Works in Progress - Summer 2011

The Love Song of J. Jacob Glessner

By Allen Freeman | June 24, 2013


“I am convinced that this house of ours is the one of all that [H.H. Richardson] built that he would have liked to live in himself.” So wrote industrialist John J. Glessner about the 35-room house he’d commissioned on Chicago’s Near South Side. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the structure’s groundbreaking, and the Glessner House Museum at 1800 South Prairie Avenue is readying a reprint of Glessner’s lavishly illustrated “The Story of a House.” He wrote the loving account for his grown children in 1923.

The neighbors in 1887 included George Pullman, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field—Chicago’s wealthier people, who built picturesque Victorian mansions. In contrast, Glessner put up a stone house with no front yard to speak of and small windows facing the street that shut out city noises. Contemporary critic Montgomery Schuyler found it gloomy and forbidding, but Lewis Mumford later called it Richardson’s finest residential design, and today it seems a brilliant embodiment of architecture’s functionalist future wrapped in Richardson’s rich interpretations of the past. The 370-pound architect died weeks after finishing the design, one of more than a dozen commissions under way.

John and Frances Glessner entertained well. On January 1, 1903, Glessner arranged for members of the Chicago Symphony to sneak up the back stairs and play “lovely strains of music from a double quartet of horns” as a birthday surprise for Frances. Three weeks later, they were hosts to a hundred or so at dinner, including the entire orchestra, which later entertained with comic stunts and imitations of famous performers. The evening’s finale, Glessner wrote, was “the metronome movement from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony on pots, pans, and dishes—a wonderful and really musical performance.”

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