Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thomas B. Carter, Chicago pioneer

Chicago in the 1830s was ripe with opportunity.  The population increased at a dramatic rate following the incorporation of Chicago as a town in 1833 and as a city in 1837.   Scores of men headed west from their homes in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, seeking their fortune.  One of these men was Thomas Butler Carter.

Thomas Carter was born in New Jersey on March 26, 1817.  In September 1838 he arrived in Chicago, then a bustling metropolis of 4,000, and just two months later said in a letter home, “but this is destined to become a great place, and will soon surpass Buffalo.”  Carter established his dry goods business, T. B. Carter & Co. at 118 Lake Street, in the heart of what was then the business district.  His house stood at the corner of State and Madison.

In 1840, he married Catherine Raymond, who had been born in 1818 in New York.  Catherine’s brother Benjamin Wright Raymond had been elected mayor of the city of Chicago in 1839 and was just finishing his first term at the time.  He was re-elected for a second one year term in 1842.

Benjamin Raymond, Mayor of Chicago
1839-1840 and 1842-1843

Carter was a deeply religious man, and he and his wife were members of First Presbyterian Church.  In June 1842, the Second Presbyterian Church was organized and they were among the 26 charter members (Catherine’s brother Benjamin and his wife were charter members as well).  Within a few years, he was elected Elder, a position he held until the 1890s.  He also organized and led the first choir and served as an officer in both the Chicago Bible Society and the Chicago Sacred Music Society.

By 1847, the congregation was growing to the point that a new building was needed.  Carter served on the building committee, and he and his fellow committee members were not pleased with the plans they received from a local architect.  Carter was heading to the East Coast, and agreed to show the plans to a couple of architects to get their opinion.  There was general agreement that the plans were not sound, and it was recommended that Carter speak with the New York architect James Renwick, Jr., who had achieved recognition for his design of Grace Episcopal Church a few years earlier and had just received the commission to design the Smithsonian Institution “Castle” in Washington, D.C.   (Renwick received the commission for his best known work, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, in 1853).  Renwick agreed to design a new building, working within the $25,000 budget.  It would be the first Gothic Revival building in Chicago, and one of the first buildings constructed of stone in the young city.

Architect Asher Carter was sent to Chicago to oversee construction of the building, which was completed late in 1850.  During this period, Thomas Carter hired Carter to design a new house for him on Wabash Avenue, between Adams and Jackson Streets.

Carter remained deeply involved in church work.  In 1856 he drew up the original papers creating the “Lake Forest Association” which was a direct outgrowth of his work at Second Presbyterian.  The Association oversaw the development of all the activities in the newly created town, purchasing 7,300 acres of land.  Fifty acres were set aside for the university, and Rev. Robert W. Patterson, pastor at Second Presbyterian, served as its first president.

Catherine Carter passed away in 1866 at the age of 48.  Soon after, he retired from the dry goods business, and became connected with the Equitable Life Insurance Association.  

In 1870, he purchased a house at 55 Twentieth Street from James Pattison for $9,000.  The house, which now bears the address 215 E. Cullerton Street, was only two years old at the time, but is now the oldest surviving home in the Prairie Avenue Historic District on its original site.

His home, a three story brick Italianate row house, is a good example of pre-Chicago Fire architecture.  The architect is unknown, but it possesses all the typical features of this style including tall arched windows and a projecting cornice supported on pairs of brackets.  

The beautiful double front doors were recreated and installed in January 2006, based on the one and only known historic photo of the house dating to about 1920.

Immediately after the Chicago Fire in October 1871, Carter became deeply involved with the Relief and Aid Society, organized to assist those impacted by the disaster.  In 1874, Carter married Mrs. Margaret Garthwaite of Newark, New Jersey.

In 1892, Second Presbyterian celebrated its 50th anniversary, and Carter, as the last surviving charter member still active in the congregation, compiled and wrote the history of the church.  The same year, he moved to Evanston, making it his home during the summer months, and spending the winters in the south.  (The Cullerton Street house was leased for many years and finally sold by the family in 1925).

Carter and his wife returned from the South in mid-April 1898, and he was taken seriously ill soon afterwards, passing away at his Evanston home on April 24 at the age of 81.  Funeral services took place at Second Presbyterian Church and he was laid to rest at Graceland Cemetery beside his first wife.  He was survived by four children – Frank H. Carter of New York, and Frederic R. B. Carter, Mrs. Lansing L. Porter, and Mrs. J. H. Nitchie, all of Evanston.

Carter monument at Graceland Cemetery
Mayor Benjamin Raymond is interred in the same plot

In 1978, a descendant donated many of his papers to the Newberry Library; the collection is now known as the Thomas Butler Carter Papers 1831-1898.  The papers include many interesting letters written by Carter to his cousin Aaron Carter in New Jersey throughout that period, as well as an autobiography Carter penned in 1889, covering his early life, difficult journey to Chicago in 1838, and his 50 years in Chicago.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Glessner Center

Glessner House Museum is one of two buildings in Chicago that carry the Glessner name.  The other is a lesser known, five-story brick loft building at 130 S. Jefferson Street in the West Loop known as The Glessner Center.  In this article, we will explore the history of that building and how it came to be known by that name.

John Glessner arrived in Chicago in December 1870 with his new bride, in order to take over management of the sales office for his farm machinery firm, Warder, Bushnell & Glessner.  Business thrived under his capable leadership, and by the early 1880s, the firm sought to build a larger headquarters to house their offices, showrooms, and warehouse. 

In August 1882, the firm purchased a lot at the northwest corner of Adams and Jefferson, measuring 80 by 200 feet, for $31,000.  Glessner engaged the firm of Jaffray & Scott to design the five-story building.  The newly formed partnership consisted of architect Henry S. Jaffray (best remembered today for his design of the George M. Pullman mansion at 1729 S. Prairie Avenue), and designer Isaac Scott, a close friend of the Glessner family, who had completed numerous projects for them including furniture and interiors for their home on West Washington Street. 

All was proceeding according to plan until April 10, 1883 when a wooden pier collapsed in the north half of the building, causing the whole interior to crash into the basement level and taking much of the north wall with it.  Later that evening, during a heavy windstorm, the east wall, which had been compromised by the earlier collapse, also fell in.  Jaffray and Scott were dismissed from the project, and architect W. W. Boyington was called in to complete the building.

The new headquarters was ready for occupancy by October of that year.  Known as the “Champion Building” after the trademarked name of the machines produced by the firm, its efficient and attractive design was praised in newspapers and other publications.  The building consisted of two main parts.  The south half of the building facing Adams contained offices and the showrooms, with huge windows facing south to bathe the spaces in natural light.  The north half of the building was utilized as a warehouse, and was bisected by a tall driveway that ran east to west through the building, allowing up to eight delivery wagons to be loaded and unloaded simultaneously while protected from the elements. 

The functions of the building were clearly demarcated on the exterior – the offices and showrooms were set beneath a hipped roof with dormers and a tower, whereas the warehouse was a more utilitarian structure with a simple brick cornice.  A delicate band of terra cotta ran across the top of the large showroom windows and depicted oak leaves and acorns, an image that would be welcoming to farmers visiting to purchase equipment.  Four different designs of oak leaves and three different designs of acorns were used to create a meandering, naturalistic pattern. 

The Chicago Tribune, in an October 27, 1883 article entitled “A Champion Enterprise,” praised the building and stated, in part:

“The building, covering an area of 80x200 feet, built of the best pressed brick, terra cotta trimmings, etc. is of elegant architectural proportions, and forms at once an ornament and landmark.  Designed and built expressly for a reaper warehouse with great care in every arrangement, it is today the best-lighted and most perfect building of its kind in America.”

Main Office
(Inland Architect, October 1883)

Another article, published simultaneously in The Inland Architect and Builder, gave a detailed description of the interior:

“What are conceded to be the finest appointed mercantile offices west of New York are those just completed in the Champion Reaper Company’s building built by architects Jaffray & Scott.  These offices occupy two floors in the front part of the warehouse proper.  The total space occupied is about 60 x 80 feet.  A space of 20 feet square is occupied by an immense vault and the stairway leading to the upper tier of offices.  This stairway is open, and like the general woodwork, is of red-oak.  The main office is 40 x 60, and divided from this and also from each other by partitions composed almost entirely of plate-glass, are four offices about occupying an equally divided space, 18 x 60.  The ceilings are frescoed in colors harmonizing with a heavy, solid, polished red-oak cornice and stained glass in quiet shades, give a softening effect.  The smaller offices are elegantly fitted with grates and mantels, Turkish rugs are on the polished red-oak floors, and above the mantels bronze panels add effectiveness to the general interior, in which one is apt to forget that this is an office devoted to the demands of trade, and not a costly private apartment. . . As a whole, this office in its arrangement and light-colored decoration, with the view of securing perfect light, is a model in office construction, and reflects general credit upon architect and owner.”

John J. Glessner's office
(Inland Architect, October 1883)

After Glessner’s firm merged with others to form International Harvester in 1902, the building was utilized by the new corporation, but was sold in 1907.  Through the years, it was occupied and owned by various companies and was known by its address – 600 W. Adams Street.  For many years, it was owned by Polk Brothers, which used it as a furniture and appliance warehouse-outlet store. 

In 1984, as the surrounding neighborhood was rapidly changing, it was purchased by a developer and completely gutted and rehabbed into a luxury loft office building, containing 60,000 square feet of office space.  The architects were Booth/Hansen and Associates, with Paul Hansen serving as project architect.  

It was renamed The Glessner Center and the main entrance was shifted around the corner to 130 S. Jefferson Street.  Many of the exterior features were altered, including the roofline and corner tower, but the basic structure remains as it did when first built.  And one original interior feature was left in place – the massive door to the vault, which still bears the inscription “The Warder, Bushnell and Glessner Company – Champion Binders & Mowers.”

Monday, July 13, 2015

Double Bough Wallpaper Installed

When the Glessners’ corner guestroom was opened to the public in April 2014 after a four year restoration project, one important element was missing – the Morris & Co. “Double Bough” wallpaper.  Thanks to the generosity of numerous donors, we raised the necessary funds to replicate the wallpaper which was installed in late June, allowing us to reopen the room earlier this month.

The fundraising campaign was led by a generous $10,000 grant from the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR), which was sponsored by the Chicago Chapter, the first local DAR chapter organized in the United States.  Frances Glessner was a charter member of the Chicago Chapter when it was formed in 1891, and the chapter has funded several recent projects at the museum, including the installation of the exhibit on The Rocks, and the restoration of the Glessners’ Kutani bowl.

Corner guestroom in 1923 (top) and 2015 (below)

The Glessners first installed Double Bough in the guestroom in 1892 after the room had been wired for electricity.  When the room was re-wallpapered in 1916, they chose Double Bough once again.  In November 2010, during early work in the restoration project, Robert Furhoff, an expert in historic interiors and finishes, uncovered a section of the original wallpaper which was carefully peeled off the wall and conserved.  The fragment was important as it established the color way selected by the Glessners.  Morris & Co. produced the wallpaper in several different color ways, and of course, the only surviving historic images of the room were in black and white.

Robert Furhoff, November 2010

The Morris & Co. archive in England was consulted, and a small sample was found in one of the company log books that matched the sample from the Glessner bedroom.  The museum was also informed that all 22 original hand-carved fruitwood blocks used to print the original paper were in the archive, and could be used again to reprint the wallpaper using exactly the same process as undertaken more than 120 years ago.

Sample from the Morris & Co. archives

In order to produce the wallpaper in this manner, the process is extremely time consuming as each of the 22 blocks is applied individually and then the paper needs to dry sufficiently before the next block can be applied.  As such, only one roll of wallpaper can be produced per week.  

The order was placed in May 2014 with Zoffany, the parent company of Sanderson, which owns the Morris & Co. archives.  Several weeks later, the first strike-off was received for approval.  Robert Furhoff was again brought in for consultation, and several corrections were made to the colors used in various parts of the design.  The corrections were returned to England and a second strike-off was received, which was approved.  Production began and the 25 rolls of wallpaper were shipped to the museum in December.

Wallpaper awaiting installation

Due to the way in which the wallpaper is produced, the installation is a complex process, as absolutely no water or paste can ever touch the surface of the paper, or the ink can be damaged.  The museum was fortunate to secure the services of Jim Yates of Historic Wallpaper Specialties, who has a national reputation for the installation of 19th century wallpapers.  One of his most prominent projects was the wallpaper in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

Jim Yates

In late June, Yates and his team arrived at the museum from Tennessee, and spent the next six days completing the project.  Their work began with the installation of muslin on the walls, so that in the event any cracking of the plaster occurs, it will transfer to the muslin itself, and not damage the wallpaper.  Once the muslin was installed, it was covered with an acid-free liner to provide the optimum base to which the wallpaper would be applied.

While these steps were being undertaken, the wallpaper was all cut to size and readied for installation.  Only one historic photo survives showing the first installation of the wallpaper from 1892.  

Fanny Glessner, November 24, 1897

This photo was taken of Fanny Glessner on the day of her formal debut – November 24, 1897.  The photo was studied to ensure that the pattern (a 31” repeat) was placed on the walls exactly as it had been originally – both top to bottom, and side to side.

As the wallpaper was placed on the walls, the room took on an entirely different feel, as the space was suddenly filled with the intricate floral design that is among the most complex ever produced by Morris & Co.   Within a few days, the furnishings were brought back into the room, including the Morris & Co.  “Rose and Thistle” reproduction draperies, Morris inspired area rug, furniture designed by A. H. Davenport & Company, and engravings displayed in custom-made frames by Isaac Scott. 

Corner guestroom in 1923 (top) and 2015 (below)

The room was reopened to the public for tours on Wednesday July 1, 2015.  With the completion of this room, Glessner House Museum now features one of the largest public collections of Morris & Co. reproduction wallpapers, textiles, and rugs in the country, accurately recreating the Arts and Crafts inspired interior created by John and Frances Glessner more than a century ago.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Mrs. Pullman in Washington, D.C.

In last week’s article, we noted an excerpt from the June 28, 1915 Chicago Tribune about Mrs. George Pullman departing Chicago to spend the season at her summer estate in Elberon, New Jersey.  The article also noted, “Mrs. Pullman has another mansion in Washington, which she did not occupy this winter.”  That reference was to her largest home of all, which she had actually already sold by 1915. 

The Pullmans’ daughter Florence was united in marriage to Frank O. Lowden in 1896.  Lowden was actively involved in the Republican Party, and rose in stature when he campaigned for William McKinley in 1900.  From 1906 to 1911, Lowden served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and lived in Washington, D.C. during that time.  Lowden had high aspirations for political office, including the Presidency, so Mrs. Pullman took steps to ensure he and his family would have an appropriate home in the nation’s capitol.

In February 1909, Mrs. Pullman purchased a lot at 1125 16th Street NW, just three blocks from the White House.  She hired the prominent architect Nathan Wyeth to design the 64 room house, which cost over $350,000 to construct.  Wyeth had just designed the new West Wing and Oval Office of the White House, and would soon be hired to design a home in DC for Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh (a Chicago friend of the Pullmans).

The exterior of the four-story Pullman house was clad in limestone on the ground level, with Roman brick facing the second and third stories.  

The fourth story was set behind a massive slate-covered mansard roof.  The interior was grand on a scale that far exceeded the Pullman house on Prairie Avenue in Chicago.  

The imposing entrance hall was designed for the large and elegant receptions Mrs. Pullman envisioned for her daughter and son-in-law. 

The oak paneled dining room was among the largest rooms in the house.  As construction was proceeding, she made trips to Europe, bringing back large quantities of antiques and decorative arts to furnish the massive home.  

The grandest space of all was the enormous gold and white ball room or grand salon, reminiscent of her own Chicago drawing room. 

But alas, Mrs. Pullman’s plans for her son-in-law didn’t come to pass.  Frank Lowden was taken ill, and didn’t run for reelection, leaving Washington, D.C. at the conclusion of his second term in the House in March 1911.  Mrs. Pullman had also been ill, and ultimately no one in the family ever lived in the mansion.

In May 1913, she sold the house and furnishings to a buyer who within a few months sold it to the Imperial Russian government for use as their new embassy.  Most of the original furnishings were removed in 1917 when the Ambassador fled to Paris.  

In the 1930s the house was redecorated by Eugene Schoen & Sons of New York, who refused to alter the grand salon, “down to the last hair of the last cupid.”  It remains in use as the Russian Embassy to this day.

Note:  Frank O. Lowden went on to serve as governor of Illinois from 1917 to 1921.  In 1920, he was a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, but ultimately lost to Warren G. Harding.  He declined the vice presidential nomination in 1924. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Mrs. Pullman and her Summer Estate

Exactly 100 years ago, the Society and Entertainments column of the Chicago Tribune led with a short article about the coming and going of one of Chicago’s queens of society – Mrs. George M. Pullman.  Dated June 28, 1915, the column was filled with information about Chicago’s elite quickly abandoning the city for their summer estates in locales ranging from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to various towns along the Atlantic seaboard. 

Regarding Mrs. Pullman, the article read:
“Mrs. George M. Pullman left the city yesterday in her private car for Elberon, N. J., where her favorite of four beautiful homes is located.  Her town house on Prairie avenue is closed for the season, having served but a few weeks for her residence on her return from Pasadena, where her western home is located.  Mrs. Pullman has another mansion in Washington, which she did not occupy this winter.”

Interior of Mrs. Pullman's private railcar

The Pullmans’ primary summer residence was named Fairlawn and was located on Ocean Avenue in the town of Elberon, in the fashionable Long Branch area of New Jersey.  They had first visited the area in the summer of 1871 when they stayed with President and Mrs. Grant.  In September 1873, they engaged the services of architect Henry S. Jaffray, (then actively at work on their Prairie Avenue home), to design their new summer house in Elberon.  Nathan Barrett, the designer who later undertook the master landscape plan for the Town of Pullman, did the landscaping for the expansive grounds.  Through Pullman’s influence, Barrett was ultimately given the commission for the design and landscape plan for the town of Elberon itself.

The house was completed by June of 1874 and the family typically arrived each summer in time for the Fourth of July holiday.  During the summer of 1897, the Pullmans discussed the remodeling and enlarging of Fairlawn with Solon S. Beman, the architect of the Town of Pullman, who had also undertaken a number of additions and improvements to their Prairie Avenue home. 

George Pullman died that October, and the rebuilding, in the Colonial Revival style, was not completed until 1900.   By that time, the house was generally recognized as the most spacious and attractive summer estate along that section of the Jersey coast.  Mrs. Pullman continued to travel to her beloved summer estate each year through the 1920 season. 

Raymond Hotel, Pasadena

She died on March 28, 1921 in Pasadena, California, where she maintained an extensive suite at the Raymond Hotel, one of the most exclusive winter resorts in the country.  Residents included members of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan families.

Next week:  The Pullman house in Washington, D.C.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Chicago's Tiniest Theater

What was tiniest theater to ever operate in Chicago?  Even the most knowledgeable Chicago historians might not be aware of the short-lived Finger Tip Theater, which operated for less than two weeks in March 1918.  Conceived and created by Frances Glessner Lee, it followed by five years her work crafting the miniature Chicago Symphony Orchestra and predated by 25 years her well-documented efforts creating the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. 

As noted in a blog article on December 15, 2014, Lee was deeply involved in supporting the war effort during World War I.  She regularly entertained sailors from Great Lakes in her Prairie Avenue home, and later moved to Boston where she served as the resident manager of Wendell House, a dormitory for soldiers and sailors returning from Europe.  The creation of the Finger Tip Theater was another way in which she supported the war effort, in this case by raising funds for the Fatherless Children of France.

The Fatherless Children of France was organized in the spring of 1916 to provide relief for children under the age of sixteen whose fathers had been killed in the war.  As noted in the 1917 report for the organization:

“An essential feature of this plan is the maintaining of these children in their own homes.  In no other way can the French tradition, threatened with total extinction by the present desperate situation, be preserved.  It is therefore provided that each child shall be brought up by its own mother, or other qualified guardian, in the religion of its father and under conditions approximately normal.”

By the spring of 1918, nearly 180 committees had been set up in the United States and more than 65,000 children had found “foster parents.”  The Chicago committee, headquartered in the Fine Arts Building, had already provided support for more than 3,500 children.  An article in the March 17, 1918 Chicago Tribune noted:

“It costs only 10 cents a day to be established as an American foster parent of a bereft French boy or girl, and the satisfaction it gives to the giver far outweighs the money value of the $36.50 a year it costs you.  The adorable letters these adopted children write their American ‘marraines or marrains,’ the lovely photos they send of themselves bring a poetry, a romance into the life hitherto unknown to us matter of fact people.”

It was to raise funds for this worthwhile cause that Frances Glessner Lee devoted her efforts in creating the Finger Tip Theater.  The theater opened on March 19, 1918 in the large doorway between galleries 52 and 53 in the Art Institute of Chicago.  The stage measured just two by three feet with a proscenium 20 inches in height.  The stage was set within a frame draped with black muslin, and on either side were newel posts bearing bronze figures of “a huntress-goddess and her prey.”  Tiny scenes were created for each separate act during the show and were “perfect to the smallest detail.”

Lee’s announcement of the theater indicated “living performers only – no manikins” leading newspapers to speculate whether the performers would be dwarfs, trained fleas, or white mice!  In reality, the performers were “none other than the clever fore and middle fingers of Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee, who originated the new art.” 

The Chicago Herald captured that fact in their headline the next day which read “Curtain Rises on Finger Tip Theater – Young Woman’s Talented Digits Star at Playhouse in Art Institute.”  The article continued:

“If she has talent in her finger tips (which she undoubtedly has), and tip-top talent at that, why not stage it?

“That is just what Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee has done, and if one has an imagination that will shrink and shrink (which we all undoubtedly have), one can see on this miniature stage the most complete panoramas and thrilling dances one could possibly desire.

“For instance, a ballet in one act is poetically rendered by Mme. Karsanoma, and she is quickly followed by Szopup Jynszlingski, who is Japanese and does a reverent deal of posturing before his adamant heathen god.  It is all very awe-inspiring, for in the foreground a bowl of incense is burning.

Szopup Jynszlingski

“The curls of blue smoke make his prayers to Buddha much more picturesque, and doubtless much more efficacious. 

“All this is done by Mrs. Lee herself, and while one never would suspect it, these different terpsichorean stars are her own supple right hand.  It is true that in proportion to the size of the stage her hands assume Alice in Wonderland proportions.  But as each one of her two first fingers is daintily shod with ballet slippers and about her knuckles is a ruffle of tuile the performer passes as a finished product of the dancing master’s art.

“As the devoted Japanese she is no less successful.  The quaint shoes as well as the oriental bloomers and incense create an unmistakable effect.  But it must be seen to be fully appreciated.” 

Other acts included:

-Charlotte Russe, The Matchless, The Champion Glace Skater of the World, assisted by Axel Erickson, Late Skater-in-Chief to the King of Scandinavia

-The Amalgamated & Consolidated Circus Company of Kalamazoo and Oshkosh, Bigger, Greater, Grander and More Gorgeous than Ever – All Under One Tent!!  Wonder of Wonders!!  The Smallest Show on Earth!!

-Elmer, the elephant – the smallest trained pachyderm in captivity

-Signor Centrifugo, sensational slack wire specialist, who will set at defiance the laws of gravity

(The program also made the following note, “Ladies are requested to remove their hats – or keep them on.”  This, no doubt, was a humorous reference to the controversial house rule passed a few years earlier at the Chicago Symphony – and also adopted by Frances Glessner at her Monday Morning Reading Class – that all ladies must remove their hats.)

A total of ten performances were held over eight days with 50 people attending each, including Mrs. George Pullman and many of the leaders of Chicago society, netting $1,000 for the Fatherless Children of France.

Mary Meeker, Mary Crary, and Jane Barrell at the opening performance
March 19, 1918

Frances Glessner Lee wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune on March 26 which read:

“I send you my grateful thanks for the kind notices in your paper of my little Finger Tip theater.  The series of ten performances came to an end this afternoon.  The Art institute generously provided the rooms, lights, and service, and all other expenses were met by special contribution, so that the entire receipts, amounting to about $1,000, were turned over for the benefit of the fatherless children of France.  I am glad to have given my small efforts to this cause, and am grateful to you for your kind notices.  Frances G. Lee”

This brilliant production executed by Frances Glessner Lee was truly a “small effort” only in the size of the performers who entertained captivated audiences during the short run of the Finger Tip Theater.   A quarter-century later, those same nimble fingers would craft the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death for which she is chiefly remembered to this day.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Golden Opportunity

When the Glessners met with architect H. H. Richardson in September 1885 at the Brookline office attached to his house, they were extremely impressed with the space, and asked that he incorporate many of its features into the library of their new Prairie Avenue home.  One feature, however, was recreated in their dining room  - lustrous ceiling panels covered in gold leaf set within a grid of heavy oak beams.  

Dining room during the Glessners' occupancy

At first glance, the use of gold leaf might seem to be an ostentatious display of wealth, but such was not the case with the Glessners.  To illuminate their rooms, the Glessners opted for the use of wall sconces rather than large chandeliers suspended from the ceilings.  The use of the gold leaf was practical – it would reflect the light from the five sconces around the dining room and cast a warm light back down upon the dining table. 

Dining room in 1966, after it was acquired from the
Lithographic Technical Foundation

During the time period in which the house was occupied by the Lithographic Technical Foundation (1945-1965), the gold leaf panels were covered over with ceiling paint and fluorescent light fixtures were installed above the work benches installed in the room, which functioned as a laboratory for researching printing inks. 

In November 1989, a substitute finish was applied to the ceiling to replicate the look of the gold leaf, but using aluminum leaf and a French vermeil finish to achieve a gold tone.  Although the finished product suggested the original gold leaf, it did not capture the rich deep tone that can only be achieved with using actual gold leaf.

In August 2014, the museum was contacted by Naomi Lipsky, president of the Society of Gilders, which was planning to hold its annual conference in Chicago in June 2015.  As part of each conference, the Society undertakes a community project on a pro bono basis in partnership with a non-profit organization.  She was wondering if the museum might have a project for the gilders to undertake.  A once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself – some of the finest gilders from around the world would be gathering in Chicago and would volunteer their services to recreate the Glessners’ long lost gold leafed ceiling.

The details of the project were worked out during a site visit in March 2015, and The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation generously agreed to underwrite the cost of the 23 karat gold leaf made by Manetti in Florence, Italy – enough to cover more than 240 square feet of plaster.  

During May, repairs were made to the ceiling where plaster had long ago been patched following the removal of the fluorescent fixtures.  Following that step, all 36 panels were cleaned and coated with a layer of amber shellac to provide the optimal surface for the application of the gold leaf.

Michael Kramer

The crew of gilders arrived on Monday June 1, 2015 ready to go.  Led by project manager Michael Kramer, an average of 8 to 10 gilders were on site for six or more hours each day for the entire week to finish the project.  

The first step involved laying out the ceiling in a grid of 6-inch squares so that the 3-3/8” leafs would have a pattern to follow, with some overlap.  Once this step was completed, a slow oil size was applied with brush and roller the afternoon before, to the area to be gilded the next day.  

After drying overnight, the size was just barely tacky all of the following day, so that the gilders could lay the leaf of the books following the grid pattern visible through the size.  

Then the leaf was gently tamped down onto the sand float finish plaster using squirrel hair brushes.   

After tamping, the same brushes were used to skew the leaf, and to smooth it and remove the overlaps, capturing the loose pieces in paper cones.

The crew celebrating a job well done!

The project was completed on Friday June 5 and is truly breathtaking.  Once again, the rich gold finish of the ceiling reflects the light from the wall sconces, just as it was intended to during the Glessners’ occupancy of the house.  The museum is deeply grateful to the Society of Gilders for their extraordinary work in recreating this important design element to the house. 

For more information on the Society of Gilders and their projects, visit www.societyofgilders.org.

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