High Society...

With so much to do in the city, it can get a little embarrassing to admit how many things there are that I haven't experienced. For instance, when I was making plans to meet up with my college friend, Derek, one last time before he moves away, he suggested that we visit the Glessner and Clarke Houses, a duo of historic homes a veritable stone's throw away from my apartment. Despite living at my current address for nearly three years now, I had never been to see them, or the historic neighborhood in which they are located, so I readily agreed. The houses are located in the Prairie Avenue District, which was the most elite, fashionable address in the city during the Gilded Age. At the time, it was far enough from downtown that its wealthy inhabitants could be spared from the hustle and bustle while still being convenient. Millionaires such as George Pullman, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field all constructed elaborate, European-style mansions within the span of a few blocks.

The area reigned at the pinnacle of Chicago society until the turn of the 20th century, when industry and pollution began to encroach on the area. Residents moved to the new fashionable neighborhood of the Gold Coast, or to the North Shore. The homes that were not demolished in favor of commercial construction became too expensive and impractical to own during the Great Depression, and the neighborhood declined further. Today, only a handful of the original homes remain, although the neighborhood has once again turned residential, sporting a healthy regrowth of townhouses.

The Kimball House, built in 1890 for the owner of a piano manufacturing company.

The Keith House, built in 1870, now a private residence and art museum.

The Glessner family came to Prairie Avenue in 1886, having obtained their fortune through Mr. Glessner's work for International Harvester. They commissioned the design from noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who was inspired by a print of a medieval castle in the Glessner's dining room. The building he created has a decidedly fortress-like exterior, complete with thick, stone walls, narrow windows echoing the arrow slits in medieval castles, and a series of mock porticullises. The unconventional look stood in stark contrast to the French chateau and Italian villa style homes on the rest of the block, and the Glessner's neighbor, George Pullman, was said to have wondered what he did in life to deserve being subjected to their home's appearance on a daily basis.

The Glessner House, built in 1886.

The only way to see the interior of the home is to take a guided tour, of which Derek and I availed ourselves. Compared to the forboding exterior, the inside of the home came as somewhat of a shock. The Glessners were apparently devotees of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and furnished their home extensively with the work of such artisans as William Morris. Dark wood tones and eclectic floral and geometric motifs are repeated throughout the home, creating a cozy, inviting atmosphere. Furthermore, most of the Glessner's original furniture and bric-a-brac is still present in the house. It was willed to their family members, most of whom returned the items back to the museum over the years. In fact, the Glessners were one of the last families remaining in their Prairie Avenue home, as they stayed there until the death of the family patriarch in 1936. The home went through a number of unsual incarnations afterwards, serving briefly as classroom space for the Illinois Institute of Technology, and later housing a printing company before being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, and undergoing an extensive renovation to be run as a museum.

Also located in the neighborhood is the Clarke House, the oldest house in the city of Chicago. As a wood-frame building, the fact that it survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 is a minor miracle. It was originally constructed near what is now 16th Street and Michigan Avenue, but has subsequently been moved twice during its lifespan. (It is much easier to pick up and move a house that has no electricity, plumbing, or gas than a modern home). It arrived at its current location, in a park adjacent to the Glessner House, in the 1970s, and is operated as a historic home today.

The Clarke House, built in the Greek Revival style in 1836.

As with the Glessner House, we took the mandatory guided tour, which was really somewhat of a waste in this case. None of the interior furnishings are original to the home, so one merely gets a general idea of what a home from that time period would have looked like. It lacked the lived-in charm (and the opulence) of the Glessner House. Indeed, the highlight of its furnishings was a convertible chair, which transformed from a rocking chair to a crib to conserve space. Those were definitely less-litigious times -- clever as the piece of furniture was, it could never survive today's rigorous standards for child safety. Our guide was a little overly loquacious, and could have stood to condense his remarks considerably, given the relatively uninteresting nature of the dwelling.

Overall, it was an enlightening afternoon, and I was glad to expand my knowledge of my neighborhood. My feet might have been killing me after standing around for nearly three hours of house touring, but the charm of the properties was worth the exertion. I'm not sure I'd recommend the Glessner and Clarke homes to tourists looking for a quick taste of the city, but I'd definitely suggest them to established city dwellers, looking for further insight on Chicago's history.

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