Candlelight Christmas Tour

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I was lucky to go to the Glessner House’s Candlelight Christmas Tour on Saturday. Located on the famed Prairie Avenue, where Chicago’s elite lived 100 years ago or so, the Glessner House is a museum housed in a 18th century home that looks like a fortress. Mr. Glessner made his fortune as an executive for International Harvester.

This holiday season, the museum is decked out for Christmas. They have charming Christmas trees, vintage cards and books as well as holly, garlands and ribbons.

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Gifts wrapped in wallpaper

For the evening tour, there were docents in each room who explained about the home’s history and how the Victorians celebrated Christmas. A few nuggets I picked up are:

  • Victorians used to put a small bough of holly over ancestors’ portraits to remember them.
  • Holiday wrapping paper wasn’t invented and used till 1910. Before that people wrapped gifts with wallpaper.
  • As you may know, people lit their Christmas trees with candles. What I learned was that the Glessners (and probably other families) only lit their Christmas tree candles for 10 minutes. According to Mrs. Glessner’s diary, the family gathered at 10  am to see the tree lit. They’d have a bucket of sand and water on hand in case of fire and they only had the candles lit for 10 minutes because of the fire danger.

The tour was informative and so well organized. The docents were approachable and knowledgeable. At the end of the tour, which cost $15, we were offered hot apple cider, water and cookies from Trader Joe’s in the coach house.

The house will be decorated till December 31st and it’s free on Wednesdays.

Today the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan wrote about this gem, Glessner House.

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Clarke and Glessner Houses

Clark House, Prairie Avenue, Chicago

Clark House, Prairie Avenue, Chicago

Saturday I toured Chicago’s Clarke and Glessner Houses south of the Loop on the rejuvenated Prairie Avenue, where millionaires once lived and have recently returned after a bleak era when light industry and parking lots took over the neighborhood.

The Clarke House, above, was built by a prosperous banker and his wife in 1836. It’s the oldest house in the city. According to their letters, the Clarke’s could see Native American campfires from their property in the 1830s. They started building it in 1836 and it took 13 years to complete because shortly after they started it there was a financial crash and Henry Clarke, a banker, lost everything. For a long time the family lived in half the house and Mr. Clarke used the other side for his taxidermy work, a sideline he did to augment his salary as a banker.

A Romanesque, square house, Clarke House looks a bit odd on the outside. I just wanted it to be wider. The house had been moved a few times over the years and in the 1970s they had to lift it over the el tracks to get it to its current location on Prairie Ave. They did that in January and the hydraulic system froze. The house was precariously up by the tracks for two weeks.

Clarke House looks bigger on the inside than from the outside. The Colonial Dames provided the furnishings since the original furnishings are long gone. In the basement there’s a diorama which depicts how open the land was when the Clarke’s first came to Chicago.

Glessner House

Glessner House

The Glessner House was built later and the exterior resembles a fortress. I have to agree with the first neighbor, George Pullman who thought the house was hideous. Since the Glessner’s only lived in Chicago in the winter, (yep, in the winter) they built right up to the property line. No green. The neighbors hated it. There was an interior courtyard with a couple turrets that really looked strange. Inside was better. Lots of wood, artwork and carpets. I’d read an article in the Chicago Historical Society’s magazine from Mrs. Glessner’s diaries. She rarely bothered to learn her servants’ names and at one point they banded together and walked out on the family. The tour guide neglected to share that information. Mrs. Glessner seemed to be a big snob, though our tour guide emphasized how close and happy the marriage was.

English: First Floor Plan of the John J. Gless...

English: First Floor Plan of the John J. Glessner House, 1800 South Prarie Avenue, Chicago, Illinois (1885-87), Henry Hobson Richardson, architect. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our tour guide was great. She had such enthusiasm! Tours alternate between the two houses Weds. – Sunday.

Tour for one house $10 adults, $9 seniors/students, $6 children 5-12.

Tours for both houses $15 adults, $12 seniors/students, $8 children.

Bring a student i.d. for the discount. If you’re over 24, they’ll scrutinize the i.d. but give you the discount eventually.Wednesdays are free.