Monday, December 26, 2011

Museums features iconic William Morris chair

NOTE:  Since this article was first posted in December 2011, there has been considerable discussion as to whether this chair was, in fact, produced by Morris & Co.  Although a reputable appraiser in Chicago did identify it as such, it appears that the chair may have been made by A. H. Davenport & Co., the Boston-based company which produced numerous pieces of furniture for the Glessners when they moved into their new home on Prairie Avenue in 1887.  Several key features of our chair including the shape of the spindles and arms, the shape and splay of the front legs, and the cut, color, and finish of the quarter-sawn oak have been identified as iconic trademarks of Davenport work, and not at all typical of the similar chairs being made by Morris & Co.  (January 2, 2014)

The museum is proud to have an example of one of the most admired furniture designs of Morris & Company: the adjustable-back Morris chair. Big, roomy, and incredibly comfortable, it is a chair in which one of the Glessners could easily spend an evening reading by the fire. The chair has wide arms to accommodate books, a loose cushioned seat, and a reclining back that is adjustable by a hinge at the base and held secure with a brass rod across the back (see detail photo below). In a sense, this was the first Lazy-boy (albeit the former is arguably a more striking composition).  The original Morris chair - as it is simply referred to today - was designed by Philip Webb in 1866 for Morris & Co. At the time, the company’s business manager, Warington Taylor, recommended that Webb create a chair based on one he had seen belonging to an old Sussex carpenter.

Eventually many variations of the design were being produced in different styles (Flemish, Spanish, Mission), materials (oak, mahogany), and price points ($4.25- $100).  By 1905, nearly every manufacturer at the New York Furniture Exchange displayed some form of the chair and it went on to become a must-have for every household in America.

Webb’s design is the most common; however it is not the style that the Glessners chose. William Watt, another designer for Morris & Co., designed our Morris chair in 1883. The two styles, though not far apart in age, are quite different. Webb’s design is more formal with beaded scrolling and a slightly curved frame - more reminiscent of the Queen Anne style, while Watt’s simplistic form is a nice example of arts and crafts design.

Our Morris chair, located in the library, has an oak frame and is upholstered in green velvet.  An historic photograph of the library taken in 1888 shows that the Morris chair was originally upholstered in a patterned fabric. It seems highly probable that a William Morris designed upholstery was used to match or compliment the adjacent sofa which also shows a richly patterned fabric. 

Contributed by Jessica Blemker-Ferree (Intern, 2010)

Monday, December 19, 2011

100 years ago, Christmas lights come to the Glessner house

Frances Glessner’s journal records an amazing amount of information on the house, including the yearly Christmas celebrations which took place.  Because of this, we know that it was exactly 100 years ago – 1911 – when the Glessners first used electric Christmas lights on their tree.  The following excerpt from her journal records this modern technology being introduced to the family and their guests:

“Cheney the electrician spent all of Saturday and Sunday (December 23 and 24) over our Christmas tree, and it was wonderfully pretty.  Mrs. Tramonti came to breakfast on Sunday morning and was here nearly all day helping to decorate the tree.  The tree itself was one of six that came from The Rocks, and was placed in an alcove made of curtains in the main hall, had many and various colored lights that “flashed” and twinkled; there were spot lights of various colors thrown on it, and snow fell from the canopy over it.  It was lighted first at 9 p.m. for our company at Sunday supper – 19 in all at table, and again at on Christmas morning for the benefit of the children and our guests and the servants – 36 or 37 in all, so that the tree blazed for about two hours on Sunday night and about two hours on Monday morning and then was taken down.  It had its day and was no more.  And before evening we were back to the original condition with only the memory.”

Guests included architect Hermann H. von Holst and his wife, and a number of individuals connected with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra including conductor Frederick Stock and wife,  Frederick Wessels (Treasurer and Business Manager) and wife, Henry Voegeli (Asst. Treasurer and Asst. Business Manager) and wife, and harpist Enrico Tramonti and his wife Juliette.   The Tramontis, who lived at 2218 S. Prairie Avenue, were favorites of the Glessners, and Mrs. Tramonti sent the following note the day after Christmas:

“My dear Mrs. Glessner,
I have not thanked you half as much as I felt yesterday, for the beautiful Christmas you made for us!  It will be a long remembered one, the beautiful, inspiring tree, the fine family dinner, our beautiful present, and above all the sweet comforting feeling of being in a family (and such a one!) and being made almost to believe you belong to it – all that is above words, but I just want to tell you that we feel it deeply!
Thank you for all, dear Mrs. Glessner and believe me yours, all devoted
Juliette Tramonti”

No photograph exists of the Christmas tree from 1911.  The photo above shows the current tree on display in the museum, which also came from The Rocks estate.  It will be on view through December 31.

Monday, December 12, 2011

125 years ago today, the Glessners christen their new home

On December 12, 1886, exactly 125 years ago today, John and Frances Glessner “christened” their new house at 1800 South Prairie Avenue.  Although they would not move into the house for nearly another year – December 1, 1887 – the house was finished off to the point where they could walk through the entire building and clearly see what Richardson had created for them.  George Shepley, one of the three architects who took over Richardson’s office after his premature death in April 1886 (and the one primarily responsible for supervising the completion of the Glessner house), was visiting Chicago with his wife, so the Glessners seized the opportunity to show them the house.  The following is an excerpt detailing the event taken from Frances Glessner’s journal:

We took Mr. and Mrs. Shepley for their first view of the house.  They were in raptures over it.  Mr. Shepley said we were the first clients he had ever envied – but he would like to live in the house.  We left the carriage at 16th St. and walked down to look at it.  We took down champagne and Italian bread to christen the house and have our first meal there.  We went all over the house.  Then to Field’s to see our rugs and some embroideries – then we dropped Mr. and Mrs. Shepley at the Richelieu.

This evening, December 12, 2011, sixty members, friends, and volunteers of the museum gather for a “re-christening” dinner to mark this notable event in the history of the house.  A full dinner, including champagne, will mark the occasion, after which William Tyre, Executive Director and Curator, will give a talk on the life and accomplishments of John Jacob Glessner. 

The celebration of the 125th anniversary of the building of Glessner house will continue throughout 2012, culminating in December, when we mark the anniversary of the family moving into their beloved home. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Schoolroom preserves Christmas traditions

On Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11, the Glessner and Clarke House Museums will hold their annual Candlelight Tours.  These tours, held at , , and , focus on Christmas traditions and decorations of the mid- to late-nineteenth centuries.  A popular event for many years, the tours allow visitors the opportunity to experience the museums from a different perspective and explore how 19th century families celebrated the holiday.  The Clarke House interpretation is based on extensive research of the period, whereas the Glessner House focuses heavily on the documentation left behind by Frances Glessner in her journal.  Reservations are required for the tours, call 312-326-1480.

A highlight of the Glessner tour is the schoolroom, a space designed specifically for the Glessners’ two children, George and Fanny, who were 16 and 9 respectively when they moved into their home in December 1887.  Since the celebration of Christmas in the family revolved around the children, it is not surprising that the decorations were largely confined to this space in the early years. 

The room is decorated with a small table-top tree, very similar to a tree the Glessner children decorated in 1888.  Such trees were common at the time, and preceded the larger trees which stand on the floor and became popular by the early 1900s.  Homemade ornaments including a tin foil wrapped bird and gold painted walnuts were typical decorations.

A somewhat unique part of the Christmas celebration undertaken by the Glessners was the “Christmas pie,” illustrated above.  Each year, Frances Glessner prepared the pie, which contained small toys buried in rice with rhymes written on paper labels attached.  Her journal entry in 1888 describes the tradition, “We had a lovely Christmas pie covered with holly and smilax.  The presents were buried in the tin pan in rice.  We had a great deal of sport pulling them out, the labels hung out.  There were rhymes on each one.”

Sitting near the pie is a plate with two gingerbread cookies waiting for Santa.  On the plate is a handwritten note composed about 1909 by Frances Lee, one of the Glessners’ grandchildren.  The note reads, “Dear Santa Clause – This year I want surprises.  Thank you very much for the lovely presents you gave me last year.  I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year, and please give my love to all the other children.  Frances Lee.”

Surrounding the tree are gifts typical of what George and Fanny received through the years – a toy stove, a train, metal soldiers and Indians, books, a scarf and mittens, oranges (a luxury food item at the time) and a set of dominoes, the latter of which were made for John Glessner’s company, Warder Bushnell & Glessner, and distributed as a promotional item.
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