NEAR SOUTH SIDE — Chicago’s Glessner House Museum is in the running to be named one of the nation’s 10 Best Historic Homes decked out for the holidays. And boy, is the competition stiff.
The 1880s Gilded Age, Prairie Avenue mansion built for the family of International Harvester executive John Glessner, is squaring off in a USA Today poll against, among others, the homes of a pair of Founding Fathers (Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello), the Biltmore Estate (America’s largest home at a jaw dropping 170,000 square feet), Hearst Castle (hello, a castle!) and none other than Graceland, the second-most visited home in the U.S., topped only by the White House.
Voting in the poll is open through Dec. 10, at which point the field will be narrowed from 20 contenders to the final 10 Best. (Click here to vote, and then be sure to return daily. C’mon Chicago, we know how to stuff a ballot box.)
Bill Tyre, Glessner House’s executive director and curator, has no idea how the museum was chosen to be included among such auspicious company — “We didn’t do anything, we were just notified,” he said — but that doesn’t mean he isn’t in it to win it.
“I’d really love to bump Elvis,” Tyre said of Graceland, which occupied the top spot as of this writing.
While Glessner House, 1800 S. Prairie Ave. (once the toniest streets in town), may not have a famous sequined-jumpsuit-wearing occupant to its credit, it has sizable charm of its own.
“I think one of the things that’s really special here is the authenticity,” Tyre said.
Frances Glessner, John’s wife, was a faithful diarist and kept extensive records of the family’s daily life, which museum staff routinely consult to recreate everything from Christmas tree decorations to holiday table settings.
“One of the things that always surprises people is that we have the dining table set for [Christmas] 1895. It’s an eight-course dinner that would have been a two-and-a-half to three-hour meal,” said Tyre.
Drawing on Mrs. Glessner’s menu books, artificial food has been created to replicate the holiday meal of oysters on the half shell; fish, poultry and meat courses, with accompanying side dishes; salad (oddly served as the sixth course); and two dessert courses.
“I don’t know how the women got into their corsets after that,” Tyre said.
Attention to detail extends to the house’s annual Christmas tree, chopped down in New Hampshire — just like the Glessners did — from land once occupied by the family’s summer retreat, The Rocks.
“It’s supposed to feel like you’re a guest of the Glessners coming for Christmas,” Tyre said.
Despite the Glessners’ wealth, visitors touring the home shouldn’t expect ostentatious displays of holiday excess.
Many of the Christmas traditions we now take for granted were only just beginning to take hold at the end of the 19th Century, Tyre explained.
At the time, New Year’s Day was far more celebratory, with Christmas a lower key day of religious observance. And even for families like the Glessners, where money was no object, the custom was still to give handmade presents like pomander balls (oranges studded with cloves), embroidery or knitting, Tyre said.
“For me, it’s kind of like you just step into how Christmas should be. You get away from the commercialism,” he said. “There was no Black Friday. It was about spending time with friends and family. It felt more genuine.”
Glessner House is open for guided tours, which take place three times a day, Wednesday through Sunday, limited to 15 individuals per tour, on a first-come, first-served basis. A handful of tickets are still available for a special Christmas Candlelight Tour, Dec. 9.
Here is some of the competition the Glessner House is facing: