Fortress America

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May 15, 1885. The architect Henry Hobson Richardson peered out of a carriage window at the corner lot on Chicago’s Prairie Avenue and then turned to his client and asked, “Have you the courage to build the house without windows on the street front?”

The young John Jacob Glessner promptly responded, “Yes.” In this way the design for one of Richardson’s most criticized and most influential buildings was commissioned for one of the newest of Chicago’s new rich. Glessner’s courage, however, was not unalloyed; he realized he could still reject the final plans. Ultimately, the industrialist’s new house was the result of many compromises, some courageous, some less so.

 
 

For one thing, the house would have windows on the street front. But the long east facade fronting Eighteenth Street was exceedingly austere, its few narrow windows contributing to a severe and imposing presence. In general, the exterior of the structure lacked the kind of excessive ornamentation that was typical of the houses of the day. Few concessions were made to curious onlookers.

Richardson died before construction was actually begun on the house, but there is no doubt that the final result accurately reflected his concept. At Richardson’s last meeting with the Glessners, three weeks before his death, the architect marked on the plans the locations of lighting fixtures, then turned to his client and said, “There, Mr. Glessner, if I were to live five years longer, that is the last thing I would do on your house; my part is finished.” It was now up to the contractors and the full-time superintendent overseeing construction, old associates of Richardson, to carry out the plan. Glessner was very likely correct when years later he wrote to his children, “I am convinced that this house of ours is the one of all that he built that he would have liked most to live in himself.”

 

Glessner’s house has been subjected to a good deal of analysis; rarely has it been described as pretty. One contemporary called it a “gargantuan freak.” Many of Glessner’s neighbors on fashionable Prairie Avenue would have agreed. The leaders of Chicago’s new industrial age, the Otises, Armours, Fields, and Pullmans, were disconcerted by Richardson’s creation. George Pullman, the railway-car manufacturer, spoke for all when he complained, “I don’t know what I have done to have that thing staring me in the face every time I go out of my door.”

 
 

The house that Richardson and Glessner built was a caterpillar, a tadpole, a life-form still incomplete. Somewhere inside there was, possibly, a beautiful building struggling to get out. This embryonic form didn’t just reflect a struggle of architectural design and style. It was the manifestation of a generation trying to shake off the trappings of the dying century before it assumed those of the new.

 

The “battle of styles,” which had been the hallmark of early-nineteenth-century architectural history, still haunted architects practicing in the last half of the nineteenth century. Antebellum architectural styles were frequently imagined as carrying political and moral implications. The neoclassical styles celebrated the rationalism of the Renaissance and stood in fundamental opposition to the Gothic Revival styles that revered the spiritualism of the Middle Ages. The classical formula emphasized the orderly and harmonious placement of the elements of the facade and was essentially interested in the building’s outward form. The Gothic approach, on the other hand, emphasized the complexity of interior space. It looked inward and upward. Gothic vaults supported towering spires that reached, as many people thought, toward God.

The idealism that energized the battle of styles, however, was one of the many casualties of the Civil War. Postwar architecture commonly emphasized the picturesque and eclectic rearrangement of architectural elements, without reference to any unifying philosophy. The main concern now was to create an interesting silhouette on the horizon, a pleasing shadow against the sky.

Richardson, by contrast, looked back in time and infused his architecture with a renewed search for meaning. In the process he combined classical forms and Gothic space to create a powerful architecture of mass. Two of his most famous commissions, Trinity Church in Boston and the Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago, were carried out with huge stone blocks bearing rough, chiseled surfaces. Interiors, too, emphasized natural materials that powerfully shaped the union of space and form.