Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy Birthday John Jacob Glessner

January 26, 2013 marked the 170th anniversary of the birth of John Jacob Glessner in Zanesville, Ohio.   Exactly one hundred years ago – January 26, 1913 – he recorded in his wife’s journal his thoughts on turning 70:

The days of our years are three score years and ten and this is my 70th birthday.  I have seldom thought of myself as old or as ever to be old, but have noted sometimes that my family and friends speak of or act towards me as no longer young.  My father died at 97, his father at 89, the result of a fall from a fruit tree he was pruning.  My mother died at 82, and her mother at past 97.  I am not conscious of much decline in bodily or mental vigor, and should my life extend to four score years or more may I hope that they may not be years of labor and sorrow.  “We take no note of time but by its flight.”  Perhaps we grow old with troubles, not with years: hence my feeling of youth.

John Glessner was in fact still leading the life of someone who did feel much younger than 70, being actively involved as Vice President at International Harvester and serving on a number of boards of cultural and philanthropic organizations across the city.  The same journal entry that is quoted above indicates that during the week he and his wife entertained friends for dinner at their home at least twice, received a number of other guests to see Frances Glessner Lee’s miniature orchestra, took their granddaughter to the opera on Wednesday, and attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts on both Friday and Saturday.   (An interesting side note is that the weather 100 years ago seems to have been as warm as we are experiencing in 2013.  John Glessner notes in the journal that “Here the weather has been fine, several days this week being at least as good as any in California or Florida.”)

Glessner lived well beyond 70, and well beyond the “four score years” he noted above.  He died on January 20, 1936, six days before his 93rd birthday.   Although his social calendar was a bit slower, following the death of his wife in October 1932, he was still active until just a few weeks before his death, going to his office at International Harvester regularly, and attending the Orchestra concerts.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Glessners' "miniature orchestra"

On Wednesday January 16, 2013, a very special event took place at Glessner House Museum.  Nearly 60 guests were on hand to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the presentation of a miniature model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Frances Glessner.  Handcrafted by her daughter, Frances Glessner Lee, the model has been in the possession of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1921, and has only been displayed on rare occasion since that time.

The model was returned to its original location in the alcove of the courtyard guestroom, and a new stage and potted palms were recreated to make the display as accurate as possible to the original setting as envisioned by Frances Glessner Lee. 

The evening began with a dinner for 30 people in the historic dining room of the house.  The dinner commemorated the 100th anniversary of a dinner hosted by John and Frances Glessner on January 17, 1913 to which the entire Orchestra was invited along with other guests, 105 people total!  Special guests at the 2013 dinner included three staff members from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as several descendants of those who attended the 1913 dinner – a great-granddaughter of conductor Frederick Stock (shown above examining the model), and four grandchildren of concertmaster Harry Weisbach (shown below with spouses).

The dinner began with a very special musical treat for the guests.  The miniature orchestra features music on each music stand handwritten and arranged by Frederick  Stock.  The piece is “The Drum Major of Schneider’s Band” with words and music by Arthur J. Mundy, published in 1880.  The piece was a favorite of Frances Glessner, who frequently played it on the piano.  Glessner House Museum Executive Director and Curator William Tyre played the piece on the piano, accompanying Chicago Symphony Orchestra Archivist Frank Villella, who sang the charming lyrics, with just the right Germanic emphasis on the words.

Following the dinner, all 60 guests assembled in the coach house for an informative lecture by Tyre on the Glessners and their long association with the Orchestra.  Using Frances Glessner’s journal and a treasure trove of letters from the first two conductors of the Orchestra – Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock – Tyre told the intimate story of the Glessners and “their” orchestra (as they often referred to it).   From the Orchestra’s early years of struggle to the completion of Orchestra Hall, and from the sudden death of Thomas in 1905 to Stock’s forced resignation during World War I (due to his German citizenship), the lecture presented the history of one of the city’s greatest cultural assets from a very personal perspective. 

To conclude the evening, visitors had a chance to “meet” the star of the evening - the miniature orchestra on display in the guestroom.  It will remain on display through Sunday February 24 and can be seen as part of regular public tours.

Channel 7’s Frank Mathie did a segment on the miniature orchestra which aired on January 15, 2013.  To view the segment, click on the link below:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Glessner House dining room chairs

The four chairs in the dining room – two arm chairs and two side chairs – are part of a dining room set designed by Charles Coolidge of H. H. Richardson’s architectural firm.  Created for the Glessners’ Prairie Avenue house, the set originally included two arm chairs, 16 side chairs, and a six-foot round table which expanded with leaves to accommodate all 18 chairs.

Charles Coolidge, born to a prominent Boston family, graduated from Harvard in 1881.  During the following year, he supplemented his studies with architectural courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked in the office of Ware and Van Brunt.  During that time, he also traveled to Europe to examine great architectural monuments.  He was hired as an architect in Richardson’s office in 1882, and there learned to integrate the principles of his early training.

Richardson believed in the complete design of every aspect of a building, often including the design of furniture in his architectural commissions.  For many of his buildings, original furniture forms were carefully designed to integrate in scale and character with the architecture.  During the design of the Glessner house, Richardson advised his clients that their existing furniture was inappropriate in style for their new house, and successfully urged them to allow his firm to design new furniture for their formal rooms.  Coolidge is credited with the design of the dining room table and handsome spindle-back oak chairs, an attribution later recorded by John Glessner in his 1923 The Story of a House, “The furniture in the dining room is from designs by Charles Coolidge . . . executed by Davenport.”

Coolidge’s design combines as great a range of historic reference and influence as Richardson’s architecture.  The plain rectilinear form, oak construction, and simple leather seat cushion suggest furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.  Round, tapering spindles which flatten into a near-square central shape provide the primary decoration.  This use of spindles recalls the Colonial Windsor chair, as well as contemporary furniture based on 18th century English vernacular furniture designed by William Morris.  These spindles and the delicately curved stiles of each chair also contribute vertical balance to a room with predominantly horizontal lines.  The curve of the chair rail could be a stylized version of a Chippendale chair rail, another popular Colonial style; yet it is so stylized that its vegetative serpentine lines also evoke early Art Nouveau tendencies.  The only other detailing, a spiraling acanthus leaf carved in low relief, wraps around the handhold of each arm chair.  The acanthus leaf was consistently used by Richardson on both architecture and furniture, and is used in several places throughout the Glessner house.  The spare lines, minimal ornament and stylized historic reference in these chairs affirm a very modern design concept – one which clearly forecasts later dining room chair designs by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The furniture was executed by A. H. Davenport and Company, which executed a number of furniture pieces for the Glessners’ new house.  Davenport’s chief designer, Francis Bacon, had previously worked as a designer in Richardson’s office.  Bacon first designed furniture for Herter Brothers, and began working in the office of H. H. Richardson in 1883.  He became the principal designer for Davenport two years later.  Because Richardson’s office was extremely busy by that time, the firm gave the furniture commissions for many of their late buildings to this talented former employee.  On December 1, 1887, Frances Glessner noted in her journal, “Yesterday we continued our moving . . . We found a car load of our furniture had come from Davenport, and had it brought here, unloaded and most of it unpacked.  It is very beautiful.”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Frances Glessner's Miniature Orchestra

On Wednesday January 16, 2013, the museum will place on display the marvelous miniature orchestra created by Frances Glessner Lee exactly 100 years ago.  A special lecture focusing on the Glessners and their lifelong involvement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be held at 7:00pm that evening in the coach house.  For reservations or further information call 312-326-1480.  (The model, now owned by the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will continue on exhibit at the museum through Sunday February 24th and can be viewed as part of the regular public tours).

In 1912, Frances Glessner Lee began work on a scale model of the Orchestra which was presented to her mother on January 1, 1913, the occasion of her 65th birthday.  Ninety Viennese bisque dolls and wooden doll-house chairs were gathered for the project.  Lee was permitted to attend rehearsals, where she wandered among the musicians, marking on each doll’s bare bisque head the hairlines and facial hair of each performer.  She hand-stitched tuxedos and white dress shirts for each doll, and placed a tiny fabric carnation in each lapel.  (Her mother often sent carnations for the orchestra members to wear).  Many of the instruments were made by Lee, using wooden candy boxes and other household items; others were made by craftsmen she hired for the project.  The entire ensemble was mounted on a tiered wooden stage that was nearly eight feet long.  Conductor Frederick Stock, an intimate friend of the family, handwrote one page of The Drum Major of Schneider’s Band for each music stand.  (The piece, written by Arthur J. Mundy and published in 1880, was a favorite of Frances Glessner, who enjoyed playing it on the piano).

John Glessner recorded the presentation of the model in his wife’s journal:
“New Years was Frances’ birthday and that afternoon Frances Lee gave her the wonderful ‘little orchestra’ – the full orchestra stage and full 90 men and their instruments, doll size, all worked out in exquisite detail, and most of it done by Frances’ own fingers . . . Nothing could be more complete or perfectly done, or more interesting.”

On Friday January 17, 1913, the full Orchestra was invited to view the model:
“Every member of the organization except three was present, making with the 15 or 16 other guests, 105 or  106 who sat down to dinner that was prepared in this house . . . There was a punch at the close and toasts and songs and the musical program before that was fine and humorous.  The men were much interested in the ‘little orchestra’ and in seeing themselves as others see them, and went back again and again to the room over the parlor where it was, and Frances Lee was fully satisfied with their appreciation.”

The Glessners displayed the model of the orchestra in the upstairs hall of their home, placing it in a covered display case made specifically for the model.  It was subsequently donated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where it was displayed in the second floor ballroom of Orchestra Hall for many years before being removed from permanent display and stored.
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