Monday, May 27, 2013

The Kimball House on Chicago's Prairie Avenue

On Sunday June 9, 2013, Glessner House Museum will hold its 16th annual fundraiser, A Walk Through Time.  This walking tour explores the interiors of the privately owned historic mansions in the Prairie Avenue Historic District.  Featured are seven residences built between 1870 and 1894, in addition to the Glessner and Clarke house museums, and Second Presbyterian Church with its significant collection of Tiffany windows.  The tour runs from 1:00 to 4:00pm and costs $50 per person.  For more information or to make reservations, call 312.326.1480.  Limited tickets will also be available at the door.

One of the featured properties on the tour is the William W. Kimball house at 1801 S. Prairie Avenue.  When the Glessners moved into their new home across the street in December 1887, the Kimball lot was empty.  This view, taken by George Glessner from his bedroom window, shows the lot with a path cutting across it diagonally toward 18th Street, an Illinois Central train behind, and the coach house of the George M. Pullman mansion at the far left. 

The proximity of the Pullman house is an important part of how Kimball came to live on Prairie Avenue.  It is well known that Pullman did not like the appearance of the Glessner house.  He was once quoted as saying “I don’t know what I have ever done to have that thing staring me in the face every time I go out of my door.”  Another time he said “I don’t like it and wish it was not there.”  As the story goes, Pullman wanted to ensure that whatever was built on the empty lot would be something he would enjoy looking at when he walked out his door.  He convinced his friend William W. Kimball to purchase the lot and build a residence.  Pullman even went one step further; he suggested what architect Kimball should use.  The architect was none other than Solon S. Beman, the architect of Pullman’s world famous town south of Chicago.  However, the appearance of the Kimball house bears no resemblance to the brick Queen Anne style homes of Pullman’s employees.  For the Kimball house, Beman turned to the French Chateauesque style, using the 12th century Chateau Du Josselin in Brittany as inspiration for the gray Bedford stone mansion.  The exterior features an abundance of carved stone decoration, in addition to turrets, elaborate chimneys, a slate roof, and detailed copper cresting. 

The Kimball house was completed in 1892 after two years of construction and was reported to cost $1,000,000 to build, which possibly also included furnishings.  William W. Kimball, founder of the piano and organ company that bore his name, moved into the house with his wife Evaline (Cone) Kimball and a staff of approximately twelve servants.  The Kimballs had no children. 

The interior of the house is quite as elaborate as the exterior.  Although many of the original 29 rooms have been subdivided, most of the major rooms remain intact, and the flavor of the original house has been preserved.  Rooms on the first floor have ceilings 13’4” high, those on the second floor are one foot lower.

Upon entering the house, visitors pass through the great double entrance doors into a small entrance foyer, the walls of which are sheathed in Mexican onyx.  An inner set of double doors leads into the Great Hall which is two stories high and features an elaborate staircase illuminated by three huge leaded glass windows.

The fireplace in the Hall is made of Caen stone, a stone derived from Normandy that was used in the building of many cathedrals.  Four rooms enter off of the hall – the library which faces Prairie Avenue; the drawing room; a huge dining room featuring carved oak, a massive fireplace, and a built-in sideboard which originally housed Mrs. Kimball’s extensive collection of antique silver; and Mr. Kimball’s home office to the east of the main staircase. 

Mrs. Kimball also enjoyed collecting paintings by the Old Masters and others, and the paneled walls of the Great Hall would have featured many of these works including:
“The Bather” by Millet
“A Field of Flowers” by Monet
“Portrait of His Father” by Rembrandt
“Bathing Nymph and Child” by Corot
“Beata Beatrix” by Rosetti
“Dutch Fishing Boats” by Turner
“Stoke by Nayland” by Constable
“The Countess of Bristol” by Gainsborough
“Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Gods” by Reynolds
The Kimball collection of 24 paintings was bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago where they can be seen today.

William Wallace Kimball, a native of Maine, was born in 1828 and had come to Chicago shortly before the Panic of 1857.  He purchased four pianos from a bankrupt dealer and although he knew nothing about pianos, managed to sell them for a nice profit.  By 1864 he had established an elegant shop and warehouse in the newly built Crosby’s opera house.  His pianos were especially popular with the huge numbers of German and Scandinavian immigrants flooding into the city.  When his store and warehouse were destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871, he was back in business just two days later, operating out of the billiard room of his house at 1641 S. Michigan Avenue.  In 1886, the Kimball piano and organ factory was built, and the next year, the first Kimball piano was built.  By the turn of the century, the Kimball Piano and Organ Co. was world famous and the largest organization of its kind in the world.  Kimball died in 1904 at the age of 76.

After Mrs. Kimball died in 1921, the house was converted to a boarding house.  In 1924, the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects approached John J. Glessner about acquiring his house at 1800 S. Prairie Avenue for use as their headquarters.  He agreed but stipulated that until the house became available following his death, the AIA must acquire and use the Kimball house for a club.  This was done and the Architects Club of Chicago was operating in the house by 1925, through the generosity of 100 Chicago architects who each gave $1,000 for the purpose.  Unfortunately, the club failed during the Depression and closed its doors in 1937.  For several years following, they leased the building to Miss Daisy Hull who ran a school for “backward” children.  In 1943 she purchased the house for just $8,000, less than 1% of what the Kimballs paid to build the house 50 years earlier.  Four years later the publishing firm, Domestic Engineering Company, acquired the house and the adjacent Coleman house at 1811 S. Prairie Avenue.  The two houses were acquired by R. R. Donnelley in 1973 who in turn donated them to the Chicago Architecture Foundation in 1991.  They leased and then sold the properties to the U. S. Soccer Federation for use as their national headquarters, which is how the buildings are used today.

NOTE:  Film buffs will note that the house was used as the setting for the 1996 movie “Primal Fear,” starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and Edward Norton.

North side of the entrance porch.  Note how the wrought iron fence is constructed to curve underneath the projecting extension.

Elaborate stone carving over the porch.

Cast plaster ceiling.

Dining room fireplace.


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