Monday, February 28, 2011

What is a potato ring?

Among the many pieces of silver in the museum collection is an unusual item that people living in the 21st century would have a hard time identifying.  The elaborately decorated piece is known as an Irish potato ring.  These pieces served a simple function – to hold baked potatoes.  The ring, which is open on the bottom, would be placed on a large round plate and then filled with the potatoes which could then be removed by the diner with appropriate tongs. 

Our particular potato ring is sterling silver and was made in 1882 by the firm of Lambert & Rawlings.  That firm, founded by Frances Lambert and William Rawlings, began operation in the mid-19th century in London.  They produced a wide range of both ecclesiastical and domestic pieces, many of which were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the Crystal Palace).  The firm survived well into the 20th century and was later known as Harman & Lambert.  The ring is marked “Lambert, Coventry St., London" and features several hallmarks that identify its silver content and year of manufacture.  It is 8-1/2” wide at the base and stands 4” tall.  The elaborate pierced body features scrollwork, with foliate and chinoiserie figural motifs, highlighted with animals including a goat and a lion, surrounding two irregularly shaped cartouches.

The ring shows up in photos of the dining room taken in 1923, sitting on the lower shelf of the sideboard at the left hand side. 

Frances Glessner found another use for the ring (or “rim” as she called it) on at least one occasion.  When the Glessners celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a dinner for friends and family on December 7, 1895, the ring was used as the centerpiece and was filled with 25 pink roses. 

Today, the ring sits once again on the sideboard, and each year at Christmas, is filled with (rubber) potatoes.  Be sure to notice the piece on your next visit to the museum.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Museum Store has Prairie Avenue Items

Our Museum Store offers a modest selection of Glessner House and Victorian inspired merchandise for sale in the Tour Center.  You can select items from books on the Arts & Crafts Movement, architecture, and Chicago history to William Morris inspired items to special souvenirs of your visit.  Here are three items that focus on our Prairie Avenue heritage.

Chicago’s Historic Prairie Avenue
by William H. Tyre

Prairie Avenue evolved into Chicago’s most exclusive residential street during the last three decades of the 19th century.  The city’s wealthiest citizens - Marshall Field, Philip Armour, and George Pullman - were soon joined by dozens of Chicago’s business, social, and civic leaders, establishing a neighborhood that the Chicago Herald proclaimed “a cluster of millionaires not to be matched for numbers anywhere else in the country.”  This paperback book, part of the Images of America series published by Arcadia Press in 2008, contains over 200 historic photographs and traces the history of the area from 1812 to the present day.  $19.99 + tax

Postcards of America:
Chicago’s Historic Prairie Avenue

This booklet features fifteen selected views from the main volume (shown above) formatted for use as postcards.  Informative captions on the reverse of each card provide details on the houses and other buildings featured.
$7.99 + tax

Prairie Avenue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from Prominent 19th-Century Chicago Families
by Carol Callahan

This unique hardcover cookbook provides recipes taken from prominent 19th century households along Prairie Avenue.  All recipes have been tested and modernized for today’s cook.  Illustrated with photographs of Prairie Avenue homes and its residents, this cookbook is filled with fascinating anecdotes and facts about the social history of Chicago.  Published by the Southern Illinois University Press in 1993. $38.50 + tax

If you have any questions or are looking for a specific item, please call Museum Coordinator Gwen Carrion at 312-326-1480.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Beidler Room - A renovation and a little history

Earlier this month, the museum completed a long-awaited renovation of the smaller meeting and programming space known as the Beidler Room.  This space has an interesting history, both during the time of the Glessners and in more recent years.

When the house was completed in 1887, this room was designed as five smaller spaces.  The most prominent of these was a spacious conservatory for Frances Glessner, with large panes of glass extending up to the peak of the ceiling, bathing the room in sunlight.  So much sunlight, in fact, that the Glessners had to replace the glass with a translucent variety to prevent the plants from burning.  Conservatories were popular in large homes of the period, and since the Glessners spent their summers at their estate in New Hampshire, this permitted Frances Glessner to have flowers and plants year-round in their Chicago “winter home.” 

Two large walk-in closets provided storage for family and staff linens and a smaller closet was lined in cedar.  A corridor connected all of these rooms.

In 1974, these spaces were gutted and combined to form a large conference room.  Well-known Chicago architect Thomas Beeby created the new modern design for the space, which highlighted the dramatic ceiling line of the old conservatory.  The renovation was recognized with the “Distinguished Building Award” from the American Institute of Architects in 1976 for Excellence in Architecture, Interior Remodeling. 

The remodeling reflected the prevailing tastes of the 1970s, but over time the design began to feel dated, and certainly was at odds with the overall character of the rest of the house.  In early 2011, the room was painted, using a light yellow color that was original to the adjacent hallways, and papered with a William Morris-inspired design created by Bruce Bradbury.  The finished room is one that honors the Arts and Crafts tradition of the house, and provides a warm and inviting setting for lectures, programs, and meetings.

The creation of the conference room was funded by the Francis Beidler Foundation, which has provided ongoing support to the museum for nearly forty years.  Francis Beidler was born in Chicago in 1845, and was a member of a pioneering family that helped to establish Chicago as a center of the lumber industry.  At his death in 1924, he bequeathed $1,500,000 for charitable and patriotic purposes, which today is administered by the foundation that bears his name.

There is an interesting connection between the Beidler and Glessner families.  In 1874, John and Frances Glessner purchased their home at the northeast corner of Washington and Morgan from Francis Beidler’s father Jacob.  They remained in this home until moving to Prairie Avenue in December 1887.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Volunteer Opportunities Coming Up

Glessner House Museum depends on volunteers to assist in a variety of ways.  Most of our volunteers are tour guides, or docents, but we also have a few that conduct research, help care for the collection, and lend a hand with special events and projects.


We rely on volunteers to give tours of both the Clarke and Glessner Houses to thousands of visitors from all over the world. As a volunteer docent, your job is to lead an exploration of the rich topics each house had to offer. Whether your group is a classroom of school children or people from the neighborhood, there is always the possibility of insightful dialogue and new discoveries – for the visitors and for you!

Docents receive special benefits for their service including priority invitations and discounts to lectures, programs, and other events and 25% off on merchandise in the museum gift shop.  Throughout the year, we hold continuing education programs specifically for docents as well as an annual volunteer recognition party.  And the best part is that you get the chance to make connections with people who are interested in the same things that you are!

To prepare volunteers to conduct tours, trainees go through 14 hours of instruction and receive a comprehensive manual with detailed information on the architecture, furnishings, and social history of two of Chicago's most significant houses.  Docents must commit to 48 hours of volunteering during their first year, which usually works out to four hours a month, but once certified, docents are only required to give 24 hours of service, or 12 two-hour tours per year, to remain in good standing.  Most tours are given during our regular public house on Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, although there are opportunities for docents to lead custom tours scheduled in the mornings or guide mini-tours during evening rentals.

New docent training is scheduled for next month for anyone interested.
Saturday March 5, 2011, 10:00am - 4:00pm
Saturday March 12, 2011, 10:00am - 4:00pm
Saturday March 19, 2011, 10:00am - 12:00pm
Contact Museum Coordinator Gwen Carrion at 312.326.1480 to register.

Other Volunteer Opportunities

We also have volunteer opportunities for those with an interest in the museums and our work who may be too busy (or just a bit too shy) to make the docent commitment. You might have a talent or interest that can help and we'd love to hear from you, too!

Please email and include your mailing address for a volunteer packet or call 312-326-1480 and request more information.  You can also download a volunteer application by clicking here.


An important method for sharing the cultural riches of the Glessner and Clarke Houses is our internship program. Through internships, we offer educational outreach to university students who want to learn about the architecture, art, and social history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the many aspects of museum administration. Staff works closely with students to determine internship objectives and to set project priorities. Many of our interns are fulfilling a degree requirement and will receive course credit; several of our interns have come to experience working in the museum field before making an academic or professional commitment.

With our vast resources, we are able to take students from a wide variety of fields: historic preservation, decorative arts, museum studies, history, event management, and more. By placing each student into a working environment where each becomes part of museum team, we provide interns with knowledge and training that they can take with them into their careers. Here we are able to take that one step further and combine the theory with hands-on professional training and real work experience.

Although all internship positions are filled through the Spring of 2011, we are still looking for students that would like to have an unpaid internship experience this summer or fall.  For those interested, you can download an internship application by clicking here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Aquisitions

Glessner House Museum is pleased to announce three new additions to the Prairie Avenue Collection. The items were generously donated by Roberta Nichols, descendant of the Fisk, Botsford, and Harvey families who resided at 2100 S. Calumet Avenue. This address is the only home known to exist in the neighborhood that was passed down through the female line. At one point, all three generations were living simultaneously under one roof.

The first part of the donation includes newspaper clippings relating to several Prairie Avenue families. We are grateful to Roberta for enriching our archives. Two clippings of particular significance relate to the shooting of Marshall Field, Jr. They were saved by Dr. Robert Harvey who rode with Field in the ambulance to Mercy Hospital prior to the young man's death. The Harvey family, because of the eye-wittiness of their patriarch, always held that Field's injuries were accidental and self-inflicted, though others suspect differently.

The second donation is a upright "squirrel cage" yarn swift. A tool for winding skeins of yarn, the swift's vertical shape has the advantage over other models of taking up less floor space. Two cylinder-shaped wheels, made from flat disks spanned by dowel rods, rotate on long wooden pins. These cylinders, commonly called "squirrel cages" because of their unique shape, can be moved closer or further apart by sliding the pins through holes drilled incrementally along the frame. The positioning of the cages determines the amount of tension that will be applied to the yarn as it is pulled by the user.

A turned wood cup sits atop the frame, presumably for needles and pins. The base is painted with scrolled initials, slightly worn from past uses placing their feet on top to sturdy the swift. This piece has been placed in the Female Servant's Room.
Painted initials on base

Squirrel cage and pin

Cup at top of frame

Tried & True Recipes: The Home Cookbook of Chicago
The third item donated to the museum is the Home Cookbook of Chicago, published in 1874 by J. Fred. Waggoner. The title page indicates that the cook book was "compiled from recipes contributed by ladies of Chicago and other cities and towns: published for the benefit of the Home for the Friendless." The cookbook is inscribed "Mrs. D. B. Fisk 614 Wabash Ave Chicago" on the front fly leaf. The book still has its pasted-in errata with corrected measurements and spellings for several recipes. The Home for the Friendless, founded in the 1850s, was an orphan asylum that housed hundreds of needy children. The book has a very dark green cover with marbled page edges. It is currently housed in the Glessner House Museum Archives.

Inscription on front fly leaf

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Have Your Special Day at a Special Place

“The house responds: it seems available for almost any social function.”  – John Glessner, The Story of a House

Experience a gracious venue steeped in Chicago history!  Tucked away in the Prairie Avenue Historic District in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, Glessner House provides a distinctive alternative to hotels and banquet halls.  We offer rental space for meetings, private parties, corporate events, and are quickly becoming one of Chicago’s hottest and most distinctive wedding venues.

A variety of spaces help make Glessner House Museum ideal for your next event, including:

The Courtyard (4700 sq. ft) - Capacity:  Seated – 150; Cocktail - 200
Renovated in 2000, the Courtyard is one of the jewels in the Glessner House crown.  A peaceful outdoor retreat, it is the perfect setting for a large party or wedding ceremony and reception.  This child-friendly space, which can be tented, is also ideal for outdoor birthday parties and other family celebrations.

The Coach House (1778 sq. ft.) - Capacity:  Seated – 100; Cocktail - 150
Restored in 2006, this unique room originally served as the Glessners’ stables.  Now it is a large, open space filled with historic details and character—perfect for your next event.  A wonderful setting for large dinners, special receptions, and corporate events, it can be rented in combination with our Courtyard or as an alternative for rainy weather.

The Conservatory (505 sq. ft.) - Capacity: Lecture – 45; Board Room - 20
Once an all-glass conservatory, this recently updated space is ideal for small parties, lectures, retreats, conferences, or general meetings.  The room’s octagonal shape, vaulted ceiling, and beautiful view of the Courtyard, make it a unique choice for any event.  This space, also known as the Beidler Room, serves as the “Bridal Suite” for wedding ceremonies held on-site.

The Dining Room (485 sq. ft.) - Capacity:  Seated – 40; Cocktail - 60
With a curved bay of windows that looks out to the Courtyard, this historic space is the only one available for rental on the museum’s first floor.  It can be used for a private dinner, small wedding ceremony, or shower.  Adjacent to the parlor, the 1887 Steinway piano can be rented for musical entertainment during your event.

Pricing packages vary depending on the type of event, whether food and/or beverage will be served, which space(s) will be utilized, and the day(s) the event will be held.  We can help with basic event planning and day-of coordination, as well as some set-up and clean-up activities.  Tours of the museum can be coordinated for your guests as well.  And there is a parking lot rental option, too!

Dates in 2011 are filling up quickly – all but four Saturdays between May and October are booked and many couples are starting to look at Fridays and Sundays as wedding-day alternatives.  We even have a few weddings scheduled for dates in 2012.  Twenty-two weddings (so far) coming up this year!

Please contact our Rental Coordinator, Lynne Smaczny, at 312-326-1480 or for more information, to schedule a venue walk-thru, or to book your event.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Paderewski Lecture on February 17

On Thursday February 17, the museum welcomes Victoria Granacki, who will speak about the great pianist and statesman, Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941).  Considered one of the greatest concert pianists of his generation, Paderewski was also deeply committed to the cause of freedom for his fellow Poles, and served as the second Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland.

Paderewski had a close relationship with Chicago, playing 65 concerts here between 1892 and 1939.  In addition, he gave many speeches around the city to help raise funds for Polish war relief programs.  Of all the places he traveled in the U.S., Paderewski said that Chicago “impressed me more than any other city in America.”  The unbridled enthusiasm of its audiences lifted his spirit and inspired his performances.

John and Frances Glessner first heard Paderewski in concert on January 2, 1892, at his debut with the Chicago Orchestra in its inaugural 1891-1892 season under Theodore Thomas.   In March 1893, they met him in person at a dinner at the Thomas home.  The following month, the Glessners invited Paderewski to their Prairie Avenue home for dinner.  When he returned to Chicago in May to open the first regular concert series of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, he presented Frances Glessner with a signed portrait of himself, which the Glessners proudly hung in their home for the remainder of their lives.

Paderewski was also received in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Schwartz, who resided at 1824 S. Prairie Avenue.  This 1892 concert was the first of many salon performances he gave in private Chicago homes. 

An interesting side note to this story is that the Polish Museum of America in Chicago received many of Paderewski’s personal possessions, including his Steinway grand piano, after his death in 1941.  Both Paderewski and his sister Antonina were enthusiastic supporters of the museum, and today these objects memorialize the special relationship between Paderewski and our city.

We encourage everyone to come to the museum on Thursday February 17 at to hear the story of Paderewski in Chicago. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Visiting the Glessner House Requires a Guided Tour

If you are planning on visiting Glessner House and/or Clarke House, there are two ways that you can plan to do it – joining a regular public tour or scheduling a custom tour.

Public Tours

On Wednesdays through Sundays, we offer docent-led guided tours that last approximately one hour of Glessner House, as well as Clarke House, the City's oldest surviving building, located in the adjacent Chicago Women's Park and Gardens.  All tours begin at the Tour Center, located at Glessner House, which opens at 11:30am.  Clarke House Museum tours are at Noon and 2:00pm, and Glessner House Museum tours are at 1:00 and 3:00pm.  (For further information on the history and architecture of the Clarke House, which is owned by the City of Chicago and furnished by The National Society of The Colonial Dames in America in the State of Illinois, please visit

We are open year-round, except for major holidays - Easter Sunday, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day [and maybe the occasion snow day!]

Admission to the museums is FREE on Wednesdays, but spaces are filled on a first-come, first-serve, walk-in basis, and group sizes are limited to 15 people.  These tours do fill-up quickly, particularly in the summer, and we recommend that visitors arrive early, even arriving when the Tour Center opens at 11:30am, to reserve their spot on a tour.

On Thursdays through Sundays, the fees to tour one house are:  Adult - $10.00; Student/Senior - $9.00; and Children (ages 5 -12) - $6.00.  To tour both houses:  Adult - $15.00; Student/Senior - $12.00; and Children - $8.00.  There is no charge for children under 5 years of age or for members of the Glessner House Museum.  We accept VISA, MasterCard, and Discover.  If you have a smart-phone app where you can “check-in” on Facebook, you can receive $2.00 off admission.  There are also other coupons, like two-for-one admissions, to be found if you search on tourism websites.

Custom Tours

Tours of the Glessner House, Clarke House, and the Prairie Avenue Historic District are all available to groups that schedule a custom tour.  Group of ten or more are required to schedule a custom tour.  Groups larger than 15 people will be divided into smaller groups for touring purposes, but will be accommodated within the same time frame.  The fee per person is based on the number of people in the group and which tour(s) are taken.  Custom tours can be given any day of the week, but the free day policy does not apply to custom tours occurring on Wednesdays.

For a special treat, bring a group for an intimate behind-the-scenes tour of Glessner House Museum with our Executive Director & Curator, who will take you on a private tour through areas of H. H. Richardson's "urban masterpiece" that are not shown to the general public.  Get an up-close and personal look at favorite objects in our collection, experience the rooms from a different perspective, and view collections rarely seen by general museum visitors.  These tours are are available by appointment only and are limited to eight people.

Please contact the Museum Coordinator at 312-326-1480 for more information or to schedule a custom tour.

The Blizzard of 1918 - A Comparison

The museum archives contains a photo showing the 2000 block of South Prairie Avenue following the great blizzard of 1918 (top photo, with same view taken February 2, 2011 shown underneath).  The 1918 storm, which was the worst blizzard in the city’s recorded history up to that time, paralyzed the city for days.  Lest we focus too much on the inconveniences brought about by this week’s storm (the third worst in the city’s history, following those in 1967 and 1999) here are a few facts about the 1918 blizzard:

-The storm started at on Sunday January 6, 1918 and continued well into Monday.  Church services were cancelled across the city.

-A total of 14.8 inches of snow fell atop the 4.5 inches already on the ground, resulting in a snow pack of nearly 20 inches.

-Winds of up to 60 miles per hour caused drifts 6 to 7 feet high in many areas.

-Communication to the “outside world” was largely cut off due to damage to a significant percentage of telephone and telegraph lines.

-A severe milk shortage resulted from the incapacitation of virtually all transcontinental rail lines.  Of the 1,500,000 gallons of milk expected on Sunday, less than 1/3 made it to the city, and little of that could be delivered as milk wagons could not navigate the snow clogged streets.

-A severe coal shortage resulted as well for the same reasons.  Many industries (including those helping the war effort) were shut down so that the available supply of coal could be directed towards homes, hospitals, etc.

-Residents were urged to help dig out the streets so that deliveries could be made, and also to uncover fire plugs.  Many buildings burned to the ground when the fire department was unable to get their equipment to the location.

-Nearly half of the street lights in the city were out, and virtually all streetcars and suburban rail lines were out of commission.

-Schools were closed for a week so that pupils could help shovel out the streets.

-Just when things started to improve, the city was hit with a second storm on January 12, which dumped an additional 8 inches of snow amidst 30 mile per hour winds and temperatures dipping down to 14 degrees below zero.  Most church services were cancelled for a second week, largely because the churches had no coal to heat their buildings.

(NOTE:  The only house in the 1918 picture that survives today is the cream-colored brick rowhouse of William H. Reid at 2013 S. Prairie, visible in the center of the picture)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Night at the Museum - The Blizzard of 2011

I was packing up my things, planning to work from home on Wednesday, when it happened.  Amidst the howling winds and blustering snow, the power went out and the museum was plunged into darkness.  What I noticed first was the silencing of the furnace (there are eight keeping the museum warm, including one directly across from my desk), but within a few seconds the winds obliterated any hopes of complete silence.  The power went back on within 30 minutes and as I quickly warmed some soup in the microwave before heading out into the maelstrom for the long drive home, it happened again and the museum was plunged into darkness again.  At that point I decided to spend the night.  No power means no alarm, and I didn't want to leave the museum vulnerable.  In addition, with the gale force winds, it made sense to walk the building every hour or so to make sure everything was tight and secure, and nothing had blown through a window.

The power went out a total of six times during the evening - the last time at 11:00pm - and it didn't come back on for good until 5:00 in the morning.  The winds did reveal some drafty spots in the house.  Three doorways - the front door, the servants' door on 18th Street, and the coach house entrance all required shoveling INSIDE before I could even think of venturing outside.

The good news is that the museum survived practically unscathed, not surprising given the way it was built.  It reminds me of a comment Mrs. Edson Keith (of 1906 S. Prairie Avenue) made to Frances Glessner shortly after the house was completed in 1887 - "I shall flee to your fort for protection in case of war."  Or, in this case, a blizzard.

In the morning, as I set out to take some pictures, I was surprised to discover not a flake of snow on the sidewalks.  They were blown clean constantly through the night and early morning hours.  A large drift formed by the front door, and the servants' stairway was buried under 18 inches or more of snow.  About a dozen roof tiles broke off and plummeted to the sidewalk along 18th Street, no doubt in response to the unceasing banging of the tree branches on the roof all through the night.

It is still snowing out and the snow is now starting to accumulate on the sidewalks.  When all is said and done, I'm going to venture down to the 2000 block of Prairie to recreate a shot we have in our archives taken right after the great blizzard of 1918.  Watch for a post on that later this week.

Bill Tyre, Executive Director and Curator
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