Monday night in the coach house of the extraordinary Glessner House, William Tyre stood behind a podium and spoke to the hundred or so people who had come in from the cold and were sitting in chairs along the walls and standing in the middle of the ancient room. They listened to Tyre talk about his old friend Jack Simmerling.
Simmerling was best known as a visual artist, and his watercolors, drawings and prints — thousands of them painted over a six-decade career, which ended with his death last year — hang on walls in homes and in museums. Some, a very few, are rural landscapes. Most are firmly of Chicago, and there is no person who has ever created more images of this city's buildings, those that are and those that once were.
"It was a privilege to call Jack Simmerling my friend," Tyre said, his voice catching with emotion. ("I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get through my remarks," he would later say.)
This would have been Simmerling's 79th birthday, but it was also the official opening of the John J. "Jack" Simmerling Gallery of Prairie Avenue History in the Glessner House, a house that Simmerling painted many times and a place that all Chicagoans should visit. There is no better time than right now, as it is handsomely decked out for the holiday season.
Tyre finished speaking, and Tim Samuelson began to talk. The cultural historian of the city of Chicago said that Simmerling "saved pieces of people's lives," that he and the artist, a generation apart in age, shared a mutual passion for the city, its history and relics, and often sat telling one another stories about the past. He said that he can hear Simmerling's voice still.
Next to speak was Simmerling's daughter Mary. By the time she ended her brief remarks with "Happy birthday, dad," more than a few people could be seen drying tears.
Youngest daughter Meg was next: "This is not so much an opening as a homecoming."
She was right. Though Jack Simmerling was born and raised in the suburb of Blue Island and spent most of his life living and working in the Beverly and Morgan Park neighborhoods, it was on Prairie Avenue that he discovered his abiding passion and his life's work.
The street first came to life long before Simmerling was born in 1935, bursting from those go-go-go, build-build-build days following the Great Fire of 1871, when the city's wealthy went house-crazy. They built mansions on Prairie between 16th and 22nd streets that were elegant and opulent. They created what was known as the "Sunny Street of the Sifted Few." The names of many of these people — Kimball, Coleman, Reid and Rees — have been lost under history's dust. But the Philip Armours lived there. The George Pullmans too. Marshall Field Jr. as well.
Eventually the rich moved away, to the Gold Coast and the suburbs and elsewhere, and the mansions fell into disrepair, sitting forlornly and crumbling by themselves as they awaited the wrecker's ball. In the 1960s, preservationists began efforts to save what was left, and in 1979 the Prairie Avenue District was started and the neighborhood came back to life.
A remnant of Field's house can still be seen, as can the exteriors of others. But only the houses of industrialist John Glessner, built in 1886, and contractor Henry Clarke, the oldest structure in the city, dating from 1836, are open for tours via the Glessner House Museum (glessnerhouse.org).
Simmerling first came to the area as a little boy in the company of his grandfather, George Washington Bargerbush, an office boy and messenger for Marshall Field and Co. This was in the 1940s, and they came to see what was left of the mansions.
"It was a strange thing for a kid to fall in love with these places, but I did and was determined that these relics of a bygone era not be forgotten," Simmerling told me some years ago.
Ever friendly and persuasive, he became pals with men working on the demolition crews taking down the mansions, and they would alert him to their chores so that he was able to salvage all manner of items — from tables to decorative tiles to business cards — that the homes' owners had abandoned. His parents — his father an accountant and his mother a stay-at-home mom — allowed him to build a small log cabin in the family's backyard to house the things he was saving.
"I have always been drawn to the past, to preserving it," he told me in 2012 while sitting in the large Far South Side home where he and his wife had raised their seven children. The kids had grown and moved away by then, but the house was still jam-packed. The couple lived with a Bernese mountain dog named Molly, four cats, a talking bird named David and thousands of pieces of the past saved and kept through the decades. The walls were covered with Simmerling's art.
He had started sketching and drawing in grammar school. He would go off to earn a degree in fine arts from the University of Notre Dame. Unable to find work in a museum, he took a job with a framing company, where he soon began selling his paintings for 25 cents.
Monday night an elderly man said, "I have one of those. I cherish it."
After the Monday speeches, people in groups of 20 ascended well-worn stairs up to the gallery space. Simmerling's widow, Marjorie — the couple were married for 55 years — held scissors against a red ribbon in front of a door. "Help," she said, a playful lilt in her voice, "I'm too nervous to cut the ribbon," and to her aid came the small hands of her adorable granddaughter Eliza.
The ribbon was sliced and fell to the floor, and the knob was turned and the door opened and people eagerly poured in. The objects in the room — paintings, tiles, wood panels, terra cotta friezes, a mantelpiece, a doorknob, photos, newspaper clippings — were handsomely displayed and fascinating to view. But they represent only a small portion of the treasures Simmerling accumulated and bequeathed to the museum. This 300-square-foot room is only a temporary space. The plan is to create a 1,200-square-foot permanent gallery above the coach house.
Before he died July 18, 2013, Simmerling had been shown the architectural drawings for the gallery, created pro bono by architects from the firm of Krueck + Sexton. "He was very pleased," said Tyre, the executive director and curator of the Glessner House Museum. Some of the $500,000 needed to complete the project will come from the $10 fee being charged for special 10 a.m. tours Dec. 20 and 27 and other Saturdays into next year, which also include tours of the Glessner House.
"He would have loved that party," said another daughter, Vicki.
It was the next day, Tuesday, and she was back at the Heritage Gallery, at 1907 W. 103rd St. (heritagegallerychicago.com). This is where she worked alongside her father for nearly 30 years. He painted there every day. She worked as a master custom framing expert. They made a happy team and, as she said, "I feel his presence every day."
She went on: "I would get here in the morning, and he would already be here to greet me, a paintbrush in hand, humming classical music." She was surrounded by her father's work hanging on the walls, in addition to other items such as jewelry, candles and greeting cards. "This is an oasis. The event at the Glessner House was fabulous, so moving and such an important event for the city. But I think of this, too, as a gallery, and I will be here forever."
You can, of course, have a look at Simmerling's work on the gallery's website and appreciate the artistry and the variety of it. You can buy it online too. But in so doing, you will be missing not only the visceral impact of Simmerling's work, the classical music playing in the background, a chance to pet Vicki's 4-year-old Italian greyhound named Isabella, but, perhaps most important, a chance to touch the past.
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