Tuesday, December 1, 2020

A Toast to the Glessners - Christmas 1924

Framed Deed of Gift, December 1, 1924

Today, December 1, 2020, marks the 96th anniversary of the Glessners deeding their beloved Prairie Avenue home to the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (CCAIA), to ensure its preservation. A beautiful toast noting that act of generosity, written and delivered by architect Hermann V. von Holst at the Glessners’ Christmas dinner later that month, was recently acquired for the house collection. Clearly, it was a celebratory month for the Glessners as their friends and the architectural community thanked them for their magnificent gift. In this article, we will reconstruct the month of December 1924, ending with von Holst’s touching tribute to his long-time friends.

During the 1910s and early 1920s, the Glessners witnessed the enormous change that was happening all around them, as families left Prairie Avenue and their homes were demolished or converted into boarding houses or business offices. In 1922, Richardson’s only other house in Chicago, built for Franklin and Emily MacVeagh at 1400 North Lake Shore Drive, was razed and replaced with a high-rise apartment house.

The Deed of Gift between the Glessners and the CCAIA, signed on December 1, 1924, represented the best way to ensure the preservation of their house, and its continued use by the architectural community that understood its significance. The Deed was specific – Richardson’s portrait must always remain on the wall, and his monogram on the façade must never be altered – but the use of the house would change dramatically. This was no house museum – the building was to be repurposed for the uses of the CCAIA to include offices, meeting rooms, gallery space, and an atelier.

Chicago Tribune, December 3, 1924

The announcement of the gift was published in the Chicago newspapers, and within weeks newspapers from across the country covered the story, a clear indication of how important the house was considered even at that time. Among the many notes of appreciation the Glessners received was one from Julia “Lula” Shepley, daughter of Henry Hobson Richardson and the wife of George Shepley, one of the three men, who, following Richardson’s death in 1886, reorganized his office as Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge.

Page 1 of Lula Richardson Shepley's letter to Frances Glessner

An important member of Chicago’s architectural community in 1924 was Hermann V. von Holst, and he was among the Glessners’ closest friends. (Read this 2012 blog article for more information on his life and career). Hermann, just 18 years old when he arrived in the U.S. in 1892, accompanied his father, Dr. Hermann E. von Holst, who had accepted an appointment at the new University of Chicago. The Glessners quickly formed a friendship with the von Holst family, which also included Hermann’s mother and sister. Dr. von Holst was forced to retire in 1900 due to ill health. He returned to Germany with his wife and daughter and died in 1904.

Hermann V. von Holst (from 1924 passport application)

Son Hermann, who by this point was chief draftsman in the Chicago office of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, stayed behind and was quickly “adopted” by the Glessners. He starts showing up regularly in Frances Glessner’s journal, attending Sunday suppers or joining them at the symphony. For the first Christmas apart from his family, Hermann was invited to trim the Glessners’ tree on Christmas Eve, and he stayed the night, so that he could “see the fun in the morning.” In a letter from Hermann’s mother to Frances Glessner, dated February 1, 1901, she noted:

“Yes, he is lonely and we, too, miss him greatly. In almost every letter, indeed in every one now, he speaks of your kindness to him and of the enjoyment he receives from his visits with you. It was so very kind of you to have him with you just at Christmas time, for a Christmas spent alone is about the most doleful thing imaginable.”

The Glessners greatly enjoyed surrounding themselves with architects, artists, authors, and musicians, so the friendship is no surprise. But in the case of Hermann, it may well have had added significance. Hermann was born in 1874, the same year as the Glessners’ son, John Francis, who had died at the age of just eight months. In a meaningful way, the young and talented architect may have been a surrogate for the lost son, especially in those first years after George and Frances had both married and were preparing for the holiday in their own homes. (In 1902, on the anniversary of the birth of the infant son, Frances Glessner noted in her journal that he would have been 28 years old had he lived, so his memory always remained with her).

Hermann traveled to Germany to help care for his ailing father in April 1901, remaining for three years, but upon returning to Chicago, he was welcomed again to share in the Glessners’ Christmas festivities, as noted in his reply to Frances Glessner’s invitation for Christmas Day 1904:

“To begin and to close Christmas Day at Mr. and Mrs. Glessners’ – nothing finer could Mr. von Holst wish, and, as the best wishes are so seldom realized, he looks forward with pleasure to the fulfillment of this one: to Breakfast at 8, to Supper at 7.”

His Christmas card from 1909 contains a short but heartfelt greeting:

“To Mrs. Glessner – a Merry Christmas. I know of no truer heart or better friend. Hermann”

It appears Hermann was present every Christmas for decades, even after his marriage to Lucy Hammond in 1911. Soon after, Hermann published Modern American Homes, and one of the first copies was presented to Frances Glessner for Christmas in 1912, with the following, thoughtful inscription:

“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.”

Dining room, 1923


Frances Glessner’s journal stops in 1917, but various other documents left behind help us to reconstruct what Christmas would have been like in 1924. The guest list shows that seventeen people joined the Glessners for dinner. 

Frederick and Elizabeth Stock – Music director of the symphony since 1905. On his photo above, which he presented to the Glessners for Christmas in 1907, he notes that they are his “best friends.”

(From left) Frederick Wessels, Henry Voegeli, Eric DeLamarter

Frederick and Minnie Wessels – The orchestra’s business manager, and treasurer of the Orchestral Association, of which John Glessner was a trustee. 

Henry and Frances Voegeli – The orchestra’s assistant business manager, and assistant treasurer of the Orchestral Association. He took over as business manager upon Wessel’s retirement in 1927.

Eric DeLamarter – Assistant conductor of the symphony since October 1918.

Enrico and Juliette Tramonti – They came to Chicago in 1902 when he accepted the position of principal harpist with the symphony; he continued in that position until 1927.

William Bernhard with "Jerry" (Ephraim Historical Foundation)

William and Svea Bernhard – A Chicago architect who later designed the summer home for the Stocks in Ephraim, Wisconsin.

Lucy von Holst (from 1924 passport application)

Hermann and Lucy von Holst – Records indicate that Lucy von Holst, Juliette Tramonti, and Svea Bernhard were regularly asked to decorate the Glessners’ Christmas tree. All would have been about the age of the Glessners’ children.

Nathalie Sieboth Kennedy – Reader for Frances Glessner’s Monday Morning Reading Class from 1902 until it was disbanded in 1930. During the 1890s and early 1900s, she was co-principal of the Sieboth-Kennedy School for Girls with her sister Marie (Sieboth) Gookin. It was considered one of Chicago’s finest finishing schools, the graduates “marrying well and early.”

Nathalie Gookin – Mrs. Kennedy’s niece, and the daughter of Frederick and Marie Gookin. Frederick was a close friend of John Glessner, and the long-time curator of Japanese prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Alfred and Vera Wolfe – Vera was the only child of Frederick and Elizabeth Stock. This was the couple’s first Christmas as husband and wife, having been married at Fourth Presbyterian Church in April 1924.

In addition to the guest list, we also have Frances Glessners’ seating chart. Frederick Stock occupied the place of honor to her right; Eric DeLamarter sat to her left. The two youngest female guests, Nathalie Gookin and Vera Wolfe, sat to either side of John Glessner.

The menu was not as elaborate as it would have been in the late 1800s, this time including just four courses (as opposed to eight).

First course
Soup, served with crackers, olives, and celery. Crackers would have been baked by the cook (no saltines here), and celery was still quite popular, with special dishes designed to hold the crudité. 

Second course
Turkey, sausage, cranberries, jelly, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, and radishes. The sausage was most likely from Deerfoot Farms, the finest and most expensive sausages at the time; it is frequently identified by name on other dinner menus. Jelly referred to a gelatin dish, i.e. a “Jello mold,” all the rage at the time. 

Third course
Tomato and lettuce salad, with cheese balls and crackers. Menus consistently show that salad was always served after the entrée. 

Fourth course
Plum pudding, ice cream, cake, candy, fruit, nuts, and raisins. Plum pudding was a standard on the Glessners’ Christmas table, and ice cream was served at almost all dinner parties. 

This being Prohibition, no alcohol was served. During dinner, guests consumed cider and White Rock, the most popular mineral water of its day. Coffee was served with dessert.

The toast read by Hermann at dinner is significant in that it combines a bit of history of his relationship with the Glessners, how meaningful the years of friendship were to him, and a first-hand account of how the Glessners’ “spirit” impacted all those around them. 

He begins the toast by noting that in 1896, he received his first independent commission as an architect from the Glessners – a bronze tablet commemorating their horse Jim, who had died earlier that year at The Rocks, where he was buried beneath a huge boulder.

Jim's memorial plaque, 2013

The remainder of the toast makes note of the Glessners’ gift of their Prairie Avenue home and how that act embodied and reflected their generous spirit. The toast reads:

“A few weeks ago, the Chicago papers announced that this home was presented in perpetuity to the (Chicago) Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The same spirit that remembered the faithful horse with a bronze table dedicated this beautiful structure to posterity, a gift which will have untold influence for good on generations of followers of the art of building. 

“The young draughtsman of 1896 has been under the influence of this spirit for 28 years and knows what it has done for him.

“You assembled here know too what a wonderful enlightening factor it has been in your lives. It is a spirit for good and it will outlast this glorious, lovable building. It is the spirit of Christmas that lasts 365 days in the year. Mrs. Glessner and Mr. Glessner are the embodiment of this spirit. They have given the inert materials composing this structure a mighty soul.

“Let us rise and wish them in unison A MERRY CHRISTMAS.”

And with those carefully chosen words, Hermann V. von Holst preserved the special spirit of this house and its occupants for all of us to appreciate nearly a century later, when the true spirit of Christmas is needed more than ever.

After dinner, the party traveled down to Orchestra Hall, where Stock led one of his “popular concerts” consisting of lighter works, with tickets priced from 15 to 50 cents, making the concerts available to a wide audience. 

On January 1, 1925, to conclude the celebratory month, the Glessners hosted a reception for the members of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, assisted by the Chapter president, Alfred H. Granger. That day was also Frances Glessner’s 77th birthday.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Thanksgiving Day Protest March of 1884

A mass gathering – a protest march – banners displaying grievances – complaints about the police and the mayor – the National Guard conducting street riot drills. Is the year 2020? Well, it might be, but in this article, we will look at the issues which culminated in Chicago’s largely forgotten Thanksgiving Day protest march of 1884.

Albert Parsons

The roots of the protest can be found in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the first general strike in the United States, brought on by the railroads cutting the wages of its workers. On July 23, 1877, Albert Parsons (later of Haymarket fame) spoke to a crowd of 30,000 Chicago workers, demanding fair wages. The uprising lasted for three days and came to a head on July 26 when the police confronted assembled workers at the railroad viaduct at Halsted and 16th Street. The police opened fire into the crowd, and thirty workers lost their lives, with many more wounded. (Read more in this May 2020 article from Chicago Magazine).

1877 riot

Parsons, who lost his job at the Chicago Times during the incident, started his own publication, the anarchist Alarm. He shared an office with August Spies, a German furniture maker and publisher of the Arbeiter Zeitung. Together, the publications helped to spread their cause to the Polish, German, and Bohemian immigrants who were rapidly increasing in number in Chicago.

August Spies

A major grievance was the demand for the eight-hour day. Chicago’s business community could not ignore the growing movement, and several of the leading businessmen that were targeted resided on Prairie Avenue. Chief among them were Marshall Field, George Pullman, and Philip Armour.

1886 map of Market Square

On the cold rainy afternoon of November 27, 1884, Thanksgiving Day, a crowd estimated anywhere from 500 to 2,000 answered the call of the Socialists and gathered in Market Square, located along Market Street between Madison and Randolph. A band played the Marseillaise Hymn as the crowd waited for Parsons and others to ascend to the speaker’s stand, hastily assembled from a half dozen chicken crates. Around the stand, banners sewed by Parson’s wife Lucy, an integral part of the movement, read:

-Our capitalistic robbers may well thank their Lord that we, their victims, have not yet strangled them

-Thanks to our ‘Lords’ who have the kindness to feast on our earnings

-Shall we thank our ‘Lords’ for our misery, destitution, and poverty?

-The turkeys and champagne upon the tables of our ‘Lords’ was purchased by us

-Why we thank? Because our capitalistic brothers are happily enjoying our turkeys, our wines, and our houses

Market Square

Parsons started his speech, “Men of the disinherited class of the earth, we are assembled here on this day of National thanksgiving to curse the capitalistic robbers who are feasting on the blood of our wives and children. We are justified in cursing these vipers by the Bible which they hurl at us with so much unction,” after which he quoted from the Gospel of John and the Epistle of St. James. “Your riches are corrupted . . . Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust shall eat your flesh as if it were fire. We do not intend to leave this matter for the Lord, we intend to do something for ourselves.”

During the next speech, given by C. D. Griffin, men arrived from the West Side, carrying two large red and two large black flags. “This is the first time in America that the black flag of hunger has been carried in the streets of a city. Shall we submit to being starved? No; we will flaunt these black emblems of want and despair in the faces of the rich robbers as they are eating our turkey and drinking our wine.”

The black flag of hunger

Several Socialist resolutions were adopted noting that property rights should no longer be maintained or respected and that the “great army of useless workers, among whom are the lawyers, insurers, brokers, canvassers, jailers, politicians, armies and navies, including all useless employees whose sole business is to adjust property claims between man and man, should be deprived of this useless and corrupting employment.” August Spies then spoke noting that “when the Socialists asked for bread, (Mayor) Carter Harrison appointed 400 new policemen to drive them from their homes and hovels.”

Protest banners

After a final speech, delivered in German, “the crowd was then formed into a procession, headed by a band, and paraded the more aristocratic portions of the city, such as Michigan avenue on the South Side and Dearborn avenue on the North Side. At the head of the line were displayed two flags, a red and a black one.” The march proceeded onto Prairie Avenue, “the very citadel of capitalism.” Marchers rang the doorbells of Marshall Field and George Pullman and others, Samuel Fielden proclaiming “Our international movement is to unite all countries and do away with the robber class, prepare for the inevitable conflict.”

1900 block of Prairie Avenue looking northeast; Marshall Field's home is at center

The marchers dispersed quietly as night fell, there being no attempt on the part of the police to break up the crowd. However, that morning, the First Regiment infantry had been directed to practice “street riot tactics,” not only to be at the ready should there be a need to intervene, but also as a show of strength.

“The First Infantry spent something over two hours of the morning in drilling the ‘street riot’ tactics recently prepared by one of the New York National Guard officers . . . These various movements are intended to be used in forcing their way through and dispersing any mobs which have taken possession of the streets and are something entirely new to the National Guard . . . As the street-riot fighting is about the only kind that the Chicago regiments may expect to have to engage in, the officers are going to give a good deal more attention to this particular feature hereafter.”

The Thanksgiving Day march was an important moment in the anarchist movement, which continued to grow. The next year, when the elaborate Board of Trade building opened, the marchers were there proclaiming that the “Board of Thieves” stood for “starvation of the masses, privileges and luxury for the few.” One of the marchers exclaimed, “blow it up with dynamite.” General Philip Sheridan, who had helped protect Chicago following the Great Fire in 1871, only created more unrest with comments such as, “The better classes are tired of the insane howlings of the lowest strata, and they mean to stop them.”

Lucy Parsons

On May 1, 1886, the anarchists and the labor movements came together in a nationwide fight for the eight-hour workday. Albert and Lucy Parsons led 80,000 workers down Michigan Avenue and the city of Chicago became the center of the strike. Three days later, the Haymarket Riot took place with Parsons and Spies and several others being wrongly convicted of throwing a bomb at the police that arrived to break up the gathering. They were among four men hanged on November 11, 1887, all becoming martyrs for the movement.

1700 block of South Michigan Avenue, looking northeast

Various monuments have been erected through the years to honor those who lost their lives as a result of the events at Haymarket Square. There is no monument commemorating the 1884 Thanksgiving Day protest march, but it remains an important chapter in the history of the labor movement in Chicago and the nation.

NOTE: The Thanksgiving Day march and the incidents that followed left their mark on the Prairie Avenue neighborhood. By the spring of 1889, residents had raised necessary funds and enforced sufficient political pressure to result in the erection of a new armory for the First Regiment. It was conveniently located at the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and 16th Street, providing a gateway between downtown and the residential district centered by Prairie Avenue. The building was designed to portray strength and authority.

First Regiment Armory

“The days of the Plantagenets, of bastions, ramparts, and parapets, is suggested by the proposed new First Regiment Armory, the plans and specifications of which have just been completed by architects Burnham & Root . . . Here, overlooking the boulevard and lake, will stand the grim, solid, military-looking pile . . . The armory will stand alone in its medieval picturesqueness, a veritable fortress capable of resisting any attack from without unless it be a prolonged siege by heavy artillery . . . The walls will be four feet thick . . . The entire four stone walls are unbroken save by the vast sallyport on Michigan avenue. The stone reveals of this port will be ten feet deep and the arched opening itself forty feet wide. An entire company front may march through the door in a charge on an enemy without breaking. The door is protected by a portcullis made of chains and bars of steel which can be raised out of sight when not in a position of defense . . . War is clearly embodied in every line and angle of the structure, which combines solidity, dignity, security, and permanence.”

Built to survive a military attack, the building could not survive the changing fortunes of the Prairie Avenue neighborhood. After the First Regiment abandoned the armory, it endured years of use hosting sporting events and car shows before being razed in 1967.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Lithographic Technical Foundation opens in Glessner House - 1945

Reception desk in main hall

In October 1945, exactly 75 years ago, and just weeks after the end of World War II, the Lithographic Technical Foundation (LTF) opened its new research laboratories in Glessner House. For the next twenty years, LTF occupied the building, helping to ensure its survival, while many of the neighboring houses were demolished. Utilizing a souvenir booklet from the opening of the laboratories, and a series of photographs taken by Hedrich Blessing, this article will provide a glimpse inside the house during the LTF occupancy.

Laboratory in former dining room

LTF was begun in the 1920s as a non-profit endowed institution with a mission of providing cooperative scientific research and related educational activities in the field of lithography. It maintained its educational headquarters and administrative offices in New York City, with a research laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. 

Laboratory in the former parlor; a light box (shown at far right) blocks off the north entrance into the room from the main hall

By the early 1940s, LTF was looking to expand its research activities and investigated eight of the leading research facilities in the United States, settling on Armour Institute, which had been gifted Glessner House in 1938. The first few collaborative projects were so successful, that the decision was made to relocate the research laboratories from Cincinnati to Chicago. With no facilities available on the main campus, LTF was offered Glessner House rent free, with LTF only responsible for a share of the annual maintenance.

Press set up in former coach house

The official opening of the laboratories took place on Tuesday October 23, 1945. LTF made good use of the 17,400 square foot building as is noted in the “Guide to Glessner House” included in the opening booklet.

The reception area was placed in the first-floor main hall, with the large panel over the fireplace painted with “Lithographic Research Laboratories” and a listing of the six main divisions. The research director, Prof. Robert F. Reed, used the Glessners’ former bedroom as his office. 

Prof. Reed's office in the Glessners' former bedroom

The library was retained for use as the research library, the large partners desk still in place. The parlor and dining room were converted into the main laboratories, with a physical chemistry laboratory, hood room, and experimental laboratories for platemaking, photography, and press occupying the rooms of the former kitchen suite.

School Room

The school room was, appropriately, designated for educational activities. The second-floor hall was made into a large conference room, utilizing the Glessners’ original dining room table, chairs, and sideboard. The two guest rooms were converted into additional conference rooms. 

Second floor hall with the Glessners' original dining room furniture shown at right

George’s former bedroom became the office of Wade E. Griswold, the executive director, and Fanny’s former bedroom was dedicated to optics and light research. The conservatory and female servants’ wing became ink and paper reference rooms and a lunchroom. The coach house became a demonstration room with a full-size press, with a maintenance shop, paper storage, and caretaker’s quarters above in the former hayloft and male servants’ quarters. The basement and third floor were turned into a series of demonstration rooms for chemistry, platemaking, dot etching, hand retouching, stripping, and opaquing, in addition to a darkroom and camera lab.

Executive Director Wade E. Griswold's office in George's former bedroom

The ample wall space in the house, previously filled with the Glessners’ collection of steel engravings, was hung with “many of the fine examples of lithographic workmanship, including a large portion of the fine collection of retrospective historical lithographic prints and other art subjects and fine examples of lithography produced by its members.”

Research library; the Glessners' partners desk is in the foreground with two of the original dining room chairs

The Deed of Gift between the Glessner family and Armour Institute (which became the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 1940 upon its merger with the Lewis Institute) stipulated that Armour must retain ownership of the house for at least twenty years. A few years in advance of that anniversary date, IIT informed LTF that the leasing arrangements would be terminated at that time. LTF examined its possibilities and ultimately decided to purchase Glessner House from IIT at an agreed upon price of $70,000. A ceremony transferring ownership was held at the Lake Shore Club, 850 N. Lake Shore Drive, on April 2, 1958 – twenty years and two days after Armour had originally accepted the house.

Corner guestroom in use as a conference room: the walls were covered in silver leaf

Just five years later, LTF made the decision to consolidate the research facilities in Chicago and the educational activities in New York into a single location in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, near Carnegie Mellon University, with whom it often partnered. Glessner House was put up for sale for $70,000 and most of the original Glessner furniture pieces still in the house were sold, as LTF was considering demolition. The house was ultimately purchased by the newly formed Chicago School of Architecture Foundation in the spring of 1966 for just $35,000, and Glessner House Museum was born.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Thomas Wilfred, Lumia, and Frances Glessner Lee's Clavilux Junior

In September 1930, exactly 90 years ago, Frances Glessner Lee had a Clavilux Junior installed in her co-op apartment at 1448 N. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. It was the home version of the Clavilux, developed by Thomas Wilfred to show his light art in a theater setting. In this article, we will look at Wilfred’s development of this art form, how Chicagoans would have been introduced to it, Lee’s purchase of her unit, and what became of it after she died.

Thomas Wilfred with a Clavilux Junior, 1930 (Thomas Wilfred Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)

Thomas Wilfred and Lumia

Born in Denmark in 1889, by the early 1900s Wilfred was in New York experimenting with colored glass and light, the start of a life-long obsession with the manipulation of color, light, and motion. He was not the first to treat light as an artistic medium, but is regarded as the first to consider it a formal art. He developed the term “lumia” to refer to his new art and noted that it should be observed in silence. This quote by Wilfred summarizes his thoughts on the subject:

“Here light is the artist’s sole medium of expression. He must mould it by optical means, almost as a sculptor models clay. He must add colour, and finally motion to his creation. Motion, the time dimension, demands that he must be a choreographer in space.”

He constructed his first Clavilux in 1919, the Latin origin of the name meaning “light played by key.” Sitting at the large console (which others often called a color organ, a term Wilfred did not himself like or use), Wilfred could control the light projection in terms of color and motion, creating an infinite number of possibilities. Compositions were assigned opus numbers and were played from detailed scores. The first public performance was at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York in 1922 and was enthusiastically received by the press. Additional models were built allowing Wilfred to tour, and he also founded the Art Institute of Light, which had its own recital hall.

By 1930, he had developed the Clavilux Junior for those interested in bringing the technology into their own home. Only 16 were made, of which Frances Glessner Lee purchased one and came into possession of another. In later years, Wilfred focused on recording his lumia and in utilizing his art form in theatrical projections. He died in 1968 by which time his compositions had been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, the latter having featured Wilfred in a 1952 exhibition, 15 Americans, that placed him alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.


Wilfred’s work would have been known in Chicago, where the Tribune made note of his successful 1922 inaugural performance in New York. Although the article referred to “Wilfred’s curious Clavilux,” it noted that it kept the Neighborhood Playhouse sold out for two weeks.

In November 1923, Wilfred was invited to speak at Chicago’s Cordon, a women’s club composed of artists and those who supported them. (Frances Glessner Lee’s mother, Frances, was a long-time member). Wilfred returned to Chicago the next year, giving a full performance at the Blackstone Theatre, where he showed his “recent amazing developments.”

Advertisement for a Clavilux concert, Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1924

An interesting use of Wilfred’s art occurred in 1928 when it was incorporated into the Goodman Theater’s production of Ibsen’s The Vikings of Helgeland. Given that the setting of the play was northern Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle, it seems likely that the lumia were utilized, at least in part, to depict the Northern Lights, a comparison that has often been made by those who have experienced his work. When the play was produced on Broadway two years later, however, it was noted that his technology was also used to project scenery. Wilfred’s lumia would have also been seen by thousands during the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago during 1933 and 1934.

The most dramatic use in Chicago would have been seen in 1929-1930 at the Bal Tabarin ballroom in the Hotel Sherman, where there was 3,000 square feet of blank wall space covering three sides of the room, literally a blank canvas on which to project lumia. An electrical engineer, sitting in a projection room above the ceiling, simultaneously controlled 27 projectors from a central keyboard.

Transverse section of the Bal Tabarin installation, 1929 (Thomas Wilfred Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)

An article in the March 1930 issue of Popular Mechanics noted that “this is the first ballroom in the world to use light exclusively for interior decoration,” describing the appearance in detail:

“Oriental gardens, desert mirages, swirling stars and other unusual effects glow and dissolve on the walls of the Bal Tabarin . . . Whole schemes of interior decoration can be altered in a few seconds . . . Suddenly stately Grecian pillars appear. They look as solid as stone. They glow with changing colors against what appears to be a sky of infinite depth. A sea opens up behind the columns, ships loom out of the dim horizon, then disappear. The entire scene dissolves and gives place to a performance of slowly whirling light masses that suggest the nebulae of the heavens. A sort of mechanical séance gives evidence of the magic accomplishments of expert lighting artists and engineers. As the mysterious figures fade, the walls assume the appearance of the bottom of the sea where weird shapes slip about, and the entire area glows with a soft hue, associated with the depths of tropical waters.”

Bal Tabarin ballroom at the Hotel Sherman, Popular Mechanics, March 1930, page 401

Frances Glessner Lee

It is not known how Lee became acquainted with Wilfred’s work, but the Thomas Wilfred papers at Yale University record that she purchased the fourth Clavilux Junior unit he made, and the first designed to fit into a corner. She paid $500 for Unit #85 which was completed on July 7, 1930, the walnut case designed in a striking Art Deco form with prominent hinges mounted to the face of the upper and lower doors. Wilfred came to Chicago to install the unit in her apartment on September 18 of that year.

Frances Glessner Lee's Unit #85 (Carol and Eugene Epstein Collection)

To operate, Lee would have selected from amongst various glass records, each of which was hand-painted with a distinct composition that would create the projected image, produced when light would travel through a reflective cone into a concave gap between an internal piece of curved illustration board and the glass front. An “extension keyboard,” attached to the unit with a heavy cable, would have allowed Lee to manipulate and customize the light and its movement from the comfort of her chair.

Glass records from Unit #86 (Carol and Eugene Epstein Collection, courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)

Of great interest is the fact that Unit #86 was purchased by Dr. George Burgess Magrath, Lee’s close collaborator during the 1930s in the development of the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University. Lee and Magrath had known each other since the early 1890s, but had reconnected on a significant level in 1929, when both were hospitalized for an extended period in Boston. Wilfred completed Unit #86 using it initially as a demonstration model prior to Magrath’s purchase. It was installed in his room at the St. Botolph Club in Boston on August 2, 1930. After his death in 1938, Frances Glessner Lee acquired Magrath’s unit, making her what appears to have been the only person at the time to own two units. Records in her personal papers note repairs and alterations to the unit in 1942, which were undertaken by Irving & Casson – A. H. Davenport Co. The representative discouraged her from painting the cabinet white, instead she had it lacquered.

George Burgess Magrath's Unit #86 (Carol and Eugene Epstein Collection, courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)

There are a few interesting names on the list of owners for the other Clavilux Junior units. Chief among them is Leopold Stokowski, long-time conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who was present at the first demonstration of the Clavilux in 1922. Three years later, Wilfred played the Clavilux as an accompaniment to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, conducted by Stokowski. In 1940, Stokowski incorporated the same dramatic lighting effects into the opening sequence of the Disney movie Fantasia, with its dramatic silhouette of musicians set against a backdrop of rich, changing colors.

Another unit was acquired by Sewell Avery, president of United States Gypsum Corporation, and the long-time head of Montgomery Ward. Bertrand Goldberg, architect of Chicago’s Marina City, also later acquired a Clavilux Junior unit.

Preserving Lumia

The survival of Wilfred’s legacy, and many of the remaining Clavilux Junior units, is due to the dedicated efforts of Eugene Epstein, who first became aware of Wilfred’s work in the early 1960s, when Epstein was a graduate student in radio astronomy at Harvard. During that period, he encountered a Wilfred installation at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote to Wilfred, and a rapport was established. Epstein acquired his first unit in 1965, and built up, with the assistance of his nephew, A. J. Epstein, what is now known as the Carol and Eugene Epstein Collection.

The two units owned by Frances Glessner Lee were put into storage in the old farmhouse at her New Hampshire estate, The Rocks, after her death in 1962. A local antiques dealer, Roland Shick, acquired them at a sale at The Rocks shortly before the farmhouse was demolished, and later worked with Stan Harrison who made them functional. In 2015, they were put up for sale at auction, with Epstein acquiring Unit #85 and later Unit #86.

The first solo exhibition of Wilfred’s work in over four decades, Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light, was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery and ran from February to July 2017, after which it traveled to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC for a run from October 2017 until early January 2018.

Lumia exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, October 2017 (photo by author)

In a truly ironic twist of fate, Lee’s fully functional Unit #86 was included and demonstrated in the Lumia exhibition. Lee’s famous Nutshell Studies, which formed the exhibition Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, opened on October 19, 2017 at the Renwick Gallery, another facility of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, just 13 days after the Lumia exhibit opened.  

Unit #86 in operation (Carol and Eugene Epstein Collection, courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)

The Yale University Art Gallery produced a ten-minute YouTube video demonstrating Unit #86, using one of the original glass records. Watch it here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

William Morris and Glessner House - Part III

The use of a wide range of products from Morris & Co., selected by Frances Glessner to decorate her new home in 1887, is an essential factor when considering her design aesthetic. Surviving photos of the Glessners’ previous home show no evidence of Morris’s products being used there, despite her awareness and interest in Morris as early as 1883. As such, Morris & Co. became a virtual partner with Richardson – the architecture and interior furnishings complementing and enriching each other to form a unified whole. This was a basic concept that Frances Glessner and H. H. Richardson both read about in Morris’s writings on architecture just a few years before Glessner house came into being.

In this third and final installment of our series on William Morris and Glessner House, we will explore the range of products used throughout the house. There are far too many to explore in a single article; instead, we will look at one example of each of the major categories of items produced by Morris & Co. - wallpapers, textiles, and carpets.


Perhaps no product line of Morris & Co. is more associated with the name of William Morris to this day than wallpaper. Morris introduced his first designs in the early 1860s, a period in which wallpaper was almost universal in the homes of all who could afford it. Although Morris’s wallpapers were printed using the traditional wood-block process, the designs themselves were far from traditional and marked a gradual shift away from the French realistic papers to those categorized as “reform” papers. At the same time, Morris helped to elevate the status of English wallpapers to one of international prominence, and he directly influenced other designers to the point where the term “Morrisonian” was used to describe all wallpapers created in “his” style.

A total of seven Morris wallpaper designs were used at Glessner house. Upon completion of the house in 1887, both guestrooms as well as the bedrooms of George and Fanny, were all papered with Morris designs. Installation of electrical wiring in 1892 resulted in all the rooms being repapered, with the two guestrooms receiving different Morris designs, in both cases ones that were much lighter in color. At the same time, the Glessners’ bedroom, originally decorated with a non-Morris paper, received its Morris wallpaper. After that, when the rooms were repapered, the same Morris pattern was always reused. The wallpapers were acquired through the Chicago-based decorating firm of John J. McGrath, which began carrying Morris & Co. wallpapers as early as 1876. 

Of particular interest is the Double Bough wallpaper, installed in the corner guestroom after the electrical wiring project was completed. Although several people created wallpaper designs for Morris & Co., this particular pattern is attributed to William Morris himself, and dates to 1890. This date is interesting because the wallpaper would not have been available when Glessner house was completed in 1887 but was available when the repapering was undertaken. This might explain its sudden appearance – Frances Glessner saw the new design, liked it, and found a way to work it into her home. It was used again when the room was repapered in 1916.

In 2010, when the room was being readied for restoration, a large piece of the Double Bough wallpaper was found behind vinyl wallcovering installed in the early 1970s. It was carefully removed from the walls by historic finishes expert Robert Furhoff and preserved. The fragment was of great value as it verified the colorway of the wallpaper. As was the case with most Morris & Co. wallpapers, Double Bough was offered in several colorways, and since the historic photos are all black and white, a surviving fragment is essential to recreate the wallpaper correctly. 

The complete set of carved wood blocks was on hand at the Morris archives in England and were used to print the current paper, installed in 2015. The process was laborious, as the paper must be given time to dry in between the application of each block. For this particular design, 21 blocks were needed; some designs required as many as 30.

Today, four of the five bedrooms feature exact copies of their Morris & Co. wallpapers – Double Bough and Arcadia in the guestrooms, and Poppy and Blossom in the children’s bedrooms.


Textiles represented a huge category of products for Morris & Co. including everything from woven woolens and printed cottons used for draperies and upholstery, to embroidered textiles and tapestries. Historic photographs of Glessner house show no less than nine rooms that featured at least one Morris textile, often used for draperies and portieres, but also for upholstered furniture and bed coverings. Fanny’s bedroom, for example, just reopened after an extensive restoration, features different Morris & Co. textiles for the draperies, upholstery, and embroidered bed covering. 

Perhaps the most widely used textile in the house is one that is often overlooked. Known as Utrecht Velvet, the stamped woolen plush fabric appears in historic photos covering chairs in the library and upper hall, and on the davenport sofas in both the library and the schoolroom (after its conversion to a sitting room). Developed in about 1871, it is based on stamped velvets first produced during the 17th- and 18th-centuries in the Low Countries. The monochromatic design consisted of a bold, stylized pattern of flowers and foliage, the repeat being 26 inches in diameter.

Unlike many of the Morris & Co. textiles, it was not actually produced by the firm, but was contracted out to a firm that produced woolen goods. It was available in at least fourteen colorways. The surviving example of Utrecht Velvet can be found on the seats of a pair of Chippendale style side chairs in the second-floor hall, attributed to A. H. Davenport & Co. It was produced in a rich red color, although it is believed that a green version of the fabric was used in the library. (Fun fact: The fabric remained popular well after the turn of the 20th century and was used as a wallcovering for at least one of the first-class cabins on the R.M.S. Titanic).

Reproductions of Morris & Co. textiles can currently be found in the main hall (both levels), library, parlor, and four of the five bedrooms. An original pair of drapery panels in the Cross Twigs design is stored in the archives, the exact location of its use in the house has not been determined.


Morris & Co. produced numerous carpet designs through the years which can be divided into two categories – machine-woven and hand-knotted. Although Morris generally eschewed the use of the machine, he started designing an extensive line of machine-woven carpets in 1876; several can be seen in the historic photos of Glessner house. In 2013, one of his earliest and most popular machine-woven carpets, Lily, was reproduced and reinstalled in its original location on the main entry stairs leading up to the main hall from the front door.

It is the hand-knotted Hammersmith rug in the main hall itself that is most worthy of note. Frances Glessner wrote about its selection in a journal entry recording the arrival of architect Charles Coolidge on April 19, 1887:

“Tuesday Mr. Coolidge came. He and John spent the morning at the house and came home late to lunch. We spent the afternoon at Field’s looking over rugs and hangings – we selected for the parlor and hall – Morris rug and hangings for the hall, and Morris silks for the parlor. Mr. C. was enthusiastic over our Morris rug. In the evening we talked furnishings and showed him all the things we have gathered up for the house.”

The hand-knotted carpets were extremely labor intensive to produce, and were therefore very costly, so Coolidge’s enthusiasm over the rug is no surprise. An advertisement in the Chicago Tribune that same year promoted the rug department at Marshall Field & Co., considered one of the best in the country. The advertisement specifically noted that Field’s had an exclusive contract “for the entire West” for the “wonderous Hammersmith rugs designed and made under the personal supervision of William Morris.” 

Morris was an expert on, and collector of, rugs from Persia, Turkey, and China, advising the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert) on acquisitions, and offering advice to Richardson on a carpet during their meeting in 1882. The carpet produced for the Glessners is very similar to one that Morris designed about 1883 for Swan House, the London home of Wickham Flower, a prominent solicitor. It is based on a typical 17th-century Persian medallion carpet and features a broad border of stylized palmettes, inspired by 16th- and 17th-century Turkish cut velvets, of which Morris would have also been familiar.

The original carpet, which measures nearly 11’ x 15.5’, was donated to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1974 by the Glessners’ granddaughter, Martha Batchelder. A close approximation of the original, assembled from machine made carpeting replicating both the field and border, was installed in the main hall in 2014.

This concludes our three-part series on William Morris and the significant presence of his designs at Glessner House. There is much to see, we hope you will visit soon!

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