In this fourth, and final, installment of our blog series about the history of Mrs. Glessner’s Monday Morning Reading Class, we will look at the last 24 years of the class, during which time the class thrived in spite of the changing fortunes of Prairie Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood. Although many of the members abandoned the South Side for new homes in other parts of the city, most continued to travel to 1800 S. Prairie Avenue each Monday for the class and its treasured friendships.
The standard readings for the class, led by Mrs. Nathalie Kennedy, were often supplemented by special presentations from authors and others. In April 1905, Frances Glessner noted “Last Monday I had Mrs. Wainwright of Boston give a lecture before the Reading class on English Gardens – it was illustrated with a stereopticon and was very delightful.”
The last class of the season was always special, often including musical entertainment, and Frances Glessner was always the recipient of abundant flowers. The last class held in May 1907 was typical:
“Monday, May 6th was the last meeting of the Reading class. There was a large attendance and many flowers sent by the ladies. We had a pleasant hour’s reading and before the ladies moved from their places, Frank Baird’s quartette sang standing back in the parlor. It was very beautiful. After the singing (an hour) we had luncheon. The quartet ended the program with “Come Dorothy” and this was kept for me as a surprise. We all went into the parlor and enjoyed the music. After the luncheon, I gave each of the ladies a box of flowers, Miss Trimingham and Mrs. Kennedy each a box. Later, I sent some to the children and some to St. Luke’s Hospital.”
A special treat for the class took place in April 1908, when “Miss Anna Morgan read a paper on Kipling, and read selections from Kipling which she did exceedingly well.” Morgan was a prominent teacher of the dramatic arts and was well known as a reader in the naturalistic style. A decade earlier she had opened the Anna Morgan Studios in the Fine Arts Building, where she taught the Delsarte method of reading, which emphasized the conveyance of emotions through body positioning and gestures.
In November 1908, John Glessner read the first of several papers before the class. “Monday, we had the first meeting of the Reading class. Over sixty ladies were here. Mrs. Kennedy read the first hour and John read his paper on The Potato which he reads tomorrow night at the Literary Club. We had a fine time.”
Two speakers of note in 1909 were Frances Shaw and May Morris. Frances Shaw, the wife of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, was a talented writer and read her paper “Wanted” which she had prepared for the Friday Club.
Later that year, May Morris, the daughter of the English designer William Morris, and a noted designer and embroiderer in her own right, spent a month in Chicago speaking on a variety of topics. Given Frances Glessner’s great interest in William Morris and her widespread use of his wallpapers, fabrics, and rugs, she was no doubt very pleased at this opportunity to welcome May Morris into her home. (The wallpaper Frances Glessner selected for her courtyard guestroom, Arcadia, was a design by May Morris). Frances Glessner noted that May Morris gave a lecture entitled “Design in Costume” to the Reading Class in November of 1909.
A notable presentation took place in April 1910. “Mr. French of the Art Institute came up at twelve and gave us the most interesting talk imaginable about the wit and wisdom of the crayon. He illustrated the talk with very rapid and clever crayon sketches.” William French was the first director of the Art Institute, serving in that capacity from 1885 until his death in 1914.
When the class concluded its season the next month, Frances Glessner was too ill to attend. Frances Glessner Lee hosted the class in her home at 1700 S. Prairie Avenue and did a splendid job, as noted by John Glessner in the journal:
“Frances Lee had the Reading Class on Monday May 2, with the luncheon, and Frank Baird’s quartet of singers and about 60 ladies present. Altogether the meeting was a very good one and well managed. I have heard much praise of Frances Lee’s entertainment. Her house was beautifully decorated with flowers etc.”
January 1914 brought an entirely different type of entertainment to the class:
“There were about 65 ladies at Reading Class. Mrs. Kellogg played her accompaniments and Mr. Charles Kellogg of Kellogg Springs, Morgan Hill, California, gave the most remarkable entertainment the class ever has had – reproductions of the songs of birds and talks of their habits and his experience with them.”
The class ended in April that year due to the reader, Mrs. Kennedy, sailing for an extended trip to Europe:
“On Monday the Reading Class at its last meeting for the season gave Mrs. Kennedy a purse of $250 in Express Co. checks and Frances gave her $100 in gold, preparatory to her sailing for Europe on Wednesday. Her class on the North Side gave a purse also.”
Notes: Her European travels took an unexpected turn when Mrs. Kennedy found herself in Austria when the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots of World War I in anticipation of their invasion of Serbia. She quickly made her way to Milan, Italy and then back to the United States. The “North Side” reference is to a class, similar to the Monday Morning Reading Class, that had been established in the Gold Coast area several years earlier. Mrs. Kennedy served as the reader for that class, as well, which followed the same course of reading as Mrs. Glessner’s class. It met on Thursday mornings.
The twentieth anniversary of the class was celebrated at a special breakfast held on Thursday January 7, 1915. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the well-known music patron, and the daughter of the Glessners’ close friends, Albert and Nancy Sprague, hosted the event and wrote and read an original sonnet:
“Dear Guest, whom we delight to honor most,
We drink to more than twenty happy years
Of comradeship that heartens and endears.
Come, join we all! Friends, sisters, hostess, host!
Let’s drink to constancy, of whose modest boast,
Of quiet work and steadfast aim, one hears
Nothing at all; Btu in whose train appears
Uplift with sweet benevolence. A toast!
Stand with me now, and pledge the heart and mind
Whose love and wisdom guided you to this.
Pledge me the Roof beneath whose shelter kind
No warmth nor freedom has been known to miss,
Now, Class, stand up! And bless the ties that bind,
Leaving “within the cup” a First-class Kiss.”
Coolidge presented Frances Glessner with a beautiful illuminated copy of the sonnet, which hangs, to this day, in Mrs. Glessner’s dressing room.
The class season of 1914-1915 was memorable for another reason as well. In the fall of 1914, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra passed an order requiring female patrons to remove their hats during concerts. The ruling met with opposition, although Frances Glessner fully supported the idea. To show her support, she made a similar request of the ladies at the Reading Class that they, too, remove their hats for the class. This move was noted in a February 1915 article in the Chicago Tribune, entitled “Hats Off Edict Rules at Mrs. Glessner’s” which read in part:
“The members of Mrs. John J. Glessner’s Monday morning reading class, which for twenty years has been a feature of south side society has met with a great adventure this winter. . . The class, numbering about forty or fifty, sits around the long library. This fall, simultaneously with the stirring order to unbonnet all patrons of the Symphony concert, came the request that members of the Monday class should remove their hats during the morning.
“This created one of the greatest sensations Prairie avenue has ever known, for the hat of the woman who has ordered her household, looked over her mail, telephoned several times, and been to market, all before 10 o’clock, usually covers a multitude of sins of omission.
“But, trying as it was, the ground rules have obtained, and careful observers say that the women of Prairie avenue are now much better coiffed than formerly.”
World War I brought a new flurry of activity to the class. The women gave up their embroidery needles and knit hundreds of sweaters for servicemen. John Glessner noted their devoted work in his informal history of the class written in 1925:
“And while the readings went on, the Class members have worked women’s work – the needle trades, you know, they call it commercially, and I know it when I come home on Monday evenings and find pins on the floor and needles sticking in the arm of the sofa at my place – but it’s all right – I only reflect on the dainty fingers that put them there. The ladies have worked with a will for the needy, for soldiers of the World War, for hospitals and sweet charity, generally. Did you ever think how far it would extend if your work of these thirty-one years were stretched out in one continuous line? Like Banquo’s ghosts’ procession before the horrified Macbeth, it would stretch to the crack of doom.”
Additionally, in late 1918, when Frances Glessner Lee took up management of Wendell House in Boston, which served as a half-way house for soldiers and sailors returning from the war, the ladies of the Reading Class financed the equipment and set up of the cafeteria.
The class continued uninterrupted until the spring of 1930 when Frances Glessner became seriously ill. By summer, it became apparently her condition would not improve, and so her husband John sent out a letter to all class members in September announcing that the class would have to be disbanded. The letter read, in part:
“Mrs. Glessner’s prolonged serious illness, beginning last spring, has so impaired her vitality that she should withdraw at this time as far as possible from social activities. She is improving, but very probably may never have the same physical strength s before. I am constrained therefore to ask that The Monday Morning Reading Class be disbanded, and its name be no longer used.
“Mrs. Glessner has had great joy and pride in this Class since its inception nearly forty years ago. She has looked forward with eager pleasure for each meeting, and she hopes that you have had some measure of the same enjoyment. It will be a great cross to her to give up this delightful intimate association with her friends, and we would not think of it did not the conditions imperatively demand it.
“Of course neither she nor I can or will have the slightest objection to your forming another class for a similar or other purpose if you so desire, thought much preferring that this organization and its name be abandoned.”
Frances Glessner died two years later, in October 1932, and her husband John died in January 1936. With his passing, ownership of the Prairie Avenue house passed to the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Before that organization took possession, however, Frances Glessner Lee and her sister-in-law, desired to have a final reunion of the Reading Class. Invitations were sent out for a reunion meeting and luncheon on April 6, 1936, before the house was “altered or dismantled.”
Dozens of ladies attended the reunion, one of the last grand social events to take place on Prairie Avenue, which by now consisted largely of boarding houses, printers and publishers, and vacant lots. The Chicago Tribune ran an article on the reunion and wrote, in part:
“Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee, who was hostess at yesterday’s meeting, occupied the chair that her mother, the late Mrs. John J. Glessner, occupied for so many years, but the chairs of the other members who have died, including Mrs. Harry Pratt Judson and Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson, were left vacant.
“There was no reading yesterday by Mrs. Kennedy, although she made a brief talk, but Mrs. Lee read a greeting that her father, the late John J. Glessner, had written several years ago when he had planned to invite the members of the Monday reading class for a final reunion.
“Illness prevented his carrying out the plan so his daughter and his son’s widow, Mrs. J. George M. Glessner, were hostesses at the reunion, probably the last social affair that will be held in the old mansion at 1800 Prairie avenue.
“Mrs. Lee’s younger daughter, Martha, who made her debut in the old mansion in December 1915, was at the meeting yesterday, having arrived just a few hours before from California on her way back to her home in Milton, Mass. She is Mrs. Charles F. Batchelder, Jr.
“Mrs. George Glessner, who lives in Littleton, N.H. where the John Glessners had their country home and where Mrs. Lee also has a home, also arrived from California yesterday, accompanied by her daughter Miss Emily Glessner.
“All of the members signed the late Mrs. Glessner’s autograph album, a cherished possession of Mrs. Lee’s.”
Frances Glessner Lee also presented each member of the class with a small memento – a tea cup, small vase, silver spoon, etc. – accompanied by a note which read:
“Believing that the members of Mrs. Glessner’s Monday Morning Reading class would care to possess some tangible memento of the house wherein the Class met for so many years, Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee has pleasure in tendering this trifle to ______.”
The reunion was, in fact, the last social event to take place in the house. Soon after, the contents of the house were packed up, the furnishings and belongings distributed amongst family members, and the fifty years of occupancy by the Glessner family drew to a close. The cherished memories of the Monday Morning Reading Class lived on with all those who had participated through the years, and the story of the class continues to enchant visitors to this day.