Monday, November 24, 2014

Jack Simmerling - 1951

"Jack Simmerling Jr., Blue Island, works on one of the
many paintings he has done of old Chicago houses."
(Tribune photo by William C. Loewe)

In anticipation of the opening of the John J. ‘Jack’ Simmerling Gallery of Prairie Avenue History on Monday December 1, 2014, we look back 63 years to 1951, when Jack Simmerling was just 15 years old.  On October 14, 1951, the Chicago Sunday Tribune ran a cover story about Jack in their Neighborhood Section.  The article included the photo shown above, photos of seven of Jack’s paintings (two of which will be displayed in the new gallery), and a lengthy article, reprinted below.  It is most interesting to note how fully developed Jack’s passion for old houses was at this young age, and what a prolific artist he had already become.

NOTE:  Due to overwhelming response, the opening celebration on December 1st is now sold out.  However, special one-hour tours of the Simmerling Gallery will be offered at 10:00am on the following Saturdays – December 13, 20, and 27.  Tickets are $10.00 and prepaid reservations to 312-326-1480 are required as group size is limited to 15.  Additional tours will be scheduled in 2015, check the website, for more details.

Youthful Artist of Blue Island Preserves Flavor of Old Chicago Houses on Canvas

Young Artist is Authority on City’s Gay Days

Puts Vanished Splendor Into Old Homes

by Gordon Winkler

On first meeting Jack Simmerling Jr. of Blue Island it is not easy to believe that he is becoming an authority on the Victorian era.  Jack is 15, likes to swim and fish, and his favorite article of apparel is his Blue Island High school sweater.

One usually associates those whose interests are steeped in the ‘90s with museum curators or sentimental old timers who wistfully remember the lush way of life.  But in the last two years this high school youth has been making a study of Victorian life and architecture in Chicago.

Castle Makes Impression

Jack’s interest in the era began when he and his mother visited the famed Potter Palmer estate in Lake Shore dr. just before it was razed to make way for an apartment building.  “I was tremendously impressed by the splendor of the old castle and felt that paintings of the structure should be made.”

Jack, who has painted since he was able to hold a brush – he won a first award in a state contest sponsored by the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1948 – began to reproduce the building on canvas.  He spent many days at the Lake Shore dr. site making sketches.  His project, so far as the Potter Palmer mansion was concerned, was not limited to one picture.

Jack has a series of five paintings which show stages of the castle’s demolition.  His interest in old homes, whetted by the Potter Palmer house, made him move on to the Cyrus McCormick mansion in nearby Rush Street.  “In order to obtain the true color of the building and even preserve some of it, I pulverized some bricks from the house and mixed the dust with my paint,” Jack said.

Since then Jack has painted dozens of old Chicago homes.  Many of the paintings have been done from photographs of houses which have been razed; others have been painted from the homes themselves.

Must Imagine Scenes

Jack, who recently began lecturing on the subject of old Chicago homes, tells his audiences that in almost all cases his paintings are his own impressions of how these homes appeared in the days of lavish parties and posh living.  “When I am able to paint from the actual house it is usually in a state of disrepair and I have to put in what I feel the house actually looked like,” he said.

While his paintings lack the preciseness of an architect’s rendering, Jack has done painstaking research on the houses so his reproductions will resemble as much as possible the originals.

He can talk about the famed Mikado ball held before the turn of the century in the Marshall Field home in Prairie av. with as much authority as he can discuss the architecture of the period.  His interest in the houses has branched off into a study of their interiors and he is now working on a cardboard model of the rooms of the McCormick house complete with chandeliers, inlaid floors, and hand carved mantels.

“I can’t tell you the number of days he has spent roaming around that house,” his mother said.

Jack also haunts old homes being razed.  Wrecking crews have become accustomed to his requests for stained glass windows, mantelpieces, and other items.  The Simmerling basement is becoming cluttered with such objects.

The young artist plans to take some courses at the Art Institute soon, and after high school he hopes to go on to the University of Chicago.  “I am not sure what I want to do eventually,” he said.  “Right now I think I would like to be a newspaper reporter.”

Fortunately for all of us, Jack soon abandoned his idea of becoming a newspaper reporter (although he remained an incredible storyteller), devoting his full efforts to become an accomplished and, in time, nationally-recognized artist.  The new Simmerling Gallery at Glessner House Museum will showcase selected artworks in oil, watercolor and pen and ink, along with architectural fragments from some of the great homes of Prairie Avenue, personally salvaged by Jack Simmerling in his quest to preserve the Victorian era he saw rapidly disappearing before his eyes.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Walden: Cyrus McCormick Jr's Lake Forest Estate

On November 8, 1914, John Glessner made the following entry in his wife’s journal about their visit to the Lake Forest home of Cyrus McCormick Jr.:

“Frances and Emily came last Sunday just as we were starting to Lake Forest by motor.  Mrs. McCormick had telephoned that her chauffeur would meet us at farther edge of Fort Sheridan and convoy us to her house.  On arrival we were first taken around Lake Forest somewhat, then dinner where we met Mrs. McCormick the elder, and Dr. McDonald, editor of Toronto.  After dinner we were taken down the ravine to the Lake and then to Harold’s great house (Villa Turicum), all splendid even in its put away clothes.  Mr. and Mrs. McCormick were very attentive and hospitable, the meal was elaborate and their lives seem complicated, or rather their method of living.  The day was very pleasant.”

The North Shore home of McCormick and his wife Harriet was known as Walden, the name inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, detailing his two years of simple living amidst natural surroundings at Walden Pond.  Although the McCormicks embraced the idea of “simple” living, their property encompassed more than 100 acres, and was generally regarded as the finest landscaped estate in all of Lake Forest.  It was situated along the shore of Lake Michigan immediately north of what is now Westleigh Road and Harold McCormick’s Villa Turicum. 

Looking southwest across the estate, Walden at center,
Villa Turicum at upper left

The main house, a large yet informal structure, was designed in 1896 by architect Jarvis Hunt in the shingle style, to blend into its natural surroundings.  Hunt had come to Chicago to work on the World’s Columbian Exposition, and later designed the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.  He was the nephew of Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of both the Marshall Field and John Borden houses in Chicago, as well as homes for the Vanderbilts in New York, Newport, and Asheville, NC. 

The extraordinary grounds of Walden were the design of landscape architect Warren Manning, who also came to Chicago for the Exposition while working for Frederick Law Olmsted.  Manning worked closely with Harriet McCormick, who studied botany at Lake Forest College and later helped found both the Lake Forest Garden Club and the Garden Club of America.  

The site, with its dramatic deep ravine provided ample opportunity for expressing Manning’s ideas on landscape design and he returned annually for the next 40 years to direct changes to the landscape as it evolved over time.

Cyrus McCormick Jr. was the eldest son of Cyrus McCormick, and assumed the presidency of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company at the death of his father in 1884; Cyrus Jr. was just 25 years old at the time.  He held the position until 1902 when McCormick’s firm, John Glessner’s firm, and three others merged to form International Harvester at which time the two men went from being competitors to officers of the new corporation.  McCormick Jr. shared the Glessners’ love of music and is credited with bringing Prokofiev to the United States.   His city house was located at 50 E. Huron in an area then known as “McCormickville” for the number of residences occupied by members of the family.  In 1914, the year that the Glessners visited Walden, McCormick purchased the former Patterson house at 20 E. Burton Place, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1893, and later enlarged by David Adler for McCormick.

Harriet Hammond McCormick married Cyrus in 1889 and quickly made a name for herself by insisting on improving the conditions of the workers at her husband’s factory.  In addition to this important work in promoting industrial welfare, she became an active suffragette, and a leader in the work of the Y.W.C.A., the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, and the Visiting Nurse Association.  Her organizational affiliations included the Fortnightly and the Colonial Dames, both of which counted Mrs. Glessner among their membership.  

After her death in 1921, the Y.W.C.A. constructed the Harriet Hammond McCormick Memorial Building at 1001 N. Dearborn (demolished 2005).

The year before the Glessners visited, the house was significantly expanded by Schmidt, Garden and Martin, working with Lawrence Buck.  The image of the house at the top of the article was taken shortly after that project was completed. 

Cyrus McCormick Jr. died in 1936 (the same year as John Glessner).  His second wife Alice Holt McCormick had the main house demolished in 1955, but several elements of the original estate survive.  

One of these, known as the Ravello, is a terraced overlook near the southeast corner of the original property, inspired by a visit that Cyrus and Harriet McCormick made to Ravello, a town above the Amalfi coast in Italy.  The terrace remains, now juxtaposed with a modernist house constructed in 1960.

Another structure to survive is the dramatic bridge over the ravine, the design of which was conceived by Cyrus McCormick Jr.  The bridge is supported atop a huge arch with supports radiating like spokes on a great wheel, and would have been crossed by visitors entering the estate on their way to the main house. 

A third survivor of the original estate is a charming Japanese-inspired teahouse, constructed in the 1920s for Alice Holt McCormick.  The architect was Dwight Perkins who created an authentic teahouse substituting the traditional bamboo walls with glass and wood.  It was acquired in the 1950s by a descendant of C. D. Peacock, who hired architect I. W. Coburn to convert the structure into a home, adding a large addition and utilizing the teahouse as a “great room” or enlarged living room. 

To learn more about Walden, follow this link to two excellent articles by Arthur Miller, recently retired archivist and librarian for Special Collections at Lake Forest College:

Further information on the estate can also be found in Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest: Architecture and Landscape Design 1856-1940, co-authored by Kim Coventry, Daniel Meyer, and Arthur Miller in 2003.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Harriet Rees House Moved

The long awaited move of the landmark Harriet F. Rees house at 2110 S. Prairie Avenue was completed on November 11 and 12, 2014.  A large crowd of curious onlookers and neighbors gathered in the cold and rain to watch the relocation of what is believed to be the heaviest house ever moved in U.S. history.

Months of preparation went into planning every last detail of moving the 762 ton house approximately 400 north to its new site at 2017 S. Prairie Avenue.  The project was overseen by Bulley & Andrews, a highly regarded Chicago firm founded in 1891, just three years after the Rees house was built.  Wolfe House and Building Movers performed the move of the house, with Iron Workers, Machinery Movers, Riggers & Machinery Erectors Local #136 providing the necessary labor.

The Rees house was the last surviving mansion on the 2100 block of Prairie Avenue and measures 25 feet wide, 72 feet high, and 95 feet long.  The house was lifted from its foundation into a protective steel-beam cage and transported on 29 massive motorized dollies.  The total weight of the house with its rolling hydraulic dollies and steel frame was 1,045 tons.  (By comparison, the Clarke House Museum, moved in 1977, weighed a mere 120 tons).  On day one, the house was moved north to Cullerton Street where the dollies were all repositioned.  On day two, the house was reversed and slowly turned 90 degrees onto its new site.  This was the most challenging part of the move, with the house and its exoskeleton clearing the adjacent structures by just inches.  Now that the house is in position, the dollies will be removed, the foundation walls completed, and the steel framing and wood cribbing all removed.

The move attracted major media attention, including all major Chicago TV stations, several newspapers, and numerous radio stations and blogs.  Total cost of the move was over $8 million, including nearly $2 million to acquire the new lot.

The relocation will make room for the McCormick Place Entertainment District, which will include a 10,000-seat event center on the block bounded by Prairie Avenue, 21st Street, Indiana Avenue, and Cermak Road.


New site with wood cribbing completely filling
the basement to temporarily support the house


Monday, November 10, 2014

In Memoriam - Jeanette Fields


Jeanette Fields, who served as the first Executive Director of Glessner House from 1970 to 1976, passed away at her Oak Park home on Sunday November 2, 2014 at the age of 94.  Fields came to Glessner House, at that time owned and operated by the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation (CAF), during a period of organizational growth and left a lasting mark on both the house and CAF. 

Marian Depres, one of the founders of CAF and a long-time advocate for the house wrote the history of the organization in 1986.  In Chicago Architecture Foundation: The First Twenty Years 1966-1986, Depres recalls Fields arrival at the landmark home and what was expected of her:

“(In 1970), Jeanette Fields was hired as executive secretary to work for 24 hours per week.  Although not an architect, she was deeply interested in the subject.  She lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house and had done public relations for various organizations, including an architectural firm, for which she had conducted bus tours.  She had also done social work and had secretarial abilities.  In her new job, all these skills were called upon.

“In the 24 hours per week for which she had been hired, Fields was supposed to keep records, type letters, manage the house, supervise the two students who lived on the second floor (until the day she found one of them keeping his pet ocelot in the kitchen), answer the telephone, and cope with starlings in the chimney and pigeons in the coach house.  She kept the utilities functioning and decided which bills could most safely be delayed.  In addition, three afternoons a week, she was to show visitors around the house.  Every week during the summer, she managed to bring in flowers from her garden for the front hall. 

“Despite all these demands, she began a vigorous and imaginative public relations program which was significant in promoting the early growth of CAF.  Board members, and later docents, began to be seen and heard on radio and television.  Fields enlisted Stuart Talbot, an energetic volunteer who organized a group to work every Monday evening. . . Things began to happen as a result of the new publicity . . . More money began to come in.  More people came to view the house.  Fields soon was promoted to full-time, and then hired Lynn Anderson, who had successfully taken the docent training class, as a half-time assistant.”

Perhaps her greatest legacy is her work in establishing the docent program, in partnership with Marian Depres.  In response to the increasing number of visitors coming to the house, the two, in conjunction with Barbara Wriston (director of museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago) and Kenneth Englund (a former teacher on the staff of the Illinois Arts Council), gathered experts in the field to lead the training and secured $5,000 in funding from the Illinois Arts Council to launch the first docent training program.  A total of 36 people started the class in April 1971 and 33 graduated on June 12, 1971.  It was Jeanette Fields who had the idea of holding the graduation ceremony on the north steps of the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center).  It was a brilliant move – reporters, photographers, and TV cameras were there, and a representative from the Mayor’s office gave the graduation speech.  By year end, almost 3,000 people had taken tours of the house and the Loop.

Another achievement of Fields’ tenure was the significant work leading to the establishment of the Prairie Avenue Historic District.  When she arrived in 1970, the idea was still in its infancy, and many felt the street had already lost too much for a district to have meaning.  Fields and others vigorously pursued the idea, forming the Prairie Avenue District Committee in 1971.  Their work resulted in a co-partnership with the City of Chicago, bringing needed resources and financial assistance to the project, along with $350,000 in funding from the State of Illinois to purchase parcels of land.  By the time the district was landmarked in 1978, the streetscape of the 1800 block of Prairie Avenue had been restored to its 1890s appearance, and the city had acquired and relocated the Clarke House to its present location.

During the Festival on Prairie Avenue held in 2008, Fields was honored for her work on the creation of the district.  Her award read in part:

“In recognition of her leadership as Executive Director of the Chicago Architecture Foundation from 1970 to 1976 during which period the groundwork was laid for a unique public-private partnership with the City of Chicago that led to the establishment of the Prairie Avenue Historic District.  Presented at the Festival on Prairie Avenue, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Prairie Avenue Historic District September 6, 2008.”

Festival on Prairie Avenue, 2008.  L to R:
Bill Tyre, Alderman Robert Fioretti, Jeanette Fields,
Mayor Richard M. Daley, Marian Premer,
Jack Simmerling, Tina Feldstein

Fields remained actively interested in both Glessner House and the Prairie Avenue Historic District long after she concluded her tenure as executive director in 1976.  She enjoyed visiting to witness progress on the house, and marveled at the dramatic redevelopment of the neighborhood beginning in the mid-1990s.  Each year she was an honored guest as docents from the early classes gathered to reminisce over the early years of the tour program.

Memorial wreath on the front door of Glessner House

Jeanette Fields was among the early group of individuals to recognize the importance of Glessner House.  The thousands of guests who visit each year from across the country and around the world are a testament to her work in shepherding the museum through this important era in its growth and development.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Elbridge Keith House

The Elbridge G. Keith house at 1900 S. Prairie Avenue is one of just seven surviving houses on the “sunny street that held the sifted few” – Chicago’s most exclusive residential street in the late 19th century.  The imposing three-story limestone clad house with slate mansard roof is the last surviving example of the Second Empire style which dominated the Prairie Avenue streetscape. 

The house was built in 1870-1871 for Elbridge Gerry Keith, one of three Keith brothers to reside on Prairie Avenue.  Keith was born on July 16, 1840 in Barre, Vermont, and was named in honor of Elbridge Gerry, who served as vice-president under President James Madison.  He was descended from James Keith, a Scotch Presbyterian clergyman who came to America about 1650, settling in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  He grew up on the family farm, and after clerking in a general store in Barre, came to Chicago in 1857, joining his brothers Edson and Osborne, and working in the business selling hats and caps. 

In 1865, he married Harriet Hall in her hometown of Ottawa, Illinois.  They set up housekeeping on the 1700 block of Michigan Avenue.  In the same year, his brothers reorganized their firm as Keith Brothers and he was admitted as a partner.  It grew into one of the largest millinery firms in the entire country.  The firm continued as such until 1884, when it was again reorganized as Edson Keith & Co.  No longer a partner in the business, Elbridge Keith that year helped to organize the Metropolitan National Bank, serving as its president until its consolidation with the First National Bank of Chicago in 1902.  In that year, he was elected president of the Chicago Title and Trust Company, which position he retained until his death.

Dining room

In 1868, Keith purchased a double lot on Prairie Avenue for $10,750 and engaged John W. Roberts to design his new home.  Roberts began his career in the office of the prominent American architect Richard Upjohn before coming to Chicago, and designed numerous large residences in the city.  In the 1880s the house was significantly enlarged with the addition of the third floor mansard roof, and an addition to the rear. 

Keith was deeply interested in education, serving for many years on the Chicago Board of Education.  In 1883, a school was built at 3400 S. Dearborn and was named the Keith School in his honor.  (It closed in 1959 and was demolished soon after for the expansion of the campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology).

Keith was extremely active in civic affairs.  He was elected a director of the World’s Columbian Exposition, and later treasurer of the University of Illinois.  He was one of the incorporators and president of the Union League Club, and at various times served as president of the Commercial Club, the Banker’s Club, the Y.M.C.A. and the Chicago Orphan Asylum.  Additionally, he served as treasurer of the Moody Bible Institute, the Chicago Bible Society, the Bureau of Charities, and the Home of the Friendless. 

He and his wife had six children – sons Carl, Harold, Stanley, and Elbridge, and daughters Susie and Bessie.  Keith died at his home on May 17, 1905 and was interred in a large plot at Graceland Cemetery.  He left an estate valued at $980,000.  Bequests were made to a number of charities including the Moody Bible Institute, the Chicago Visiting Nurses’ Association, the Chicago Old People’s Home, Beloit College, the American Sunday School Union, and the Chicago Home for the Friendless. 

Keith also directed the income from a trust fund to his church of 30 years, the Christ Reformed Episcopal Church at Michigan Avenue and 24th Street, and gave an outright gift to its longtime leader, Bishop Charles E. Cheney.  In September 1905, the church dedicated a tablet in memory of Keith which read, “To the glory of God and to the memory of Elbridge Gerry Keith, a beloved Bible class teacher in the Sunday school and senior warden of the church.”

Elbridge Keith’s widow Harriet remained in the home for a number of years after which she moved to a spacious apartment at 999 Lake Shore Drive.  She sold the Prairie Avenue house in 1920 and later moved to Pasadena, California where she died in 1933. 

In 1934, the house was acquired by a publishing company, Domestic Engineering.  It was used as offices for various publishers until 1974, when it was purchased by Wilbert Hasbrouck, an architect who had been involved in the rescue of Glessner House several years earlier.  

His wife Marilyn opened a book store in the house known as the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which featured architectural books, prints, and fragments.  (For many years following, it was regarded as one of the pre-eminent architecture bookstores in the country).  The building also served as the offices for the Hasbroucks’ publishing company, the Prairie School Publishing Company, which produced The Prairie School Review

In 1978, the Hasbroucks sold the house to journalists Steven Pratt and Joy Darrow, the latter a grand-niece of the famed attorney Clarence Darrow.  They undertook extensive restoration work on the house including a $60,000 reconstruction of the elaborately bracketed cornice.  In October 1986 they opened the Prairie Avenue Gallery on the first floor, which hosted dozens of art exhibits.  The coach house was leased to Royal Carriages, which boarded horses on the ground floor, the drivers living up above.  Following Darrow’s death, daughter Marcy moved back in the house.  In 1997, she leased the first floor to Woman Made Gallery, which had been organized five years earlier to provide women artists with the opportunity to exhibit, publish, and perform their work.  In 1999, the coach house was completely renovated into a single residential unit.  Today, the first floor functions as a special events venue hosting art exhibits, weddings, and more.  For more information, visit

On October 25, 2014, a very special event took place when nearly two dozen descendants gathered at the old family home for a reunion.  They were all descended from Elbridge Keith's son Carl, who had married Cornelia Alling of 2131 S. Calumet Avenue on January 1, 1901.   Carl Keith, who had written his reminiscences of the house and neighborhood in a manuscript entitled “The Home” would no doubt have been very pleased to see the house once again functioning as the Keith family home.  
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