Tuesday, July 21, 2020

William Morris and Glessner House - Part II

Frances Glessner was a faithful customer of the Chicago merchant John J. McGrath, whose firm provided the finest wallpapers in the city. By 1876, he also served as the exclusive agent for Morris & Co. in the United States. While shopping for her Washington Street house, Frances Glessner would have no doubt seen Morris’s wallpaper designs, but there is no indication she considered any of these papers until the early 1880s.

On March 6, 1883, Frances Glessner noted in her journal that she attended a meeting of the Decorative Art Society, where she found a discussion of William Morris and his designs most interesting. Within days, she purchased a copy of Morris’s 1882 Hopes and Fears for Art, and less than a week later had finished reading it.

Before March drew to a close, she recorded the following:
“I took Mrs. Avery down to McGrath’s to see Wm. Morris designs in materials for furnishing. We had a delightful morning. I selected a lovely combination for The Rocks, but it is too expensive.”

A surviving scrapbook from The Rocks, recording the various wallpapers and fabrics used in the main house, shows some beautiful and dramatic designs, but none of them are by Morris & Co., so the cost obstacle was not overcome – at that time.

Hopes and Fears for Art

This small volume, published concurrently in both the United Kingdom and the United States, contains five lecture Morris delivered in Birmingham, London, and Nottingham between 1878 and 1881. The five lectures are titled:
The Lesser Arts
The Art of the People
The Beauty of Life
Making the Best of it
The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization
As noted in our previous article, Morris had strong views on a variety of subjects, and those views are expressed clearly in these lectures. Topics range from the value of handicraft to the evils of industrialization, as well as his thoughts on architecture and historic preservation.

An advertisement for the book (priced as $1.25), published in the Chicago Tribune on February 24, 1882, provided the following quote from “an artist”:
“Is not this book the greatest on Art since ‘Modern Painters?’ The same spirit pervades it, that of the reformer profoundly moved by his mission. It is esthetic – strong drink and food too for the upper classes. How will they accept the principle that luxury is the deadly enemy of Art: that the greater part of their artistic surroundings might well make a bonfire? He writes as one who knows, and his style is superb.”

A review published the next month provided another hearty endorsement:
“’Real art,’ says Mr. Morris, ‘is the expression by man of his pleasure in labor’ – an excellent definition, practical and easily understood. Mr. Morris is well known as a poet, but he is also a hard worker. Whatever he says about ‘art’ is the result of careful consideration, earnest thought, and personal experience, and is therefore entitled to an attentive hearing. The present volume is untechnical and adapted to general use and is commended as worthy the man who wrote it, and as likely to be of great service to the man who reads it.”

One of the most beautifully written passages in the work is the closing paragraph of his lecture, “The Beauty of Life,” where Morris discusses his Cause (with a capital C):
“So to us who have a Cause at heart, our highest ambition and our simplest duty are one and the same thing: for the most part we shall be too busy doing the work that lies ready to our hands, to let impatience for visibly great progress vex us much; but surely since we are servants of a Cause, hope must be ever with us, and sometimes perhaps it will so quicken our vision that it will out-run the slow lapse of time, and show us the victorious days when millions of those who now sit in darkness will be enlightened by an Art made by the people and for the people, a joy to the maker and the user.”

Henry Hobson Richardson and William Morris

When the Glessners met Richardson in 1885, the architect was an enthusiastic supporter of Morris’s work. This admiration was strengthened in 1882, when Richardson made his last trip to Europe and spent time with Morris. Surviving records of the trip note that Richardson visited the Morris & Co. works at Merton Abbey, and he was entertained at the Morris home in Kelmscott. Morris even advised Richardson on a Persian carpet which Richardson acquired for his faithful client, Frederick Ames, in North Easton, Massachusetts.

The year 1882 also saw Morris & Co. commissioned to design and manufacture four stained glass windows for Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston, his acknowledged masterpiece. Designed by Edward Burne-Jones, three of the windows show scenes of the Nativity, while the fourth window depicts “David’s Charge to Solomon.” There is literally a bit of Morris depicted in this last window. In the upper right-hand corner, the famous story of David and Goliath is depicted, and the head of Goliath being held in David’s right hand is none other than that of William Morris!

In September 1885, the Glessners visited Richardson at his home and studio in Brookline, Massachusetts and they gathered in his library to review their house plans. John Glessner noted that “this was the room I liked best” so it is no surprise the design of the Glessners’ library borrows heavily from this room. Amongst the books, “rare and beautiful objects . . . and lovely articles of vertu” could be found textiles from Morris & Co. 

These included the portieres hung in the alcoves to either side of the fireplace. The pattern was “Peacock & Dragon,” the same pattern the Glessners later selected for the drapes and portieres in the first-floor main hall.

At left: detail showing the alcove and portieres in Richardson's library.
At right: Peacock & Dragon by Morris & Co.

It is interesting to note that one of the items Richardson purchased during his 1882 visit to England was a copy of Morris’s book, Hopes and Fears for Art, the same book Frances Glessner read in 1883. Richardson would have been especially interested in the final lecture in the volume, “The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization,” where Morris shared his views on architecture and its relationship to the decorative arts. The lecture begins:

“The word Architecture has, I suppose, to most of you the meaning of the art of building nobly and ornamentally.  Now, I believe the practice of this art to be one of the most important things which man can turn his hand to, and the consideration of it to be worth the attention of serious people, not for an hour only, but for a good part of their lives, even though they may not have to do with it professionally.

“But, noble as that art is by itself, and though it is specially the art of civilization, it neither ever has existed nor ever can exist alive and progressive by itself, but must cherish and be cherished by all the crafts whereby men make the things which they intend shall be beautiful, and shall last somewhat beyond the passing day.

“It is this union of the arts, mutually helpful and harmoniously subordinated one to another, which I have learned to think of as Architecture.”


By the time the Glessners engaged H. H. Richardson to design their Prairie Avenue home in 1885, both Frances Glessner and Richardson had read William Morris’s influential volume, Hopes and Fears for Art. This shared interest in, and appreciation for, Morris’s thoughts on art and decorating, helps to explain the excellent architect-client relationship that quickly developed, and why so many Morris & Co. products were ultimately selected to furnish the Glessners’ new home.

In the last installment of this series, we will explore some of the Morris & Co. wallpapers, textiles, rugs, and embroideries that were selected by the Glessners, many of which can still be seen in the house today.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

William Morris and Glessner House - Part I

William Morris by George Frederic Watts, 1870 (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Glessners owned a photographic copy of this portrait.

A visit to Glessner House reveals the inseparable connection between the designs of William Morris and of Frances Glessner’s decoration for her new home. It has often been said that the Glessners were a bit ahead of the curve in Chicago in embracing the use of Morris & Co. wallpapers, textiles, and rugs, although such items were gaining favor on the East Coast. There is little surprise here as the Glessners were hardly followers of the popular trends of the day including the reliance on anything of French origin. Instead, they actively studied and developed an aesthetic of their own that is still well reflected in their carefully preserved home.

This leads one to ponder what the average Chicagoan would have known about William Morris in the 1870s and early 1880s. In this first of three articles focusing on Morris, we will look to the Chicago Tribune to see what was written about him, only to discover that the decorative arts was only a small part of a larger dialogue that included Morris as poet and Socialist.

The Defense of Guinevere
One of the first references to Morris appears in a review of new volumes of poetry in the Literature column on May 22, 1875. A reprint of The Defense of Guinevere, and Other Poems had just been released “without alteration from the edition of 1858.” The reviewer noted that “admirers of the noble narrative poems, ‘The Life and Death of Jason,’ and ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ will read with interest the volume of Mr. Morris’ earliest metrical compositions.” The reference to other well-known poems of Morris is followed by the note that his first works, which received less attention at the time of their release, as he was an unknown at the time, were now worthy of a second look, no doubt the reason for the reprint. Of the collection, the reviewer concludes, “Most of these embalm in verse the pleasing legends of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, while all of them show the author’s remarkable command of the simple, pellucid Saxon.”

Morris returned to the collection of poems in 1892, when it was reprinted as one of the first volumes published by his renowned Kelmscott Press. Many scholars have noted Morris’s ongoing interest in the story and have made the connection between the love triangle of Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot to a similar triangle composed of William Morris, his wife Jane, and their friend, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This final edition under Morris’s own hand, shown below, is beautifully printed with woodcut borders and initials.

Aeneids of Virgil
Morris was also known for his translations and later in 1875 published his complete translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic Latin poem composed between 29 and 19 B.C. It was no small feat – the original is composed of 9,896 lines of verse written in dactylic hexameter. The review in the Tribune quotes from the Graphic which stated, “it is almost impossible to conceive of a version more fluent, rhythmical, and supremely beautiful.”

The review then goes into a rather extended discussion of Morris’s use of tobacco, noting that “It is an interesting fact that Morris always writes under the influence of ‘the baneful weed’ – tobacco. . . When the smoke is thickest, the poetry is best.”

Household art
In the May 14, 1876 edition of the Tribune, we find the first mention of Morris as decorator, in this case for his wallpaper designs. In an article entitled “Household Art” written by John J. McGrath, the owner of Chicago’s leading decorating firm, he notes:

“I have procured, by direct importation, a large stock of the Morris and Dresser papers, being the only examples of these designs to be found in this country, executed under the immediate supervision of these ‘art specialists,’ and far excelling in purity of drawing and beauty of coloring anything heretofore presented to the disciples of artistic truths, I cordially commend them to the notice of all who are desirous of escaping from the thralldom of ill-conceived and badly executed designs in wall dressing.”

It is interesting to note that Frances Glessner was a regular customer of McGrath, acquiring wallpapers for her Washington Street home at exactly this time, and probably later for the Big House at The Rocks as well. This would have been her introduction to Morris’s designs, although there is no evidence that she considered any Morris wallpapers until 1883, as we shall see next week.

The Morris mantra
“Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Morris’s mantra is carefully written – the usefulness of an object is something that is easily determined – a pitcher can hold and pour water; a clock keeps time. But the beauty of an object is subjective, one person may believe it to be beautiful, another may not. The concept became central to the Arts & Crafts movement in highlighting the significance of the decorative arts, and the importance of giving artistic consideration to the creation of all items – not just fine arts, but the everyday objects that surround the average person in their home.

An interesting article from April 1882, which at first glance has nothing to do with Morris, noted a large collection of “beautiful objects of art in the shape of foreign bronzes, carvings, exquisite china and porcelain, old tapestries, rugs, and odd bric-a-brac from every corner of the world, sent on to Chicago from the well-known establishment of Sypher & Co., New York, and to remain on view until next Wednesday, when it will be sold under the hammer.”

The anonymous writer of the column spends considerable time describing many of the objects and their inherent beauty. However, at the close, he turns to Morris and his famous mantra (which was apparently known well-enough for the reference) to consider both the beauty and usefulness of the objects. He writes:

“If everyone heeded the advice of William Morris, to admit nothing into their houses that they did not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful, some of these would have to be excluded on the score of usefulness.”

William Morris the preservationist
Morris was deeply concerned about the state of preservation in the latter half of the 19th century in England. In 1877, Morris and several friends formed The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in response to what he viewed as “destructive restoration.” This process involved removing later alterations to return buildings to an idealized original state, which may or may not have ever actually existed. Morris felt strongly that the later alterations were part of the history of the structure and advocated for repair and maintenance over the destructive restoration practices. The Society still exists today, and Morris’s principles are now widely accepted.

An article in the February 28, 1883 Chicago Tribune reprinted comments made by Morris regarding the announced demolition of the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy because it was deemed unsafe and might collapse during flooding. Morris’s comments in part read as follows:

“We need hardly point out, the unrivaled historical interest and artistic beauty of this world-famed bridge, with its three graceful arches crowned by a picturesque group of houses, over which is carried the long passage connecting the Pitti and Uffizi Palaces. Not only the arches of the bridge, but portions of some of the houses, are still preserved exactly as designed by Taddeo Gaddi, and built in A. D. 1362 – an object of the greatest beauty both when seen close at hand and as one of the chief features in the glorious distant view from San Miniato . . . it certainly would not be beyond the skill of modern engineers to underpin and secure the falling piers.”

William Morris and his discontent
Morris wrote and lectured extensively on the current state of art. In March 1883, a paragraph in the London Life column of the Chicago Tribune, written by special correspondent Robert Laird Collier, noted Morris’s discontent with the current state of art. It is so well written that it is reproduced here in its entirety:

“William Morris has been talking about ‘blackguardly houses.’ This William Morris is in his way a ‘regular caution.’ He is poet, painter, house-decorator, shopkeeper, lyceum lecturer. He designs wallpapers, stuffs for curtains, carpets, and sells these designs or the manufactured articles. He keeps a shop where one can get the most artistic furniture, and, I believe, one can out of his shop furnish one’s house from top to bottom. He has just been down to Manchester lecturing at a conversazione of art and literary societies. He said he was so discontented at the present condition of art and the matter was so serious that he desired to make other people share in his discontent. He singled out Bournemouth, a fashionable watering seaside resort, and said the houses of the rich there were blackguardly! Whew! What would he say of Vanderbilt’s wallpaper with its diamond dust! What would he say of a Chicago ‘marble front’ house, a ‘back yard’ twenty feet by twenty, and an – alley. But thank God for the iconoclast. He is a nuisance, but he comes before the revolutionists, and the revolutionist comes before the reformer.”

The term ‘blackguardly,’ not widely used today, referred to something lacking principles or scruples, W. M. Thackeray (author of the 1848 novel Vanity Fair) referring to it as “the tyranny of a scoundrelly aristocracy.”

East Cliff Hall, Bournemouth, now the Russell-Cotes House and Museum

Morris the Socialist
The reference to Morris as iconoclast was appropriate. Most of the references in the Chicago Tribune by the mid-1880s referred not to his work as house-decorator, but to his belief in Socialism, of which he was a leading and outspoken proponent. In February 1885, the Chicago Tribune reprinted a song written by William Morris entitled “The March of the Workers” that had just been published in the English Socialist journal, the Commonwealth. Sung to the tune of “John Brown” (the same tune used for the Battle Hymn of the Republic), it consisted of eight verses and chorus. Beautifully written and displaying his talents as a poet, we reprint here the first and last verse plus the chorus.

“What is this, the sound and rumor? What is this that all men hear,
Like the wind in hollow valleys when the storm is drawing near,
Like the rolling on of ocean in the eventide of fear?
‘Tis the people marching on.

“On we march then, we the workers, and the rumor that ye hear,
Is the blended sound of battle and deliv’rance drawing near?
For the hope of every creature is the banner that we bear,
And the world is marching on.

“Hark, the rolling of the thunder!
Lo, the sun! and lo, thereunder
Riseth wrath, and hope, and wonder,
And the host comes marching on.”

Header from the booklet, “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil,” published by William Morris in 1885, the same year he composed the March of the Workers. The header was designed by his friend and fellow Socialist, artist Walter Crane.

William Morris the Socialist was quoted even more frequently in the newspaper following the Haymarket affair/riot in May 1886. A particularly strong statement, issued in the Commonwealth by Morris on November 12, 1887, the day after four of the “anarchists” were executed was addressed “To the Well-to-Do People of America,” and read in part:

“If you are sure that henceforward the workingmen of your country will live placid and happy lives, then you need think no more of the murder you have committed, for a happy people cannot take vengeance, however grievously they have been wronged; but if it be so with you, as with other nations of civilizations that your workers toil without reward and without hope, oppressed with sordid anxiety for mere livelihood, depraved of the due pleasures of humanity; if there is yet suffering and wrong amongst you, then take heed; increase your army of spies and informers; hire more reckless swashbucklers to do your will; guard every approach to your palace of pleasure without scruple and without mercy, and yet you will but put off for a while the certain vengeance of ruin that will overtake you, and your misery and suffering, which to you in your forgetfulness of your crimes will then seem an injustice, will have to be the necessary step on which the advance of humanity will have to mount to happier days beyond . . . You have sown the wind, you must reap the whirlwind.”

William Morris a bit soured
By now we have seen that William Morris was a man of strong opinions on a range of topics. To close this week, we return briefly to his thoughts on art. Perhaps of most interest is how he is introduced in the first sentence of a short Tribune article from May 1886 – poet, Socialist, and artistic designer – in that order. One cannot help but wonder if he would have introduced himself the same way. His quote, from a London talk given a few days earlier:

“During the last forty years people have conscientiously striven to raise the taste in art, yet the world is growing uglier and more commonplace.”

We do not know the extent to which Frances Glessner was aware of William Morris’s Socialist beliefs, or if she read his poetry, but in 1883 she began to study his views on art. The commissioning of H. H. Richardson to design the Glessner home in 1885 significantly strengthened that interest.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Early History of Prairie Avenue - Part IV

Two weeks ago, we looked at the first four houses constructed on Prairie Avenue, all erected in the 1850s. This week we will examine building activity during the years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865.

During an 1861 visit to Chicago, London Times reporter William H. Russell observed the early houses on the street while a passenger on the Illinois Central, noting “houses which must be the retreat of merchants and citizens of means.” Although the Civil War slowed construction activity in general, it is interesting to note that there were no less than nine houses built during that time frame in the 1600, 1700, and 1800 blocks of Prairie Avenue (none of which survive today).

The first of the War-era houses was built in 1862 for the “Widow Grosvenor” at 1637 S. Prairie Avenue. It was the first of four houses constructed on the east side of Prairie Avenue; all the 1850s houses had been constructed on the west side. The widow was Cornelia (Bogart) Grosvenor, a native of Geneva, New York, born in 1809 and widowed in 1849, her husband having been a prominent attorney in that town. She came to Chicago and built her home, which was also occupied by her son Elisha William Grosvenor, a partner in the commission merchant firm of Grosvenor and Forsyth. 

Cornelia Grosvenor (1827 wedding portrait)

Only one known photo survives showing a portion of the house as originally built, it being a typical two-story brick Italianate style home. Her son married in Flint, Michigan in December 1865 and apparently left Chicago permanently. Within a year, his mother moved farther south and rented her home to the William Gold Hibbard family.

South side of the Grosvenor house as built, c. 1870

For many years it was the home of lumberman Jesse Spalding, who remodeled it in a severe manner to such a point that the original house design was completely lost within.

The Grosvenor house as remodeled by Jesse Spalding

The year 1862 also saw the completion of the home of Nicholas O. Williams at 1709 S. Prairie Avenue. He was the head of the firm of N. O. Williams & Co., dealers in hats, caps, furs, and buck goods. No known photos survive, but a description in the Chicago Tribune described the house, designed by W. W. Boyington, as being of brick and stone construction, with a cost of $10,000. It only lasted twenty years before being demolished for the new home of Palmer Kellogg, designed by Burnham & Root.

A significant and long-standing house was built in 1863 for Wirt Dexter at 1721 S. Prairie Avenue, immediately south of the Williams home. The large frame home was described at the time as a “rambling” New England farmhouse, but also sported an Italianate style cupola to take advantages of the uninterrupted views all around. Dexter was a prominent attorney and served in a leadership capacity for many years with the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, including significant service in the years immediately after the Chicago Fire.

Wirt Dexter house prior to front addition, c. 1888 (Photo by George Glessner)

Dexter created quite a stir on Prairie Avenue in 1889 when he added a large brick addition to the front of his house, bringing it up nearly to the lot line. This especially annoyed next-door neighbor George Pullman who preferred large lawns in front of the homes. A later owner tore down the original frame house and moved the large brick addition back on the lot, but that, too, was demolished in the 1920s.

A more modest home was completed the same year at 1635 S. Prairie Avenue for Col. Robert Forsyth, who served as the general freight agent for the Illinois Central and later Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railways. Again, there are no known photos of the house, but a bit of information is provided by Addie Hibbard Gregory, in her book A Great-Grandmother Remembers. (Addie, age 8, moved into the Widow Grosvenor house in 1867 with her parents and siblings). Of the Forsyth house, she wrote:

“In the early days two of our neighbors, the Williamses and the Forsythes, had long bowling alleys in separate one-story buildings stretching down to the track of the Illinois Central, which followed the lake shore then just as it does today. The roofs of these alleys were arranged as pleasant places from which to view the lake . . . The grounds of the Forsythe home were most elegant. There was a fountain in the middle of the lawn which was surrounded by four white stone statues, and the narrow rectangular walks were made of small white clam shells.”

The house later passed through several owners and occupants and was demolished by the early 1900s.

One house of note was completed in 1864, the large brick house at 1736 S. Prairie Avenue, for Granville S. Ingraham. Surviving photos show a third-story mansard roof which may well have been a later addition atop a more typical Italianate style house of the War period. Ingraham came to Chicago in 1856 and made a fortune as a wholesale grocer, later investing heavily in real estate. The 1870 census shows real estate valued at $225,000 and personal property of $100,000 (today the combined value would be well over $6 million). 

Granville S. Ingraham

Ingraham sold the house long before his death at his winter home in Pass Christian, Mississippi in 1892. It is best remembered today as the long-time residence of lead manufacturer Hugh McBirney.

Ingraham/McBirney house as it appeared circa 1890

More modest houses
Although most of the houses being built on Prairie Avenue at this time were substantial, a few modest houses made their way on to the street as well. These included a front-gabled home at 1812 S. Prairie Avenue (shown in the center of the image below) and a frame double house at 1726-1728 S. Prairie Avenue. 

1812 S. Prairie is the short house shown at center in this 1874 illustration

All of these were demolished in the 1880s and replaced with larger homes. Another home, built at 1630 S. Prairie Avenue, survived well into the 20th century and had the distinction of being the smallest house on the street.

Calumet Avenue
Calumet Avenue, which lies one block east of Prairie Avenue starting at 18th Street and then running south, developed a bit later than Prairie. Only one house is known to have been built by the War period and may have been constructed as early as 1859. This was the large brick home of Daniel A. Jones, built at the northwest corner of Calumet and 22nd Street. Jones made his fortune in the packing and real estate businesses. He served for many years as the president of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, being first elected in 1869 and leading that organization through the critical years following the Chicago Fire.

Jones died in 1886 and his house was demolished in 1911, to make way for the American Book Company building, constructed the next year on the site from plans by architect N. Max Dunning. It was designated a Chicago landmark in 2008 and was recently restored as part of the Marriot Marquis hotel property.

J. Q. Hoyt
A small number of homes were constructed on nearby streets during this period. One worthy of note was the home of J. Q. Hoyt, built in 1863 at the southeast corner of Wabash Avenue and 23rd Street. The Hoyt family referred to their home as “Florence Place.” Were it not for the wooden sidewalk around the property, the large Italianate style home with exuberant trim and stately cupola could easily be mistaken for a country home rather than an urban residence.

Florence Place, circa 1865

John Quincy Adams Hoyt came to Chicago in 1856, making his fortune in wholesale groceries, and entering local Republican politics, being a close friend of General Ulysses S. Grant, John A. Logan, and Stephen A. Douglas. He served as alderman for many years and filled the role of acting mayor during a portion of the Civil War, when Mayor Julian Rumsey was absent. In 1868, Hoyt moved to New York City, where he was instrumental in funding the elevated railroad system. (Within weeks after the Chicago Fire, the house was converted into a hotel, maintaining the name Florence Place. In 1874, it reverted to private residential use.)

The Hoyt family enjoying the front porch of Florence Place, circa 1865

There was a building boom on Prairie Avenue following the Civil War. It is estimated that by the time of the Chicago Fire in 1871, there were 40 houses standing or under construction. The fire completely bypassed the neighborhood, leading to a second wave of construction immediately following, led by those whose homes had been destroyed.

We will resume this story in 2021, the year in which the City of Chicago will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the fire. Those articles will focus on the impact the fire had on the residents and their businesses, and more importantly, the extraordinary impact the residents had on rebuilding the city.

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