Photo by Hedrich Blessing, 1987
The last stop on a tour of Glessner House Museum is the school room. Situated at the southeast corner of the house, it is the only family space located at the basement level. Although more simply finished than other spaces within the house, in some ways, the school room most effectively shows Richardson’s brilliance in executing the floor plan for the house, and how carefully he considered function and circulation. In this article, we will examine those issues, as well as taking a look at the room as its function changed over the course of the last 129 years.
A SCHOOL ROOM FOR THE CHILDREN
As originally designed, the room was to serve as the school room for the Glessners’ two children, George and Fanny, who were aged 16 and 9 respectively at the time the family moved into the house in December 1887. It is the only room in the house to be finished in pine. This does not reflect a desire to cut costs, for even the servants’ bedrooms are trimmed in quarter sawn oak. The pine is more a reflection of the overall design of the room, which incorporates many features of the Colonial Revival that became popular following the centennial of the United States in 1876. The room is dominated by a huge paneled fireplace faced in dark brick. Dentil trim, a beamed ceiling, and fluted pilasters all reflect Richardson’s interest in using Colonial detailing, and pine was considered the most appropriate choice for these types of interior spaces.
What is most impressive about the room, however, is how it is accessed. Located just inside the main entrance of the house, three doorways enable the room to function as an independent space within the larger house. The entrance way leading from the main hall down six steps can be closed off with a paneled pocket door, making the doorway all but invisible to visitors going up and down the main stair case. Having the room located at the front of the house allowed for the friends of the Glessner children to easily come and go without disrupting activity elsewhere in the house.
A second doorway, up two steps at the southwest corner of the room, leads to the entrance from the porte cochere. In this way, the children and their friends would have had direct access to the courtyard when the weather was favorable for outdoor activities. This doorway also opens to the base of the three-story spiral staircase, which allowed the children easy access to their bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor.
The third doorway, at the northwest corner of the room, leads into the basement, accessed by going up two stairs. The floor level of the basement is 24” higher than in the schoolroom – which was dug deeper to permit greater ceiling height in the room. The first room in the basement off of the school room was possibly used by George Glessner as a dark room. It is known that he did develop some of his negatives at home, and the proximity of this space to the schoolroom, combined with the fact there is only one small window, would have made it an ideal space for this purpose. Continuing through this room, one has access to the full basement and then the staircase leading to the kitchen. In this way meals could easily be taken to the children and their tutor, again without disrupting other activities in the household.
It is interesting to note that all three doors in the room are solid oak. In each case, however, the door has been faced in pine on the school room side – even the door leading into the basement has the more expensive oak on the basement side of the door – clearly a sign that pine was not used to save money!
The room had central heat, as did the rest of the house, but in this space, which is nearly 50% below ground level, a large radiator was hung on the north wall of the room, and then covered with a huge brass panel. Presumably that system worked well. The radiator has long since been disconnected, and, as a result, the room continues to be the coolest in the house during the winter months.
In addition to the large work table in the middle of the room (originally the dining room table in the Glessners’ previous home), ample bookshelves held the children’s books and other items related to their school work. Numerous cardboard boxes, carefully numbered, held hundreds of George’s glass plate negatives. Of particular interest, along the north wall beneath the radiator, was a table which held various pieces of George’s equipment including a telegraph that connected to several of his friends in the neighborhood, and a fire alarm that was connected directly to the Chicago Fire Department. (For more information, see the blog article “George Glessner and His Love of Technology” dated January 2, 2012).
Not surprisingly, the room functioned as the center for Christmas celebrations when the children were young. In December 1888, George photographed the small table-top tree displayed on the school room table, decorated by the children on Christmas Eve.
THE CHILDREN ARE GROWN
Both children married in 1898, at which time the Glessners made the decision to convert the school room into a sitting room. The central table and its chairs were given to George and his wife Alice, who returned them to their originally intended use in their dining room. Plans originally called for an extensive redecoration of the room, and in January 1899, Frances Glessner noted that Louis Comfort Tiffany had been consulted about ideas for the space; those plans were never executed.
The Glessners commissioned A. H. Davenport, the Boston-based firm that had made numerous pieces of furniture for the house when they first moved in, to make new pieces for the room. The furniture included a sofa and adjustable back chair, copies of pieces in their library, both covered in the same cut-velvet fabric, Utrecht, by Morris & Co. A sofa table was designed with a removable panel on the top to hold books.
The Lithographic Technical Foundation occupied the house from 1946 until the mid-1960s. Ironically, they returned the room to its original function as a class room. In the image below, taken in 1946 by Hedrich Blessing, the room is furnished with a series of student desks, suitable for the seminars and other training sessions held in the house.
After the house was rescued from demolition in 1966, the school room took on a new use. Given its proximity to the front door, it functioned perfectly as an office, the executive director and her assistant easily able to answer the door when visitors arrived, often for impromptu tours.
By the mid-1970s, significant work was needed in the room, including the floor which was badly rotted due to there being only a dirt floor beneath. The entire maple floor and chestnut sleepers beneath were removed, concrete poured, and a new maple floor installed.
Missing sections of bookcases were recreated, and repairs were made to the staircase and fireplace.
Eventually, the offices were moved elsewhere in the building, and the room was restored to its original appearance as the school room. Many of the original items, including a Morris Sussex chair, vases, pictures frames, and numerous books, were returned to the museum by the Glessner family and were put back into the room, based on the historic photos taken by George Glessner.
Today, the school room, with its books and writing tablets spread across the table, gives the appearance George and Fanny have just stepped out for a few minutes. The space is of special interest to the many children who visit the house – unable to imagine the idea of their teacher coming to them, and having a classroom in their own home. It reinforces the importance of education that the Glessners placed on their children, prompting John Glessner to recall:
“Over the threshold of this has passed a regular procession of teachers for you – in literature, languages, classical and modern, mathematics, chemistry, art, and the whole gamut of the humanities and the practical, considerably beyond the curricula of the High Schools. . . Of this I am sure, that it gave to each of you a great fund of general information, a power of observation and of reasoning, an ability and desire for study, and to be thoroughly proficient in what you might undertake. If ever there was a royal road for that, you had it . . .”