It shocked the neighborhood when it was erected in 1887. With its fortified appearance, the imposing granite exterior was a radical departure from the traditional residential form. But looking back, architect Henry Hobson Richardson helped redefine American domestic architecture with the Glessner House. Now a National Historic Landmark, you can walk through the Glessner House Museum in Chicago's Historic Prairie Avenue District to experience his designs fully, and inside discover a rich preserve of decorative art from the 19th century.
In 1885, John and Frances Glessner – both civic leaders in Chicago and an influential family during the Gilded Age – purchased a spacious corner lot on the most exclusive street at the time, Prairie Avenue. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, this area just south of downtown had become the city's most fashionable neighborhood. When Philip Armour joined Marshall Field and George Pullman on the street in 1877, Chicago's three wealthiest citizens were living within a four-block stretch of Prairie Avenue. With the city's elite living here on "Millionaire's Row" in elaborate, modern-day castles, it was the "sunny street that held the sifted few."
The Glessners hired noted Boston architect H. H. Richardson to design a simple, comfortable home that retained the "cozy" feeling of their previous home on West Washington Street.
ARCHITECTURE & HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS
When the house at 1800 S. Prairie was completed, it stood out among the other homes, whose designs were patterned after older European styles. The home was a perfect expression of both the Glessners and the Richardson aesthetic. See what caused a stir with all the neighbors on a tour of Richardson's only surviving work in Chicago.
At first approach, you won't miss the distinct features of the Richardsonian Romanesque style – massive in structure, an exterior of rough granite, heavy archways and rounded turrets. What was considered by some as austere and flat from the outside is in contrast warm and sunny from the south side of the house. The fortress-like structure conceals a large central courtyard and provided a level of privacy and security rarely achieved in urban residences.
The interior, with its warm oak paneling, grand staircase and stately fireplaces, is an ideal setting to peruse the Glessner's extraordinary collections of furnishing and decorative arts. Strong in the English Arts and Crafts Movement, as well as the Aesthetic Movement, the décor is a stellar showcase where you'll find many original pieces, from:
- Furniture pieces by Isaac Scott, A. H. Davenport, Charles Coolidge and the Herter Brothers
- Textiles, carpets and wallpapers by Morris and Company
- Decorative objects, tiles and glass by De Morgan, Minton, Galle and Tiffany
PROGRAMS & EVENTS
If you're a history or architecture buff, a number of lectures, special programs and events fill the schedule at Glessner House Museum. Don't miss:
- Glessner House Museum Tours, 1-hour guided tours that explore Richardson's urban masterpiece, examine his truly American style of architecture and dive in-depth into the collection of rotating exhibits (offered year-round, Wednesdays through Sundays)
- Prairie Avenue Walking Tours, a fascinating 2-hour history lesson that explores the area's architectural treasures, sheds light on the neighborhood's past beginning with Ft. Dearborn 200 years ago and uncovers the movers and shakers that shaped Chicago (offered seaonally)
- Shadows on the Street: Haunted Tours of Historic Prairie Avenue, evening Halloween adventures through the neighborhood that uncover Chicago tales of strange sounds, unexplained sightings and untimely endings (offered every October)
- Candlelight Tours, 90-minute walks led by docents through the Glessner House Museum and neighboring Clarke House Museum that highlight Christmas customs and decorations of the 19th century (offered every December)
Visit glessnerhouse.org for details and to plan your visit.