Monday, March 19, 2012

The Story of a Chair

Of the many Glessner chairs in the collection of the museum, one of the most interesting is a modified Windsor chair located on the west side of the partner’s desk in the library.    The chair recently underwent restoration, so the time is right to look back at its history.

Windsor chairs are among the most recognized pieces of furniture.  Their delicate graceful shape has been reinterpreted in many variations since the chair was first developed in the 18th century.  Typical features include a solid wooden seat into which the chair-back and legs are pushed into drilled holes.  The graceful curved back of the chair is formed from steam bent pieces of wood.  The exact origin of the chair is unknown; however steam-bending was being used to produce the characteristic “bow” of the chair by the early 1700s.  The earliest documented examples were shipped from Windsor, Berkshire to London in 1724, hence the name - although chairs were produced in many other areas of Great Britain as well as the United States.

Our chair, which features an ebonized finish, was produced about 1880 and featured a saddle seat, designed for the comfort of the occupant.  In this chair, however, the seat is elaborately carved with a design featuring a large vase holding a bouquet of stylized six-petaled flowers arrayed on a stippled background.  The design is reminiscent of 17th century carved panels on English case furniture.    Additional carving, albeit simpler in design, is found on the arms and back of the chair.

The chair is clearly visible in photographs of the Glessners’ library in their home at 261 W. Washington Street in Chicago (at what would now be the northeast corner of Washington and Morgan).  In these images, taken about 1880, the chair is being used with a davenport desk made for the Glessners in 1879 by Isaac Scott.

The chair also shows up in a 1923 photograph of the bedroom formerly occupied by Fanny Glessner.  In this image the chair sits in front of the windows, and is again paired with the Scott davenport desk.  (There is no evidence the chair was ever used in the library of the Glessners’ Prairie Avenue home.  However, the Windsor chair visible in historic photos of the library is not in the collection of the museum, so the decision was made to substitute this chair in its place).

Given the delicate construction of the chair, it is not surprising that it suffered damage through the years.  In 1993, a section of the back above the left arm broke off, and a close examination revealed that this section had been broken previously. 

In February 2012, the chair was sent to King’s Mill in St. Charles for repair.  Since the two ends of the broken section were rough, the decision was made to cut off the ragged ends, insert new pieces of wood and carve them to match the existing design.  Once the pieces were carved, the sections were painted to match the existing finish. 

The chair was returned on March 17, 2012 and is back on display by the partner’s desk in the library.  Be sure to notice it on your next visit to the museum.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Film "Of Dolls and Murder" to explore career of Frances Glessner Lee

On Sunday March 25, 2012 at , Glessner House Museum will host the Chicago premiere of a feature-length documentary narrated by iconic filmmaker John Waters entitled Of Dolls and Murder.   The film explores the extraordinary career of Frances Glessner Lee and her contributions to the field of legal medicine.  Tickets are $15 per person ($10 for members and students) and prepaid reservations to 312.326.1480 are required.  For more information on the film, visit 

In preparation for the event, being held on Frances Glessner Lee’s 134th birthday, we repeat a blog posting from 2011 detailing her fascinating career.

Legal Medicine
Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) became interested in legal medicine through her friendship with Dr. George Burgess Magrath, a classmate of her brother George at Harvard.  She enjoyed listening to his stories of cases where his skill as a medical examiner helped to uncover the true cause of unexplained death.  During his career he personally investigated 21,000 deaths and testified at more than 2,000 court cases.

In 1932, Lee gave a gift of $250,000 to Harvard University for the creation of a chair in Legal Medicine in the Medical School.  The endowment ensured the perpetuation of the department in which Dr. Magrath had taught since 1907. 

Two years later, Lee presented the school with a library of over 1,000 volumes, which was dedicated as the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine.  The library, unique in the United States at the time, was assembled personally by her and contained many rare volumes, some dating back to the 15th century. 

Her continual involvement in legal medicine led to her appointment as a State Police Captain in New Hampshire in 1943, one of many titles that would eventually be bestowed upon her.  For the remainder of her life, she was known affectionately as “Captain Lee.”  At the time of her appointment, she was the only active female state police captain in the country.  She subsequently became the first female member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. 

Nutshell Studies
It was at this time that Lee came up with the idea of creating a series of eighteen miniature rooms depicting crime scenes to be used for the study and analysis of evidence by state police officials.  Known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, the name was derived from an old police saying, “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”  The models were meticulously created on the scale of one inch to the foot.  Doors swung on tiny hinges, windows moved up and down, and a minute mousetrap in the corner of one room operated like the real thing.  Each room took about four months to build in an elaborate workshop set up in her home.  Many of the pieces were crafted by her own hands; other portions were constructed by Ralph Mosher, a carpenter hired full-time to work on the project.  The models were composites pieced together from different cases.  Everything shown had actually happened, albeit under other circumstances.  Some portrayed murder, others accidental death or suicide. 

Seminars in Homicide Investigation

In conjunction with the models, Captain Lee initiated biannual seminars in homicide investigation.  State policemen from around the country vied for the opportunity to attend the seminars.  Outstanding speakers in the field of legal medicine were brought in to lecture, and a major component of each seminar was the analysis of the “Nutshell Studies.”  Attendees were given 90 minutes to analyze the minute clues hidden in each model, and then present their findings.  Graduates of the seminars became Harvard Associates in Police Science, a distinction they would use when testifying in court cases.

Captain Lee planned an elaborate banquet at the conclusion of each seminar, held at the Ritz.  A typical banquet would run $3,000, with the dinner served on a set of gold-leafed china made especially for her use. 

Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, was one of the few “laymen” allowed to attend a seminar.  Afterwards, he dedicated his newest book, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom, to her.  In addition to proclaiming her “one of the few women who ever kept Perry Mason guessing” he went on:

“I have dedicated this book to her as an expression, in some measure, of my appreciation; and in admiration of the manner in which her mind, working with the accurate precision of a railroad watch, has brought into existence the over-all plan of a course in training that is helping to make the competent state police official as much a professional man as the doctor or lawyer.  I herewith tender her my profound respect, my deepest admiration, and my eternal gratitude.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Pullmans of Prairie Avenue

One of the legendary lost houses of Prairie Avenue was the mansion of George M. Pullman, located at 1729 S. Prairie Avenue.  Located on the opposite corner from Glessner house, its stately Second Empire style fa├žade was the height of fashion when it was completed.  However, the house stood only 45 years before falling victim to the wrecker’s ball. 

George M. Pullman and Harriett “Hattie” Sanger were married in 1867, and the following year they purchased a 100-foot wide lot at the northeast corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street, paying $500 per front foot, the highest amount ever paid up to that time in the city.  Pullman hired architect Henry S. Jaffray, who had previously worked in the offices of New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, to prepare the plans.  Construction began in earnest by 1872 and the family was able to move into their home in January 1876 although another year would pass until the interiors were complete. 

The massive house measured 70 by 108 feet, containing more than 7,000 square feet per floor.  The entire exterior was clad in Connecticut brownstone, including the large porte cochere along 18th Street.  No expense was spared in its construction and only the finest woods and other materials were used in its decoration.  Huge public rooms were constructed to house the elegant and large-scale entertainments the Pullmans planned.  Amenities included a 200-seat theatre, billiard room, bowling alley, pipe organ and much more.

Newspaper accounts of the house and the events which took place there routinely referred to the house as the most beautiful on Prairie Avenue and in the entire city, lavishing praise on its interiors, said to be “more beautiful than the Gardens of Cashmere.”  The Pullmans entertained frequently in their “palace” and it was not uncommon for 400 or more people to attend receptions, musicales, and theatrical entertainments.

In preparation for the wedding of the Pullmans’ daughter Harriet to Francis Carolan in 1892, a huge addition was built onto the northeast corner of the house, and the entire interior was redecorated.  The addition included a new library and billiard room, a huge palm room with a 40-foot leaded glass dome, outdoor terraces set with marble mosaics, and an enlarged and remodeled coach house.  Across 18th Street, a huge conservatory was set into a private “park” with unobstructed views of Lake Michigan.  The addition and remodeling, designed by architect Solon S. Beman, cost in excess of $100,000.

George Pullman died in 1897, but his widow continued living in the home until her death in 1921, splitting her time between Chicago and residences in New Jersey, the Thousand Islands, and Pasadena.   In November 1921 a three-day auction emptied the house of its priceless collection of artwork, rugs, antiques, and other items.  The house was demolished during the summer of 1922, a reflection of the decline of the neighborhood.    The property remained vacant until 1941 when a huge, but non-descript brick bus garage was built on the site.  That too was demolished in 2000 as the area gentrified, and today, town homes and a condominium tower occupy the site of one of Chicago’s greatest Gilded Age mansions.
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