Monday, January 30, 2012

Glessner House Museum - The Newport Connection

The dining room of Glessner house is a warm and inviting space that witnessed numerous dinners and entertainments during the years that the Glessners were in residence.  The walls are covered in beautiful quarter-sawn oak paneling.  Above the paneling and plate rail is a frieze, approximately 14 inches in height that was orignally covered in what was known as “Japanese leather paper.”  These papers were introduced in England and the United States in the 1860s to simulate the look of highly embossed leather.  Produced in Japan and offered for sale through various English and American dealers, the thick paper was pressed while wet into designs carved on wood rollers.  After the paper dried, it was sized, covered with silver or gold leaf, stenciled, painted, and lacquered to produce a rich appearance.   The original paper, although well documented in historic photographs, had been removed by the time the house was purchased for use as a museum in 1966.

Newport Rhode Island is known for its extraordinary collection of summer “cottages” – huge mansions constructed by some of the wealthiest citizens of the United States.  Among these cottages is a home known as Chateau-Sur-Mer, located at 474 Bellevue Avenue.  Built as a year-round residence, this National Historic Landmark is known for its extraordinary collection of furniture, wallpapers, ceramics, and decorative finishes.  It was the grandest house in Newport until the appearance of the Vanderbilt houses in the 1890s.  The house was completed in 1852 in the Italianate style for William Shepard Wetmore who made his fortune as a China trade merchant.  One of Newport’s great social events, the “Fete Champetre” (an elaborate country picnic for over 2,000 guests) took place at the house in 1857.  Wetmore died in 1862 and left the bulk of his sizeable estate to his son George who hired Richard Morris Hunt in the 1870s to remodel and redecorate the house in the popular Second Empire style.  George Wetmore later served as governor of Rhode Island and as a U.S. Senator.  The house was purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1969 and operates as a house museum today.  (Visit for further information).

The dining room of Glessner house was restored in 1974.  Research on the room documented the original frieze as a Japanese leather paper.  Through a fortunate chain of events, it was learned that original unused rolls of Japanese leather from the late 19th century had been found in the attic of Chateau-sur-Mer.  Glessner house was able to acquire a sufficient quantity to restore the frieze.  Although the pattern is not identical to the original, it is very close, and the decorative surface closely replicates what the Glessners selected. 

On Saturday February 4, 2012 at , the Victorian Society in America will hold an event at Glessner House Museum to promote their annual summer schools in Newport, Rhode Island and London, England.  (Chateau-sur-Mer is included in the program).  At the event, attendees will listen to short illustrated programs on both schools, scheduled for June and July 2012, respectively, and will have the opportunity to ask questions, and learn about scholarship opportunities.  The event is free of charge but reservations are requested to 773-267-9336.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Glessners escape the Chicago winter in Santa Barbara

Frances Glessner experienced serious health issues during the year 1910.  At the recommendation of her doctors, the Glessners left Chicago on December 16 for Santa Barbara, along with her sister Anna Robertson, John’s brother George Glessner, and a nurse.  They arrived on December 19, 1910 and moved into their leased house at 131 E. Pedregosa Street.  They returned to Chicago on April 5, 1911.  The climate proved so favorable for Frances Glessner’s health that the Glessners made another trip to Santa Barbara during the winter of 1912.

The following journal entries were written by John Glessner during December 1910.

December 11:  Frances lost eight ounces in weight this week and has found Chicago is not an inspiring place for a convalescent.  About all she can do is to motor an hour or two in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, but always to the same places, and it is all too monotonous.  After consultation with Dr. Favill I closed by telegraph lease of the Reddington house in Santa Barbara, and have engaged transportation for Simon and Mattie and Annie (three of the servants) on Tuesday night, and for ourselves and Miss Duncan, Anna Robertson and my brother George on Friday night next.  I am hoping that Frances will not find the three days journey is too hard, though she dreads it.  Dr. Favill thinks it can be done without injury and that the Santa Barbara climate may be good for her. 

December 20:  We left Chicago on Friday night, December 16th, at via CRd and PRR and Southern Pacific and reached Santa Barbara at 10:15 Monday night, without accident or delay, and with much more comfort for Frances than we had thought possible.  Frances and I had the drawing room, and the rest of our party had the two compartments adjoining.  Frances used my berth during the day and did not leave the part of the car belonging to us during the whole trip.  She had coffee brought from the dining car each morning and for all the rest depended on her lunch basket and the French rolls sent by Mrs. Drake to the train.  On Sunday Anna went to the dining car kitchen and told the cook how to prepare corn meal gruel for Frances’ lunch and watched him make it.  This was after I had arranged with the conductor that she might do it.  Later, the dining car conductor brought Frances a fine bunch of carnations in a glass vase.  Our porter also was sympathetic and attentive. 

December 25:  Christmas Day, in Santa Barbara in the Redington house, 131 Pedregosa street on what we would call the northwest corner of that and Santa Barbara street, though the streets of the town do not run with the points of the compass.  It seems strange to have Christmas with thermometer above 70 degrees in the shade.  The house faces to the north of east, looking out upon the waters of Santa Barbara channel of the Pacific ocean about 1-1/2 miles away, with the water in plain sight from our porch, for the ground rises to our house and then very gradually falls away behind it, though it rises straight up the mountains to the north of us.  The yard is large, with flowers – poinsettias, geraniums, heliotrope, begonias, daisies, roses, etc. and trumpet vines and other vines in bloom; and shrubs and trees – the largest rubber tree in town on the north of the house that continually drops its pods of seeds in the floor of the unroofed north porch, and a great hedge of arbor vitae making the south boundary a good yard – perhaps the tallest of these hedges in the town: trimmed square and angular and to Frances mind and mine very unhandsome.  For the rental and as an appanage of the place is furnished a gardener to care for the grounds and him we pay a little extra compensation for caring also for the boots, carrying in the wood and out the ashes, etc. etc.
The house is quite roomy.  The front porch is only half roofed over but all screened with vines, and from this porch the front door opens into the entrance hall, sitting room and library, all combined, with the parlor to the west shut off by folding doors, always wide open.  Back of the sitting room is bedroom and bath (not occupied) having north and west exposure, much shaded, and denominated “the tomb” by Mrs. Ripley when she occupied the house.  Back of the parlor are dining room and butler’s pantry and kitchen, all with south and west exposures.  The second story has four master bedrooms and three bathrooms, and two smaller bedrooms, and the third floor has three servants’ bedrooms and bathroom.  George G. and Anna Robertson have two of the large bedrooms and Miss Duncan and Annie the two small ones, and Frances and I the other two on the second floor.  The library is well stocked with good books: there are some good pieces of Japanese furniture and some good Japanese bronzes, but the rest of the furniture and ornaments and linen and silver are very ordinary. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Prairie Avenue mansion designated landmark

On January 5, 2012, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks gave its final approval for the designation of the Harriet F. Rees house at 2110 S. Prairie Avenue as a Chicago landmark.  The house was designated for its exemplary architecture, as the work of a significant architect, and as an outstanding example of our city’s heritage.   The designation is good news for preservationists who were concerned about the future of the house.  Although it is in the hand of dedicated owners, who have spent several years restoring the structure, the building was threatened in recent years by plans to build a large hotel on the block to accommodate visitors to McCormick Place Convention Center, located one block to the south.   Landmark status adds an important level of protection to the structure, the last surviving mansion on the 2100 block of Prairie Avenue.

The elegant row house was built in 1888 for Harriet F. Rees, the 70-year-old widow of James H. Rees, a prominent early real estate dealer and land surveyor, primarily remembered today for the set of maps he created of the Chicago area in 1851.  The architects, Cobb & Frost, designed a significant number of homes in the Prairie Avenue neighborhood, most of which have been lost, except for the Joseph G. Coleman house at 1811 S. Prairie Avenue.   The Rees house was designed in the Romanesque style and features a smooth limestone façade highlighted with rich ornamentation at the front entryway, on the oriel window, around the third-story arcade, and most prominently in the steeply pitched gable.

After Rees died in the 1890s, the house was purchased by Edson Keith Jr. who had grown up in a house at 1906 S. Prairie Avenue (demolished).  His daughter Katherine was raised in the house and in 1916, became the wife of architect David Adler.  She also published two novels, The Girl and The Crystal Icicle, before her untimely death in 1930, the result of an auto accident while traveling with her husband in France.  In later years, the building housed furnished rooms, and during the 1970s was converted to the Prairie Avenue Café. 

The interior is richly appointed and has survived largely intact, a pleasant surprise given its varied uses during the years.  Cobb & Frost designed an interesting moulding pattern that is used on the main staircase and around the doorways of many of the principal rooms.  The most prominent features however are the beautiful fireplaces which possess exceptionally fine tilework, each room being different.  The dining room fireplace is surrounded by a full wall of built in cabinets.

Near the rear of the first floor is the original hand-crank elevator, one of the first to be used in a private residence, no doubt installed for the widow for whom the house was built.

The interior of the house will be open for tours on Sunday June 10, 2012 as part of the annual Glessner House Museum fundraising tour, A Walk Through Time.  For further information, visit

Docent Diaries: Bonnet House and the Prairie Avenue Connection

The entrance to Bonnet House
For many years, before I became a volunteer docent at the Clarke House and Glessner House museums, I vacationed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I would pass by Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, wondering who Mr. Birch was and why he had a park named for him. It wasn’t until I started my docent training that I learned about Birch. Birch was not only significant to Chicago history, but Florida history as well. On my most recent trip to Fort Lauderdale, I took a tour of Bonnet House and learned a little bit more about Birch and his extended family.

South Florida Paradise
Birch was a prominent corporate attorney who lived at 1912 S. Michigan Avenue and was part of Prairie Avenue society. A bit of an eccentric, Birch shunned crowds and preferred a more casual lifestyle. In the late 1890s, Birch traveled by train to Titusville, Florida, the end of the line for the railroad in those days. He then sailed further south by boat, encountering a storm that forced his ship ashore. When Birch saw the tropical beauty of the South Florida coast, he decided he needed to live there. He bought three miles of oceanfront property, that is now part of present-day Fort Lauderdale, for less than $1.00 per acre. According to the Genealogical Society of Broward County (GSBC), silent film director D.W. Griffith offered Birch $250,000 in 1920 for 2/3 of the land, but Birch refused the offer.

A Generous Wedding Present
View of the bird house in courtyard
In 1919, Birch’s daughter, Helen married artist and Prairie Avenue resident, Frederic Clay Bartlett (2901 S. Prairie Avenue). As a wedding gift, Birch gave the newlyweds 30 acres—a piece of his Florida estate. In 1920, construction, of what would eventually be known as Bonnet House (named for the bonnet lilies found on the estate), began and would continue for more than 20 years.

“Eclectic” Design
Bartlett was an artist and designer.  Among his works are the thirteen pre-Raphaelite murals that adorn Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 S. Michigan Avenue.  He had a practical interest in architecture and designed every aspect of Bonnet House. The home was modeled after a Caribbean-style plantation as interpreted by Bartlett. It includes a large courtyard with fountains and gardens. Almost every wall of the courtyard is decorated with paintings, pieces or art, and cultural artifacts from Europe and Asia. The docent that led my tour said there is no discernible decorating style. He described it as “eclectic,” which fits just fine. Bartlett painted almost every inch of the house, including intricate designs on the courtyard ceilings, walls, and floors. While the estate is large, it is not luxurious. Both Birch and Bartlett had luxurious homes in Chicago and elsewhere, but craved a more casual lifestyle. Fort Lauderdale, in the early 20th century was a sparsely populated tropical paradise that suited both men perfectly.

Carousel giraffes are typical of the whimsical artwork throughout the house

Art and Music Lovers
Frederic and Helen loved to travel around the world. During their travels, they purchased many Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, including A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges-Pierre Seurat. Helen was a talented pianist and composer, having several of her compositions copyrighted and published. Bartlett had his artist studio on one end of Bonnet House and Helen had her music studio on the other.

A swan swims in a pond on the estate
Helen died of cancer in 1925 and Frederic lost interest in their tropical retreat. He donated their important collection of paintings, including works by Picasso, Degas, and Matisse to the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was the first major collection of post-Impressionist paintings to be acquired and exhibited by an American museum. 

Six years after Helen’s death, Frederic married Evelyn Fortune Lilly, who was divorced from Eli Lilly. After their marriage, Evelyn convinced Frederic to return to the estate and the two turned Bonnet House into a one-of-a-kind retreat. The house looks pretty much the way it did during the 1930s and 1940s.

Frederic died in 1953. Evelyn continued to live and entertain at Bonnet House after Frederic’s death. She eventually gifted the estate to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983, but continued to winter there until 1997 as part of the trust agreement. Evelyn died on July 1, 1997 at the age of 109.

Wrought iron railings were crafted in New Orleans

Bonnet House Survives
Bonnet House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a City of Fort Lauderdale Historic Landmark. If you have the opportunity to visit Fort Lauderdale, a tour of Bonnet House is a must.  For further information, visit their website,

Submitted by Stephen Reginald, Clarke House and Glessner House volunteer docent. Reginald is also a writer, editor, neighborhood blogger, and amateur classic film historian.

Monday, January 2, 2012

George Glessner and his love of technology

George Glessner was a precocious child, and always took a strong interest in anything scientific or related to the evolving technologies of the latter part of the 19th century.  His mother records on a number of occasions in her journal comments that George’s tutors made about his abilities and interests.  In May 1886, when George was fourteen, she made the following entry:
“George is intensely interested in chemistry – and his laboratory is wonderfully arranged.  Dr. Mitchell (the tutor) says it is far ahead of his own.  George has all kinds of printed labels and signs.”

When the Glessners moved into their new home on Prairie Avenue in December 1887, George installed equipment in the schoolroom, including a telegraph and a signal repeated.  The telegraph allowed George to communicate with his friends in the neighborhood, as recalled by his father in The Story of a House:
“The school room, approached from the front door without going through other parts of the house was a rendezvous for George’s friends and teachers alike, for they were all comrades together.  Here they had their long, long thoughts of youth, their boyish activities, their fire brigade, their regularly organized telegraph company, presided over, as a labor of love, by Norman Williams, one of the ablest and most astute of lawyers, with wires connecting seven different residences of the members, all centering in this house.”

The signal repeater allowed George to receive alarms coming into the local fire companies.  George and his friends, the “fire brigade,” would run out to watch the fires, and in a number of instances, George would photograph the buildings after the fire had been extinguished, such as the image below.  Only a few residences in the city were equipped with these signal repeaters.

His meticulous attention to detail and fascination with modern machinery continued into adulthood, as recalled by his nephew John Glessner Lee:
“In Chicago, where he and his family occupied a house which was contiguous to and a mirror image of our own, he had a basement shop.  It was a metalworking shop with lathe and drill press, clean and neat with cabinets and drawers along the wall.  At The Rocks the main shop in the Tool Building was much more extensive than was really necessary – a complete line of woodworking machines and several metalworking machines as well, all driven by a monumental gasoline engine with massive flywheels and an elaborate series of shafts and belts.” 

His nephew also recalled the increasingly large role George played in the management of The Rocks:
“He undertook several major improvements, such as the installation of electric light with its own generating station, the acquisition of the old Bethlehem waterworks on Garnet Mountain and the piping from there to the farm’s reservoir.  In those days The Rocks boasted more than twenty buildings and over eighty men were employed.  How much of this activity he was responsible for I never knew, but I suspect that he had a major hand in most of it.”

He was chief owner and manager of the Bethlehem Electric Company and the managing director of the affiliated Lisbon Light and Power Company.  It was said that he “found his chief interest and enjoyment” in overseeing the operations of these two companies.   While serving four terms in the New Hampshire state legislature, he took particular interest in bringing electricity and other modern technology to all parts of the state.

George Glessner died on January 10, 1929 and in his honor, all businesses in Bethlehem New Hampshire closed the day of his funeral.   One can only imagine what he would think of the unimaginable advances in technology that have occurred since his passing.

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