BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Chicago’s most glamorous theme parties will forever be Frances Glessner’s. Every detail of these Prairie Avenue costume balls held over 100 years ago—the singular socialites present and elaborate entertainment offered—has been lovingly preserved in her journal.
The recent Glessner 50th Anniversary Gala, held at the Chicago Club where Glessner’s husband, John, was a member from 1883 until 1936, brought together architects, preservationists, and city leaders to pay tribute to the Glessners’ grandeur and Chicago’s celebrated house museum designed by H.H. Richardson.
William Tyre, Executive Director and Curator, reports:
“The Gala marked, to the day, the 50th anniversary of the deed for the house being signed and filed for record, thus rescuing it from demolition and ensuring its future. The house was purchased for $35,000 on December 14, 1966.
“Several of the original founders of the museum were present at the Gala: Wayne Benjamin, Wilbert Hasbrouck, Dirk Lohan, and Ben Weese. Several members of the Glessner family, including Harry and Elizabeth Carter, siblings who are great-great-grandchildren of the Glessners, flew in from Massachusetts and New Hampshire to attend.”
Legendary architects and preservationists Dirk Lohan, along with Ben and Cynthia Weese, served as honorary chair and co-chairs, respectively. Among those honored at the anniversary celebration were Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; Jack Tribbia, President, Restoration Division, Berglund Construction; Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell; and Robert Irving, a Glessner House docent for 45 years.
Giving special thanks to the evening’s underwriter, the Richard H. Driehaus Charitable Trust, Board President Barb Gordon noted, “The gala is an opportunity to honor our past, celebrate our present and ensure a bright future for the museum.”
Gala guests swapped stories about the legendary Glessners, and Tyre recently shared details of Glessner galas that took place over a century ago.
“A favorite photograph of Frances Glessner hangs in her former conservatory, now the Beidler Room at the museum. The image, the only known photograph of Frances in the conservatory, shows her surrounded by her plants and dressed in an elaborate gown, a costume worn to a Benvenuto Cellini-themed dinner party given by the Glessners on March 1, 1892. It appears from her journal entry that she may have recently read Cellini’s autobiography as the dinner was based on an ‘artistic dinner’ that the Italian goldsmith and sculptor had given.
“Mrs. Glessner reports that three footmen and a butler served the guests including the Blairs, Henrotins, Catons, and other nonpareil members of Chicago’s gilded age. She noted in her diary that she seated all the women on one side, with a background of red velvet behind them, put up by the upholstery man from Marshall Field’s. The menu included oysters, cutlets of salmon, boudin of chicken and macaroni, saddle of mutton with cherry sauce, and pineapple ice cream.”
A jewelry designer and artist, Frances Glessner, spent days planning her parties, but the dinner for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1913 showcased her daughter Frances Glessner Lee’s creativity as William Tyre describes:
“In 1912, Mrs. Lee began work on a scale model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was presented to her mother on January 1, 1913 on the occasion of her 65th birthday. Ninety Viennese bisque dolls and wooden dollhouse chairs were gathered for the project.
“Mrs. Lee was permitted to attend rehearsals, where she wandered among the musicians, marking on each doll’s bare bisque head the hairlines and facial hair of each performer. She hand-stitched tuxedos and white dress shirts for each doll and placed a tiny fabric carnation in each lapel because her mother often sent carnations to the orchestra members to wear when performing.
“She made most of the instruments from wooden candy boxes and other household items, while others were made by a skilled craftsmen. The entire ensemble was mounted on a tiered wooden stage that was nearly eight feet long. Conductor Frederick Stock, an intimate friend of the family, handwrote one page of ‘The Drum Major of Schneider’s Band’ for each music stand. The piece was written by Arthur J. Mundy and published in 1880. It was one of Mrs. Glessner’s favorites and she often played it on the piano.”
With the exception of three, all members of the orchestra were present at a dinner on January 17, 1913 and spent much time in the parlor looking at Mrs. Lee’s little orchestra, examining their doppelgangers. Mrs. Glessner’s diary reports that 106 guests sat down to dinner at their house that night, with punch, toasts, songs, and a musical program following.
For more information about Glessner House, visit glessnerhouse.org.
Tim Walters Photography