Thursday, June 30, 2022

Elihu Vedder and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Glessners assembled more than 8,000 books for the libraries in their Prairie Avenue and New Hampshire homes. Among the most distinctive volumes is a folio-size edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, designed and illustrated by the American artist Elihu Vedder in 1883-1884. The book received rave reviews upon its release, secured Vedder’s reputation as an artist, and provided him with financial security for the rest of his life. In this article, we will explore Vedder’s career, the creation of the Rubaiyat, how it came into the Glessner library, and their ongoing interest in the artist.

Elihu Vedder
Vedder was born in New York City on February 26, 1836, to first cousins Elihu (Sr.) and Elizabeth Vedder. By Elihu’s mid-teens he showed promise as an artist, his mother actively supporting his intentions; his father was less convinced. He studied with the American artist Tompkins Harrison Matteson in New York City before heading to Paris to study with Francois-Edouard Picot, who had been a recipient of the Prix de Rome scholarship and a student of Jacques-Louis David.

In 1858, Vedder traveled to Italy where he remained for two years, and it transformed his life, being deeply inspired by Italian Renaissance painting as well as the landscape, which he frequently depicted in his paintings. He befriended fellow painter Giovanni Costa, with whom he traveled extensively through the Italian countryside, until Vedder’s father cut off his allowance.

Returning to the United States at the start of the Civil War, he earned money as a commercial illustrator and quickly became involved in Greenwich Village’s first “Bohemian hangout” at Pfaff’s beer cellar. It was here he befriended Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and many others known as the Pfaffians, the start of long-standing friendships with some of the most creative and intellectual minds of the period. 

At the conclusion of the Civil War, he returned to his beloved Italy. He frequently traveled to England, being influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and befriended Simeon Solomon, a prominent painter of the movement known for his depiction of Jewish life. Vedder occasionally returned to the United States, and for a period of time designed objects for Louis Comfort Tiffany, as well as a bronze statue, The Boy, which Tiffany placed in a fountain at his Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall. In the late 1890s, Vedder designed a mosaic of Minerva and a series of murals depicting various aspects of government, to adorn the Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Best remembered today for his monochromatic accompaniments for the Rubaiyat (he disliked the term illustrations), he produced a significant amount of artwork that is difficult to classify, although he is often referenced as a Symbolist painter. As Joshua C. Taylor noted in Perceptions and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979):

“Vedder has been remembered for several different accomplishments but rarely as a unified artistic personality. His extraordinary illustrations to accompany Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, published in 1884, are an early and persuasive lesson in the compelling evocative powers of a decorative style. His disarmingly simple, richly colored glimpses of the Italian landscape, however, celebrate the pleasures of direct perception. His work seems to be rooted firmly in two opposing traditions, each revolutionary in its way in the nineteenth century. Yet probably the most revolutionary aspect of Vedder was his refusal to take sides, to admit that the perceptual and visionary were at odds with each other.”

Of his personality, Taylor, as co-author with Jane Dillenberger of The Hand and the Spirit: Religious Art in America 1700-1900 (University Art Museum, Berkeley, CA, 1972), wrote:

“His personality emerges as a compound of extroverted vigor, volatility, jocularity, and flirtatiousness, with an introverted fascination with dreams, a preoccupation with death, a tendency toward melancholia, and an appetite for the macabre.”

Elihu Vedder died in 1923 at the age of 86 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. 

Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald, and the origins of the Rubaiyat
Omar Khayyam, known as the “Astronomer-Poet of Persia” lived from 1048 to 1131 A.D. He achieved modern recognition when the English writer and poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) completed his translation of a selection of quatrains (rubaiyat) in the late 1850s. The authenticity of the poetry attributed to Khayyam is uncertain, as during his lifetime he was known as an astronomer and mathematician. It was not until a biography was written decades after his death that we find the first references to his having written poetry. Of the 2,000 or so quatrains attributed to him, scholars vary widely as to how many of them truly came from Khayyam, most agreeing that less than 200 can be authenticated. 

FitzGerald is best remembered today for his English translation of the Rubaiyat. He began studying Persian literature with Professor Edward Byles Cowell at the University of Oxford in 1853. Four years later, Cowell discovered a set of Persian quatrains by Khayyam in the Asiatic Society library in Calcutta, which he sent to FitzGerald, who completed his initial translation later that year. In January 1859, he privately printed 250 copies, but the work remained largely unknown until being discovered by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1861 and soon after by the author and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne (of whom Rossetti later painted a portrait). 

A second, greatly revised edition was published by FitzGerald in 1868, with further editions in 1872 and 1879 and a posthumous edition in 1889. The third edition was the first to contain the now standard 101 quatrains, and the first American edition of 1878 was a reprint of this version. William Morris became enamored with the work, producing his own version in the 1870s, with the text in his hand, supplemented by illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones (shown below). In time, “the slim volume was handed from artist to artist, and it served as a touchstone for the spiritual and poetic in a time of strident materialism.” By the 1890s, more than two hundred editions had been produced, resulting in total sales exceeding two million copies, the formation of Omar Khayyam clubs throughout the English-speaking world, and the rise of a fin de siècle cult of the Rubaiyat.

FitzGerald openly admitted that he took considerable liberties with the source material. In correspondence to Cowell in 1858 and 1859, he wrote:

“My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is. Many quatrains are mashed together: and something lost, I doubt, of Omar’s simplicity, which is so much a virtue in him.

“I suppose very few people have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Costs, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse[FP2]  Life if one can’t retain the Originals better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.”

Vedder’s Rubaiyat

The 55 drawings in pencil, ink, chalk, and watercolor on tinted paper, comprising Vedder’s edition of the Rubaiyat, were completed over a ten month period from May 1883 to March 1884 while in Rome, as noted on the signature page below.

His signature, always depicted as an asymmetrical V, is explained in the end notes to the volume:

“If an explanation of the artist’s signature is demanded, why may it not be taken as representing the high and low notes, the light and shade in which this work is done? Hastily plucked and rudely fashioned, this double pipe is (the artist believes) yet capable of producing some music worthy of the listening ear.”

Vedder also designed the cover, the lining papers on the inside of the front and back covers, and the distinctive lettering. The two sides of his artistic expression are evident, one description of an exhibition of the original drawings noting how “he reconciled the critics who called for accurate depiction of observed reality with those who argued for feeling and emotion over objective form.”

He dedicated the book to his wife, the former Caroline Rosekrans, (the daughter of a New York Supreme Court judge), to whom he was united in marriage in 1869 in her hometown of Glens Falls, New York. 

Just as FitzGerald had taken liberties in translating the quatrains, Vedder took additional liberties in rearranging them in order to express what he felt were the three stages of existence explored in the text – happiness and youth, death and darkness, and rebirth. Examining the details in the drawings, one finds everything from traditional Christian symbols and classical figures to mystical imagery of Vedder’s invention. A prominent device is the “cosmic swirl,” first seen on the front cover, and repeated throughout the volume. Vedder, in his end notes, explains:

“The swirl which appears here, and is an ever-recurring feature in the work, represents the gradual concentration of the elements which combine in life: the sudden pause, through the reversal of the movement, which marks the instant of life; then the gradual, ever-widening dispersion again into the primitive elements.”

The first edition of the book was released on November 8, 1884, and sold out in just six days. A deluxe limited edition with a stamped leather cover cost $100; a regular edition with cloth cover was $25. The book was published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, a prominent Boston-based publisher that held the rights to the literary works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. It was printed at its Riverside Press, “one of the model printing-offices in America,” noted for its unusual practice of employing male and female compositors, who worked side by side.

The book was praised as a masterwork of American art, and Vedder secured his place as the master American artist. Critics noted that he set the standard for the artist-designed book by creating all of its elements.

The quality of the reproduced drawings was also praised, a review in the January 1885 issue of The Atlantic noting:

“The mechanical execution of the book is worthy of a word. The plates seem to reproduce the drawings with little or no loss, and in one or two cases with some trifling gain, which now and then follows reduction and translation into one color. This adaptation of an improved gelatine-printing method, made directly from original drawings, is a new feature in American illustrated bookmaking, and has been tried here for the first time in large and difficult plates. If the promise made by this addition to our illustrative methods is kept, we may hope to see other magnificent pictures contribute intimately to literary enjoyment.”

The Rubaiyat comes to Chicago
The book was offered for sale in Chicago within a few weeks of its sell-out release in Boston. The “Literature” column in the December 6, 1884 edition of the Chicago Tribune led with a lengthy review of the book, which opened:

“Originality is earnestly striven after by the artists of today; but no one of them has more of that distinguishing quality, or attains it more easily, than Mr. Elihu Vedder. It is so much his nature to be original that the after-expression of any artistic idea passed through the alembic of his brain is certain not only to bear the impress of a most vigorous imagination, but to be notably different from the form that it would assume if presented by any other human being. In the “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam he has found a congenial theme for the exercise of his genius; and the result is a series of designs which, for refinement of conception, dignity and breadth of treatment, combined with wonderful grace and beauty of expression, is worthy to rank with the highest achievements of modern art.”

The 1884 advertisement above is for S. A. Maxwell & Co., located at 134-136 Wabash Avenue. This was the Jewelers' Building, completed in 1882 from designs by Adler & Sullivan. The current address is 15-17 S. Wabash Avenue.

By February 1885, Vedder's original drawings for the Rubaiyat had come to Chicago for exhibition at the Art Institute, at the time located in its first building at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street. The drawings, which measured approximately 13 by 17 inches, were hugely popular, leading the Art Institute to open the exhibit for free on Saturday, February 28, between the hours of 9:00am and 10:00pm. Frances Glessner would have almost certainly seen the exhibit, as she was taking her son George to the Institute each Saturday morning for a drawing class.

The Glessners received their copy of the Rubaiyat as a Christmas gift from George in 1892 – perhaps a remembrance of his viewing the 1885 exhibit with his mother? Her journal entry for Christmas Day notes “George gave us Vedder’s illustrated Rubaiyat.” The folio-size regular edition with cloth cover cost $25, the equivalent of $735 in today’s dollars. (When John Glessner died in 1936, the book was valued at $5 in the estate appraisal; today, copies sell in the $1,000 to $1,500 range).


Each leaf measures 12 inches wide by 15-1/2 inches tall and is printed on a heavy paper which is mounted on linen guards gathered at the spine. The leaves are arranged in pairs which face each other. The 101 quatrains are contained within 47 plates, with additional drawings used for the end papers, title page, and notes pages. The book does not contain a copyright date, but the title page lists both Houghton, Mifflin and Company of Boston and Bernard Quaritch of London as publishers. Vedder’s colophon for the Riverside Press (shown below) faces the dedication page to his wife.

The Digressions of V

 In 1910, Vedder published his autobiography entitled The Digressions of V, with the notation “Written for his own fun and that of his friends,” and the added stanza:

“Somewhat o’ershadowed by great names,
A feeble plant he tries to rear;
It is not nourished by great aims
Nor yet retarded by much fear;
His aims if any are but these,
To be remembered and to please.”

It, too, was published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company at its Riverside Press. The Glessners purchased their copy for $6.00, confirmed by the penciled notation inside the back cover inserted by the bookseller, A. C. McClurg and Company. They placed the book in their library at The Rocks, their summer estate in New Hampshire, as noted by the bookplate inside the front cover.

A review in the Chicago Tribune noted:

“Very often when a book is introduced with the remark that the author was induced to write it because friends asked him to, we may prepare for something that the world would willingly let die. It is not so in the case of Mr. Vedder. His friends knew what they were about when they urged him to write this book. It is quite unconventional, as Vedder’s art work is certainly unconventional.

“Mr. Vedder has made a beautiful book and certainly original. He apparently attended to the typographical arrangement himself, for it is artistic and characteristic – just the sort of a book one would expect Mr. Vedder to write and publish.”

Vedder dedicated his book to Grace Ellery Channing Stetson, an American writer and poet who lived in Rome, and helped him edit and compile the autobiography. The dedication page, shown below, depicts the four elements (from upper left) – water, air, fire, and earth.


The book includes a chapter covering the period in which the drawings for the Rubaiyat were created. Vedder noted how the book came about:

“On one of my trips home, seeing that other people were making books, I thought – Why not make one myself? And of course Omar came into my mind, and the more I thought of it, the more the idea pleased me. . . In Boston, Mr. Houghton listened to my scheme, and asked, “But who and where is this Omar?” I said that was natural; he was too near; he only published the poem. To make a long story short, he agreed to bring out the book, and on the way back to Rome I thought it all out. In three weeks I had divided the verses into groups and settled on the subjects of the drawings, and commenced making them. I was somewhat wise also: I did not begin at the beginning and go through, but dipped in here and there through the book, so that they should not begin well and peter out, or begin ill and improve, but were kept as even as moods and circumstances would permit; but they boiled out, and I kept the fire hot, and they were all done. . . The drawings were all made in a studio in the Villa Strohl Fern outside the Porta del Popolo, Rome.

“To those who object to the work, - and there are those who do, - I will only say that it is selling yet – a poor argument, but it must suffice.”

(Note: The Villa Strohl Fern was erected a few years before Vedder created his drawings there. It is located on the grounds of the Villa Borghese in Rome. Alfred Wilhelm Strohl, an exile from Alsace, purchased the large plot of land, creating elaborate gardens and constructing the main villa and multiple smaller villas and studio facilities, which were leased to numerous artists through the years. The word “fern” translates as “far away,” emphasizing Strohls’ exile.)

Vedder’s artwork today

The complete set of original drawings for the Rubaiyat was acquired by purchase and gift by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1978 from Elizabeth W. Henderson, in memory of her husband, Francis Tracy Henderson. In 2008, the museum organized an exhibition of the drawings that toured several museums around the country.

The Art Institute of Chicago owns several works by Vedder, including a figure study for the Rubaiyat, retouched in 1911 (not currently on exhibit) and one of four copies of The Boy, a bronze fountain statue made in collaboration with sculptor Charles Keck. It is the same as the statue that stood on Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Long Island estate and can be viewed in the Art of the Americas Gallery 161. Paintings include The Fates Gathering in the Stars (Gallery 161) and Storm in Umbria (Gallery 174), the latter a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel M. Nickerson in 1900. It would have originally hung in their Erie Street home, now the Driehaus Museum.

The Glessners’ copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a visually stunning reminder of the collection of books they gathered during the decades they resided in their Prairie Avenue home. It reflects their discriminating taste, sophisticated abilities as book collectors, and their interest in the newest trends in art and publishing.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Story of "Meditation" by Paul Dubois

In 1968, the Glessners’ grandchildren, John Glessner Lee and Martha (Lee) Batchelder, returned 143 items of furniture and decorative arts to the house, the first of many donations which have allowed us to restore the interior to its appearance during the Glessner family occupancy (1887-1936). Among the items in the first donation was a bronze sculpture of a seated man deep in thought which until recently was misidentified in the museum database. The record has been corrected. This is the story of that sculpture.

When the artwork was first accepted for the house in 1968, the donor record listed it simply as a bronze sculpture entitled “The Thinker.” The next year, an appraisal referred to it as the “Scholar.” In 1971, a curator with the Art Institute identified it as “The Thinker,” misattributing it to the Belgian sculptor, Paul Du Bois (1859-1938). Two additional appraisals in 1984 and 1991 identified the sculpture as the “Seated Philosopher,” artist unknown (somewhat surprising given that the name of the artist, P. DUBOIS, is written in large letters on the back side of the sculpture). It is no wonder that there has been some confusion over the years!

Paul Dubois

The actual artist is Paul Dubois, born in Nogent-sur-Seine, France in 1829. Known primarily as a sculptor, he also achieved later success as a portrait painter. He initially studied law at the request of his father and did not begin his training as a sculptor until the age of 26. Dubois first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1857, the salon being the official art exhibition of the Academy des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and widely regarded as the greatest annual art event in the Western world at the time. The year after the salon, Dubois entered the atelier of Armand Toussaint at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

In 1859, he moved to Italy, which would become his home base for four years, studying and copying great sculptures in Rome, Naples and Florence, leading to his work often being described as neo-Florentine. It was during this time that he created plaster models for two of his best-known works, Saint John the Baptist as a Child and Narcissus, both of which were exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1863. Narcissus was awarded a second prize medal, and the model was purchased by the State. A version executed in marble was later added to the façade of the Louvre Palace.

Bronze copies of both works were made and sold in Europe and the United States. The Glessners acquired a 30-inch copy of Saint John, which they displayed atop a cabinet on the landing of the main staircase, as seen in this image from 1923.

Of St. John, an 1888 article in Harper’s Magazine noted:

“M. Dubois’s St. John, if the allusion may be permitted, was a forerunner in sculpture. By his inspired movement, by the prophetic ardor of his gesture, by his delicate boyish head, with fixed eyes and speaking lips, he carried with him all the young French sculptors, and led them to Florence, where they proclaimed Donatello to be the honored ancestor of modern plastic naturalism.”

Other works by Dubois include Le Chant, installed on the main façade of the Opera Garnier in Paris, and the equestrian statue, Joan of Arc, commissioned by Reims Cathedral and first presented at the Paris Salon in 1889. In addition to the bronze version placed in front of the cathedral, additional copies were made for placement in front of Saint-Augustin Church in Paris and St. Maurice’s Church in Strasbourg. The final copy, a slightly reduced version, was installed in Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C. in 1923.

Dubois received many honors in his lifetime and was named a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1867; in 1889 he was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Legion. In 1873, he was appointed curator of the Luxembourg Museum, and five years later became director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a position he held until his death in 1905.

Tomb of General Christophe Léon Louis Juchault de Lamoricière

Lamoricière was born in Nantes in 1806 and rose in the military ranks during the Algerian campaigns in the 1830s, being appointed a major-general in 1840 and a general of division three years later. He served as minister of war in 1848, but, as a vocal opponent of Louis Napoleon, was arrested and exiled in 1851 after refusing to give his allegiance to Emperor Napoleon III. He was allowed to return to France in 1857 and died at Prouzel in 1865.

The year after his death, a subscription was raised to erect his tomb at Nantes Cathedral. (Officially the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, work on the building continued for 457 years, commencing in 1434 and finishing in 1891.) The architect of the tomb was Louis Boitte, and Dubois was engaged to design four allegorical statues positioned at each corner of the monument.

Meditation at far left, facing the back wall
(Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection, Cornell University)

The 1888 Harper’s Magazine article, quoted earlier, provides a glowing review of Dubois’s work on the tomb:

“(At) the Salon of 1878, M. Dubois exhibited the tomb of General Lamoricière, the result of twelve years’ labor. The work won its author by acclamation the first place amongst living sculptors and classed him on a level with some of the greatest of the past. In this magnificent monument bronze and marble are married with perfect art. The martial figure of the general, draped in his shroud like a soldier in his cloak, rests under a pillared canopy of marble, guarded, as it were, by four seated figures at the angles of the tomb – Faith, Charity, Meditation, and Military Courage.

“Faith, a virginal and pure figure of a maiden, raising with fervor her clasped hands heavenward; Charity, holding in her lap two nurslings, seems like a vision of Andrea del Sarto or of Bernardino Luini realized in sculpture; Meditation, in the guise of an old man with finely intelligent features furrowed by reflection; Military Courage, clad in the armor of a warrior, resting on his sword, pensive and resolute, calm, superb, and strong.

“The Cathedral of Nantes possesses in this monument a work as fine as the finest work of the Renaissance, as fine as the tomb of Louis XII at St. Denis, as fine as the tomb of the Dreux-Brézé at Rouen. Nay, it is even finer, for the life in M. Dubois’s statues is more intense, the moral expression more profound. . . I have compared these statues, to Renaissance statues, but the comparison is only just so far as style and purity of conception are concerned, for M. Dubois’s work is animated by modern sentiment, and impressed with the character of contemporary life and thought.”

The Glessners’ copy of “Meditation”

The tomb was completed in 1879, so reduced versions of Dubois’s four statues were presumably made and offered for sale soon after. The Glessners acquired their copy by 1888, when it shows up on the west bookcase in the library, as circled in red in the photo above. Although the exact circumstances of their acquisition are unknown, several markings on the piece, which measures 13.75” in height, provide clues to its production.

As noted earlier, the artist’s name, P. DUBOIS, is prominently featured on the back side of the stone on which the man is seated. The piece was retailed through Tiffany & Co., the great New York retailer, as noted by its name being stamped in two places on the left side of the base.

The name of the Barbedienne Foundry in Paris can also be found on the left side of the base. 

The foundry was started by Ferdinand Barbedienne (1810-1892) in partnership with Achille Collas (see below). The business focused on selling miniature versions of statues from museums across Europe, seeking to democratize art by making it more widely accessibly. Later on, the firm started reproducing works by living artists, most notably Auguste Rodin. Following Barbedienne’s death in 1892, the firm was carried on for another six decades by his nephew, Gustave Leblanc.

Achille Collas

Achille Collas (1795-1859) was an important French engineer and inventor who developed a way of mechanically copying sculptures on a reduced scale, a process he called “réduction méchanique” or mechanical reproduction. The resultant popularization of small sculptures and statues literally transformed the bronze industry.

He perfected his mechanical reproduction machine in 1836, and two years later formed his partnership with Barbedienne. Copies could be produced in plaster, wood, ivory, and bronze, the latter being the most common. They soon produced a version of the Venus de Milo, but business remained slow until the firm displayed their work at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London (also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition), where it received a special medal. Collas was also awarded a medal in 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Business thrived, and the firm had 600 employees by the early 1890s.

The official mark of Collas is set into the back side of the base as shown below. Collas is shown in side profile with REDUCTION MECANIQUE around the perimeter, and his name A. COLLAS below with the added word BREVETE meaning “patented.”

Alternate names

Although Meditation is clearly the official name of the sculpture, it was referred to by various names through the years, both in writings and in the plaques that were sometimes affixed to the copies. (The Glessner version has no such plaque). Names applied to the artwork through the years include:
-Etude et meditation (Study and meditation)
-Le Courage civil ou la Meditation (Civil Courage or Meditation)
-Le Penseur (The Thinker)
-Seated Philosopher 

Later History 

Dubois’s four statues for Lamoricière’s tomb remained popular, and the full-size plaster models continued to be shown. It appears that more than one version in plaster was created, as subtle variations can be detected in surviving historic images. The illustration above is taken from the official illustrated catalogue of 19th century French sculpture exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. The undated postcard below, showing both Meditation and Faith, was produced when the models were displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Following Dubois’s death in 1905, his widow donated the 1878 plaster model of Meditation to the municipal museum in Nogent-sur-Seine, France, started by Dubois and fellow sculptor Alfred Boucher in 1902. The museum was decimated by pillagers by the mid-20th century and the artworks were placed in storage for protection. The Musée Dubois-Boucher reopened in 1975 and in 2008 purchased more than 40 artworks by the French sculptor Camille Claudel. Claudel’s childhood home was renovated and expanded, and the current Musée Camille Claudel opened in 2017, housing approximately half of her surviving works, alongside those of Dubois, Boucher, her mentors, and their contemporaries. 

Plaster model as currently displayed at the Musée Camille Claudel


The Glessners’ copy of Meditation, which sits atop the south music cabinet in the parlor, tells a rich and complex story including the developments in 19th century French sculpture, the Barbedienne foundry (maker of several pieces in the Glessner collection), and the widespread availability of reproduced works of art due to Collas’ invention. The Glessners, who enjoyed studying history and art, would have been well aware of the story, adding to their enjoyment of the piece which occupied a place of honor in their home for nearly fifty years.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Richard Nickel and Glessner House

Nickel captured his reflection in this image of a second floor bathroom mirror

April 13, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Richard Nickel in the partially demolished Chicago Stock Exchange building at 30 North LaSalle Street, where he was attempting to salvage ornament from the Adler & Sullivan masterpiece. Nickel’s impact on the emerging preservation movement in Chicago was enormous, including his efforts to save Glessner House in the 1960s. A talented photographer, he documented the work of Louis Sullivan and other architects, his outstanding photographs serving as an irreplaceable record of Chicago’s architectural heritage that was disappearing at an alarming rate during 1950s and 1960s urban renewal.

This article will focus on Nickel’s close connection with Glessner House from the time it was threatened with demolition in 1965 until his death in 1972. Selected photographs of the house, from a rich archive of images by Nickel documenting the earliest years of the preservation and restoration of the house, are scattered throughout the article. We will conclude with a look at Nickel’s death, and the tribute service held in the courtyard of Glessner House two months after his passing.

Wheeler house (1812), Keith house (1808), and Glessner house (1800 S. Prairie Avenue), 1967


Nickel was born in Chicago on May 31, 1928, to first-generation Polish Americans. After serving in the U.S. Army, 11th Airborne Division, during its occupation of Japan following World War II, he returned to Chicago to study photography at the Institute of Design, which soon became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was recalled to the Army at the start of the Korean War, serving an additional year before resuming his studies at the Institute.

It was during this time that he enrolled in an architectural history course taught by the eminent landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, who instilled in him an abiding interest in architecture. Nickel began photographing the buildings of Louis Sullivan as part of a school project assigned by photographer Aaron Siskind, and it turned into an obsession.

Quickly discovering that many of the buildings were threatened by demolition, Nickel devoted himself to photographing and documenting them. He received his bachelor’s degree from I.I.T. in 1954 and, three years later, his Master of Science in photography with his thesis topic being “A Photographic Documentation of the Architecture of Adler & Sullivan.”

West roof and hayloft dormer

In 1960, Nickel learned that one of Adler & Sullivan’s most important buildings was to be razed – the Schiller Theater Building (later the Garrick) at 64 W. Randolph Street. He joined the picket line in front of the building alongside architects Wilbert Hasbrouck, John Vinci, and Ben Weese, and Alderman Leon Despres, an early champion of preservation and landmarking in Chicago. When it became clear that the building could not be saved, Nickel engaged Vinci and David Norris to assist him with a massive effort to salvage ornament, literally rescuing the plaster and terra cotta fragments as the building was being demolished around them.


The bonds formed during that effort proved valuable a few years later, when the Glessner house was put up for sale in early 1965. This time, the undertaking proved successful, and a resolution creating the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation was signed on April 16, 1966, by Nickel and 18 others. He was appointed a trustee and a member of the executive committee. By December, the new organization had acquired Glessner house for $35,000.

Glessner house for sale

Nickel co-curated the Foundation’s first exhibition, “The Chicago School of Architecture,” which opened in the fall of 1967 at the Chicago Public Library (now the Cultural Center). The next year, he curated the exhibit “The What and Why of Louis Sullivan’s Architecture,” held at Glessner House. In 1970, Nickel co-curated another exhibition at the Chicago Public Library – a photographic exhibit of great Chicago School buildings.

Throughout this period, Nickel used his skills as a photographer to create a valuable record of the Glessner house and Foundation happenings, starting with the condition of the building at the time of its acquisition and continuing through early restoration projects. He also photographed an original copy of John J. Glessner’s 1923 “The Story of a House,” which he then reproduced for the Foundation. (An updated version, incorporating many of Nickel’s copied photographs, remains for sale in the store).

Coach house

In late 1967, Nickel advocated for the recognition of Beatrice Spachner and her heroic efforts in leading the restoration of Adler & Sullivan’s magnificent Auditorium Theater, led by architect Harry Weese, another Glessner house founder. The Foundation sponsored a reception for Spachner, following the reopening of the theater in October, and presented her with a suitable award.

Nickel, along with Jim Schultz and Charles Simmons, came to the house every week to supervise the cleanup effort. A dumpster was placed in the blacktopped courtyard, and equipment left behind by the printing foundation was hauled out until the dumpster was filled, at which point it was removed and another set in its place. The process of emptying the house of objects and equipment unrelated to its original residential use took almost two years to complete.

Sign removal, December 1966

The Foundation was interested in collecting fragments of significant Chicago School buildings, and Nickel shared pieces from the salvage operations he had undertaken for more than a decade. He also helped coordinate the donation of items from existing Sullivan buildings including elevator grills from the Stock Exchange building removed during modernization, and iron balusters from the Carson Pirie Scott store. (A few terra cotta and cast iron fragments, from Sullivan’s Rosenfeld building (demolished 1958), and the Martin Barbe house (demolished 1963), remain at Glessner House, and are on permanent display in the Visitors Center).


In 1970, Nickel learned that another of Adler & Sullivan’s most important buildings – the Chicago Stock Exchange – was threatened with demolition. Although he had grown weary of these battles, he couldn’t remove himself from the issue, and actively campaigned for the building’s survival in what became a major preservation fight in Chicago. The effort led to the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (now Landmarks Illinois), originally headquartered at Glessner House.

Granite arch over female servants' entrance

By October 1971, scaffolding started going up around the building and Nickel found himself immersed in the salvage effort, this time led by architect John Vinci. The work included the complete removal of the original trading room at the behest of the Art Institute, which planned to restore and reconstruct it. That work concluded on January 31, 1972, but Nickel kept going back to the building to photograph the demolition and to remove additional ornament.

In early March, Nickel became engaged to Carol Sutter, with a promise that the Stock Exchange would be the last building for which he would undertake a salvage operation. On Thursday, April 13, he headed to the building to meet up with Tim Samuelson, who was to assist him in removing a piece of the building. Samuelson showed up but couldn’t locate Nickel. He alerted John Vinci and others, and they searched the building with flashlights until midnight. When they found a huge new hole in the middle of the trading room floor, they feared the worst.

Balusters, main staircase

Nickel’s parents reported him missing on Saturday, the same day Nickel’s car was found several blocks away, and a hard hat, tools, and a rope of his were found at the demolition site by Vinci. Police dogs found his briefcase that Monday. The search for his body was called off on Tuesday, and demolition work was allowed to resume. It was not until Tuesday, May 9, almost four weeks after he had disappeared, that his body was found by a Three Oaks Wrecking Co. worker; it took two hours to retrieve the body from the rubble.

On May 12, a funeral mass was held at Mary Seat of Wisdom Roman Catholic Church in Park Ridge, and he was laid to rest in Graceland Cemetery in a plot not far from that of Louis Sullivan. John Vinci and his architectural partner Lawrence Kenny designed the headstone.

On the first day of summer, Wednesday, June 21, 1972, at 8:00pm, “A Tribute to Richard Nickel” was held in the courtyard of Glessner House, attended by nearly 200 people. Speakers included Frederick Sommer, a former teacher of photography at the Institute of Design and a long-time friend of Nickel, and mentor Alfred Caldwell, by this time a professor of architecture at UCLA. Easley Blackwood, composer and Professor of Music at the University of Chicago, was introduced by John Vinci and performed one of Nickel’s favorite Beethoven sonatas, on a piano brought into the courtyard for the occasion. Nickel greatly admired Blackwood, although they had never met. Architect Ben Weese, a co-founder of the Chicago Architecture Foundation and Glessner House with Nickel, served as master of ceremonies.

A favorite quote of Nickel's from the Tribute program

The Richard Nickel Committee was formed to preserve Nickel’s photographic archive, it now resides at the Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archive at the Art Institute of Chicago. Nickel’s dream to produce the definitive book on the architecture of Louis Sullivan and Adler & Sullivan was realized in 2010 with the publication of The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan.

Glessner House will host “A Tribute to Richard Nickel” on June 21, 2022 – the 50th anniversary of the original event. Look for details on the website in early May.

Female servants' entrance

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