Monday, June 29, 2015

Mrs. Pullman and her Summer Estate

Exactly 100 years ago, the Society and Entertainments column of the Chicago Tribune led with a short article about the coming and going of one of Chicago’s queens of society – Mrs. George M. Pullman.  Dated June 28, 1915, the column was filled with information about Chicago’s elite quickly abandoning the city for their summer estates in locales ranging from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to various towns along the Atlantic seaboard. 

Regarding Mrs. Pullman, the article read:
“Mrs. George M. Pullman left the city yesterday in her private car for Elberon, N. J., where her favorite of four beautiful homes is located.  Her town house on Prairie avenue is closed for the season, having served but a few weeks for her residence on her return from Pasadena, where her western home is located.  Mrs. Pullman has another mansion in Washington, which she did not occupy this winter.”

Interior of Mrs. Pullman's private railcar

The Pullmans’ primary summer residence was named Fairlawn and was located on Ocean Avenue in the town of Elberon, in the fashionable Long Branch area of New Jersey.  They had first visited the area in the summer of 1871 when they stayed with President and Mrs. Grant.  In September 1873, they engaged the services of architect Henry S. Jaffray, (then actively at work on their Prairie Avenue home), to design their new summer house in Elberon.  Nathan Barrett, the designer who later undertook the master landscape plan for the Town of Pullman, did the landscaping for the expansive grounds.  Through Pullman’s influence, Barrett was ultimately given the commission for the design and landscape plan for the town of Elberon itself.

The house was completed by June of 1874 and the family typically arrived each summer in time for the Fourth of July holiday.  During the summer of 1897, the Pullmans discussed the remodeling and enlarging of Fairlawn with Solon S. Beman, the architect of the Town of Pullman, who had also undertaken a number of additions and improvements to their Prairie Avenue home. 

George Pullman died that October, and the rebuilding, in the Colonial Revival style, was not completed until 1900.   By that time, the house was generally recognized as the most spacious and attractive summer estate along that section of the Jersey coast.  Mrs. Pullman continued to travel to her beloved summer estate each year through the 1920 season. 

Raymond Hotel, Pasadena

She died on March 28, 1921 in Pasadena, California, where she maintained an extensive suite at the Raymond Hotel, one of the most exclusive winter resorts in the country.  Residents included members of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan families.

Next week:  The Pullman house in Washington, D.C.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Chicago's Tiniest Theater

What was tiniest theater to ever operate in Chicago?  Even the most knowledgeable Chicago historians might not be aware of the short-lived Finger Tip Theater, which operated for less than two weeks in March 1918.  Conceived and created by Frances Glessner Lee, it followed by five years her work crafting the miniature Chicago Symphony Orchestra and predated by 25 years her well-documented efforts creating the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. 

As noted in a blog article on December 15, 2014, Lee was deeply involved in supporting the war effort during World War I.  She regularly entertained sailors from Great Lakes in her Prairie Avenue home, and later moved to Boston where she served as the resident manager of Wendell House, a dormitory for soldiers and sailors returning from Europe.  The creation of the Finger Tip Theater was another way in which she supported the war effort, in this case by raising funds for the Fatherless Children of France.

The Fatherless Children of France was organized in the spring of 1916 to provide relief for children under the age of sixteen whose fathers had been killed in the war.  As noted in the 1917 report for the organization:

“An essential feature of this plan is the maintaining of these children in their own homes.  In no other way can the French tradition, threatened with total extinction by the present desperate situation, be preserved.  It is therefore provided that each child shall be brought up by its own mother, or other qualified guardian, in the religion of its father and under conditions approximately normal.”

By the spring of 1918, nearly 180 committees had been set up in the United States and more than 65,000 children had found “foster parents.”  The Chicago committee, headquartered in the Fine Arts Building, had already provided support for more than 3,500 children.  An article in the March 17, 1918 Chicago Tribune noted:

“It costs only 10 cents a day to be established as an American foster parent of a bereft French boy or girl, and the satisfaction it gives to the giver far outweighs the money value of the $36.50 a year it costs you.  The adorable letters these adopted children write their American ‘marraines or marrains,’ the lovely photos they send of themselves bring a poetry, a romance into the life hitherto unknown to us matter of fact people.”

It was to raise funds for this worthwhile cause that Frances Glessner Lee devoted her efforts in creating the Finger Tip Theater.  The theater opened on March 19, 1918 in the large doorway between galleries 52 and 53 in the Art Institute of Chicago.  The stage measured just two by three feet with a proscenium 20 inches in height.  The stage was set within a frame draped with black muslin, and on either side were newel posts bearing bronze figures of “a huntress-goddess and her prey.”  Tiny scenes were created for each separate act during the show and were “perfect to the smallest detail.”

Lee’s announcement of the theater indicated “living performers only – no manikins” leading newspapers to speculate whether the performers would be dwarfs, trained fleas, or white mice!  In reality, the performers were “none other than the clever fore and middle fingers of Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee, who originated the new art.” 

The Chicago Herald captured that fact in their headline the next day which read “Curtain Rises on Finger Tip Theater – Young Woman’s Talented Digits Star at Playhouse in Art Institute.”  The article continued:

“If she has talent in her finger tips (which she undoubtedly has), and tip-top talent at that, why not stage it?

“That is just what Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee has done, and if one has an imagination that will shrink and shrink (which we all undoubtedly have), one can see on this miniature stage the most complete panoramas and thrilling dances one could possibly desire.

“For instance, a ballet in one act is poetically rendered by Mme. Karsanoma, and she is quickly followed by Szopup Jynszlingski, who is Japanese and does a reverent deal of posturing before his adamant heathen god.  It is all very awe-inspiring, for in the foreground a bowl of incense is burning.

Szopup Jynszlingski

“The curls of blue smoke make his prayers to Buddha much more picturesque, and doubtless much more efficacious. 

“All this is done by Mrs. Lee herself, and while one never would suspect it, these different terpsichorean stars are her own supple right hand.  It is true that in proportion to the size of the stage her hands assume Alice in Wonderland proportions.  But as each one of her two first fingers is daintily shod with ballet slippers and about her knuckles is a ruffle of tuile the performer passes as a finished product of the dancing master’s art.

“As the devoted Japanese she is no less successful.  The quaint shoes as well as the oriental bloomers and incense create an unmistakable effect.  But it must be seen to be fully appreciated.” 

Other acts included:

-Charlotte Russe, The Matchless, The Champion Glace Skater of the World, assisted by Axel Erickson, Late Skater-in-Chief to the King of Scandinavia

-The Amalgamated & Consolidated Circus Company of Kalamazoo and Oshkosh, Bigger, Greater, Grander and More Gorgeous than Ever – All Under One Tent!!  Wonder of Wonders!!  The Smallest Show on Earth!!

-Elmer, the elephant – the smallest trained pachyderm in captivity

-Signor Centrifugo, sensational slack wire specialist, who will set at defiance the laws of gravity

(The program also made the following note, “Ladies are requested to remove their hats – or keep them on.”  This, no doubt, was a humorous reference to the controversial house rule passed a few years earlier at the Chicago Symphony – and also adopted by Frances Glessner at her Monday Morning Reading Class – that all ladies must remove their hats.)

A total of ten performances were held over eight days with 50 people attending each, including Mrs. George Pullman and many of the leaders of Chicago society, netting $1,000 for the Fatherless Children of France.

Mary Meeker, Mary Crary, and Jane Barrell at the opening performance
March 19, 1918

Frances Glessner Lee wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune on March 26 which read:

“I send you my grateful thanks for the kind notices in your paper of my little Finger Tip theater.  The series of ten performances came to an end this afternoon.  The Art institute generously provided the rooms, lights, and service, and all other expenses were met by special contribution, so that the entire receipts, amounting to about $1,000, were turned over for the benefit of the fatherless children of France.  I am glad to have given my small efforts to this cause, and am grateful to you for your kind notices.  Frances G. Lee”

This brilliant production executed by Frances Glessner Lee was truly a “small effort” only in the size of the performers who entertained captivated audiences during the short run of the Finger Tip Theater.   A quarter-century later, those same nimble fingers would craft the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death for which she is chiefly remembered to this day.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Golden Opportunity

When the Glessners met with architect H. H. Richardson in September 1885 at the Brookline office attached to his house, they were extremely impressed with the space, and asked that he incorporate many of its features into the library of their new Prairie Avenue home.  One feature, however, was recreated in their dining room  - lustrous ceiling panels covered in gold leaf set within a grid of heavy oak beams.  

Dining room during the Glessners' occupancy

At first glance, the use of gold leaf might seem to be an ostentatious display of wealth, but such was not the case with the Glessners.  To illuminate their rooms, the Glessners opted for the use of wall sconces rather than large chandeliers suspended from the ceilings.  The use of the gold leaf was practical – it would reflect the light from the five sconces around the dining room and cast a warm light back down upon the dining table. 

Dining room in 1966, after it was acquired from the
Lithographic Technical Foundation

During the time period in which the house was occupied by the Lithographic Technical Foundation (1945-1965), the gold leaf panels were covered over with ceiling paint and fluorescent light fixtures were installed above the work benches installed in the room, which functioned as a laboratory for researching printing inks. 

In November 1989, a substitute finish was applied to the ceiling to replicate the look of the gold leaf, but using aluminum leaf and a French vermeil finish to achieve a gold tone.  Although the finished product suggested the original gold leaf, it did not capture the rich deep tone that can only be achieved with using actual gold leaf.

In August 2014, the museum was contacted by Naomi Lipsky, president of the Society of Gilders, which was planning to hold its annual conference in Chicago in June 2015.  As part of each conference, the Society undertakes a community project on a pro bono basis in partnership with a non-profit organization.  She was wondering if the museum might have a project for the gilders to undertake.  A once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself – some of the finest gilders from around the world would be gathering in Chicago and would volunteer their services to recreate the Glessners’ long lost gold leafed ceiling.

The details of the project were worked out during a site visit in March 2015, and The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation generously agreed to underwrite the cost of the 23 karat gold leaf made by Manetti in Florence, Italy – enough to cover more than 240 square feet of plaster.  

During May, repairs were made to the ceiling where plaster had long ago been patched following the removal of the fluorescent fixtures.  Following that step, all 36 panels were cleaned and coated with a layer of amber shellac to provide the optimal surface for the application of the gold leaf.

Michael Kramer

The crew of gilders arrived on Monday June 1, 2015 ready to go.  Led by project manager Michael Kramer, an average of 8 to 10 gilders were on site for six or more hours each day for the entire week to finish the project.  

The first step involved laying out the ceiling in a grid of 6-inch squares so that the 3-3/8” leafs would have a pattern to follow, with some overlap.  Once this step was completed, a slow oil size was applied with brush and roller the afternoon before, to the area to be gilded the next day.  

After drying overnight, the size was just barely tacky all of the following day, so that the gilders could lay the leaf of the books following the grid pattern visible through the size.  

Then the leaf was gently tamped down onto the sand float finish plaster using squirrel hair brushes.   

After tamping, the same brushes were used to skew the leaf, and to smooth it and remove the overlaps, capturing the loose pieces in paper cones.

The crew celebrating a job well done!

The project was completed on Friday June 5 and is truly breathtaking.  Once again, the rich gold finish of the ceiling reflects the light from the wall sconces, just as it was intended to during the Glessners’ occupancy of the house.  The museum is deeply grateful to the Society of Gilders for their extraordinary work in recreating this important design element to the house. 

For more information on the Society of Gilders and their projects, visit

Monday, June 8, 2015

Queer, Quaint, and . . . Dutch??

The construction of the Glessners’ house on Prairie Avenue received considerable attention in the Chicago newspapers.  Without a doubt, certain articles were more accurate than others, and some sought merely to sensationalize the controversial architectural features.  A good example of one of the more positive and accurate articles is found pasted in the Glessners’ scrapbook.  The newspaper in which it was published is not identified, but it appears to date to the latter part of 1887, just before the Glessners moved into their home.

A Queer House Out on the Avenue

Reaper Man Glessner’s Dutch House in the Aristocratic Precincts of Prairie Avenue

That is an odd house, surely, which the workmen are just now putting the inner and finishing touches upon at the corner of Eighteenth street and Prairie avenue, diagonally across the street from George M. Pullman’s mansion.  It is a unique house, in fact, it is the only one of the kind in America.  It is a typical Dutch house – a veritable ‘huis’ from Amsterdam – only it was designed by an American architect, built by American workmen of American materials, and stands in that hub of Chicago aristocracy and Americanism – Eighteenth and Prairie avenue.  The quaint house appears all the more quaint amid its surroundings, where all is modern and United States and almost monotonously stiff in architecture and style.  This Dutch house belongs to J. J. Glessner, the reaper man, and was designed by Richardson, the lately deceased leader of American architecture.  The illustration printed herewith gives a good idea of the general exterior appearance of the structure – the Dutch roof, the prison-like windows on the Eighteenth street side, the low stories, and the huge chimneys of granite.  The first story is only a basement, the second contains the library, dining-room, kitchen, etc. while the third is given up to bed-chambers.  At the left of the front entrance and grand staircase is a very large bed-chamber, with dressing-rooms and porcelain baths.  At the right the corner of the house is given up to the library, wherein is an old Dutch fire-place nearly as large as that in Wayne MacVeagh’s new house on Lincoln Park drive.  In the rear of the library, and just behind that quartet of cell-like windows, is the dining-room.  But these windows do not light the dining-room.  They open from a corridor which leads from the kitchen to the front part of the house.  Light for the dining-room, and for many other rooms in both stories, is taken from the court, which is one of the distinguishing features of the house, and a novelty in this country.  The problem which the architect had to solve in this house was not an easy one.  Given, a long, narrow lot – 75 x 160.  Wanted – a large, well-lighted house, with stable and yard.  See how nicely the plan suits the situation.  The stable is really in the rear end of the house, but separated from it by a solid, unbroken wall.  The court, 40 x 100, rivals in beauty the best examples to be found in the old world.  It is the yard of the mansion, completely shut out from the view of neighbors or passers-by, and is to be sodded and adorned with fountain and flowers and a neat bit of shrubbery.  Overlooking the court, at the angle of the house, is a stone porch, and a broad staircase leads from the library and dining-room to the yard.  Just back of the Dutch roof is a sort of tower, indistinctly shown in our illustration.  That is Mr. Glessner’s conservatory on the roof.

‘Tis, indeed, a quaint house.  The finishing material throughout is red oak, the ceilings of the larger rooms being heavily timbered, in Holland style, and the walls of the kitchen, laundry, stable, etc. being lined  with glazed brick.  It is a quaint house, and most people riding by give it a cursory glance and exclaim “how ugly!”  But it’s a home-like house, full of the means of comfort and content, and for his $60,000 Mr. Glessner will acquire not only the quaintest, but one of the best homes in all Chicago.

NOTES:  The numerous references to the house being of Dutch design are a unique feature of this particular article.  The mention of the house of Wayne MacVeagh on Lincoln Park drive is actually a reference to the home of Franklin MacVeagh on Lake Shore Drive – the only other house in Chicago designed by H. H. Richardson.  Richardson’s original design for the Glessner courtyard did feature a fountain and elaborate gardens; these were eliminated in later modifications, presumably due to the fact the Glessners spent their summers in New Hampshire.  The total cost of construction, including new furniture and interior decoration, was $108,713. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Benvenuto Cellini dinner

A favorite photograph of Frances Glessner hangs in her former conservatory, now the Beidler Room at the museum.  The image, the only known photograph of Frances in her conservatory, shows her surrounded by her plants and dressed in an elaborate gown – a costume worn to a Benvenuto Cellini themed dinner party given by her and her husband on March 1, 1892. 

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) is generally regarded as one of the most important Mannerist artists.  Born in Florence, he became a well known sculptor and goldsmith, and is largely remembered today for his autobiography which accurately captures the spirit of the Renaissance and makes Cellini the best known figure of his time.

Cellini had numerous run-ins with the law, and frequently found himself fleeing to neighboring cities after brawls and even murder.  His considerable skill as an artisan won him favor with many including Pope Clement VII, Francis I, and members of the Medici family, who granted him pardons and helped him avoid prison on several occasions. 

The exact inspiration for the Glessners’ Cellini dinner is unknown.  Hector Berlioz composed an opera entitled Benvenuto Cellini, but it had not been performed in Chicago by this time.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the overture from the opera in a concert at the Central Music Hall on May 7, 1891; the Glessners did attend this performance.   It appears from Frances Glessner’s journal entry, however, that she may have recently read Cellini’s autobiography as the dinner was based on an “artistic dinner” that Cellini had given, no doubt recounted in his autobiography. 

The Glessner dinner was quite elaborate, as described in the journal:

“Tuesday we gave a dinner after an artistic dinner given many years ago by Benvenuto Cellini.  We had a table nineteen feet long and three feet wide.  The gentlemen sat on one side and ladies on the other.  Candelabra were at each end with red candles and red shades.  No one sat at the ends.  John sat on end of the gentlemen side and I at the opposite end of the ladies side.  We had a background behind the ladies of red velvet which was put up by Fields upholstery man.

“The flowers were all red and white roses – all low, so that the talk was across the table and in groups of four.

“Mrs. Caton, Mr. and Mrs. Watson Blair, Mr. & Mrs. Henrotin, Mr. & Mrs. Albert Sprague, Col. & Mrs. Stevenson, Mr. & Miss Fearn, Miss Keep, Mr. Fay, Judge & Mrs. Gresham, Mr. Coolidge were the guests.  Mrs. Gresham failed me at the last minute and Fanny had to take her place.  I had four men to serve the dinner, and Fanny Biggs to cook it.”

The journal entry reveals several interesting pieces of information.  For one, it is clear that the regular dining room table, an oval table six feet wide, was not used for the dinner, so a special table was made.  There were a total of 18 at the table, including the Glessners – the exact number of chairs that Charles Coolidge, one of the guests, had designed as part of the dining room furniture for the Prairie Avenue house.  The Glessners’ daughter Fanny sat in for Mrs. Gresham.  Fanny was not yet 14, and her inclusion indicates the maturity she had attained by this time.

Four men served the dinner.  The Glessners typically employed a butler and two footmen, indicating that an “extra” man was hired for the evening.  The meal was prepared by the Glessners’ cook, Fanny Biggs, who prepared the following menu:
  • Oysters
  • Anchovy crutes Parisienne
  • Clear soup Royale, puree of cauliflower and croutons
  • Cutlets of salmon, hollandaise sauce, cucumbers, and potatoes
  • Boudine of chicken and macaroni; saddle of mutton with cherry sauce, potato croquettes and spinach
  • Mushrooms au gratin
  • Fromage a la Cowper with crackers
  • Pine apple ice cream, cake, and coffee

The journal entry and menu certainly convey that this was a special dinner party, one that the Glessners and their guests no doubt remembered for years to come.  Fortunately for us, their son George captured the image of his mother dressed for the party, so that today visitors can continue to learn about the artistic manner in which the Glessners entertained their guests.
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