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Fortress America

June 2024
7min read

A Romanesque mansion in Chicago was built to forbid outsiders while providing a warm welcome to guests within



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.


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.

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.

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