Jack Simmerling (1935-2013): A Tribute

NOTE:  On Monday December 1, 2014, Glessner House Museum will officially dedicate and open the new John J. 'Jack' Simmerling Gallery of Prairie Avenue History.  This temporary gallery will showcase selected pieces from the collection while fundraising commences to raise the $422,000 needed for the much larger permanent gallery.  For more information, or to make reservations for this very special event, please call 312-326-1480 or send an email to glessnerhouse@sbcglobal.net.  


On Thursday July 18, 2013, the life of Jack Simmerling drew to a close.  Jack impacted the hearts and lives of many through the years, and all who met him were deeply touched by his gentle manner, generous nature, and his deep passion for the Victorian era and Chicago’s historic architecture.  A talented artist, his watercolors and pen and ink drawings grace the walls of many homes, libraries, museums, and schools, and now form an important part of his legacy.  He was a devoted friend and supporter of Glessner House Museum for many years, and we offer this tribute in his honor.

John Joseph Simmerling, Jr. was born on December 1, 1935 to John and Esther (Bargerbush) Simmerling and was raised in the family home at 2456 W. 122nd Street in Blue Island, Illinois.  It was not long at all before he made his first trip to the Prairie Avenue neighborhood – his first baby picture was taken in the Gibson Studio at 217 E. Cullerton Street.  (Given Jack’s later love of Chicago history, it was only appropriate that the photographer, J. J. Gibson, had been the official photographer at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition).

Jack took up painting around the time he turned 11, although he had no formal training.  He learned about mixing colors from Blue Island artist Hazel Pronger, but for the rest, he relied on natural talent.  It was also about this same time that he began to play the piano, a hobby that would bring him much joy throughout his lifetime.  And it was shortly after World War II that his grandfather George Washington Bargerbush started his grandson on a life-long love affair with Prairie Avenue.

George Bargerbush in earlier years had worked as an office boy for Marshall Field.  He maintained a friendship with Gus Clemm, Field’s coachman who had stayed on as caretaker of the old Field mansion at 1905 S. Prairie Avenue.  Bargerbush brought young Jack along on one of his visits to the Field house, and Jack enjoyed exploring the huge old residence – admiring the beautiful cut stone on the façade and walking through the tunnel that connected the house to the coach house.  (The interior of the house had been largely modernized in the late 1930s when Laszlo Moholy-Nagy opened his New Bauhaus school in the building).  Those visits to the Field house had a lasting impression on the young boy, who was able to look beyond the deterioration of the once elegant neighborhood and envision what it had been in its heyday.

In 1949, Jack’s mother took him to visit the Potter Palmer castle on Lake Shore Drive before it was demolished.  As a Tribune article later reported, “he was shocked at the sight of what he considered a hallowed tradition disappearing before his eyes.”  When demolition began in January 1950, Jack undertook a series of five paintings showing the stages of the castle’s demolition.  By this time, he was working out of a log cabin studio he had built in the backyard of his family home, the walls of which were soon filled with his canvases.

Jack became acquainted with Chester Good, who worked for a wrecking company tearing down many of the Gilded Age mansions in the city.  Good would alert Jack when an interesting old house was being torn down, and Jack would come to visit, making sketches and creating paintings of the buildings before they were lost to the wrecker’s ball.  It was at this time that he began to salvage fragments from the old houses – stained glass, mantels, balusters, and carved mouldings that otherwise would have been thrown into the fire and burned or bulldozed into the building’s foundations to level the ground.  On one occasion, he found an authentic Tiffany floor lamp and convinced Chester to strap it onto the top of his car and drive it back to Jack’s house in Blue Island.  Good complied but encouraged the young boy to take lead pipe if anything because that, at least, could be sold to a junk dealer for profit!


In June 1950, Jack had the opportunity to work on the demolition of the Clapp-Gorton house at 2120 S. Prairie Avenue, designed in 1877 by Burnham & Root.  The first house on Prairie Avenue in which he was directly involved, he salvaged a significant number of artifacts from the house and spent time wandering through the neighborhood looking at other houses.  One house in particular intrigued him – a huge vacant stone-clad house at 2008 S. Calumet Avenue. 



He found out that the house was owned by Raymond W. Eyster who lived and operated his linen business from the houses at 2003 and 2005 S. Prairie Avenue directly west of the Calumet house.  He wrote to Eyster and asked if he could see the inside of the house.  Eyster complied and provided him with a tour he would never forget.  The house was enormous, nearly 85 feet deep with an imposing entry hall in the Moorish style, and an elegant ballroom on the third floor.  Eyster said he had bought the house with the idea of creating a museum there in partnership with his friend Robert Ripley (of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not).   The house was full of original furnishings left behind by the Hanford family when they moved to New York following the suicide of the head of the family, Philander C. Hanford, in July 1894. 


Jack and R. W. Eyster formed a close friendship and Jack enjoyed his visits and seeing Eyster’s collection of antique light fixtures, rugs, and Egyptian artifacts.  Eyster treated Jack to lunch at his club downtown when Jack turned 16 on December 1, 1951, which is when the photo above was taken.  Tragically, Eyster died just six months later when the old elevator in the Hanford house failed and he fell to his death. 


By 1951, Jack was developing a reputation as an artist and as an expert on Old Chicago.  He began giving lectures, using his paintings to illustrate the houses he loved to talk about.  As an article in the Commonwealth Edison employee magazine stated “One can’t help but listen open-mouthed as Jack Simmerling, Jr., a 15-year old Blue Island high school student, talks authoritatively about ‘old Chicago’ when Prairie Avenue and the Gold Coast was in flower.  To further the eye-rubbing stage, his collection of oil paintings depicting the rise and fall of the lush Victorian era adds emphasis to Jack’s interest in the subject which he enthuses as though he had been peeking through Chicago keyholes himself more than a half-century ago.”  (Jack’s dad -pictured above - and grandfather Joseph Simmerling both worked for Commonwealth Edison).

It was in 1951 that Jack received his first paid commission to design a Christmas card for the Pullman Bank.  Jack selected one of the street scenes in the historic neighborhood for the card, and was hired for several years following to design the bank’s Christmas card.

The Chicago Tribune published two illustrated articles about Jack and his paintings in 1951 and 1952 referring to him as an authority on the Victorian era.  The articles increased the demand for him to speak to groups around the city about the Gilded Age.  At one of those meetings, he met Florence Gibson, whose father-in-law had taken young Jack’s photograph when he was just a baby.  Mrs. Gibson resided in the old family home at 217 E. Cullerton St., which was filled with antiques from the Columbian Exposition and the late 1800s.  She would become a cherished friend.


Another important acquaintance Jack would make at this time was journalist Herma Clark, who wrote the weekly “When Chicago Was Young” column in the Chicago Tribune, chronicling the lives of Chicago’s wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Although old enough to be his grandmother, they formed a close bond, and he enjoyed his visits to her “Keepsake Cottage” in Princeton, Illinois where she would share her first-hand stories of Chicago’s rich and famous. 

In August 1953 Jack purchased his first piano, an old square piano that had come into the shop of Malcolm Franklin, Inc. where he was working.  Franklin was buying the old pianos and converting them into desks, but Jack found one he wanted to preserve.  This led to a lifelong hobby of collecting historic pianos and pianofortes.


Jack headed off to the University of Notre Dame where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.  He was away at school in 1955 when he learned the Marshall Field house on Prairie Avenue was about to be demolished.  He requested special permission to be excused from classes for a few days so he could travel back to Chicago to witness the demolition.  Needless to say, the request was one of the more unusual the school had heard for why a student needed to miss classes, but knowing Jack, the request was honored.

While at Notre Dame, Jack became the principal student of artist Stanley Sessler, who earlier in his life had been the last studio assistant for the great artist John Singer Sargent.  Jack credited Sessler as having had a great influence on him and his work, and considered Sargent to have been the finest 19th century artist.  Sessler later gave Jack a palette used by Sargent, and it remained a treasured piece.  After graduating from Notre Dame in 1957, Jack continued his studies in Art History at The University of Chicago.

In September 1957, the Chicago Tribune ran yet another article on Jack which began “Any girl dated by Jack Simmerling is apt to be asked if she likes Victorian architecture, for the future Mrs. Simmerling will have to share the young artist’s passion for late 19th century American design.”  It didn’t take long – Jack and Marjorie MacCartney were married the next year – and she was soon put to the test. 



On the way back from their brief honeymoon in Indiana, Jack insisted on stopping by the house at 2016 S. Calumet Avenue which was then being demolished.  In the photo above, Margie is seen standing in her high heels and new coat, amidst the rubble of the former parlor in the house.

It was also in 1958 that Jack opened his Heritage Gallery to showcase his artwork.  It was originally located at 1973 W. 111th Street, and later moved to 1915 W. 103rd Street.  The gallery provided a perfect opportunity to build his reputation as an artist, and soon commissions to paint portraits of buildings were coming in from the Beverly neighborhood and throughout the city.  Jack also taught, one of his best known students being the Pulitzer Prize winning Chicago Sun Times editorial cartoonist Jack Higgins.  Through the years Jack’s clients included the City of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Notre Dame University, Biltmore Estate, and many of the country’s top corporations and private businesses. 



The Simmerlings had seven children and eventually moved to a huge historic house, known as the Blackwelder House in Beverly.  The house became filled with children, pets, keyboard instruments, artwork, and architectural fragments, and in time was restored and brought to landmark status.  One of Jack’s great pleasures was sharing his house and collection with visitors who would regularly come to see his “museum” of Old Chicago. 

In 1995, Jack published a book on his beloved Chicago houses.  Entitled Chicago Homes: Facts and Fables, it was co-authored by long-time friend Wayne Wolf.  The book is filled with photographs and stories of the houses Jack knew in his younger years, many of which were unfortunately no longer standing.  The book was so popular that it was expanded and reissued in 1997 as Chicago’s Old Houses: Lore and Legend.  In the dedication, he lists several individuals who inspired him including his grandfather George Bargerbush, Herma Clark, R. W. Eyster, his grandmother Dena Diedesch, and Sister Annie Schaudnecker (a teacher at Rosary College).

Jack always maintained a strong interest in Prairie Avenue and was delighted to see the neighborhood reborn as a popular residential neighborhood in the 1990s and early 2000s.  He was quoted in 2008 as saying “I’m so happy with what Prairie Avenue is now.  In the 1950s, I thought this was my own private sorrow.”  In 1999, as the site of the old Hanford house on Calumet Avenue was being cleared for townhouses, Jack was on site watching as the foundation reappeared for the first time in 46 years.  He salvaged bits and pieces of the old house that had so intrigued him as a teenager, and even had the two huge stone bollards removed from the front of the property and reinstalled in front of his Beverly home.

Jack was featured in an article which appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Watercolor magazine.  (The photo of Jack at the top of this posting is from that article).  In the article, he details step-by-step how he creates a watercolor painting. 


The subject for the painting was the Glessner House, one of Jack’s favorite houses on Prairie Avenue.  He first visited the house in the 1950s when it was still occupied by the Lithographic Technical Foundation and he always maintained an active interest in the house.  At one point in the 1960s he even considered purchasing the house to use as his residence.


In September 2008, during the Festival on Prairie Avenue, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Prairie Avenue Historic District, Jack was honored for his years of dedication to the neighborhood.  A certificate, presented jointly by Glessner House Museum and the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, read in part: 

“In recognition of more than fifty years of dedication to preserving the extraordinary history of Chicago’s Prairie Avenue neighborhood – through the creation of numerous works of art capturing the unique history and architecture of the street, and through the careful salvaging and preservation of numerous architectural fragments from its residences.” 



Mayor Richard M. Daley was on hand to personally congratulate Jack, who also brought a collection of his artwork and artifacts for display.


Jack continued to work closely with Glessner House Museum, hosting a “Prairie Avenue Night to Remember” at his gallery later that year, and loaning artifacts from his collection for an exhibit commemorating the centennial of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago in 2009.  The next year, the museum hosted an exhibit of fifteen new artworks he painted showcasing the neighborhood, including the watercolor of the house at 2801 S. Prairie Avenue shown above.


He was present for the celebration in December 2011 commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Glessners christening their new home.  He attended the celebratory dinner with his daughter Cathy, who sadly passed away in January 2013.

A series of health issues cut back on Jack’s activities, but never his interest in and passion for Prairie Avenue.  He last participated in an event at Glessner house in December 2012, when the 125th anniversary of the Glessners moving into their new home was celebrated.  (Jack was proud of the fact that he was born on December 1st – the same day that the Glessners moved into their new Prairie Avenue home in 1887). 


As part of that celebration, Jack completed one of his last artworks – a beautiful pen and ink drawing of the fireplace in the Glessners’ library which they had lit as part of the ceremony dedicating their home.  The drawing was reproduced as Christmas cards and note cards.

To close our tribute, we quote from an editorial entitled “Learning from Jack” which appeared in the September 4, 2008 issue of the Chicago Journal.  It sums up nicely why Jack Simmerling was so passionate about preserving the architecture of Chicago’s Gilded Age, and what we can all learn from him:

“After a tour of his home/museum, Jack Simmerling, the historic preservation scavenger of Prairie Avenue profiled in this week’s paper, paraphrased for a Chicago Journal reporter a quotation from the architectural historian Lewis Mumford: with architecture, we rebel against our fathers and revel in what our grandfathers found compelling.
“So it was with Prairie Avenue in the 1950s, when Victorian style was out of sync with the clean modern building going up most dramatically downtown, with Mies van der Rohe’s stark black office and residential towers.  On Prairie Avenue, beautiful mansions crumbled and were demolished – often times for parking lots.
“Simmerling, of course, worked on wrecking crews as the buildings came down, saving bits and representative pieces from the long-past gilded age.  He thought the decaying structures were beautiful, and as a precocious teenager found ways to save elements from the homes, like fire place mantels and lamps.
“Retrospect is easy, and smashing such structures seems crazy today.  But Simmerling was an oddball at the time.  Some of his instructors in college were happy to let the homes of Prairie Avenue go.
“The lesson of Simmerling’s scavenging, to us, is to take the long view about architecture and find ways to appreciate each era’s buildings.  We might even want to keep a couple of cookie cutter McDonald’s around to show future generations how low we once sunk to get a hamburger.”


Farewell good and faithful friend, and thank you for preserving and sharing an era of Chicago’s history that those of us today find compelling and could never have experienced without your dedication and foresight.