March 4, 2019
Chicago’s Glessner House is a National Historic Landmark that was designed by noted American architect Henry Hobson Richardson and completed in 1887 for John Glessner and Frances Glessner. The structure served as an inspiration to architects such as Louis Sullivan, Mies van Der Rohe, and the young Frank Lloyd Wright. It helped redefine domestic architecture.
On this week’s PreserveCast, we’re talking to Glessner House’s Executive Director and Curator Bill Tyre about the unique design and residents of this house including, Frances Glessner Lee, daughter of John and Frances Glessner. Lee was the first female police captain in the United States, likely the inspiration for Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, and is known as “the mother of forensic science.” Her series of extremely detailed dioramas, “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” influenced investigative training for many years. The dioramas were recently featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in 2018. The Glessner House will host a Birthday Gala in honor of Lee later this month at which her meticulously detailed miniature model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be on display for the first time in six years.
Bill Tyre is the Executive Director and Curator at Glessner House Museum. He’s one of just three full-time staff members who manage and maintain one of Chicago’s most famous homes. Glessner House was saved thanks to preservation efforts that resulted in the formation of both the house museum and Chicago Architecture Center in 1966.
Chicago’s Glessner House is a national historic landmark that was designed by noted American architect Henry Hobson Richardson and completed in 1887. The structure served as an inspiration to architects such as Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, and the young Frank Lloyd Wright, and helped redefine domestic architecture in the United States. On this week’s PreserveCast we’re talking to Glessner House’s executive director and curator Bill Tyre about the uniqueness of this iconic house as well as a series of activities that will highlight the birthday of Frances Glessner Lee and the latest efforts to restore and preserve this American architectural treasure.
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This is Nick Redding, and you’re listening to PreserveCast, and today we are joined by Bill Tyre. Bill is the executive director and curator at Glessner House Museum. He’s one of just three full-time staff members who manage and maintain one of Chicago’s most famous homes, now a historic house museum. Completed in 1887, Glessner House was saved thanks to preservation efforts that resulted in the formation of both the museum and the Chicago Architecture Center in 1966. Bill, it is a pleasure to have you with us here today on PreserveCast.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
So we’re talking to you from, is it sunny Chicago today? Is it snowy Chicago? What’s it look like there?
It is cold and cloudy.
Cold and cloudy. Mkay. We’re really excited to hear about Glessner, I mean there’s so many house museums around the country, and they’re all struggling and trying to reinvent themselves, and you have a fantastic resource so we’re excited to talk about this. But before we do that, people love to know about sort of the stories behind the people who run and manage and maintain these places. So what’s your story? Where’d you grow up? How did you get into preservation?
Okay, so I’ve actually lived my entire life in Chicago. My family’s been here for five generations. I grew up on the North Side, and originally pursued a career in accounting, and always kind of did preservation on the side. And then in the mid ’90s the School of the Art Institute here in Chicago started a masters program in historic preservation, and that seemed like a perfect fit for me. So I decided to do kind of a major career change, went through that program, and started into preservation full time as a career.
So it was sort of a I guess, is it a second career, would you call it that?
Yes, that’s correct. Although I have to say that managing a small historic site, having an accounting background has come in extremely handy.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean fortunately you’re probably not dealing with as– or unfortunately maybe, not dealing with as big a numbers as you used to [laughter] when you manage a historic site, but accounting nonetheless I’m sure would be helpful.
And so did you– I mean obviously it’s sort of a second career, but did you– I mean you grew up in Chicago, was there always a love of architecture and preservation and history? Was that something that you grew up with?
Yeah, so I grew up in a historic neighborhood, what is now called Old Irving Park. It was originally a suburb of Chicago founded in the late 1860s, later became part of the city. I grew up in a house actually built in 1887, the same year as Glessner House. So I was always surrounded by historic architecture and from a very early age, it was just something that really appealed to me. My family didn’t quite get it, but it was something that I just always loved and always pursued. I was one of the founders of the local historical society in that neighborhood when I was in high school and as I say, just kind of pursued it as a hobby and a love for a number of years.
So you go get your degree in this, and then where’s your first job in the field?
Right. So I was very fortunate. So I had interned at another historic house when I was at school called the Charnley Persky House. It’s a very important Louis Sullivan-Frank Lloyd Wright designed house here in Chicago. And within a couple of months of graduating from the Art Institute, a full-time position opened up with them that actually combined my accounting background. I was the controller there and also ran the Historic House tour program. It is the headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians. So I had dual roles there that worked well and it was great to be able to walk right into really one of Chicago’s most important sites.
So how do you end up at Glessner then? And when?
Yes. So my master’s degree involved my thesis, which was on the history of the Prairie Avenue District, which is where the Glessner House sits. So Glessner House had been very much on my radar screen for a long time. Once I graduated, I started volunteering as a docent, eventually went on the board, and then in 2007, when there was staff changes, I applied for and was obviously hired as the executive director and curator. So I’ve now been here about 11 and a half years.
So we’ve got some of your history out of the background here. Let’s talk a little bit about the history of this house. There’s so many historic house museums out there, so many historic homes of significance, and particularly just in Chicago, just so much fantastic architecture. Tell us a little bit about the history of the Glessner House. For someone who’s never been there, never seen it, what is it? When was it constructed? Give us the background of the house and then maybe we can go into why it matters and what’s so important about it.
Right. So Glessner House was completed in 1887 on Prairie Avenue, which at the time was the most exclusive street to live on in Chicago. There were about 90 mansions, all of the movers and shakers of the city lived here, so it was certainly a sign of Mr. Glessner’s success. And from the very beginning, it was recognized as an extraordinarily important house in the development of American residential architecture, being one of the very last works of the Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson. It was not well-liked by the neighbors. They didn’t quite get what the design was all about. But architects and designers really embraced it and then people like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Ives Cobb, a lot of other people really picked up on what Richardson was doing and kind of carried that forward to the next level.
So what didn’t they like about it? What does that mean? I know it’s hard to describe a building just in words, but what would you see? What does Glessner look like and why was it so controversial?
Right. So the exterior really displays Richardson’s mature style, which is a heavy rusticated stone based on the Romanesque that he studied when he was in Europe. So the neighbors referred to it as the fort the prison. One of my favorite comments about the house came from a neighbor who said, “I haven’t quite decided whether or not I liked the house, but I know where to flee in case of war.”
And how big is it? I mean, what’s the square footage? Do you have any sense?
Yes. So it’s a little over 17,000 square feet. Well, certainly, not the largest house on the street, but that’s large by anybody’s standards. But what’s interesting is about 60% of that total square footage was only used by the living staff. It was their work areas, their living spaces, storage areas, that sort of thing. So the Glessners themselves lived in about 7,000 square feet of that total.
So they were able to make it just on 7,000 square feet. They really–
Wow. It must’ve been tough [laughter]. Slightly larger than my home. So obviously, you’re describing a lot of really significant architects, who either were inspired by this or just H.H. Richardson who was involved in it. But why does it matter today? I mean, there’s a lot of historic house museums and a lot of great historic homes, I should say. Why is this one, a house museum– why is it important? What’s the case that you guys make for the importance of your site?
Well, there’s two things that really come to mind. One is because it did influence so many architects that followed. So people realize that this is really the basis where a lot of ideas came from that were built upon in the later generations. So it’s an important link in kind of the chain of the evolution of American architecture. And that had a lot to do with why the house was saved in the mid-1960s. Most of the Glessners’ neighboring houses were torn down. There was not much thought given to that at that period of time. The Glessner house architects and preservationists, and certainly early preservationists in the 60s, looked at this house and simply said, “This is too important to lose. We have to find a way to save this.” And so not only did we have local architects working to save the building. We had people like Philip Johnson, who you would not think would necessarily relate to a building like this. But he was quoted in one of the articles at the time was saying he felt it was the most important house in the country. And that was from a modernist architect. So I think it really speaks to why this one was saved when so many were lost. And then after that happened, what was wonderful is we discovered that the family had kept virtually all of the furnishings, the archives of the family. So we have been able to restore the building very accurately to exactly how it appeared when the Glessners were here and interpret it using their own words and the records they left behind.
So at 17,000 square feet, it’s a monumental job of just restoring it, but then also maintaining it. And I mean you mentioned at the beginning of this, that it’s cold in Chicago. How do you heat it [laughter]?
Well, to be perfectly honest, we currently heat the house with eight furnaces, three in the basement, four in the attic, and one in our coach house. So that is no small task. Our–
And is that natural gas? How do you do it?
It’s natural gas. But actually three years ago, we started the conversion over to a geothermal system, digging wells in our courtyard. And eventually, the entire building will be shifted over to that new technology. And we look forward to that. Not only is it obviously a green technology. But it will also for the first time, give us the ability to air condition the building and control the humidity levels.
And maybe cut your costs a little too.
Yes. The day we are finished for that, we get to call up the gas company and say you can turn off our service, it’s no longer needed.
And how soon will that be? And that’s, that’s a big project, I’m sure.
It’s a big project. We needed about 100,000 to do the first phase. We need about 300,000 to finish. So it’s obviously a fundraising issue. If that money came in tomorrow, we would get started right away
How about that. And then I guess, in addition to just the carrying costs and heating and cooling and things like that, I mean, it’s– you must be constantly working on the structure just to keep it in good repair, good shape. I mean, well, how many capital projects are you doing on a regular basis?
Yeah, so the practice kind of fall into two categories, kind of the ongoing issues like you have Clay roof tiles that will slip off during a storm and you have to repair things like that. And then we deal with larger projects like the restoration of individual rooms. We actually have one that’s going on right now. So it has been an ongoing process over the 53 years since the building was saved. We estimate we’ve probably put a good 4 to 5 million dollars into the buildings. And there’s obviously still projects to be done.
Yeah. I mean, it’s just– must be constant work. So there’s other house museums in Chicago and there’s a lot of fantastic architecture. How do you compete? What’s the market like there? And I think for people listening who run historic house museums or historic site, it’s always interesting to hear about how other people are doing this and sort of their method for competition and how they market themselves. So how does that work for Glessner House?
Well, one thing that really works in our favor, which a lot of historic sites suffer with is we are in an incredibly good location. We are in a neighborhood that has really reinvented itself in the last 20 years. It’s it’s a high end residential neighborhood again, as it once was, and we are also very close to downtown. So for many, many people come to Chicago specifically to see architecture. So it’s very easy for them to get to us. And they really see this as both a wonderful example of a building from that particular period. But we also focus very heavily on the story of early Chicago preservation. And this really is one of the first big success stories. And that movement really was built upon a lot of the people that saved this house specifically.
So along those lines, in terms of marketing yourself and staying relevant, a lot of– we’ve talked to a different house museums and historic sites about sort of the need to reinvent and constantly kind of show and prove that relevance. Do you have any plans for that or are there efforts sort of underway at Glessner to do that? Or what’s what’s the thinking there in terms of sort of that broader question about historic house museums?
Yeah. So it’s a great question, and it is something we have considered in the last couple years in particular. As part of our new strategic plan, we’ve created a new mission statement. And we actually just a year ago, changed our name from Glessner House Museum to Glessner House, with the idea that the museum will always be a core part of what we do. But we realized that we can be a lot of other things to a lot of other people, whether it be more of a community center to this revitalized neighborhood around us, or as a site for other types of cultural offerings. And because we have a wonderful story from the Glessners, their involvement with founding the symphony and Mrs. Glessner as a craftswoman and that sort of thing, there are so many directions that we can go where we can still remain true to the story, but still reach out into a lot things beyond simply offering the tours of the house, which is obviously something we have done for half a century now.
And so I mean it really is staying true to the story but then also kind of branching out. And I guess it sounds like the board has really embraced that. Was there any pushback to that or any concerns about that, that component of it?
By the time we got to that stage, our board had really kind of coalesced into a group that understood those ideas. I mean we were specifically kind of bringing people in that understood this new direction. And it was largely brought upon– we had, in the past, received about a third of our annual funding from the city of Chicago, and that dried up in 2015. And we quickly realized we had to come up with a different model to kind of move forward. And it was one of those things where initially it was a terrible thing. It was a real crisis for us. But it really forced us to sit down and ask those tough questions about how do we remain relevant and viable moving into the future. And I think the discussion has been terrific. We’ve been able to bring in some consultants that heavily advised us. And we’re certainly not there yet, but I think we are well around the path. And I think our future is very positive-looking.
So let’s talk a little bit about some of the upcoming events that you have this month here in March and then also some of the restoration work that you’re celebrating. So maybe talk a little bit about the events that you guys have going on.
Yeah. So we have a series of five events coming up the last week of March known as Frances Glessner Lee Week. She was the daughter of the Glessners. She was raised here in the house. And she has really become our star celebrity. She, in her 50s, really became what is considered the mother of forensic science. She had a deep passion for that and a real interest in professionalizing the field both for police officers and medical examiners in terms of forensic science and how death scenes are investigated. It sounds a little bit odd when you first hear about it, but she made incredibly important contributions to the field. And we get more inquiries about her than anything else we do here, so we decided to devote a week to her at the end of March, which also coincides with her birthday. So we’ll have a dialogue, we’ll have a birthday party, a lecture about the restoration of her bedroom, which is currently in process, the screening of a movie that is directly about the work that she did at Harvard University, and then we’re going to tie it off with a really interesting program about these miniature death scenes that she built and crafted herself in the 1940s to use as training tools for the police. And they’re actually still used as training tools today. And they are housed at the office of the chief medical examiner in Baltimore.
Really? Well, how about that?
We’re right here in Baltimore City, where you’re talking too. I guess we can go and check out her miniatures if we can make a visit over there.
That is correct. They went on public display for the first time ever in the fall of 2017 in an exhibit of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and they were hugely popular. The frustration for attendees was that the solutions were not revealed because those are still highly guarded secrets because they are still in fact used as training tools for the police.
And just out of curiosity, how did they end up in Baltimore?
So they were originally at Harvard, which is where the seminars and the training all took and in the late 1960s, after Mrs. Lee died, Harvard made the decision to close that department. And one of the people that had worked there by that point was now the chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland. He asked for permission to transfer the models down to Baltimore so that he could continue to run the seminars and use the models as training tools. And they have been there ever since.
How about that? And you don’t have any models of your own though at Glessner House?
We do not, but one of the things we will have on display during our special week is that one of her first forays into miniature making was to create a full-scale model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra complete with all 90 musicians, their instruments, music stands with handwritten music, and we will be borrowing that model from the orchestra. And it will be on display for about four weeks here.
Pretty unique story you have there. And you also mentioned briefly that you’re restoring her room. Tell us a little about that. What’s gone into that? What size of project is that? And when will that be done?
Yes. So in the early 1970s, the house was not kind of envisioned as be turning back into a house museum. It was used for other purposes to keep the building viable. And so one of the things that was done is her bedroom and her brother’s bedroom which were adjacent to each other, the wall in between was knocked down. It was made into a large office space, and it was still a space like that until about a month ago. We have now rebuilt that wall doing other restoration work to both of those spaces. And this was really kind of initiated by the return of her original bed to the house from the family about a year ago. And so when that came back we thought about, “Well, how do we– how can we really kind of capture her story and who she was as a child and the environment that she grew up in?” And so we thought, “Well, let’s restore the bedroom. Put the bed back.” It’s a great place to talk about her early life and she became the person that she was. So we will have about a third of the restoration done. The basic structure and the floors and the lighting will all be done. And then we’ll be doing some fundraising to finish off the wallpaper and the drapes and refinishing the wood and that sort of thing.
So if people want to learn more about the restoration, they want to about your events, or they’re coming into town and they want to make a visit, where can they find you and where can they find out more information?
Right. So all of this is on our website glessnerhouse.org. All of the programs that I mentioned are listed and all still currently have tickets available. We’re obviously open to the public five days a week, year-round, for public tours. So as of the end of March, her partially restored bedroom will be included on the tours and people will be able to learn about that. And then, of course, we do a lot of special programming through the year as well. We try to provide a lot of opportunities for people to come back. It’s one of the great challenges with historic sites is people don’t just check you off the list and say, “I’ve been there and done that.” We really try to provide opportunities that make people want to come back.
Well, you’ve painted a very exciting and interesting picture of this place, and I’m sure people listening would love to come and visit if they live in the area or if they’re making the trip. It sounds like a great place to come and see. Before we go, the most difficult question you’ll get, probably all day, hopefully, is your favorite historic place or site?
Okay. Well, I’m actually going to mention a site that’s very close to Glessner House. It’s within walking distance. And it is Second Presbyterian Church which is the only church in the city of Chicago that is designated a National Historic Landmark for its incredibly important and intact arts and crafts sanctuary that was done in 1900. There’s a collection of fabulous Tiffany windows. It’s one of those, what I refer to as really a hidden gem. People just don’t know about it and yet when they come inside the space they really can’t believe what they see. So it’s a favorite of mine just because I’ve been involved there for a long time and have seen the restoration work start and really kind of see the momentum to try and build up what they have there. And it’s not something most people would find on their own.
Well, a perfect answer and sounds like a great place to visit. Bill, this has been a pleasure. It sounds like you guys are doing great work out there, and we wish you all the best. Thanks again for joining us today on PreserveCast.
Thank you very much. It’s been my pleasure. [music]
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