At Least Oak

Walking around 49th and Drexel this past Saturday, you could overhear people gushing over the Ryerson Mansion’s ornate doorknobs and murmuring, “This must have been a fern room. They went crazy over fern rooms around the turn of the century.” As part of Open House Chicago, the mansion, which was built in 1887 and now serves as the Croatian Ethnic Institute, was made open to the public.

Lovers of old-fashioned houses and craftsmanship came to poke their nose in the Ryerson’s door. Feeling the Joliet limestone from which the house is built, a couple who owned an Art Deco house from 1912 exclaimed, “I don’t understand how people can buy new houses. They brag about building ‘em in 90 days–that’s not a good thing!”

The attendees’ knowledge of architectural details was impressive. They discussed the diamond-shaped inlays on the wooden floors and the distinctive hardware with cutouts and rivets on the cabinets. A well-dressed man and a blonde woman in an elaborate leopard print hat identified the types of wood that the silently gliding, perfectly hinged doors were constructed from. “Everything here is at least oak, if not mahogany,” they said, while bemoaning the price of similar craftsmanship and materials in today’s dollars.

The overflow of elaborate woodwork seems fitting for a house built by the lumber magnate Martin Ryerson. The mansion showcases the kind of immense wealth achieved by turn of the century captains of industry, and affluence is echoed in the multiple wood paneled rooms and the elaborate scrollwork decorating each fireplace. The house’s status as a symbol of wealth seems cemented by the sixteen Monets that once lived there, and by its appearance in the movie version of Native Son, as the residence of the affluent Dalton family. Many of the attendees on Saturday owned turn of the century houses themselves, and seemed conscious of the fact that, as local relator Jeff Walter said, “You have to invest four times the sale cost of a house like this for it to be livable.” The guests at the Ryerson Mansion displayed a love and knowledge of the fine level of craftsmanship which money can buy, and spent their Saturday paying homage to a stunning example of it.