April 21, 2014

What Life Is Like Inside Not One, Not Two, But Three National Historic Landmarks

  • More: National Treasures
  • By: William Tyre, Executive Director and Curator, Glessner House Museum

Glessner House Museum, restored 2011.

In 2013, Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) -- the only individually listed church in the city to be so honored. On a personal level it represented something very special to me because it meant that I now lived, worked, and worshiped in National Historic Landmarks -- something I consider to be a rare and possibly unique privilege.

My journey with NHLs began in 1981 when I visited Glessner House Museum as part of a high school field trip. Even though decades of grime hid its granite exterior, something about H. H. Richardson’s powerful architecture and the story of its preservation struck a chord with me. I started collecting any information I could find on the house and its Prairie Avenue neighborhood.

Hotel Florence, 11111 S. Forrestville Avenue, 2012.

A few years later I read about the nearby Second Presbyterian Church with its collection of Tiffany windows and 175 angels. I attended a worship service there soon after, and again felt that same sense of awe as I looked at the glistening windows, pre-Raphaelite murals, and elaborate plaster and wood decoration adorning Howard Van Doren Shaw’s Arts and Crafts-inspired sanctuary.

In the late 1980s, I attended my first house tour in Pullman, the planned industrial community on the far South Side of Chicago laid out in the 1880s by railroad car magnate George Pullman. (The Pullman Historic District was also recently named a National Treasure.) Once again, I felt myself transported back in time to the era in which the charming brick Queen Anne buildings designed by Solon S. Beman were first occupied.

As a fifth-generation North Sider (my ancestors settled in Chicago during the Civil War), I quickly found myself drawn to the South Side and its treasure trove of architecture which is often overshadowed by buildings in downtown and elsewhere in the city. Little did I know how important all of these sites would become in my life.

Glessner House Museum parlor, restored 2011.

In 1997, after a decade of working in the accounting field, I charted a new course and enrolled in the master’s program in Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute. When I learned that a 250-hour internship was one of the requirements, I immediately contacted Glessner House to inquire about openings. I was thrilled to be accepted and spent my summer inventorying the Glessners’ books, cleaning artifacts in the restored rooms, and exploring the archives on Prairie Avenue in preparation for writing my master’s thesis, After the Ball is Over: The Decline and Rebirth of Chicago’s Historic Prairie Avenue.

After graduation, I began volunteering at the museum in the collections department and developed a Sunday afternoon walking tour of the neighborhood that included the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church. Through those tours, I became involved with Friends of Historic Second Church, the nonprofit group organized to oversee the preservation and interpretation of the building.

Arcade Row, 500 block of East 112th Street, during 2013 house tour.

Soon after my appointment as Executive Director and Curator of Glessner House Museum in 2007, I decided it was time to relocate to the South Side, ultimately selecting a brick row house on Arcade Row in Pullman which I restored and opened for the 40th annual Pullman House Tour in 2013.

I have been privileged to oversee the restoration of several rooms at the museum as well as coordinating the 125th anniversary celebration of the house in 2011-2012, which included the first-ever Glessner family reunion, attended by more than two dozen descendants from around the country. My master’s thesis was reworked into Chicago’s Historic Prairie Avenue, published by Arcadia in 2008. As a board member of Friends, I have worked on several projects including the restoration of two murals by Frederic Clay Bartlett, who has become a favorite artist of mine.

Second Presbyterian Church, 1936 S. Michigan Avenue, 2007.

Spending 24 hours a day in National Historic Landmarks has made me understand the importance these sites have on their communities. Glessner House and Second Presbyterian Church now both stand in the thriving South Loop neighborhood that blossomed in the 1990s and early 2000s. The buildings are clearly a source of pride to the residents and provide a unique identity to this Chicago neighborhood.

The landmarked portion of the Town of Pullman is a true community in every sense of word, with numerous neighborhood groups engaged in promoting the benefits of preservation and improving the quality of life in Pullman for all residents. The recent initiative by elected officials to designate Pullman as a National Park would have even a more profound impact on this entire section of the South Side.

All three sites regularly welcome visitors from around the country and around the world to learn about some of the most outstanding art, architecture and urban planning in Chicago and the nation. I encourage you explore my favorite National Historic Landmarks -- I know you will be glad you did.

By: William Tyre, Executive Director and Curator, Glessner House Museum

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