The Glessner House’s William Tyre: An Interview
Over the past twenty-one months of writing this preservation blog it has been a pleasure to introduce sixteen individuals trusted with caring for historic house museums. My intention for this series (beginning with the curator of Fallingwater) is to promote the excellent work of my colleagues and provide something of a behind the scenes glimpse into the various workings of house museum stewardship. It is also my hope that it can serve as a corrective to the prevalence of pessimism surrounding house museums that I find frustrating and inaccurate. Impressed with the aesthetic authenticity of Glessner House and the vigor of their public programs on a recent visit I was delighted when William Trye agreed to be included in this interview series.
William Tyre has served as Executive Director and Curator of the H.H. Richardson designed Glessner House Museum in Chicago since October 2007 and is the author of Chicago’s Historic Prairie Avenue, published in 2008. He holds a Masters in Historic Preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Prior to coming to Glessner, he served as the comptroller for the Society of Architectural Historians and was the program manager for their site, the Charnley-Persky House Museum, a Chicago landmark designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in 1892.
What factors contributed to your ability to undertake the recent restoration of the Glessner House’s parlor?
The restoration of the parlor was first considered in 1991 when a sample of the elaborate hand-stenciled wall covering was produced by The Grammar of Ornament in Denver. However, the museum did not have funds in hand to continue with the project, so it was shelved. Three years ago, one of our long time docents passed away and donations were received in her memory specifically earmarked for the parlor. The next year, a charter docent also passed, and she left a significant unrestricted bequest to the museum. The Board decided to use the gift to at long last bring the parlor restoration to fruition. Additional funds were obtained from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the project was completed in October 2011. We were fortunate to have extraordinary craftsmen for every step of the restoration - from the elaborate wallcovering (which took six months to produce) to the reproduction William Morris “Kennet” draperies and portieres, and from the construction and upholstering of the banquette, to the gold leafing of the moldings. The finished room, which cost more than $50,000 to restore, is really the jewel-box space within the museum.
What resources do you turn to when researching the house?
We are extraordinarily lucky to have significant resources for researching and interpreting the house. Chief among these is the journal of Frances Glessner which chronicles the period 1870 (the year she married) until 1917. The typed transcript copy of the journal runs nearly 5,000 pages, so the amount of information is quite amazing! Fortunately, she and her husband John were passionate about their house and their collections, so that type of information is frequently recorded in some detail. In addition, John Glessner wrote a wonderful story about the house for his two children entitled “The Story of a House” which details working with the architect H. H. Richardson, the construction, and the furnishing and decoration. The original featured more than 60 professional photographs of the exterior and interior. (We were able to reprint the Story in its entirety in 2011 through a grant from the Graham Foundation.) The Glessners’ son George was a talented amateur photographer who photographed the house extensively from the time they moved in 1887 until the late 1890s. Beyond that, our archives contain correspondence between John Glessner and the architect and other vendors who provided services and goods for the house. We also have the Glessners’ original set of blueprints and specifications for the house. For anyone interpreting a house, it really is a dream come true!
The room’s wallcovering is remarkable . . .
The wallcovering is really remarkable, which is why it took 20 years to get it made, as we wanted to make sure it was as close to the original as possible. The original was designed and produced in 1892 by William Pretyman, a talented designer from England who spent about a decade living in Chicago. He used a decorator’s grade burlap which he attached to the walls and then sized. Once that was done he used a series of layers of metallic paints, glazes, two layers of stencils, and hand painting to produce the finished design, which is very much in the style of William Morris. No doubt he was influenced by the Glessners’ use of Morris fabrics, rugs, and wallpapers elsewhere in the house. During the 1950s when the house was occupied by the Lithographic Technical Foundation, they painted over the wallcovering, and tests we undertook in the 1990s determined that there was no way to remove the later paint layers without damaging the original painted surface. Fortunately a pristine section of wallcovering about 12 inches in diameter was found behind the backplate of a wall sconce. This provided the exact color information, and historic photographs were used to recreate the pattern. (The original wallcovering was carefully removed and stored).
Has this restoration project influenced the interpretation of the museum?
The richness of this space is a bit different from the other rooms in the house. But one must keep in mind this was the primary entertaining space for the Glessners. It was utilized by Frances Glessner when she would receive in the afternoon, and they would use it for musical entertainments in the evenings. It is interesting to see how the character of the room changes during the day. On a sunny day, the room is bathed in sunlight coming through the large south-facing windows into the courtyard, and the wallcovering simply glows. But in the evening, utilizing a light level similar to what the Glessners would have known, the room becomes warm and rich, the colors of the wallcovering glowing with a richness that does not feel ostentatious, but instead sophisticated. It says a lot about who the Glessners were as individuals and how they were quite different from their neighbors in the furnishing and decoration of their house.
How has working-in and caring-for an H.H. Richardson building influenced your opinion of this architect?
I have always had a great respect for Richardson, in fact it was one of the reasons I was first drawn to Glessner House. What I love to tell visitors during tours is that the house was the result of a nearly perfect architect-client relationship. The Glessners interviewed quite a number of architects before approaching Richardson. They were disappointed with what the others suggested - all “conventional” houses. The Glessners were clearly looking for something different. When they met with Richardson, they found an architect who was progressive and looking for clients who would allow him to express his ideas to their full potential. John and Frances Glessner had a large library of books on architecture and design and were well-informed and able to understand and appreciate what Richardson suggested. In the end, the house was the perfect expression of the Glessners, and for Richardson, he stated it was the one house of all the ones he designed in his career, that he would have wished to have lived in himself. Because of that, my opinion of him continues to grow. The brilliant floor plan, the treatment of the exterior, the separation of family and servant spaces - everything he did becomes clearer the more time you spend in the house, and you come to realize what a true genius Richardson was. It is no wonder that he achieved such “stardom” in his short life. He truly was taking American architecture in a new direction.
The Glessners were significant patrons of music and the performing arts – how does the collection reflect this interest and contribution?
The Glessners were significant patrons. John Glessner was a long-time trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Frances Glessner played an important role as a member of the Society of Decorative Arts (now the Antiquarian Society). However, their greatest passion was clearly the symphony orchestra. They had attended performances of orchestras visiting Chicago for years, and had become well acquainted with the conductor Theodore Thomas. When he was approached about forming a permanent symphony in Chicago, John Glessner was among 50 of Chicago’s business leaders who guaranteed to fund the orchestra until it could become self-sufficient. It was a struggle in the early years, and his donations were significant. By the end of the 1890s, Glessner was the second largest contributor to the symphony. The Glessners and the Thomases also formed a close personal relationship, and the Glessners became his confidants as he struggled to make the orchestra successful. Thomas even built his summer house in Bethlehem New Hampshire just a mile from the Glessners’ estate “The Rocks,” so the time they spent together was significant. The last baton he used to conduct before he died was given to the Glessners and it is still displayed in the house.
John Glessner became a trustee of the Orchestral Association in 1898 and remained on the board until his death in 1936. Frances Glessner, along with Mrs. Thomas and one other lady established the Chicago Chamber Music Society. The orchestra was their greatest passion. When Thomas (and his successor Frederick Stock) would write to the Glessners, he always referred to the orchestra as “their” orchestra. And when Stock completed his First Symphony in 1909, he dedicated it to his “best friends” John and Frances Glessner.
We are fortunate to have many items in the collection that relate to the symphony and the world-class musicians who visited here and often performed in the parlor - , their original 1887 Steinway piano, signed photographs, letters, and more. It is a wonderful part of the story.
How does your location in Chicago influence your operations and programming?
Glessner House and Chicago are inseparable. The house is located on Prairie Avenue, which was THE street on in the late 19th century. Marshall Field, George Pullman, and many others were the Glessners’ neighbors. As such we are able to tell the story of the great rise and success of Chicago in the late 1800s using the house and the street as tools. We are also fortunate in that we are just two miles from the heart of downtown, “the Loop”, so geographically it is easy for visitors to get to us. Additionally, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the area immediately around the museum transformed from a desolate dying area with abandoned loft buildings, to a thriving residential community with many young families and empty nesters. This provides many opportunities for us that were not feasible in years gone by. We open the doors for neighborhood events - food and wine tastings, children’s events at Easter and Halloween, and our beautiful courtyard and restored coach house are utilized for weddings and other events. All of which bring new audiences to the museum, many of who never knew we were here. Of course all of this is on top of our more “traditional” programming including tours and lectures.
What percentage of your annual museum’s visitors is there through special events or programming and compared to those who attend a standard tour?
Our total attendance is around 10,000 per year. Of that, about 60% come on our “standard” tours, and about 40% come because of events and programming. There was very limited programming prior to when I came to the museum in 2007, so I have seen the attendance increase from about 5,000 to 10,000 in five years.
Tell me about your upcoming seminar … what are your goals for this event?
On November 10th we will host an all-day seminar commemorating our 125th anniversary. The event is being co-sponsored by the Victorian Society in America, and as such will have attendees from around the country. We are delighted that James F. O’Gorman, the acknowledged scholar on H.H. Richardson, will be here for the keynote address. Six other speakers will discuss various aspects of Richardson, interior design, and lastly how the rescue of the house in the 1960s was an important catalyst in the Chicago preservation movement, then in its infancy. In the end, I hope that those in attendance will come away with an appreciation for what Glessner House truly is - an extraordinary building that helped define American architecture and influence the generation of architects who followed.