Flashback 1981 - Glessner House and Prairie Avenue

It all began with a ride aboard Chicago’s “Culture Bus” 35 years ago today – Sunday June 7, 1981.  Among those riding the south route of the bus that afternoon was a 16-year-old student at Carl Schurz High School (a Chicago landmark designed by Dwight Perkins in 1910).  That student was William Tyre, now completing his ninth year as Executive Director and Curator of Glessner House Museum.  It was his first visit to Glessner House and Prairie Avenue and, to say the least, it had a lasting impression.

Chicago’s Culture Bus

(Ahmed Burson, Flickr)

(Ahmed Burson, Flickr)

The Culture Bus was a brilliant idea conceived by the CTA and launched in 1977.  For the price of a supertransfer - $1.20 for adults and 60 cents for children in those days - riders could board and exit the bus as many times as they wished, stopping at numerous architectural landmarks and cultural institutions around the city.  A trained CTA guide would provide commentary on the various sites.  The buses, which began and ended their route in front of the Art Institute, operated on Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day through mid-October.  During that first year two routes explored sites on the north and south sides of the city. 

The north route included nearly a dozen sites extending as far north as Lincoln Park Zoo and the Conservatory.  The south route made stops at the Spertus Museum, Prairie Avenue Historic District, Stephen Douglas Monument, Museum of Science and Industry, University of Chicago, Oriental Institute, DuSable Museum, Smart Gallery, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and the Planetarium.  In 1978, a west route was added which included the Polish and Ukrainian Museums, the Garfield Park Conservatory, the University of Illinois campus, and Hull House.  The Culture Bus continued to operate through the 1991 season, but was a victim of budget cuts the following year.

Glessner House in 1981

Glessner House, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

Glessner House, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

Glessner House courtyard, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

Glessner House courtyard, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

Glessner House Museum appeared very different than it does today.  The house had not yet been cleaned and restored on the outside, so when arriving at the site, visitors saw a hulking black mass – the Braggville granite and clay roof tiles covered in decades of black soot left behind from the years when coal was burned to provide heat.  Ivy covered portions of the walls on both the front and courtyard sides of the building. 

Visitors started their tour in the coach house, which at the time served as the Visitors Center.  Filled with a variety of books and other items, the room itself still bore scars from the decades of use by the Lithographic Technical Foundation, which used the room for housing large equipment including printing presses.

Master bedroom, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

Master bedroom, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

Several spaces had been restored on the interior, although none of them contained the number of objects as are found in the rooms today.  The first was the library, completed in 1974, followed soon after by the schoolroom, master bedroom, and kitchen wing with its associated pantries.  Other original objects, returned to the museum by the Glessners’ granddaughter Martha Lee Batchelder, were displayed in various rooms including the courtyard bedroom, which housed a number of pieces designed by Isaac Scott. 

Steinway piano, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

Steinway piano, June 7, 1981 (photo by William Tyre)

The piano had been returned to the house in 1979, a gift of Gardner Cowles Jr., founder and publisher of Look magazine.  It sat in the largely empty parlor, the elegant Pretyman designed hand-painted burlap wallcovering long since painted over.

The courtyard had been renovated with a large patio of granite pavers to accommodate museum functions and to house a collection of architectural fragments from various demolished buildings around the city by Sullivan, Wright, and others.

Prairie Avenue in 1981

The streetscape on the 1800 block of Prairie Avenue had been restored in 1978, returning that block to its 1890s appearance.  Sidewalks composed of huge limestone slabs, granite curbs, cobblestone gutters, and period lighting transported visitors back in time.  A cul-de-sac at the south end of the block closed off the street to auto traffic. 

A series of interpretive panels, depicting a number of the houses that had originally stood on the 1800 and 1900 blocks, were set into alcoves marking the location of the front entrances to the huge mansions.  The image above shows the plaque for the Joseph Sears house, which stood at 1815 South Prairie Avenue until it was razed in 1968 to make way for the office building shown below.

The west side of Prairie Avenue extending south from Glessner to the Keith House, was a large grassy parcel, with the original cobblestone alley still cutting through from north to south.  West of the alley, along Indiana Avenue, the Clarke House was in the midst of an $800,000+ restoration.  It would open to the public in October 1982. 

The northwest corner of Prairie Avenue and Cullerton, south of the Keith House, was occupied by the factory for Gaylord Products.  That building would be razed in 1999 to make way for the Commonwealth on Prairie Avenue townhouse development – the first new residential construction on Prairie Avenue in 95 years.  In 1981, such an idea would have seemed but a dream.

The east side of the 1800 block of Prairie Avenue included the Kimball and Coleman mansions, at the time occupied by R. R. Donnelley.  A huge warehouse, erected by R. R. Donnelley, marked the site of the former Marshall Field mansion, and stood just north the of the Marshall Field Jr. house. 

Junior’s house had housed a nursing home until 1977 when it was shut down.  By 1981, the house sat vacant, its large windows boarded up and its future uncertain, in spite of being protected as part of the Prairie Avenue Historic District, designated a Chicago landmark in 1979.  South of Junior’s house, a large parking lot was utilized by the Pipefitters Union.

The northeast corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street, originally the site of the George Pullman mansion, was occupied by an enormous brick garage that extended nearly a block to the north and housed school buses. 

A bronze plaque on the building, installed by the Chicago Historical Society, noted that it was the site of the Battle of Fort Dearborn on August 15, 1812.  Additional buses were parked in a large open lot on Calumet Avenue east of the Kimball and Coleman houses. 

Opposite the lot on Calumet were two remnants of the earlier history of the neighborhood.  A huge wooden bridge had been constructed for visitors to the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair which was sited on the land immediately to the east (now Northerly Island).  Many of the vacant lots on Prairie Avenue had been converted into parking lots for the visitors to the fair, and the bridge provided access to the fairgrounds over the Illinois Central railroad tracks. 

Just south of the bridge, a small section of George Pullman’s brownstone garden wall was still in place.  The bridge and Pullman wall disappeared in 2004.

The west side of Indiana Avenue was straddled on both sides of 18th Street by a large parking lot and offices for Yellow Cab Company.  Those parcels were redeveloped into the Kensington Park townhomes starting in 2002.

First Steps in Area Revival

Just one week after Tyre’s visit, the Chicago Tribune published an article about the neighborhood.  Entitled “First steps in area revival,” the article was written by Michael L. Millenson and focused heavily on the restoration work being undertaken at Glessner House, at that time still owned by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  Richard Combs, executive director of the Foundation, was quoted as saying that “the restoration work is nearly finished.”  It was an optimistic quote – restoration work continues to this day!

The article also noted that the Marshall Field Jr. house had recently been sold for “a little under $100,000” to three investors who planned a restaurant in the 23,000 square foot building.  That plan never materialized, and the house, already in “dire need of renovation” in 1981, would sit empty for another 22 years, until it was successfully converted into condominiums.

The article closed with a prediction that the neighborhood may someday be redeveloped and may even become a residential community once again:

“Foundation officials hope the revival of the South Loop area through the Dearborn Park and Transportation Building projects will extend to Prairie Avenue.  Right now, the area stands lonely in the middle of crumbling and old commercial buildings; urban renewal planned a decade ago never came.

“’I think a residential neighborhood is a long way away, but it’s possible,’ ventures Jane Lucas, who runs the foundation’s museum store.  ‘It’s really quite safe – nobody lives around here.’”

Even in her optimism, Lucas and others in 1981 probably could have never foreseen the thriving residential community that defines the South Loop today, anchored by the Prairie Avenue Historic District.  Redevelopment would not start until 1992, when the old Eastman Kodak building at 1727 S. Indiana Avenue became the first to convert to residential use, offering rental units targeting artists.  It was the beginning of the rebirth of one of Chicago’s most historic and unique neighborhoods.