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Glessner House Museum Lauded by Landmarks Illinois for Preserving Past

By Ted Cox | September 14, 2015 7:56am
 The Glessner House Museum returns a Prairie Avenue Historic District home to its condition at the turn of the last century.
Glessner House Museum
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SOUTH LOOP — The Glessner House Museum is finally getting recognition for what it does best: preserving the past.

Landmarks Illinois announced this week that the museum, at 1800 S. Prairie Ave., will receive its President's Award for Stewardship as part of the 2015 Driehaus Preservation Awards when they're presented next month.

"The Glessner House is one of the preeminent house museums in the nation," said Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois.

William Tyre, the museum's executive director and curator, said preservation and restoration is really all the museum does — and has done for 50 years. From the outside in and from room to room, it has recreated the house as it was for John and Frances Glessner in 1893, shortly after the 1887 structure had first been wired for electricity.

 The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel is also being honored by Landmarks Illinois for its recently completed rehab project.
The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel is also being honored by Landmarks Illinois for its recently completed rehab project.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"It appears they just stepped out for a few moments," Tyre said Friday in the museum's entryway.

The museum, however, was also uniquely blessed by circumstances. The Glessners knew they had a grand thing worth preserving, and they seemed conscious of it even as three other buildings designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson were lost to the wrecking ball during their lifetime, leaving their home as the only example of his work in Chicago.

His impact on the city was lasting, though. Louis Sullivan, Tyre said, "was a huge Richardson fan," and that was passed on to Frank Lloyd Wright, who was joining Adler & Sullivan just as Glessner House was being built.

The building's solid, Romanesque look would be passed on directly to Sullivan's far more massive Auditorium Theatre Building, and Wright would later mine the distinctive arch on 18th Street for his Heurtley House in Oak Park, as well as adopt Richardson's multi-plane approach to floors and landings.

The Glessners were also well-to-do, like most of the residents of what's now considered the Prairie Avenue Historic District at the turn of the last century. John Glessner owned a farm-machinery company that eventually merged into International Harvester, and they also had a summer home in New Hampshire. When they left the Chicago house in the '30s (Frances died in 1932, John in 1936), many of its furnishings were placed in storage, and were still available decades later when the museum set out to recreate it at its finest.

"It started coming back by the truckload," Tyre said, with many boxes of books and other materials never having been opened in the interim. Thus, many of the furnishings in the house are exactly the same, not re-creations, such as a life mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln that sit on the desk in the office that had been jointly occupied by the Glessners.

They had a son who was a photographer, so there was a wealth of pictures to serve as guidelines for the restoration. "That's kind of our guiding force," Tyre said.

Frances Glessner was both a devotee of the Arts & Crafts movement, and a devoted diarist, so there was a wealth of journals there as well, packed with information on the house and its decoration.

"That's actually a rare resource to have," McDonald said.

A Steinway piano, with mother-of-pearl inlays, found its way to Harvard University, but Tyre said that when a college trustee heard about the museum he offered the piano back. It now sits in the living room, which Tyre said "is accurate to the last detail," including walls painted with stencils in the exact same patterns as in the building's heyday.

"People get inspired," Tyre said, about certain aspects of the renovation which prompts them to get behind some element of the overall project. Recently, he added, they've spruced up the servants' areas at the back of the house, including the kitchen, in response to the heightened interest in class strata brought on by the British TV series "Downton Abbey."

That's all typical of the museum's good fortune. According to Tyre, when the Glessners were first leaving the house, in the '30s, they sought to pass it on to the American Institute of Architects, but at the height of the Depression the organization didn't think it had the money to maintain it.

Instead, it passed through the hands of the Armour Institute of Technology, then a printing company. When those firms were through with it in the mid-'60s, and demolition was a possibility, the architecture-preservation movement was getting started. Glessner House was saved by a coalition that later coalesced into the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and along the way both Landmarks Illinois and the AIA had offices there.

"That's actually where our first offices were located, so it's like coming home for us," McDonald said.

Landmarks Illinois also will honor the newly renovated Chicago Athletic Association Hotel with its Driehaus Preservation Award for Restoration. Dorchester Art + Housing, in which Theaster Gates Jr.'s Rebuild Foundation has led the way in converting public housing in Grand Crossing into a modern-day artist colony, will be recognized as Project of the Year.

The award ceremony is set for Oct. 17 at Venue One, 1034 W. Randolph St., with tickets $50 for the public, reduced for members of Landmarks Illinois.

The museum thrives as an example of the opulent mansions of the so-called Gilded Age in Chicago, and draws about 10,000 visitors a year.

For Tyre, it's been a labor of love, as he's spent the last eight years on staff, but overall has about 20 years of experience at the museum including his early days as a volunteer.

"I always say I'm very fortunate to have a place like this to come to work at every day," Tyre added.

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