One Night Stand: A Modest Use of Ohio Clay

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On August 14th, 1950, my great-grandfather John Guzzo, an unskilled brick maker at the Claycraft Brick Manufacturing Plant, was walking home from work, as he did every day for well over 40 years.  When my mom was visiting the small town of Shawnee, Ohio to spend time with her grandparents, she used to wait at the edge of the backyard right by the railroad tracks – knowing that her grandfather would soon be seen walking home on the tracks.  She would love to grab his black metal lunch box and carry it for him back into the house.  On this day, though, John didn’t arrive home.  He had a heart attack and died on the railroad tracks somewhere between the brick factory and his home. He was buried in the Shawnee Cemetery.

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My grandfather was born in 1883 in Sicily, immigrated from Palermo around 1902 and shows up in the US census of 1910 as a 27-year-old living with his immigrant wife in Shawnee, Ohio.  As was generally the case across America, new immigrants were seen with fear and thought to be untrustworthy.  Unfortunately for my grandfather, Sicilians were seen as the most untrustworthy – giving rise to the commonly cited quote: “Trust family first, relatives second, Sicilians third, and after that, forget it.”  Because of this distrust, my grandfather and his young family were forced to live outside of the town limits of Shawnee in an area labeled as “Italyville”.  This Italian ghetto contained 4 houses, all occupied by Italian immigrant families whose livelihood was tied to either the brick making factory or the coal companies.

My great-grandmother, Mary Rose Guzzo, never learned to speak or write English, but she managed to raise 6 children and outlive her husband by almost 20 years. Both she and John were buried next to one another, some 4,865 miles away from where they were born.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 8.13.32 PMThe DeCarlo/Guzzo Family four-square house in Columbus, Ohio. After leaving Shawnee, Ohio, Sarah Guzzo moved to Columbus, went to college, married, bought this house, and had three children.

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Neither John or Mary Rose Guzzo had an education, but all of their children went on to gain a solid education.  Although not achieving success at the level of the Glessner’s, my grandmother Sarah, after moving from Shawnee to Columbus, Ohio in 1930, went on to get her college degree, got married, become a professional accountant, bought a big four-square house, raised three children and lived a middle-class life.  My generation of descendants was the first to go on and gain a Master’s degree education.

The significance of this personal family story to my “one-night stand” in the Glessner House may seem tangential, but that is quite the point.  My Italian immigrant family had nothing to do with the Glessner House in Chicago, but most certainly represents the  backbone of those who brought Glessner his wealth.

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One other loose connection in my story is that my family’s American hometown,Shawnee, Ohio, is less than 30 miles away from Zanesville, Ohio – the birthplace of John Glessner.  The Claycraft brick plant in Shawnee (which my grandfather John Guzzo worked for decades), along with others in this region of Ohio, produced brick and terra cotta for buildings throughout the country, including New York City & Chicago. In fact, parts of the Glessner House (the kitchen/servants floor; and the roof tiles) were built out of products produced by manufacturers from this very region of Ohio. Perhaps it was a gesture from John Glessner in acknowledging his upbringing.

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My experience at the Glessner House was, in some ways, tied to my great-grandfather – the brick maker, and all of the other immigrants who produced what John Glessner’s farm equipment company manufactured.  As I walked around the house, I was strongly aware of all of the immigrant’s hands that produced most of the materials that came together to form this architectural gem.

To me, that is the story of my Glessner House “one-night stand” – how the vision of the Glessners combined with the hand of the immigrant produced the very foundations of our cities – and how this great-grandson of an unskilled, Italian immigrant, brick-maker from Sicily ended up spending the night at the Glessner House.  It is this story, within the very walls of the building, hiding behind the William Morris wallpaper and fabrics, under the priceless artworks hanging on the walls, and under the feet of the Glessners and their guests, that the Gilded Age of America exemplifies.

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I have long known of the Glessner House, but I have never actually visited.  Like so many important historic house sites, it exists in books and images long before you actually visit.  I did not have a clear idea of its location within the limits of Chicago, so I grabbed a taxi from my hotel and gave the driver the address.  I assumed that it was in an older section of town, one that had been the best location, and later descended into manufacturing.  The Glessner House came very close to destruction, but now remains one of the few still standing on the once fashionable street of Prairie Avenue. I pulled out my camera so that I could document the urban changes that would take place as we drove closer to the house’s corner lot.

My vision of the city changed from a major interstate to multiple-lane avenues, to smaller two lane city streets.  The landscape began to be filled with large factories, bridges, and a mixture of building types.  It all seemed quite jumbled – not similar at all.  I have always suggested that historic sites need to do a better job at interpreting the current environment that surrounds the site.  I feel as if site management wants us to pretend that it doesn’t exit, that somehow that 10-minute drive through Chicago didn’t matter.  In fact, I would argue that it is the basis of a visitor’s comparative relationship – It is the most recent visual record they bring with them as they enter the site. I say use it – you really have no choice.

The taxi dropped me off directly in front of the house.  All that I had heard about its imposing and somewhat “un-welcoming” facade was true.  This thing could have been a water pumping station or some other public utility structure from the same period.  It was alright, though; I knew what was waiting or me inside.  For an Arts & Crafts nut like me, it was to be Nirvana.

I was warmly welcomed by the very hard working team at Glessner House and we started chatting before the massive front door had been shut.  Right away, I had an overwhelming sensation that this house was about living, and not about show.  I can’t justify this feeling, but I felt it nonetheless.  I walked up the wide entrance hall steps and stood in the foyer for a few seconds.  I have to admit that my hosts were talking, but I didn’t hear a damn thing.  I couldn’t get past the visual music of the house that enveloped me.  I am not exaggerating to suggest that this house is an architectural symphony of the highest caliber.  I was totally ill prepared for the spatial complexity and the livability of the interior spaces.  Honestly, I expected a fancy house whose rooms were scaled by aspirations – I was wrong.  These rooms were scaled by a family interested in the meaning and value of human life.  You wouldn’t get that from just the outside, but once you enter, nothing prepares you for the combination of beauty, comfort, and honesty.

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 I asked my hosts to direct me to my bedroom.  I wanted to get my bag out of the way and begin a sense of “landing” into this wonderfully foreign house.  As I was escorted up the big stair, I was informed that they were going to place me in the corner guest room, but decided to place me in the second guest bedroom because I would have the courtyard as my view and not the city streets.  My room for the night had a window seat nook with a writing table, a large bed, several tables, and a fireplace.  I plopped my stuff down and then asked for a tour of what I could and could not sit on, open, and use.  Surprisingly, there was very little that was off limits to my “one-night stand”.  This made me very happy.

After my house tour, we moved into the dining room for dinner.  In the planning stage of this visit, I suggested that pizza in the dining room would be just fine, but instead they prepared a very nice dinner with wine.  I brought some Greek pastries from my trip to Chicago’s Greektown earlier in the day.  We sat at the table, and while eating, and listening to their comments, I realized how dedicated and overworked the staff at Glessner House is.  It is a staff of three, utilizing a very small budget, and managing a very important house site.  It was also clear that they had a real understanding of this historic site beyond the beautiful things that surrounded me – the Glessners seemed like “fish out of water”.

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Across the street were the Pullmans, down the street were a long list of Gilded Age Millionaires (which the Glessners were also), but the house clearly stood out against the ostentatious, ornate confections of the other estates.  In fact, I was told that the Glessners greatly reduced the ornamentation on the house and nearly eradicated a showy tower that would have topped a servant’s stair.  These changes produced a house massing and aesthetic that is somber and in direct contrast to all of the homes that surrounded.

I became interested in why this conscious retreat from the social norm of the street and I asked questions of family background etc.  This is when I was told the story of John and Frances Glessner’s birth and education in rural Ohio and how their modest attitude toward wealth permeated every level of their existence. This family  clearly had the wealth and the contacts that placed them dead-center of not only Chicago social society, but also national power and influence, but somehow they kept behind the scenes and instead focused on other matters.  This is where my great-grandfather John and his wife Mary Rose become part of my experience.

(l) the tidy street of Prarie Avenue showing The Glessner House on the far right; (r) By 1900 almost 90% of all of Chicago’s street cleaners were Southern Italian/Sicilian.

 

In preparation for this “one-night stand”, I was researching Chicago and kept hitting on the subject of Italian Immigrants, mostly Sicilian, who ended up in Chicago starting in the 1880’s. The Sicilians were considered the lowest class of Italians.  The Northern Italians saw the Sicilians as little more than illiterate, dirty peasants.  So when Italians immigrated to the USA, the non-Sicilians did not like being grouped into the same label as the Sicilians and along with everyone else, began severely limiting the Sicilians access to education, political and economic power.  This resulted in Sicilians taking on many of the most degrading and unskilled work positions. By 1900 almost 90% of all of Chicago’s street cleaners were Southern Italian/Sicilian.  Of course, just as my family had been pushed to the “Italyville” ghetto of Shawnee, the Sicilians in Chicago were also pressured into forming their own enclaves of communities.  Eventually, this area of Chicago became known as “little Sicily”. This economic and cultural isolation is one of many factors that eventually led to the establishment of the Italian- American mob culture, whereby, the primarily Sicilians, formed their own political and economic “nationality”.

In analyzing Mrs. Glessner’s servants journal (provided by the Glessner House), out of the 156 house servants between the years 1874 – 1929 not a single maid or butler was Italian.

 

In taking oral histories from my family, I asked if they had a history of being house servants or landscape crew members for wealthy families.  The answer was always “no”.  It was clear that even for my family, to others, us Sicilians were not to be trusted. In analyzing Mrs. Glessner’s servants journal (provided by the Glessner House), out of the 156 house servants between the years 1874 – 1929 not a single maid or butler was Italian.  The Glessner’s remained true to this cultural stereotype, most of the servants were Irish females, but in the later years, most of the staff appeared to be Swedish or at least Scandinavian.  You didn’t hire Italians to work as servants.

After spending a bit of time relaxing in the house, I became very aware of how removed the servants’ activity must have been from the everyday functions of the house.  The house is 17,000 square feet (yes, I double-checked this).  Approximately 40% (6,950SF) is family use; the remaining 60% is servants’ work and living areas, basement, coach house.  At any one time, the Glessners could have about 10 servant staff in the house.  This is an amazing fact, given that there were only four family members.

(l) image of Italian Immigrants in Near-North Chicago tenement; (r) a size comparison between the Glessner House and a standard post-reform tenement apartment building.  The red areas show living space per family.  Most tenement apartments held families of 10 or more people.  The Glessner’s living space held 4 people.

 

The Sicilians who moved to Chicago, generally were living in the Near North section of the city. It was not uncommon for entire families of 10 to live within a single apartment.  In comparison, Mrs. Glessner made specific requests to H.H. Richardson, the architect of the house, that every servant have their own room, a closet and a window facing the courtyard. One wonders if such demands were made by the Pullmans in regards to their servants’ quarters?

As I retreated to my guest bedroom and changed into my Gilded Age silk kimono night robe (I had to!), I started to think about how these servant positions were plumb jobs to have.  I mean, if I had the choice between being a street cleaner or a valet or driver – I’d chose the latter.  It did make me wonder how much of all of this was by choice, or by luck and connections? What kind of “upward mobility” was possible at the time of the Glessners’ occupation of the house?  I also wondered who the Glessners called friends, and what sorts of public, civic activities did they dedicate their time and money? I was later told that, among many other activities, Mrs. Glessner was active at Jane Addams Hull’s Settlement House and took silversmithing classes from the Hull House Settlement (placed directly in the center of a predominantly Italian enclave).  The class was taught by an important Italian jewelry designer, Annibale Fogliata.

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I pulled out my computer and set it up at the desk.  I sat down on the chair provided for the desk, and it was not comfortable at all.  I pulled over an upholstered wing back chair and made that my desk chair.  There was also a beautiful lamp on the desk that no longer worked.  It was made of art glass and I wanted to see what it looked like illuminated.  With a little ingenuity, I took a flashlight, placed it out of the way on a window sill, and aimed it at the glass globe.  Wow – it was beautiful.  The flashlight-illuminated art glass table lamp transformed the desk, the fabrics and reflected off of  the glass window.  I left the flashlight on for a while, and as I sat at the desk, I worked on my computer while I occasionally looked out into the dimly lit courtyard and felt the breeze from the open window.

To tell you truth, the bedroom was so comfortable, I had to force myself to get up and explore the rest of the house.  By New York City standards, this room was a really good sized apartment. I grabbed my camera and started out exploring.  I was alone in the house by now, and I felt completely comfortable.  As you can imagine the farthest away servant spots are a bit of a walk.  In fact, John Glessner cited this as a deficit of the house’s design.  He said it took too long for a servant to get from the back kitchen to the front door in a suitable amount of time.  I walked this path several times just so I could feel the drag of time – in fact, it was a distance. I started to imagine some poor house maid fearing for her life that it might take her too long to get to the door, and when she opened the door, Mrs.  Pullman would be on the other side giving her a face of disapproval for her tardiness.

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After dinner, I insisted to my hosts that I would clean our dishes from dinner, so I took the trek back to the servants’ kitchen and began hand washing the dishes.  It was nice to actually be doing something normal in such an extraordinary house. The kitchen was full of tea cups and silver from a tea party event the staff had just facilitated earlier that day.  The clean dish wear looked very festive and inviting, so I made some tea and headed out to the parlor.  I sat down on the banquette, placed my cup of tea on the tea caddy and started to look around.

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Everything was so beautiful.  Not aspirational, in-your-face beautiful, just simply beautiful.  I also noticed that I couldn’t tell if the room was masculine or feminine.  Normally historic houses have either a feminine feel (fancy, light painted trim, pink fabric walls, and uncomfortable French period furniture), or a masculine feel (simpler, dark wood trim, and comfy over stuffed furniture).  This space had both qualities at the same time.  In fact, the entire house had this hybrid sexuality about its spaces.  It felt like a true mix of attitudes.

After my tea, I walked around and sat down in various rooms.  I just stared out of the big windows as a gusty, rain storm made all of the trees bend.  Not a sound. Nothing.  My view out of the second floor windows felt almost like a TV screen.  I was watching a scene from a movie – separate from it, but still observing it.  Many people felt like the house appeared anti-social to the street, but in fact, I felt very aware of the street activity from inside of the house. Something you never hear is that all of the most private spaces are pushed right up to the street line – the huge windows are right on top of the sidewalks.  If you wanted to shield yourself from the reality of the city, this type of architectural placement would be the very opposite of what you would want.  But still, it worked beautifully.  I sat in the Glessner’s shared library (very unusual for the time) and watched the storm.

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I loved that the Mr. and Mrs. Had a partners’ desk.  That seemed so fitting given how the house felt a combination of both sensibilities.  I grabbed a book from the extensive library, sat down at Mr. Glessner’s side of the desk, and started to read. Again, the room felt so comfortable and put me at ease that time slipped past very quickly.  I had to push myself to explore some more. I mean, I had all 17,000 square feet of house to find out about and only one night.  I was asked to try to turn off all of the lights before going to bed.  This was no small effort!  Each room could have had 6 or more wall sconces, all with different on/off switches.  I had to leave some on because I couldn’t find the switches.

Eventually, I gave up exploring and retreated back to my bedroom. I feel asleep quickly.

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In the morning, the light from my courtyard windows, and sounds of chirping birds, woke me up.  The winds from the previous night’s storm had ended and now all I felt was a soft breeze.  I got up, walked the long distance to the servant’s bathroom (way down the hall) and then went down stairs to make tea.  I have to say that I felt I was walking in slow motion, as the distances were so great and I was still waking up.  I made my tea and chose to take my first cup at the servants’ table in the dry pantry.  I sat looking out of the large window and thought how magical and safe this silent place must have felt to an immigrant. Sure, it was a job, but more than that, it was an existence that they, themselves, helped maintain.  There must have been some sense of gratification that came from being part of a team of servants that made the Glessners’ life possible -or did it piss them off?

(l) The remains of the Guzzo family home in Shawnee, Ohio; (r) Surrounded by Ohio-made tiles, sitting in the Glessner House dry pantry (in the servant spaces) I had morning tea.

As I was sitting at the servants’ table drinking my tea,my bare feet on the Ohio-made tile floor,  I thought of my great-grandfather John and great-grandmother Mary Rose waking up, going outside to the “Italyville” community water well, getting water, heating the water up with a wood stove, and making coffee.  Mary Rose used to sit on the back porch of their house and watch John walk down the railroad track to his brick making factory.  John carried his black metal lunch box in one hand and waved goodbye with his other.  That porch and house no longer exist.  They collapsed in on themselves and all that is left is the brick foundation.   No one rushed to save, restore, and interpret it like the Glessner House.

Between the process of immigration, ethnic bias, language barriers, and economic hardship, John and Mary Rose did not have an easy life, but what they were able to do, was provide for their family and build the foundational structure for their children’s future.  Their efforts allowed for their family’s descendants to engage society at increasingly higher and higher levels.

My Glessner “one-night stand” had exhausted me.  I love beauty, and I was overwhelmed by the quantity. I didn’t want to leave.  But my greater realization was, that I could love the decorative arts, architecture, and still appreciate the less visual aspects of these iconic houses.  The narratives of these sites can, and should fully include both the John and Frances Glessners as well as the John and Mary Rose Guzzos.

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In Arts & Crafts philosophy, of which the Glessner House is a primary example, there is a belief that natural materials, worked subtly, and hand-wrought, through the marks of the creative process, retain some intangible quality of the craftsman who produced the “thing”.  Whether architecture, stained glass, furniture, metalwork, fabrics, jewelry, or through a myriad other creation – they all have the potential to speak and share with the user, some element of humanity. I imagine the conscious creation of a family in an unknown, foreign country might have had the same gratification that Mr. and Mrs. Glessner felt in seeing their symphonic house grow from a stack of bricks and stone.  The Glessners were social progressives and were involved in a number of organizations that helped the disadvantaged including the Chicago Orphan Asylum and the Chicago Relief and Aid Society.  Frances Glessner was a member of the DAR and the Colonial Dames and became involved in working with people in obtaining their citizenship

In many ways, the Glessners and the Guzzos shared an existence even without knowing one another.  It is not much of a stretch to see how the efforts of a brick maker in Shawnee, Ohio had an impact on the efforts of a millionaire in Chicago.  I’d like to think that the Glessner’s would have been proud to host me, the great-grandson of a Sicilian immigrant, in their beautiful home: the hand of the craftsman and industrialist continues to collaborate.

*And, no – the ghost of H.H. Richardson did not visit me.

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*I am greatly indebted to Mr.Rob Dishon (Shawnee Historical Society), and William Tyre, Executive Director,  Glessner House; Becky LaBarre, Assistant Director, Glessner House

The “One Night Stand” ™ series of blog posts are an attempt at shifting our cultural perceptions of historic house museums away from viewing them solely as public venues and moving toward a more intimate and tactile appreciation of them as places of private, domestic life.  My attempt is to highlight more nuanced and latent understandings of these places as vessels for life, social issues, politics, and habitation – not merely as decorative arts objects and collections artifacts. I spend the night in the historic bedrooms, using the furniture and experiencing the combination of behaviors and interactions with a home in ways that can only be understood as an inhabitant.

Copyright © 2016 Twisted Preservation| “Twisted Preservation”, “One-night Stand”, “Sleeping Around” are trademarks of Franklin D. Vagnone. All rights reserved.

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