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). 


  1. Another great history lesson regarding the Glessner House. It's amazing how Richardson incorporated the look of the barn into the 18th Street portion of the house and coach house, but yet still made it distinctive in its own right.

  2. It's not clear to me whether this barn is standing today. You list lots of other buildings gone or extant, but you don't say about the barn, do you?

  3. We have been unable to determine with any certainty whether the tithe barn is still standing or not, which is why the building was not listed among the surviving nor lost buildings at Abingdon Abbey.

  4. Your photograph of the Abingdon Abbey Tithe barn is not in fact of the still existing Tithe barn (now an Anglican Church) on Northcourt Road, Abingdon. It is of some ancillary abbey buildings, probably post-dissolutiion; the barn-like structure is in fact the carriage entrance to the stable block for Cosener's House (the building with the tall chimneys on the far left of the photo), the residence of the abbey kitchener or 'cuisenier'. The cottage to the left of the entrance was the gardener's cottage, probably rebuilt on the site of a derelict abbey fulling mill after the Dissolution of the abbey. Not quite as romantic as a tithe barn, but still an historic site.

  5. There is a YouTube video of the present day stables (now converted into accommodation.


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