From the Director’s Chair
expanded from the letter in
the Summer 2014 issue of
Notes from the Farms
Vonda K. Givens, Acting Executive Director
During the museum’s recent trip to Chicago, organized by Arts & Crafts Tours, I was introduced to the Glessner House and architect Henry Hobson Richardson, whose work influenced Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan.
As much as I enjoyed seeing this landmark home, I was equally intrigued by the Glessners, the remarkable couple who built it. Both raised in modest households, the Glessners came to wealth through Mr. Glessner’s farm machinery business, which later became International Harvester. As they prepared to build their dream home, they struggled to find an architect, until they approached Richardson. Though his fortress-like design was negatively received by the community even before it was built, Richardson and the Glessners were united in their vision. The Glessners so admired Richardson that his portrait was hung—and remains—in the entry way of their home, the cozy interiors of which featured Morris wallpapers, William de Morgan hearth tiles, many Arts and Crafts furnishings and a thoughtful collection of books and art.
As the house’s promotional materials note, the Glessners together sought the “life of the mind,” dedicating their home and lives to cultural pursuits, including their role in founding the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. While it’s clear that Mr. Glessner was an accomplished man, it was Mrs. Glessner who most captured my imagination. In room after room, as their story unfolded, Mrs. Glessner’s character emerged.
Though her wealth was linked directly to the rise of industrialization, I have come to think of Mrs. Glessner’s life as a singular embodiment of Arts and Crafts philosophy. An avid reader, collector, and artist in her own right, she applied herself equally to the development of her mind and hands. With her husband, she was dedicated to making a home that prized comfort and intimacy over grandeur and the latest fashion.
The mother of two, Frances Glessner shared an office with her husband, an unusual arrangement for the time, kept a diary of their household’s daily life for 40 years, and engaged in a wide variety of pursuits, including oversight of a weekly book club which met for 37 years. She was a skilled seamstress, needleworker, and knitter—completing an impressive array of more than 300 textiles, many on view throughout the house today, and 500 sweaters which she often gifted to those in need. She was a talented pianist and a beekeeper. She maintained a conservatory on their home’s 2nd floor and a silversmithing studio in the basement. A student of cookery, Mrs. Glessners’ knowledge was put to use during their frequent dinner parties.
Of course, it is arguable that with all of her accomplishments, Mrs. Glessner was simply following suit with the cultural activities typical of well-heeled ladies of her time and that, in another era, she, like her husband, would have pursued a professional career, likely with similar success. Yet none of this diminishes her achievements.
We often discuss Stickley’s endorsement of the “simple life,” but pursuing the simple life is quite complex. It requires living thoughtfully and intentionally, a commitment to making your actions a mirror of your inner values. Mrs. Glessner made it look easy.