Monday, January 14, 2013

Glessner House dining room chairs

The four chairs in the dining room – two arm chairs and two side chairs – are part of a dining room set designed by Charles Coolidge of H. H. Richardson’s architectural firm.  Created for the Glessners’ Prairie Avenue house, the set originally included two arm chairs, 16 side chairs, and a six-foot round table which expanded with leaves to accommodate all 18 chairs.

Charles Coolidge, born to a prominent Boston family, graduated from Harvard in 1881.  During the following year, he supplemented his studies with architectural courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked in the office of Ware and Van Brunt.  During that time, he also traveled to Europe to examine great architectural monuments.  He was hired as an architect in Richardson’s office in 1882, and there learned to integrate the principles of his early training.

Richardson believed in the complete design of every aspect of a building, often including the design of furniture in his architectural commissions.  For many of his buildings, original furniture forms were carefully designed to integrate in scale and character with the architecture.  During the design of the Glessner house, Richardson advised his clients that their existing furniture was inappropriate in style for their new house, and successfully urged them to allow his firm to design new furniture for their formal rooms.  Coolidge is credited with the design of the dining room table and handsome spindle-back oak chairs, an attribution later recorded by John Glessner in his 1923 The Story of a House, “The furniture in the dining room is from designs by Charles Coolidge . . . executed by Davenport.”

Coolidge’s design combines as great a range of historic reference and influence as Richardson’s architecture.  The plain rectilinear form, oak construction, and simple leather seat cushion suggest furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.  Round, tapering spindles which flatten into a near-square central shape provide the primary decoration.  This use of spindles recalls the Colonial Windsor chair, as well as contemporary furniture based on 18th century English vernacular furniture designed by William Morris.  These spindles and the delicately curved stiles of each chair also contribute vertical balance to a room with predominantly horizontal lines.  The curve of the chair rail could be a stylized version of a Chippendale chair rail, another popular Colonial style; yet it is so stylized that its vegetative serpentine lines also evoke early Art Nouveau tendencies.  The only other detailing, a spiraling acanthus leaf carved in low relief, wraps around the handhold of each arm chair.  The acanthus leaf was consistently used by Richardson on both architecture and furniture, and is used in several places throughout the Glessner house.  The spare lines, minimal ornament and stylized historic reference in these chairs affirm a very modern design concept – one which clearly forecasts later dining room chair designs by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The furniture was executed by A. H. Davenport and Company, which executed a number of furniture pieces for the Glessners’ new house.  Davenport’s chief designer, Francis Bacon, had previously worked as a designer in Richardson’s office.  Bacon first designed furniture for Herter Brothers, and began working in the office of H. H. Richardson in 1883.  He became the principal designer for Davenport two years later.  Because Richardson’s office was extremely busy by that time, the firm gave the furniture commissions for many of their late buildings to this talented former employee.  On December 1, 1887, Frances Glessner noted in her journal, “Yesterday we continued our moving . . . We found a car load of our furniture had come from Davenport, and had it brought here, unloaded and most of it unpacked.  It is very beautiful.”

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