“It looks like an old jail,” one lady commented. “It takes courage to build a house like that,” said another. “Which church is this?” a passerby inquired. “I don’t like it and wish it was not there,” complained neighbor George Pullman, who felt himself cursed by the daily sight of the John J. Glessner House (1800 South Prairie Avenue).
Amidst the Gilded Age splendor that was 1880’s Prairie Avenue in Chicago — with the homes of the newly rich industrialists taking the form of chateaux, castles, and palazzi — rose a house that was radically different.
John Jacob Glessner (1843-1936) was a full partner in Warder, Bushnell & Glessner, a successful farm implements company. In 1902 it merged to become part of International Harvester, and Glessner was named vice president. He had married Frances Macbeth Glessner (1848-1932) in 1870 and they settled in Chicago. Married for 61 years, the Glessners were progressive thinkers, lifelong learners, and highly gifted and generous people who supported the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and many artists and intellectuals in the city.
They were a sophisticated couple looking for a sophisticated architect who would understand their unique requirements in a winter home. They found him in Bostonian Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). Richardson was one of the first Americans to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and is considered one of the giants of American architecture. Unlike most of his contemporaries who copied European designs, he developed a personal, unique style — his own take on the Romanesque he saw in France: heavy massing, picturesque rooflines, rounded arches, minimal ornamentation. His distinctive style bears his name: “Richardsonian Romanesque.”
H.H. Richardson’s powerful work, and his gift for imagining a building in its entirety and maintaining its integrity throughout, inspired architects after him. Significantly, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, who went on to further develop this idea of an organic and truly American architecture. Richardson was perhaps not so much a “modern” architect as he was a prophet of the future.
The Glessners and Richardson enjoyed a rare and close working relationship. Many of the Glessners’ ideas were worked into the architect’s plans. Richardson’s own personal preferences were replicated by his clients’ request in the home’s interiors. For further evidence of this remarkable relationship, set foot in the main hall: how many homeowners reserve a place of honor for a large portrait of their architect?
The Glessners bought their corner lot on exclusive Prairie Avenue in 1885, in the celebrated enclave of Marshall Field, Philip Armour, George Pullman and many other movers and shakers of early Chicago. That same year they also commissioned Richardson. This job was concurrent with his massive, seminal Marshall Field Warehouse Store in the Loop (razed in 1930) and both would be complete by 1887. A severely overweight man, Richardson’s health was not good, and he died in 1886, only weeks after completing the design. His successors in the firm, Charles A. Coolidge and George F. Shepley, saw to the completion of the Glessner House.
The Glessner family gloried in their home for the next half century, even as the neighborhood around them changed dramatically and many of their neighbors moved away.
From the mid-1920s, they intended to deed the house to the American Institute of Architects Chicago Chapter at their deaths, which indeed happened in 1936 when John died. But the projected cost for remodeling and repair was $25,000, and combined with the effects of the Depression, compelled the organization to give the property back to the family.
The Glessner House was then deeded in 1938 to the Armour Institute of Technology (which would later become the Illinois Institute of Technology), which in 1946 leased – and in 1958 sold – it to the Lithographic Technical Foundation for use as a printing research facility.
By 1965, the Foundation planned to relocate to Pittsburgh and listed the house for $70,000. Architects recognized the threat to this iconic structure if it happened to sell to unsympathetic owners; Philip Johnson and Ben and Harry Weese formulated plans to save it.
In 1966, after the asking price was cut in half, it was purchased by the architect-organized group, the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation (which in 1977 became the Chicago Architecture Foundation). Major donor architecture firms besides Johnson and Weese included: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Perkins & Will, and C.F. Murphy. The fate of the Glessner House was secure.
Space in the large house was leased to various architecture and preservation groups. And in 1968, the family began returning furnishings. It was truly amazing that almost all of the furnishings had left the house in the 1930s and, after three decades, almost all were returned.
Much excitement began brewing in the 1970s. The Glessner House was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The first public tours were given in 1971. And it was named a landmark again in 1972 as part of the Prairie Avenue Historic District. In 1976 the house was named a National Historic Landmark. Then in 1982, nearby Clarke House opened for tours in conjunction with the C.A.F., and tours of both properties continue to be coordinated today.
The Glessner House spun off from the C.A.F. in 1994, incorporating as an independent not-for-profit, known as Prairie Avenue House Museums, but in 1998 changed its name to Glessner House Museum, while continuing to assume responsibility for tours of the Clarke House Museum.
In the 1880s, the Glessners planned to continue to split their time between their summer estate in New Hampshire (“The Rocks”) and a winter home in Chicago. They were living in a rather large house on the west side when they decided to build on Prairie Avenue.
They longed for a gracious, cozy home – not at all pretentious – to accommodate frequent entertaining and their two growing children. They viewed home as a symbol of a happy family life – and the Glessners were indeed happy people. It was observed that the house was like the Glessners “themselves — plain and substantial without, and a sweet and homelike spirit within.”
Which leads to the undeniable tension within the design of the Glessner House. The whole experience of it is riveting: one travels from the powerful, monumental (almost forbidding) exterior, to the warm, inviting, enveloping interior. The house turns its back to the street like some protective shell, while hidden inside is the vulnerable belly of the private courtyard. Architectural historian Thomas C. Hubka observes that Richardson worked comfortably with opposing forces. Therefore we experience Glessner House as “a severe stone fortress sheltering a delicate domestic garden… a remarkably perceptive summary of domestic life in the late nineteenth century: a garden in the machine.”
The entire design was radically new, and as we have seen, not universally admired. At its groundbreaking, the Chicago Tribune called it a house of “novel design…which, when completed, will show a very decided departure from the conventional…” Richardson did something shocking by planting the house not in the middle of the lot with a grassy yard all around—but right up to the sidewalks on its north and east facades. Then he included no large windows on this public face of the house as was traditionally done; the northern windows are especially small. Further, there is no sweeping staircase leading up to a grand main entrance; the front door is simply placed at street level.
Richardson somehow creates harmony of design though the two public facades are quite different from one another and yet again entirely distinct from the private courtyard elevations. The facades facing the streets are clad in rusticated, pink-gray Braggville granite. There is a bit of ornament on the Prairie Avenue facade: the column capitals (one features the architect’s initials, “HHR”) and the tree of life within the arch of the front door. The 18th Street side has an English rural prototype: the Glessners loved the photo they owned of Abingdon Abbey, so Richardson replicated its massing for them. And one of most celebrated aspects of the house is there: the dramatic arched entrance – sometimes called the “G door” – based on Roman precedent.
The courtyard elevations feature rosy brick with limestone trim, three modified turrets, and a graceful curved porch. The tall southern wall was originally part of the adjoining residence (now demolished) and has always fully enclosed the courtyard.
Leaving the heavy, stony exterior, one enters an intimate, comfortable world. The Chicago AIA Guide calls this floor plan “one of Richardson’s best.” The interiors have a unique flow over five different levels, connected by some dozen stairways. The warmth of wood and color and hand-wrought furnishings makes it a very inviting home. With its relatively low ceilings and lack of ballrooms, vast expanses, or long dramatic views, the home possesses a wonderful domestic scale that feels much smaller than its 17,000 square feet. The principle living spaces face the southern courtyard with all the natural light, warmth, and privacy it provides. The service passage runs along north wall – serving as insulation from the cold winter winds.
Richardson and the Glessners, by their shared vision for the design and furnishing of the house, succeeded in creating a sophisticated yet warm environment. It was avant-garde without being pretentious. They took the principles of the Aesthetic and English Arts and Crafts Movements to heart, reflecting their own progressive aesthetics, and filled the home with what they considered the truly beautiful: from Isaac Scott furniture to William Morris wallpaper and fabrics.
The story of the Glessner House is not only one of unceasing critical acclaim, but one when both architect and client were perfectly matched and completely happy with the result. At the end of his life, H.H. Richardson told John Glessner that, of all the homes he had designed, he would have most liked to live in this one.
The Glessner House is open to the public for tours. More information: www.glessnerhouse.org
(Many thanks to the Glessner House for the comprehensive information.)