Charles James

Lightner Museum Preserves Prairie Avenue's Past

In 1934, Otto C. Lightner, publisher of Hobbies magazine, opened a unique museum in a former mansion at 2816 S. Michigan Avenue.  The museum was a treasure trove of objects collected over the course of years, many from the leading homes in Chicago, on Prairie Avenue, Lake Shore Drive, and elsewhere.  Lightner acquired the decorative objects, light fixtures, stained glass, and architectural fragments, from the grand old houses as they were being demolished.

The house had originally been built for Charles W. Brega in the late 1880s.  The architect was Solon S. Beman, architect of the Town of Pullman and the Kimball mansion at 1801 S. Prairie Avenue to name but a few.  Brega was a prominent member of the Chicago Board of Trade and his elegant home on this fashionable section of Michigan Avenue reflected his business and social successes.  He lived there with his wife Fanny and their only child Louise, who later married a British army officer, Colonel Ralph H. James, and moved to England.  (Their son Charles James, became a well-known clothing designer in the U.S.).  After Brega died in 1906, his wife also moved to England, and the house was acquired by Franklin P. Smith, a prominent wire and iron manufacturer and one of the early settlers of Lake Forest. 

Lightner acquired the house from the Smith family in 1933 and immediately began converting the building into his museum.  The rooms were filled with fine objects from leading families – Potter Palmer, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Victor Lawson, John Farwell, and many more.  Stained glass (including panels from the Chicago Board of Trade) filled the windows, furniture was crammed into every space, and countless curio cabinets were filled to overflowing with art glass and more.  The rooms were given themes and names – the Music Room, the Gold Room, the Textile Room, the Curio Room, the Egyptian Room, the Crystal Room, and the Oriental Room.  The museum also featured an especially fine collection of objects from the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Several objects from Prairie Avenue homes made their way into the museum including paneled doors from the Pullman house, a gold-plated chandelier from the Buckingham house, brass andirons from the Armour house, and a dining room – complete with glassware, china, paneling, furniture, and all – from the residence of Isabella Blackstone. 

As the collection grew, Lightner acquired the adjacent properties.  To the north he constructed a building to house his publishing business.  To the south, he planned a huge modern addition to the museum that would connect to the nearby Kohl mansion.  At the close of World War II however, due to ill health, Lightner made the decision to move to St. Augustine Florida and take his collections with him.  The publishing business was moved to 1006 S. Michigan Avenue, which still features a faded sign publicizing Hobbies Magazine on its side.

Next week: The Lightner Museum opens in St. Augustine