along the Chicago River. Likewise, development south of Ringgold was always closely tied to the businesses that operated there, and the many immigrant workers that settled close by.

Nathaniel Goold – 2216 S. Prairie Avenue
In 1851, Nathaniel Goold purchased a tract of land for $471 immediately south of Ringgold between Prairie Avenue and Cottage Grove to the west. He subdivided the land into eight lots of which he sold the six facing Ringgold at a nice profit, retaining the other two for his new frame residence. Goold was in the music business, later making his own organs and pianos, and incurred $2,000 in uninsured losses when his Lake Street store was destroyed in the “Great Conflagration” of October 1857 (as it was known prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). He manufactured pianos and organs in the factory behind his home, although by the time of his death in 1887, he had switched to the making of hansom cab bodies.

1863 advertisement from the Chicago Tribune

LATER HISTORY: The family continued to reside at the old homestead and in 1902 replaced it with a four-story brick building containing eight apartments. Advertisements noted that both six- and eight-room “modern, sumptuous” apartments were available for $60 to $85 per month (the equivalent of $1,700 to $2,500 today). These were apparently very fine apartments indeed, as early tenants included Helen Macbeth and Anna Robertson (Frances Glessner’s two sisters); Frances Glessner Lee’s estranged husband, Blewett Lee; and Enrico Tramonti, principal harpist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A few blocks to the south, at Twenty-Sixth Street, the American Car Company established its works making railroad cars, taking advantage of the Illinois Central tracks to the east, completed in 1856. The small community of worker’s cottages around the factory became known as Carville. St. Agatha’s Academy was established in 1854 as a shelter and school for orphans; their brick building was located at the northwest corner of Calumet and 26th Street. St. James Roman Catholic Church was organized the next year for the 25 Irish families residing in Carville. The church initially met at St. Agatha’s and in 1858 constructed a frame church on Prairie Avenue and 27th Street.

Mercy Hospital occupying the original St. Agatha's Academy building

LATER HISTORY: The car works at Carville only lasted a few years, leaving the small community depressed. In 1863, St. Agatha’s was converted to its new use as Mercy Hospital. In 1880, St. James completed a large stone church at 2907 S. Wabash Avenue, designed by architect Patrick C. Keely. Despite significant preservation efforts, the church was demolished in 2013, although the adjacent rectory at 2942 S. Wabash, a beautiful example of the Richardsonian Romanesque, still stands.

St. James Catholic Church rectory, January 2013

Several small stockyards established themselves in the general vicinity during the 1850s. The Michigan Southern stockyard was located on Michigan Avenue a few blocks south of Ringgold Avenue. John Sherman established his stockyards at 31st and the lake, and the Cottage Grove stockyards ran along that street from 29th to 35th Streets. On Christmas Day 1865, the Union Stockyards opened, consolidating many smaller stockyards around the city. John Sherman was made the first president, and he later built his substantial mansion at 2100 S. Prairie Avenue, an early design of Burnham & Root.

An 1859 article in the Chicago Press and Tribune also made note of the new packing house of Thomas Nash on Ringgold at Cottage Grove (which would have been immediately west of Nathaniel Goold’s property). The article went into detail about Nash’s process of singeing hogs, which is unimportant here, but worthy of note is that he planned to ship about 1,000 hogs to England that season, indicating this was a substantial operation.

The most common form of public transportation at this time was the omnibus – a horse-drawn vehicle, set on springs for comfort. A typical omnibus would have two wooden benches along the sides of the cabin, with the passengers facing each other. Larger double-decker omnibuses had benches positioned back-to-back on the open upper level. The driver would sit outside the cabin on an elevated front-facing bench.

To accommodate the residents south of Ringgold Place, by 1855 a line of omnibuses ran from the Lake Street bridge to State Street, and then south to Ulich’s Hotel at the corner of State and Ringgold. Cars ran every 15 minutes. Just two years later, it was announced that the line was being extended as far south as Merrick’s Tavern at Cottage Grove and 35th and would run on a newly macadamized road (macadam being an excellent, hard material for paving). A newspaper article from 1857 noted that “this arrangement will be of great service to the people of that populous suburb (Carville).” 

In 1859, the Chicago City Railway Company was incorporated, and the omnibuses were gradually replaced by horsecars that ran on rails, making the journey even more comfortable.

Next week, in the fourth and final installment in this series, we will return to Prairie Avenue between present day 16th Street and Cermak Road, to discuss the houses constructed during the years of the Civil War.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Early History of Prairie Avenue - Part II

In last week’s article, we looked at events during the first half of the 19th century that laid the groundwork for the six blocks of Prairie Avenue, between 16th Street and Cermak Road, to evolve as an upper-class residential street. This week we will explore the first houses erected during the 1850s and learn a bit about the people who built them.

Staples house – 1702 S. Prairie Avenue

The first house on Prairie Avenue was constructed for John Nichols Staples. Born in Connecticut in 1809, he had lived for many years in Natchez, Mississippi with his wife and children. He came to Chicago in 1853 where he established himself as a real estate agent and stockbroker in the firm of Staples & Sim.

In March 1853, he purchased a large lot on the west side of Prairie Avenue with 284 feet of frontage facing Lake Michigan. Soon after, he began construction on his home, an imposing brick structure designed in the Italianate style prevalent at the time. It was said to have been the first brick house constructed in Chicago south of 16th Street. As was the case with several of the early houses on Prairie Avenue, it featured a prominent central cupola or observatory, which at the time would have provided unobstructed views for miles in all directions. Another noteworthy feature was the unusually tall windows which provided easy access to the two-story wrap around porch, no doubt a delightful place to sit on a warm summer evening to enjoy the breezes off of the lake just a few hundred feet to the east.

LATER HISTORY: In the 1850s and 1860s, Staples sold off portions of his lot for the construction of three additional houses. In 1878, he sold his own home to Turlington W. Harvey, who significantly remodeled and enlarged the house two years later in the Second Empire style. It was acquired by John and Frances Glessner in 1899 and razed to make way for new townhouses for their children.

After Staples left Prairie Avenue, he moved to a new home at 3 Campbell Park, a small enclave of houses on the west side, north of Polk Street and east of Western Avenue. He died in 1898 at the age of 89 and was interred at Graceland Cemetery. Campbell Park Drive still exists today, minus the homes, and forms part of the Chicago Technology Park within the Illinois Medical District.

Pomeroy house – 1824 S. Prairie Avenue

Prairie Avenue’s second home was constructed for Samuel Barber Pomeroy. Born in 1828, he was a native of Massachusetts and came to Chicago in the early 1850s with his older brother Eleazer to establish a commission house, known as S. B. Pomeroy & Co. The brothers owned a large business block on the north side of the city, in addition to several grain elevators, dock property, and three grain-carrying vessels on the Great Lakes, one of which was named “S. B. Pomeroy.” They were both prominently connected with the Chicago Board of Trade.

In 1854, Pomeroy married Marion Hilliard and purchased his property on the west side of the 1800 block of Prairie Avenue. He is first listed in the city directory at his new Prairie Avenue home in 1858. The house was in the Italianate style, like the Staples house, but was more exuberant, featuring an elaborate bracketed cornice, front and side porches, and a large cupola.

LATER HISTORY: Pomeroy sold the house in 1863 to wholesale grocer Henry Hinsdale who sold it a few years later to fur dealer James Smith. In 1880, it was purchased by George B. Marsh and soon after received an entirely new stone fa├žade. It was demolished in the 1940s.

Hitchcock and Galloway double houses – 1804-1808 S. Prairie Avenue

The Galloway-Hitchcock houses are shown in the right half of this illustration

Soon after the completion of the Pomeroy house, a pair of houses was constructed just to the north at the southwest corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. The north (corner) house was built for Dr. Horatio Hitchcock who had acquired his property in 1856. The house to its south was built for Andrew Jackson Galloway who purchased his property in 1858, just before construction began.

Horatio Hitchcock was born in New York in 1814 and came west to Will County in 1840. He moved to Chicago in 1849, making him one of the earliest physicians in the city, and he was remembered for his work among the cholera victims through the 1850s. He died in his Prairie Avenue home in January 1880 and was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery.

Andrew Jackson Galloway was also born in 1814 but in Pennsylvania, although he grew to adulthood in the new state of Indiana where his family moved when he was six. After receiving a degree in civil engineering, he came to Illinois and was involved with some of the earliest work on constructing railroad lines in the state, as well as the Illinois & Michigan Canal. He came to Chicago in 1849 and two years later was appointed assistant engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, overseeing acquisition and management of over one million acres of land and the construction of the railroad tracks.  He retired from the Illinois Central in 1855 and opened a real estate office in Chicago, A. J. Galloway and Co. He moved from Prairie Avenue in the early 1880s and spent his final years in a home at 7600 S. Emerald Avenue, where he died in 1903. Like his neighbor, he was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery.

Andrew Jackson Galloway

The double houses constructed for Hitchcock and Galloway were typical attached houses of the period in the Second Empire style, sporting a Mansard roof at the third story. There are no known photographs of the house, only the sketch shown above, which was drawn in 1874.

LATER HISTORY: In 1885, John and Frances Glessner purchased the Hitchcock house; soon after, O. R. Keith purchased the Galloway house. In 1886, the buildings, not yet thirty years old, were torn down for new houses. It is interesting to note that the footprint of the Hitchcock house was quite a bit south of 18th Street; as such it would have stood largely in what is now the courtyard of the Glessner house. The O. R. Keith house, designed by Cobb & Frost, was razed in 1968.

It is believed that the four houses described above were the only ones completed on Prairie Avenue during the 1850s. They were all situated on the west side of street to face toward the lake, the shoreline of which was cut off by the newly laid Illinois Central Railroad tracks.

In those early days, the houses were not identified by address. An early listing for Andrew Galloway, for example, simply listed his home as being on Prairie Avenue, two doors south of Old (the original name for 18th Street). Street numbering was initiated in the 1860s using a different convention that was then replaced by the current numbering system in 1880.

Gurley house – Indiana Avenue

One block to the west, the first house on Indiana was completed in 1855 for Jason Gurley. He was born in Vermont in 1807 and came to Chicago on an exploratory visit in 1833, the year Chicago was incorporated as a town with a population of only 300 residents. After spending a few years in Ottawa, Illinois, he came to Chicago in 1837 to take up management of the Mansion House Hotel. He went into the real estate business where he made his fortune. In 1851, he constructed Metropolitan Hall at the northwest corner of Randolph and LaSalle, described as the “largest and most pretentious public-room in the city at the time of its erection.”  Among his real estate holdings was a large tract of land which he subdivided in 1856 as Gurley’s Subdivision; today it includes the 2100 blocks of State, Wabash, Michigan, Indiana, Prairie, and Calumet.

There are no known photos of the Gurley house, which stood at approximately 1906 S. Indiana Avenue, however a description of the house in the June 25, 1855 Chicago Tribune provides a detailed account of its construction and appearance:

“A frame dwelling house, two stories high, on Indiana avenue, for Jason Gurley, Esq. The design is for an Italian villa and is to be built in every particular in the most complete manner. The building is to be brick lined between the framework . . . A very handsome observatory is intended to adorn the building, which will command a wide and expansive view of the lake and prairie. The design is by Mr. Boyington; J. M. & E. Price, masons; McWilliams & Grannis, carpenters. The cost of this building will be about $10,000; and it will be completed this fall.”

The mention of the brick lining between the framework is a reference to what was known in the 19th century as brick insulation or brick nogging. This technique was often used in balloon-frame houses where the exterior clapboards were simply nailed on to the studs. The void between the clapboards and the interior plaster walls could make the house cold in the winter, thus the brick served as insulation and an early form of fireproofing. The bricks were not structural.

An example of brick nogging

Gurley and his wife Selina had no children, but he was very close with his three nieces who married the three Keith brothers, all of whom eventually built substantial homes on Prairie Avenue (including the O. R. Keith house referenced above). He moved to Palatine during the Civil War while Edson and Susan Keith took up residence in his former Indiana Avenue home. Gurley returned to their home and died there in April 1865 at the age of 59; he was interred at Graceland Cemetery.

In next week’s installment, we will look at the very different development of Prairie Avenue south of Ringgold Place (now Cermak Road) as well as the few additional homes built in the area during the years of the Civil War.

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