The John J. Glessner House is the most important survivor of the mansions in Chicago’s Prairie District. Of over 50 mansions built on Prairie Avenue in the late 1800s, only nine have survived. Tours of the Glessner House are available Wednesday through Sunday at 11:30am, 1pm, and 2:30pm. Admission is free on Wednesdays and US$15 for adults on other days.
The mansion was designed in 1885 by Henry Hobson Richardson, one of very few architects to have a style named after them (Richardsonian Romanesque). Unfortunately, he never lived to see it completed in 1887. The house is considered one of the most important residential architectural designs of the 19th century.
The minimal use of ornamentation and symmetrical style were considered radical at the time. George Pullman, the sleeping car magnate, lived across the street from the home and was quoted as saying “I do not know what I have ever done to have that thing staring me in the face every time I go out of my door”.
The Glessner Family
The owners of the house were John J. Glessner and his wife, Frances, both originally from Ohio. John was a partner of Warder, Bushnell and Glessner, a farm machinery manufacturing firm that merged with four other companies to become International Harvester in 1902. He had come to Chicago in order to open a sales office around 1870. They lived in the home with their children, George and Fanny. Fanny in later life became known as the “mother of forensic pathology” for her development of crime scene investigation techniques.
The Glessners donated the house to the American Institute of Architects in 1924, with the provision that they could live in the house until they died. Frances died in 1932 and John in 1936, but the Great Depression proved too costly for the AIA to keep up the house. It was returned to the Glessner heirs, sold to the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), leased to the Lithographic Technical Foundation, and turned into a printing press. Slated for demolition in the 1960s, it was bought by a group of architects in 1966 for just US$35,000. The house was restored, original pieces were re-acquired from the Glessner heirs, and in 1971 it became the museum it is today.
The tour begins on the outside of the house where visitors are shown the G-door ( “G” for Glessner) and the ouroboros (a dragon eating its own tail). These themes are also found in some parts of the interior.
We were then taken to the coach house, which later became the garage, and into the courtyard behind the house. Here, we were able to see the larger windows with a southern exposure to allow light and warmth to enter the house. Many weddings and private events now take place in the coach house and courtyard.
The Main Floor
We went back outside and entered the house through the main entrance. The house has several rooms spread over 17,000 ft² and about 90% of the furnishings are original. Throughout the tour, the docent tells some very interesting stories about how the house was preserved and how the items were re-acquired.
The first room we got to visit was the library, which contained hundreds of books and some pieces of art collected by the Glessners. We were then taken into the parlor and past a bathroom.
Next was the dining room, which had a beautiful tiled fireplace and gold leaf ceiling. In the cabinet were some works of silver made by Frances Glessner.
The kitchen and pantry were near the dining room. Much of the fixtures, including the stove, were not original to the house but are from the period.
The Second Floor
Upstairs, we visited a typical servant’s room. There were eight servants living in the house for the four members of the Glessner family. The Glessners treated their servants very well. Mrs. Glessner made sure that each female servant had a closet and the servant’s rooms all had windows with southern exposure. This was unheard of at the time.
The conservatory, which is now a conference room, once had glass from floor to ceiling. Mrs. Glessner would grow flowers and plants in the room. The windows overlook the courtyard, where you can see a descendant of the original ivy that used to cover the house on the courtyard wall.
From there it was back to the upper main hallway where we saw Fanny’s room and a guest bedroom.
Also upstairs is the John J. Simmerling Gallery of Prairie Avenue History. Simmerling would go through the rubble of Prairie Avenue mansions after they were demolished and he found thousands of interesting artifacts. After he died, he donated his collection to the house. Only 10% of the collection is on display. We were given a few minutes to walk through the gallery.
It was then back downstairs where we were shown the master bedroom and the Glessners dressing rooms.
The final room we were shown was used as a playroom and school. The Glessner children were home-schooled in the room.