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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hot ticket: Glessner House Museum

                                                       Photo by Gemma Petrie
I haven't looked at the weather forecast for tomorrow, but it really doesn't matter. Rain or shine, get yourself down down to Prairie Avenue for the Glessner House Museum's annual tour of private neighborhood homes. Thanks to the hard work of the GHM staff, a boatload of volunteers (and the generosity of the owners who open their homes to a bunch of strangers) you can see how, in 1886, the other half lived.  Actually, 'other half' isn't quite the phrase for this exclusive enclave. Other hundredth of one percent is more like it.  If even that. After all, one hundred and twenty-five years ago, the residents of Prairie Avenue and its environs were some of the wealthiest families in the country, and it shows.

These days, the potted palms & antimacassars may be few & far between, even on Prairie Avenue, but the aura of exclusivity that ruled here in the 1890s is back, even though these days, more residents live in gleaming high-rises than live in red-brick & sandstone mansions. Either way, in the last twenty years or so, the neighborhood has changed from a wasteland of vacant lots, dilapidated buildings & light industry to become a healthy & vibrant home for another generation of Chicago. And tomorrow is your one chance to see the inside of some of the historic homes.

The centerpiece of the neighborhood, though, is the same as it was a hundred years ago--the John J. Glessner house, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson just before his death. The massive West Loop wholesale store that Richardson designed for Marshall Field & Company and the Lake Shore Drive home that he built for Franklin MacVeagh are long gone, but the Glessner's pink granite house is still here, and it's just as handsome as it was when it was new. Better than that--and unlike a lot of house museums--its rooms aren't filled with stunt doubles for the original furniture, but with the real thing, pieces handed down in the various branches of the Glessner family for more than a century.

And if you look beyond the handsome Issac Scott furniture, the William Morris rugs & the Galle glass vases, you'll see the innovative ideas that make the Glessner House feel, at heart, like a modern house: a layout that wraps the main public rooms around a light-filled private courtyard; on the first floor, a master suite that could be closed off from the rest of the house, yet have direct access to the covered carriage entrance; his-&-her dressing rooms; a combined home office/library with a reading nook & shelves for a large collection of books, all within arms' reach (not at the top of a ladder); a powder room off the the foyer, numerous public rooms that can be either opened to each other via sliding doors, or closed off for privacy and a schoolroom for the kids.

Backstairs, there is a sunny kitchen with a massive range & walls of white-glazed bricks for ease of cleaning, a walk-in cooler & tons of cabinets,  and there's a nearby butler's pantry with more storage and a trendy copper sink.

And the decor of the rooms still has lessons for today. If you're one of those under the impression that the Victorians were sober killjoys, or 'afraid of color', think again. There was a golden yellow parlor, a Pompeian red hallway and a moss green library, that open directly onto each other, and look good doing it.  Most of all, there's the Glessner's mashup of what we'd call world decor: Greek vases, Roman fragments, Syrian tables, a Burmese gong, Japanese carvings, and etchings by all the masters of the Renaissance, not to mention souvenirs of all their musician pals, some of whom just happened to be the greatest names of the late Nineteenth Century. Basically, a ton of stuff that, when all put together, looked great then and still does today.
                                                           Photo by Gemma Petrie
Anyway, the 125th Anniversary celebration and tour of the area homes is on Sunday, so go help GHM celebrate, see the other houses, then go back on a weekday to see the Glessner's own house at a more leisurely pace with a knowledgeable guide--and without the once-a-year crowds. It's an eye-opener.

Both photos courtesy of Gemma Petrie's Flickr set
Visit the Glessner House Museum's blog

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Grand View

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."--Ferris Bueller

Maybe it's just the result of growing up with a print of Charles Sheeler's painting Upper Deck hanging above my bed when I was a kid, but when I walked out the door of the shop a few weeks ago and saw this beautiful urban cityscape right across the street, I had to run back in to grab my camera. I missed my bus, but it was worth it. The Chicago skyline is pretty and all, but this is the kind of scene that really speaks to me. 

Below is a piece that might have been used in one of the very factories in that photo, a painted 4-piece steel lunch pail with its inner tray intact. It's a great example of functionalist form--no sharp outer corners to snag the dungarees, no tight inner corners to collect crumbs--and its distressed metal surface & rustproof wooden bail handle were made for years of use. Start taking your lunch to the office in this instead of flimsy paper bags and you might even save a tree. After all, the greenest product is one that already exists.

And don't forget: Fathers' Day is coming up. If dad's a retired Wobbly, a labor historian or even if he's only a fan of classic industrial design like me, this has his name written all over it--assuming, that is, his name is BEHRENS. Stop into the shop to check it out--or email me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sam Rosenthal: Summer in the City

Sam Rosenthal, Mean Old Man, 18 x 24
Summer? Already?

Here it is three weeks before it’s even official, and I’m already sick of summer. Not, of course, that this year’s any different: I‘ve never liked summer, not even when I was a kid, and especially not in the city. You can have your free music festivals, street fairs and farmers’ markets. To me, summer in Chicago means only one thing: misery. Relentless sun, gritty wind & pavement so hot you can get a tan standing in the shade. I hate all of it.

No, this is my idea of a nice summer day: indoors, in a handsome room with the curtains drawn, the shades pulled, and just enough light to read by. If you know this picture--it's a detail of "Hide & Seek" by James Tissot, at the National Gallery in Washington--you know that the actual painting also includes four little girls at play. It’s popularly thought to be about the innocent joys of childhood or some such thing, but to me the picture’s main appeal is the way Tissot captures the feeling of refuge in a cool, dark, high room when it‘s hotter than hell outside. All that’s missing from the scene is a servant coming in with a cold drink. If you ask me, November can’t come soon enough.

Sam Rosenthal, Twilight on Wacker Drive,  84 x 72
Still, even though I dread the sort of blasting heat in that top image, I happen to love the picture itself, an oil painting by the talented Chicago artist Sam Rosenthal, who just happens to be a friend of mine. Back at the end of winter, I invited Sam to show his art in the shop for spring, so Debra Phillips, the owner of the shop--& I went over to Sam’s studio and picked out ten of our favorite paintings, mostly scenes of urban life, a few of them right here in the neighborhood. Whether it’s the blinding glare of a sun-blasted sidewalk, the Beaux-Arts lanterns along Wacker Drive on a humid June evening or the glow of truck headlights in the winter dusk, Sam Rosenthal’s has a way with light. And weather.

Sam Rosenthal, Industrial Sunset, 40 x 38
All I can say is that I am hugely pleased to be able to introduce Sam's work to our friends.  
His show continues until June 19, so stop in to see it while you still can. And just in case you’re like me, and don’t like the heat, don’t let that stop you from coming down--we have air conditioning. It's cool inside. And for those of you who don't want to go outside at all, you can see more of Sam's work at

        SG Grand, 1822 West Grand Avenue, Chicago Illinois, 60622. 312-226-6654
                               email me at Bart[at]sggrand[dot]com