One year in a house

The sign on the Glessner House’s locked front door pointed guests around to the carriage house, a huge, bare room made cozy by the rain outside. Inside, mostly older women talked quietly, waiting for the last of the guests to close her dripping umbrella and pay for her ticket. The grey-haired and genial curator, William Tyre then began his presentation, “1887: A Year to Remember,” a historical review of major events which took place in the title year

The date is significant to the Glessner House, as the building–which was designed by famed Boston-based architect, Henry Hobson Richardson–was completed late that year. The architectural landmark now serves primarily as a museum for antique furnishings and decorative crafts. Tyre, however, has more grand ambitions for the museum. The curator and author of Chicago’s Historic Praire Avenue has put together a lecture series which uses the Glessner House as a launching point for discussing Chicago and world history through the early years of the Glessner House. The series began last year with Tyre’s talk on 1886, the year in which the building’s construction began.

Tyre’s talk on Thursday, however, began not with the story of the Glessner House’s completion, but, rather, with a re-telling of a wide range of world events. Major tragedies such as the 1887 Yellow River Flood in China, which killed 900,000 people and the Dawes Act, which forced Native Americans to relocate from ancestral land to reservations, were discussed in the same breath as the splendor of the Queen’s Jubilee and the discovery of the first triceratops skeleton.

In the art world, Van Gogh painted a self-portrait in Paris, John Watson joined Sherlock Holmes in their first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, and several important books, such as the complete set of Darwin’s work and science fiction novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, found their way to the Glessner library.

The talk finished by narrowing its scope, moving from world-wide events to focus in on Chicago history and its relationship to the day-to-day activities of the Glessner family. This slightly more prosaic part of the talk listed details about the purchase of a new laundry machine, a tonsilectomy, and shopping trips. Yet even these relatively mundane descriptions were accompanied by accounts of the family’s interactions with momentous events. The matriarch Frances Glessner, for example, wrote in her journal about the execution of the Haymarket anarchists in between accounts of social events.