Monday, May 23, 2011

The Story of a House

On Wednesday June 1, 2011, as part of the event launching the 125th anniversary celebration of the building of Glessner house, the museum will unveil the first full reprint of John Glessner’s The Story of a House.  The reprint, which will cost $14.95, was funded by a generous grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

In 1923, John J. Glessner, then 80 years of age, wrote The Story of a House, a loving and personal reminiscence of the house at 1800 South Prairie Avenue in Chicago that he and his wife Frances had called home since 1887.  The title comes from a book written in 1874 by the French architect and theorist Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a copy of which the Glessners owned. 

John Glessner was fully aware of the significance of his home and the architect who designed it.  But The Story of a House was not written as a scholarly monograph about H. H. Richardson or his impact on American architecture.  The Story of a House was written by a father for his two children – John George Macbeth Glessner and Frances Glessner Lee.  It was intended as an intimate story of the house as a family home, and as a record of its furnishings, its occupants and visitors, and some of the important events that shaped the lives of the family members.

This is the first reprint of The Story of a House to include the complete text and all photographs (taken by the prominent architectural photography firm of Kaufman and Fabry).  A few small errors have been fixed – these have been indicated by placing the corrected word in [brackets].  Otherwise, the manuscript reads exactly as John Glessner wrote it, his personal style clearly reflected in the elegant prose that transports us back to the era that he knew and was attempting to preserve.

The timing of The Story of a House coincided with enormous change that was taking place on and around Prairie Avenue.  Just a few months after presenting the story to his children, John Glessner wrote to them stating, in part, “Your Mother and I may have to leave our house 1800 Prairie Ave. after a while – how soon can’t be told.  The Pullman and McBirney houses on the corners of 18th Street have been torn down and the Henderson house, the Kimball house and the Otis-Jenkins house are high class rooming houses, and nearly all the others are business, though of very satisfactory and unobjectionable kind.  In this state of transition of course we cannot tell how soon something may happen to make our place unsatisfactory.  We have hoped we could live here as long as we needed a house at all, and perhaps we can, who knows.  At any rate we shall not move until we have to.”  John Glessner wrote The Story of a House because he realized that the house itself might soon disappear, and his story would be the only tangible reminder of all it meant to his family.

The Glessners were able to remain in their beloved home until their deaths – Frances Glessner in October 1932 and John Glessner in January 1936.  For the next thirty years, the house was occupied first by the Armour Institute and then by the Lithographic Technical Foundation, which set up printing presses in the once elegant rooms.  When that company moved to Pittsburgh in the 1960s, demolition seemed imminent.  A small group of preservationists, determined to rescue Richardson’s masterpiece of urban residential design, banded together and saved the house in 1966.  Since that time it has been extensively restored, and descendants have returned most of the original furnishings.  Today visitors to Glessner House Museum, now a National Historic Landmark, can experience the home just as John Glessner preserved it in The Story of a House.

For more information on the June 1 anniversary celebration, visit
The cost of the event is $15 per person, $10 for museum members.  Advanced reservations are suggested.

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