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The 312: Remembering Prairie Avenue

Marshall Field once owned a Chicago home with decor so intricate that the interior doors had silver hinges. But the home was demolished, and, it would seem, the only bits of it that remain are housed in a temporary space in the Glessner House Museum of Prairie Avenue History.

Longtime Beverly resident, painter and historian Jack Simmerling was responsible for saving the silver hinges, which had to be buffed to a high sheen before being placed on display at the Glessner House in the South Loop. And though Simmerling recently died, the beauty of his life’s work — collecting bits of fantastic mansions even as they were destroyed for “progress” in the area around McCormick Place — is that the collection has found a permanent home for all to visit and see.

“We had been working with Jack about a year before he passed away and said that Glessner House would be happy to receive his collection if that was his intention,” said William Tyre, executive director and curator of the architecturally significant house and museum. “He wanted to find a place where the collection would be kept intact rather than sold off piecemeal, and obviously where it would be on permanent display so people would have access to it.”

Simmerling died in 2013 at age 77, but he spent much of that time going over — with Tyre — everything he had collected from those old, magnificent houses: handblown glass covers for the lanterns and remarkably carved cast iron faces that adorned the back of a fireplace. Simmerling had been collecting these things since he was a kid, fascinated by the larger-than-life homes of Chicago’s wealthiest families, who at one time lived along Prairie from around 15th Street south into Bronzeville.

The craftsmanship is evident. There are handblown glass tie-backs for heavy drapes and Roman terra cotta pieces that, once pieced together, at some point lined a formal dining room. There are paintings of the houses, in color, showing what a black-and-white photo simply cannot. Simmerling also collected big, hulking pieces of siding, wood moldings, fancy fireplace tiles, heavy brass coach house keys and copper accoutrements. And again, there’s another silver door hinge. No one knows who the crafters were, but the exhibit at the Glessner House is as much a tribute to the creators as it is to the collector.

Simmerling’s daughter, who works at her father’s Heritage Gallery (and framer) on West 103rd in the Beverly neighborhood, says she’s pleased with the museum and with the plan to raise money to move the collection into a larger space. The museum is hosting two special tours on the last remaining Saturdays of this year to raise money for the new space. Each special tour is $10 per person and $8 for museum members. About $475,000 is needed, Tyre says.

“It amazes me how many people come in and have some sort of connection to him,” Tyre says. “Time and time again I heard, ‘Oh Jack did a piece of artwork for me,’ and it makes me realize how well-known he was throughout the city. He was doing a lot of this when he was a teenager. He started when he was 14, talking to demolition companies and asking do you mind if I take these things. At the same time he’s starting his career as an artist.”

Adds Tyre: “One of the things that strikes you is the incredible craftsmanship that went into every detail of these buildings. One of Marshall Field’s servants had to go around polishing every hinge and doorknob in the house. I can’t even imagine having that sort of thing in your house. … Chicago has so many immigrants and so many of them coming from Europe had those skills. They were woodcarvers and metalworkers. Even though we don’t know them by name, we can see their handiwork.”

The Glessner House Museum is at 1800 S. Prairie in Chicago. For the Saturday tours, call in advance, (312) 326-1480.