Monday, April 25, 2011

Hamilton Statue in Lincoln Park has Prairie Avenue Roots

On Thursday April 21, Glessner House Museum hosted author Krista August, who presented a fascinating look at the portrait statues in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.  The park features 16 statues out of the 23 originally installed there.  Well-known pieces including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Shakespeare were discussed along with their lesser-known counterparts including the charming Eugene Field Memorial.  Of particular interest were the lost statues – Ludwig von Beethoven, Emanuel Swedenborg, and The Spirit of the American Doughboy to name a few, along with the bust of Sir Georg Solti (which isn’t really lost, but instead was relocated to Grant Park in 2006).

One of the most interesting stories surrounded the creation and installation of the statue of Alexander Hamilton, the great patriot who served as the first Secretary of the Treasury.   Located east of the intersection of Wrightwood Avenue and Lincoln Park West, the 13 foot high bronze statue is layered in gold leaf and stands proudly atop a red granite base.  The benefactress was Kate Sturges Buckingham, who lived most of her adult life at 2036 S. Prairie Avenue, just a few blocks south of the Glessner house.  Buckingham is well-known for the magnificent gift she gave to the city in memory of her brother Clarence – Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park – but few are aware of the gift of the Hamilton statue or her other gifts to the city.

When Kate Buckingham died in December 1937, she left the enormous sum of $1 million for the Hamilton statue, which she envisioned for Grant Park, near the fountain memorializing her brother.  The piece was completed in 1941 by English-born sculptor John Angel but was placed in storage due to World War II.  Further complications in identifying an appropriate site resulted in the statue not being unveiled until July 1952, and not in Grant Park at all, but Lincoln Park.   The cost of the statue was a mere $12,000, just over 1% of the amount she gave.  However the original Lincoln Park setting cost over $500,000 to construct.  The dramatic memorial designed by Marx, Flint & Schonne consisted of a three-level plaza composed of Indiana limestone and black granite, with a red granite base supporting the statue.  Behind Hamilton, a black granite pylon soared nearly 78 feet into the air.   In 1993, the memorial was disassembled and today only the red granite base remains beneath the statue.

Buckingham never married, and as the last surviving child of Ebenezer Buckingham, a highly successful grain elevator owner and operator, her fortune was considerable.  In addition to the fountain and statue, she provided generously to many charities, but her great love was the Art Institute, which received numerous gifts of art and money throughout her life.  At her death, the majority of her $4 million estate, including her Prairie Avenue home, was bequeathed to the Art Institute.

To learn more about the Hamilton statue or any of the other portrait statues in Lincoln Park, visit, where you can also order copies of Krista August’s book “Giants in the Park: A Guide to Portrait Statues in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Business Encroachment on Prairie Avenue

A newspaper clipping from the Chicago Daily News dated July 8, 1914 was recently “rediscovered” in the Glessner archives.  The article reflects the changing character of the street from residential to business and cites the blocks immediately around the Glessner house as holding out against the encroachment of business.  That would not last long however.  Less than a year after the article was written, the palatial home of the late banker and meatpacker Samuel W. Allerton at 1936 S. Prairie Avenue would be sold, razed, and replaced with a factory for the Hump Hairpin Manufacturing Company.   The drawing above shows the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Prairie Avenue as they appeared at the time, Allerton’s home is at far left in the bottom row.

Here, in part, is the Daily news article:


Personal Property Tax Lists Show Encroachment in Residence District.


Portion of Street Between East 16th and East 22d Still Has Many Palatial Homes.

Encroachment of business on the Prairie avenue district has resulted in enormous increases in the personal property valuations in that section, though there are many names missing from the list of home owners.  It is said, however, that that part of Prairie avenue between East 16th and East 22d streets has offered more resistance to breaking up as a center for palatial residences than probably any other section of Chicago.

This assertion is substantiated by the following list of personal property assessments placed against individuals along the part of Prairie avenue referred to.

Prairie Avenue Assessments. (only those with an assessment of $90,000 or more are shown in this blog posting)

Mrs. Philip D. Armour, $150,000
Estate of Samuel W. Allerton, $882,736
Mrs. Henry Corwith $112,000
Mrs. Edna N. Fish, $140,000
John J. Glessner, $90,000
Mrs. Charles M. Henderson, $90,000
Mrs. Elbridge Keith, $180,000
Mrs. William W. Kimball, $250,000
Mrs. George M. Pullman, $250,000
Byron L. Smith, $150,000
James Ward Thorne, $94,995
Henry H. Walker, $100,000

Levy Taxes on One-Third.
Taxes will be levied on one-third of the above assessments.
The board of review will meet Monday at according to law, to arrange for the hearing of persons who believe they have been unjustly assessed.  This is the Supreme court in tax matters and the only relief for those who wish to have their assessments reduced.  Occasionally some one appears and complains of too low an assessment and there have been instances in the past where men made indignant protest because the assessors had ignored them.  The notices of assessments have been in the mails only a short time and comparatively few complaints have been received.  The rush is expected to begin to-morrow.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Glessners and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The history and success of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is closely intertwined with the lives of John and Frances Glessner.  The founding conductor, Theodore Thomas (shown above) was an intimate friend of the couple for many years, and he consulted with them frequently on all matters relating to the orchestra.

Thomas first came to Chicago as a conductor in 1869 with his orchestra, having initially visited the city fifteen years earlier as a violinist in a small orchestra.  The November 1869 appearance marked the beginning of a long relationship that culminated in Chicago’s reputation as having one of the very finest orchestras in the country.  Thomas and his orchestra returned in 1870 for a series of seven concerts.  In 1871, his orchestra was scheduled to perform on October 9.  They arrived in Chicago that morning to find the city in ruins from the Great Fire, but in subsequent years they visited on an annual basis, earning a respect from increasingly large audiences.

It is not known exactly how and when the Glessners and Thomas became acquainted, but by the time of formation of the orchestra in 1891, John Glessner was one of 50 guarantors who each provided $1,000 annually against losses (which were considerable in the early years). 

Thomas was appointed Music Director in the Bureau of Music at the World’s Columbian Exposition, and Music Hall (shown above) was constructed for his use.  The Fair proved a trying time for Thomas, who was inadvertently drawn into the politics of the fair, in regards to policies implemented to forbid the use of any instruments made by manufacturers who did not exhibit at the fair (including Steinway).  Thomas felt strongly that his guest artists, including Ignace Paderewski and Camille Saint-Saens, should be allowed to play the instruments of their choosing.  The Glessners were staunch supporters of Thomas throughout the ordeal, which resulted in his resignation in August 1893.  In time the whole episode was forgotten, and by May 1895, Frances Glessner headed up a group of thirty-six ladies in Chicago who presented Theodore Thomas with a beautiful silver punch bowl in thanks for his services in enriching the cultural lives of the residents of the city.

By 1898, when John Glessner was elected a trustee of the Orchestral Association, he had contributed over $7,200 to the orchestra, making him one of the four largest donors to date.  He remained a trustee until his death in 1936 and for the last twenty years of his life served on the Executive Committee.  Frances Glessner was one of the founders of the Chicago Chamber Music Society, an arm of the orchestra, and served on its executive committee for many years. 

Away from Chicago, the connection between the Glessners and the Thomases continued.  After John and Frances Glessner completed their summer home, The Rocks, in New Hampshire, the Thomases purchased land nearby and constructed their own summer home, which they named Felsengarten.   It was here that Theodore Thomas could truly relax, far removed from the heavy demands of the orchestra.

Members of the orchestra frequently entertained at the Glessner home, providing music for dinner parties and meetings of the Monday Morning Reading Class.  On more than one occasion, Thomas brought musicians by surprise to the Glessner house for a birthday or anniversary.  The Glessners reciprocated by providing wonderful receptions and dinners for the musicians, and on more than one occasion hosted the entire orchestra for a sit down dinner.  One of these times was in January 1913, when the members of the orchestra were able to view the meticulously executed miniature orchestra that Frances Glessner Lee had made herself, a birthday gift to her mother.

In 1902, when the time came to realize the long-held dream of Theodore Thomas to construct a permanent hall for the orchestra, John Glessner, along with Daniel Burnham and Bryan Lathrop, held the title for the newly purchased property on Michigan Avenue.  These three men, along with seven other trustees, carried the entire purchase price, by cash and their personal notes, until 1905, when the Association secured a loan for the completion of orchestra hall.  The Glessners were instrumental in raising a significant portion of the funds needed to construct the hall, which opened in December 1904.  They were assigned Box M in the new hall (shown above), directly behind the conductor’s podium, and it was reserved for their exclusive use until their deaths in the 1930s.

Less than one month after the opening of the new hall, Theodore Thomas died.  His wife and the Glessners were the only ones at the bedside.  After his passing, George Glessner was summoned and took post-mortem photographs, presumably given to the widow.  Soon after the funeral, Thomas’ widow Rose presented the Glessners with his baton and a preserved palm frond from his casket, mementoes of their long friendship.  (The pieces remain on view today in the museum, in the hallway outside the master bedroom).

The relationship with the orchestra remained close under Thomas’ successor, Frederick Stock.  On December 31, 1909, Stock premiered his Symphony in c minor, which was dedicated to the Glessners.  Much of the piece in fact had been written while Stock was a guest of the Glessners at The Rocks.  Their support for Stock was equally as strong as it was for Thomas, especially during the period of the first World War when Stock’s allegiance to America was (falsely) questioned. 

John Glessner died on January 20, 1936.  In the program for the concert three days later, a full page tribute to Glessner included the following statement, “To no one man has The Orchestral Association been more beholden.  He was one of the small group of men who in the Association’s first years of struggle were loyal in their support and generous in their gifts.  Since 1898 he has served as a Trustee and by his constant attendance on meetings and his sound judgment has brought much needed help to his associates.  He and his devoted wife while she lived were always in their box to delight in the music their generosity made possible, and in their hospitable home men of the Orchestra and their musical friends found frequent entertainment.”  On February 11, the CSO concert included Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” as a fitting tribute to this ardent supporter of the orchestra.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Music in the Mansion, Part 1: The Glessners' Piano

On Sunday April 17, the museum will present “Music in the Mansion,” the first in an occasional series of concerts in the Glessner parlor.  The setting is most appropriate, for John and Frances Glessner were both deeply involved with classical music in Chicago, most specifically as major supporters of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In this article, we look first at the Glessners’ piano.  Next week, we examine their role in the development and support of the orchestra.

The magnificent grand piano in the parlor is the result of a collaboration between renowned piano maker Steinway & Sons and furniture designer Francis H. Bacon.  The piano was ordered in May 1887 while the Glessners were visiting New York.  Nahum Stetson, Chief of Sales for Steinway, personally supervised the production of the piano, and the mechanics were “the best they could produce” according to John Glessner. 

The piano is an early example of Steinway’s Model C Parlor Concert Grand Piano, the second largest of Steinway’s seven grand piano models.  At 7 feet 5 inches, it is only a few inches shorter than a concert grand piano.  When the instrument was finished in August, it was delivered to A. H. Davenport and Company in Boston.  At Davenport, designer Francis H. Bacon created elaborate floral and scrolled carved detailing in mahogany complete with cherubs and a keyboard cover inlaid with floral and diamond patterns in walnut, birch and mother-of-pearl.  The completed instrument weighed 900 pounds and cost $1,500.  It was delivered to 1800 S. Prairie Avenue in late December 1887.  Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Percy Grainger were among the many world-famous musicians to entertain the Glessners and their friends on the instrument through the years.

After the death of John Glessner in 1936, his daughter Frances moved the piano to her home in New Hampshire.  As no one was able to play it, she began to look for a good home for it and could think of no place as suitable as the President’s house at Harvard University.  John and Frances Glessner had been close friends with Charles Eliot, president of the university from 1869 to 1909.  After the piano was moved to its new location, Frances Lee stated that its placement there was “a unique opportunity to express that friendship, and over the years I was very well content to think of my mother’s beloved piano in such congenial surroundings.”

In the fall of 1978, Martha Stephens, an executive secretary with the Cowles Foundation, took a tour of Glessner house as part of the annual meeting of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Chicago.  She was most impressed and requested a special tour for her employer, Gardner Cowles, founder and publisher of Look magazine.  During his tour, Cowles learned that the original Glessner piano was located in the President’s house at Harvard University.  Cowles, who served as a trustee for the university, donated a new piano to the university so the Glessners’ original piano could be returned to the house.  A benefit concert to celebrate the return of the piano was held on April 12, 1980, the program performed by Etsko Tazaki of New York. Tazaki was a protege of CSO conductor Sir Georg Solti, who attended the concert with his wife, Lady Valerie Solti.

On April 17, a program of German piano works will be performed on the instrument by Sebastian Huydts, Director of Piano and Keyboard Studies at the Music Center of Columbia College, and Elizabeth Newkirk, a 2010 graduate of Columbia College and an associated member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.  No doubt, the Glessners would be most pleased to see their beloved piano continuing to entertain audiences in the home they occupied for nearly half a century.
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