Monday, July 30, 2012

A Visit to The Rocks

In late July 2012, museum director/curator Bill Tyre and museum docent John Waters traveled to The Rocks, the Glessners’ former summer estate in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  The estate was an important part of the lives of the Glessners who would spend four to five months there each summer.  Their two children, George and Frances, in later years made The Rocks their permanent year-round home.

The Glessners selected the location due to its positive effects on George, who found immediate relief from his severe hay fever when first traveling there in 1877.  After spending several summers in a large resort hotel, they purchased the first 100 acres of land in September 1882.  Within a year their home, known simply as the “Big House” was completed based on a design by Isaac Scott.  Scott designed numerous other structures on the estate including a carriage-horse barn, a playhouse for Fanny, an observatory, gardener’s cottage, and a series of summer houses.

John Glessner continued to buy surround acreage and eventually the estate grew to incorporate about 1,500 acres of land, much of it purchased to prevent it from being deforested.  Glessner was an early conservationist and in 1903 joined the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.  The area closest to the Big House was elaborately landscaped by family friend Frederick Law Olmsted, and was later reworked by his sons, one of whom attended Harvard with George Glessner.

Architect Hermann H. von Holst, another family friend, designed several structures on the estate in the early 1900s including The Ledge (a home for George and Alice Glessner), the entrance gates, an enlarged horse barn, a combination sawmill-pigpen, and a cow barn. 

The Rocks functioned as a thriving farm.  John Glessner was especially interested in raising prize winning poultry.  His crops won numerous awards at the annual state fair.  The farm supplied the family and staff with food not only in New Hampshire, but in their Chicago home as well.  Glessner also used the estate as a testing ground for new equipment being developed by Warder Bushnell & Glessner (later International Harvester). 

In 1977, most of the estate was donated to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forest by two of the Glessner grandchildren, John Glessner Lee and Martha Batchelder.  Much of the land has been allowed to return to its natural forested state.  The site is open to the public year-round, and various trails cut through the property, including one trail that goes past the various remaining structures from the Glessner period. 

Nigel Manley has served as director of the estate for 26 years.  The operations are supported in large part by the growing of Christmas trees, and the museum acquires its live Fraser fir each year from The Rocks, continuing a tradition begun by the Glessners in the 1880s.  For more information, visit

This view shows the Bee House designed by Isaac Scott for Frances Glessner in 1896.  It was elaborated carved by Scott who also added a series of quotes relating to Mrs. Glessner’s interest in beekeeping.  In the 1930s, it was remodeled into a pool house, when the Glessners’ daughter-in-law added an in-ground swimming pool.  In recent years, it has been faithfully restored to its original design.  The Big House would have originally stood just to the left of the Bee House, just up the hill.

Elaborate carved brackets and fascia in the Bee House by Isaac Scott. 

Log cabin playhouse, designed by Issac Scott for Fanny Glessner in 1886.  Today the house functions as the visitor’s center for The Rocks Estate.

Big Rock Summer House, one of several designed by Isaac Scott in the 1880s.  It is the only one still standing.

This house began as the gardener’s cottage.  After the marriage of George Glessner and Alice Hamlin in 1898, it was remodeled and enlarged for their use.  After a new house, The Ledge, was built for them, the cottage became the home of Frances and Blewett Lee.  By 1938, it became her year-round residence until her death in 1962.  It is now owned by the North Country Council.

View of the White Mountains from the area behind the cottage.  This large flat area was graded and used as a tennis court when Frances Glessner Lee’s children were young.  Note the chaise lounge to the right carved from a solid block of granite found on the grounds.

A portion of the original terraced gardens designed and installed by Olmsted and his sons. 

This beautiful combination structure housed a sawmill on the left and a pigpen on the right.  It was designed by Hermann V. von Holst in 1906.

Today, the building houses an interesting exhibit about the New Hampshire maple industry, showing equipment used to harvest maple syrup. 

Each year, the museum acquires its Fraser fir from The Rocks.  This is the Christmas tree selected to stand in the main hall of the museum for 2012.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The De Morgan vase

One of the most beautiful and striking objects in the museum collection is a robust and colorful vase displayed on the music cabinet in the northwest corner of the parlor.  The piece is the work of one of the late 19th century’s most innovative ceramic artists, William Frend De Morgan (1839-1917).  The large vase, nearly 16 inches tall, features circular lug handles set against a bulbous baluster-shaped body.  Masted Medieval vessels under full sail navigate seas filled with jumping fish in green, blue, turquoise, and yellow.  An ouroboros, a mythological serpent-like creature who symbolizes the cycle of life by eating its own tail, decorates one of the sails on the ship.  (Interestingly, the same creature can also be found in the carved ornamentation on the front of the house). 

De Morgan was born in London and enrolled in art at the Academy Schools in 1859.  Three years later, he met William Morris, and abandoned painting to join Morris’ team of designers.  He executed numerous glass and tiles designs, and painted panels for furniture designed by his associate Philip Webb.  While working on stained glass, De Morgan discovered that silver pigments caused an iridescent surface on the glass.  His subsequent experiments on tiles to reproduce this effect resulted in the first luster tiles being produced in 1870.  In 1872 he opened a pottery works and over the next decade produced some of his finest work, including many pieces based on traditional thirteenth century Islamic pottery from Turkey, Persia, and Syria.  His “Persian colours,” as these ceramics came to be known, became the hallmark of his work and the fashion throughout Victorian England.

This vase was most likely produced in De Morgan’s ceramic works in Sand’s End, London, and would have been purchased by the Glessners about 1890.  Large vases such as this were the most expensive pieces produced, and  were painted by De Morgan himself, or under his close supervision.

The Glessners owned a number of other pieces by DeMorgan including tiles which decorated the fireplaces in the master bedroom and courtyard bedroom. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Hermann von Holst and the Glessners

Hermann von Holst was a prominent Chicago architect in the first decades of the 20th century.  His acceptance to take over Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice in 1909, when Wright left for Europe with Mamah Cheney, has largely overshadowed a significant and productive career.

Hermann Valentin Von Holst was born on June 17, 1874 in Freiburg, Germany.  In 1891, his family moved to Chicago when his father, Hermann Eduard von Holst accepted the position as head of the Department of History of the newly formed University of Chicago.  It was soon after that John and Frances Glessner became acquainted with the family through their intimate friendship with William Rainey Harper, president of the University.

Von Holst received his B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1893 and continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a B.S. degree in Architecture in 1896.  He returned to Chicago and entered the firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge (successors to H. H. Richardson) where he became head draftsman and remained until establishing his own office in the Rookery Building in 1905. 

By the time he opened his own practice, von Holst had become a close friend of the Glessners.  Although the same age as their children (he was born the same year as their son John who died as an infant), von Holst became a regular visitor to their Prairie Avenue home.  When his father retired from the University of Chicago in 1900 due to ill health and returned to Germany, it was as though the Glessners “adopted” the younger Hermann, making him part of family celebrations at Christmas and other times of the year.  They also provided him with several early commissions at their summer estate, The Rocks, in New Hampshire.   In a letter from von Holst to the Glessners dated February 24, 1905 he states, in part, “I shall always remember with great pleasure the fact, that when I opened my office the first order came from you, which I consider, in a half superstitious way, a good omen.”  Those early commissions included a large horse barn addition to the carriage house, a sawmill-pigpen, a cowbarn, additions to the cottage residence of Frances Glessner Lee, and a residence for the Glessners’ son George, known as the Ledge (shown at the top of the article).

Another significant commission for von Holst was the summer home known as Glamis, built for Frances Glessner’s brother George Macbeth of Pittsburgh (shown above).  Located adjacent to the Glessners’ summer estate in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, the sprawling residence featured eleven bedrooms and combined the shingle style of the northeast with the Prairie style of the Midwest.  Bryant Tolles, in his book Summer Cottages in the White Mountains, praises the house as “one shining example of von Holst’s abilities” and goes so far as to declare it the most significant example of summer country estate architecture in northern New Hampshire.

In 1909, von Holst moved his office to Steinway Hall, where he became part of an influential group of Prairie School architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright.  It was in that same year that Wright abruptly left for Europe with his married client Mamah Cheney.   Wright asked several architects to take over his office and open commissions, all of whom refused until von Holst accepted in conjunction with Marion Mahony Griffin (who had complete control of architectural design), her husband Walter Burley Griffin, Isabel Roberts, and John Van Bergen. 

In 1912, von Holst published Modern American Homes, which, although it only contained a few of his own designs, embodied the “back to nature” movement of the time and serves as an important record of the developments in Craftsman and Prairie style architecture.  (It has since been reprinted by Dover Publications as Country and Suburban Homes of the Prairie School Period).  In presenting a copy of the book to Frances Glessner for Christmas in 1912, von Holst inscribed the book as follows, “To Mrs. Glessner – Your ideals and ideas for the American Home have ever been an inspiration, to seek and strive for beauty along simple straightforward lines.” 

Von Holst actively taught throughout this period, serving as a professor of architectural design at the Chicago School of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago and in the Department of Architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology (later the Illinois Institute of Technology).  He also published other books and served in several professional organizations, including the Architectural League of America and the Chicago Architectural League. 

He continued to practice in Chicago through the 1920s, designing a number of buildings for Peoples Gas and Commonwealth Edison, including the ComEd substation which still stands at 1620 S. Prairie Avenue (detail above).  One of his larger commissions was Condell Memorial Hospital in Libertyville, dedicated in June 1928.

By the late 1920s, von Holst relocated to Boca Raton, Florida where he headed a group that completed a charming subdivision of 29 homes in the Spanish Revival style known as Floresta.   His own home in the subdivision, Lavender House, was completed about 1928.  He retired from architecture in 1932 but remained active in civic affairs in Boca Raton, serving on the City Council which granted him honorary life membership in 1953 just two years before his death.

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