Fortress America


For Richardson this may have been a personal as well as an intellectual choice. His own tremendous bulk (he weighed well over three hundred pounds) was reflected in the buildings he designed. Even the wide, round arches surrounding windows and entrances—the hallmark of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which represented a compromise between Gothic pointed arches and classical lintels—seemed designed to welcome personages whose figures were as imposing as that of the architect.


In creating his own architectural style, Richardson was of the absolute avant-garde of his day—which meant that he was deeply immersed in the past. Richardson’s time, and thus his architecture, were located at a point where medievalism and modernism met. He had grown up in the antebellum South of Louisiana, amidst the cotton and sugar-cane fields of his parents’ Mississippi River plantation, been educated at Harvard with Henry Adams and other sons of Boston’s first families, and spent the war years studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In a sense he was the work of three civilizations. As a firsthand witness to the destruction of one of them, he perhaps believed he was observing, too, the death throes of the comfortable social compact he enjoyed in Boston and in France, as the modern world had its uneasy birth in the final tumultuous decades of the nineteenth century.

What Mark Twain called the Gilded Age was a period of comparative peace for many who were weary of the divisions that had come to a head with the war, which was still so vivid in memory. It was also a period criticized for its complacency, greed, and political corruption. The nation was on its way to becoming the world’s foremost industrial power, but before that could occur, one of the greatest mass migrations of people in the history of the world poured into America’s cities, bringing new nationalities, new cultures, and new philosophies. In these decades the country passed through a physical transformation that rivaled the philosophical adjustments of the war years. Labor strikes, major urban riots, and economic dislocations were the outward signs of a social polarization that threatened to turn America into a nation of haves and have-nots. The turn of the century would see the emergence of a large and powerful middle class that would embrace a political and social ideology of progressive reforms, but to many social critics the late 1800s were an uneasy time. It is perhaps not remarkable that Richardson, like many of his contemporaries, was consumed by nostalgia for a golden age. His admiration for the long-lost past led him upon occasion to wear the habit of a medieval monk, and the houses he designed for America’s new aristocracy would have been recognizable in twelfth-century Europe.

John J. Glessner, his client, was generally more optimistic than Richardson. Glessner would die many years later, a millionaire who had helped found the International Harvester Company; Richardson died in 1886, at forty-seven, virtually penniless despite his great success as an architect. Still, Glessner, like many of his neighbors on Prairie Avenue, couldn’t entirely escape the eruptions of modern time. The fire that had swept the growing city of Chicago in 1871 was a precursor to social conflagrations that swept the city in the following years. Glessner’s previous house on Washington Street in downtown Chicago had already been subject to numerous thefts and robberies; on one occasion he had drawn a revolver on a surprised intruder. From their former house the Glessners could hear the explosion and gunshots of the Haymarket Square Riot of May 4, 1886, in which several people died during the clash between police and a crowd agitating for an eight-hour day at International Harvester’s Chicago plant. Glessner’s cranky neighbor George Pullman would soon see his model town of Pullman, Illinois, the production center of luxury railroad cars, under siege in one of America’s first modern labor strikes. The strike was not resolved until President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago.


Even Glessner’s decision to locate his new house on the edge of the city represented a short-lived solution to the problems of urban living. For the well-off the benefits of the city—various services such as gas and water and a round of social and cultural events—still outweighed the advantages of a more rural life. The creation of modern suburbs and the resulting hemorrhage of wealthy and middle-class families from the cities were barely under way. Glessner’s house stood as a medieval fortress. Its austere exterior was designed as much for defense as for show. Yet within it one could find all the trappings of medieval hospitality.