Fortress America

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A carriage entrance, which compromised the severe geometry of the south facade, allowed visitors to drive directly into the courtyard. Seen from within the courtyard, the house presented a warm contrast with its streetside appearance. Here the exterior was characterized by complex and playful surfaces. Circular bays and towers, a conservatory, a winding staircase, and a profusion of chimneys crowning the roof delighted the eye. Inside the house an efficient pattern of rooms allowed for an easy flow of traffic through a variety of spaces defined by natural materials and exposed woodwork. Artisan-crafted furniture, some designed by William Morris and Isaac Scott, filled the welcoming spaces in which the domestic needs of the household and the requirements of expansive hospitality were equally met. The Glessners often entertained some of Chicago’s most prominent businessmen and their families. On more than one occasion the house comfortably hosted the entire Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and regularly on Monday mornings Mrs. Glessner’s reading group met for refreshments, intellectual stimulation, and an opportunity to catch up on their sewing.

Yet the Glessner house also had distinctly modern features that came to influence both the major schools of architecture that battled for dominance in the early twentieth century. Two of Richardson’s assistants, Charles McKim and Stanford White, later joined with William Mead to form the most prestigious and influential architectural firm in turn-of-the-century America. Their Beaux-Arts classicism, seen at its best in New York’s now-defunct Pennsylvania Station and the Boston Public Library, dominated the architecture of public buildings for years to come. Just as important was Richardson’s influence upon a younger generation of architects who were critical of what they saw as the frivolous, prettified, wedding-cake architecture of the Beaux-Arts school. Most notable among this new school was Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan, an ardent admirer of Richardson, who frequently incorporated Richardson’s low-sprung arches into his own work. Sullivan’s student Frank Lloyd Wright, the prophet of modernism, was also deeply influenced by the master of medievalism. At first glance no two architects could be more dissimilar than Wright and Richardson. Yet in Richardson’s work, especially at the Glessner house, we can see the origins of an approach to new architectural problems that we associate almost entirely with Wright. The minimalist exterior, the disdain for ornamentation, the emphasis on natural materials, exposed structural elements, and the emphasis on traffic flow were common to both Richardson and Wright. At bottom, Wright’s “architecture of democracy” (as Wright called it) had its roots in Richardson’s architecture of aristocracy.

 
 
 

Not much of Richardson’s work still survives, partly perhaps because his early death prevented him from fulfilling the promise of his mature work. Some of his buildings did not survive long after his death; the solutions he devised were uniquely suited to situations that he confronted in his own time—solutions made obsolete by the new technologies and social realities of the twentieth century. It is perhaps fitting that Richardson’s most lasting monuments should be the many rural libraries and train stations that he designed, with those easily identifiable wide arches and efficient traffic flows. In these buildings we see the harbingers of the eventual triumph of the American suburb.

Like many historic houses, the Glessner house has passed through some sorry times in the years since it was built. By 1900 the Prairie Avenue address had already lost its panache as it was swallowed up by the downtown area’s commercial expansion. In the 1920s Al Capone’s favorite hotel, the Lexington, stood just a few blocks away. Fortunately in 1967 the house came into the hands of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which has done an excellent job restoring it to the way it must have looked just after the Glessners moved in, in 1887.