Monday, March 28, 2011

Richardson's other Chicago house

The museum staff is busy preparing a new permanent exhibit on the life and work of Henry Hobson Richardson, architect of Glessner house.  The exhibit is being written by noted Richardson scholar, Professor James F. O’Gorman, and will be installed in the tour center, giving visitors an opportunity to learn more about the man often referred to as the first great American architect.  The unveiling will take place on June 1, 2011, the official start of the 18-month celebration commemorating the 125th anniversary of the building of Glessner house.

The Glessner house is one of two residential designs Richardson completed in Chicago.  The other, the home of Franklin and Emily MacVeagh, stood at 1400 N. Lake Shore Drive, immediately north of the Potter Palmer “castle.”  Completed at the same time as the Glessner house, it was demolished in 1922 for a high-rise apartment building. 

The MacVeagh house stood three stories high on a battered basement.  Its stalwart main block facing the drive featured two unmatched corner towers flanking a balanced central portion with loggias that opened onto the lake on all floors.  All of the elevations were finished in a creamy rough-cut Ohio sandstone known as Buff Amherst.  The blocks were put up in alternating wide and narrow courses and were virtually devoid of carved ornamentation.  In the fashion of Richardson’s later designs, the walls were carried seamlessly around corners, as if it were possible to stretch a stone skin over a frame.  A steeply pitched red tile roof was set down cap-like above the walls.

Interior spaces were lavishly outfitted.  The library walls were lined in antique French tapestries, the dining room, decorated in an Italian fashion, opened into a conservatory through marble arches, and in 1893, the third floor was finished as a music room with walls painted in the manner of Fontainebleau.  The Chicago Tribune labeled its stout stone facades and lavish interiors “luxurious imprisonment.”

When the house was demolished in 1922, efforts were made to remove and preserve the elaborately carved entryway for installation at another site.  Although contemporary accounts indicate that the entryway may well have been salvaged, whatever became of the fragments is unknown, and they were presumably lost over time. 

(Architectural historian Mary Alice Molloy contributed to this article)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Frances Glessner and the Daughters of the American Revolution

On Saturday March 19, 2011, the museum hosted the 120th anniversary celebration of the Chicago Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.  It was a most appropriate choice of venue, for Frances Glessner was one of the charter members of the Chicago Chapter – the first chapter formed after the National Society was organized.

Not surprisingly, a number of ladies living on Prairie Avenue were active in the Chicago Chapter NSDAR in its early years.  The chapter was formed in 1891, allowing both the chapter and National Society to have a significant presence at the World’s Columbian Exposition two years later.   Among the local residents to join during the 1890s were the following:

-Miss Margaret Beekman Meeker, 2117 S. Calumet Ave.
-Mrs. William (Caroline) Reid, 2013 S. Prairie Ave.
-Miss Mabel Wheeler, 1812 S. Prairie Ave.
-Mrs. Nathaniel (Helen) Fairbank, 1801 S. Michigan Ave.
-Mrs. Charles (Susan) Hamill, 2126 S. Prairie Ave.
-Mrs. George (Hattie) Pullman, 1729 S. Prairie Ave.
-Miss Jessie Spalding, 1637 S. Prairie Ave.
-Mrs. James (Alia) Walker, 1720 S. Prairie Ave.

Mrs. John A. (Mary) Logan was an honorary member, having previously resided at 2119 S. Calumet Ave.  John A. Logan was a celebrated general during the Civil War, and later served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, running unsuccessfully for vice-president of the United States in 1884.  He is best remembered today for issuing the order for the first nationwide Decoration Day in 1868 (now known as Memorial Day) while serving as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.  A large equestrian statue of Logan, designed in 1897 by the great 19th century sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, stands today in Grant Park at the foot of 9th Street.  After his death, Mary Logan became the editor of the Home Journal.

Mrs. Willard T. (Anna) Block, 1628 S. Indiana Ave., was among the most active members, eventually chairing the committee that helped fund Memorial Continental Hall, the NSDAR headquarters in Washington D.C.  In 1922, she was elected vice president general of the National Society.  She died in 1924.

Hattie Pullman was an active member of the chapter, as was her mother, Mary Catherine Sanger, and her daughter Florence, who married future Illinois governor Frank O. Lowden in 1896.  In Mrs. Pullman’s obituary, published in the Chicago Tribune March 29, 1921 the following mention is made, “The last notable occasion on which Mrs. Pullman was hostess in her Prairie Avenue residence was during the Republican convention last June, when, with Mrs. John A. Logan as the guest of honor, she held a reception for the DAR.”

Frances Glessner was eligible for membership in the DAR through the lineage back to her Revolutionary War ancestor Robert Whitehall.   In 1885, Frances Glessner received a Christmas gift from her mother and sister that served as a tangible link to that great-grandfather - a beautiful hand-stitched handkerchief case featuring scraps of fabric from the dresses of his wife, Eleanor Reed Whitehill (1734-1785) and their daughter, Rachel Whitehill Macbeth (1764-1846).

Another interesting relic of the Revolutionary War was owned by Fernando Jones, who lived at 1834 S. Prairie Ave.  Many years before moving to the street, he had received a small glass vile containing tea leaves from the Boston Tea Party, directly from one of the men who had participated.  When Jones completed his home, he had the vile placed inside the newel post in the main hall.  (What became of the treasured relic when the house was demolished in 1942 is unknown).

The Chicago Chapter NSDAR continues to thrive today, continuing the proud tradition established by Frances Glessner, her neighbors, and other prominent women throughout the city 120 years ago.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Museum offers tour of the Union League of Chicago art collection

On Saturday April 2, 2011, the museum will offer an exclusive opportunity to view the wonderful art collection at the Union League Club of Chicago.   The Union League has the largest club art collection in the country, if not the world.  It currently consists of nearly 800 works of art including paintings, sculpture, works of art on paper, photographs, and some decorative arts.  The focus of the collection is American with a particular emphasis on artists connected to Chicago.  In spite of that focus however, the signature painting is Pommiers en fleur, an 1872 work by Claude Monet, pictured above.

The collection represents more than 120 years of collecting, reflecting the changing tastes and trends of a segment of Chicagoans, artists and patrons.  The collection, often referred to as “Chicago’s hidden collection” continues to grow.

John J. Glessner was a member of the Union League Club from 1887 (the year he moved to Prairie Avenue) until his death in 1936.  Not surprisingly, numerous residents of Prairie Avenue were members, and three served as president: Elbridge Keith (1900 S. Prairie Avenue), George Bissell (2003 S. Prairie Avenue), and John Hamline (1621 S. Prairie Avenue).  A fine portrait of Elbridge Keith, painted by Ralph Elmer Clarkson, is part of the club collection, although not currently on display.  At least one Prairie Avenue resident, Frederic Clay Bartlett, created a work now in the collection (Martigues, France). 

The April 2 tour will be led by Joan Wagner, author of A History of the Art Collection of the Union League Club of Chicago. 

Following the tour, participants will lunch in the Heritage Room (where Bartlett’s painting is on display). 

Group size is strictly limited.  For further information on the tour or to make a reservation, please call 312-326-1480.  For further information on the art collection, visit the Club website at

Monday, March 7, 2011

Abingdon Abbey - The Inspiration for Glessner House

The design of Glessner house by H. H. Richardson was strongly influenced by a photograph the Glessners had in their possession at the time they first met Richardson (see top image).  The photo depicted the tithe barn at Abingdon Abbey in England. In The Story of a House, written by John Glessner in 1923, he relates that during their initial meeting with Richardson at their home, he noticed the small photo of the tithe barn on the library mantel.  Richardson asked the Glessners if they liked that building and when they replied that they did, Richardson said, “Well, give it to me – I’ll make that the keynote of your house.” 

The influence of Abingdon Abbey is most striking along the 18th Street side of the house, where one can compare the gable over the coach house, the entrance to the left with recessed balcony above, and the pitch of the roof.  The fact that the house was influenced by a barn design is significant in and of itself.  As Prairie Avenue developed into the premier residential street in Chicago (and one of the finest in the country), the residents frequently looked to Europe for inspiration.  But those residents looked at the chateaus and manor houses as models for their own homes, not the barns!  It is yet another way in which the Glessner home is distinctly different from its neighbors, and speaks to the Glessners as individuals as well.

Abingdon Abbey was a Benedictine monastery also know as St. Mary’s Abbey located in Abingdon, historically in the county of Berkshire, but now in Oxfordshire, England.  The abbey was founded in 675 and it grew in importance and wealth until its destruction by the Danes during the reign of King Alfred.  The last Abbot of Abingdon was Thomas Pentecost who surrendered the monastery in 1538.  There is nothing to see today of the abbey church.  There are some “ruinous arches” in the gardens but these are actually a folly built in the 1920s.  Several other buildings do survive including the Abbey Exchequer, the Long Gallery, the bake house, the Abbey gateway, St. John’s hospitum, and the Church of Saint Nicholas.

Why the Glessners had this photo of the tithe barn is not known.  They had not traveled to England by this time, and their writings do not reveal how or why they came to own the photograph that was to have such a profound influence on the design of their Prairie Avenue home.

After Richardson’s death, his office assistants sent the photo of Abingdon Abbey back to the Glessners “with the blot of ink that had been dropped on it while using it for inspiration.”  (The ink blots are visible in the lower left hand portion of the photo). 
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