Arts and Crafts in Chicago: Exploring Stickley, Herter Brothers, and More

Sep 8, 2023

by Carley C. Altenburger    

As a manuscripts archivist and decorative arts historian, I feel strongly that an understanding of architectural history—in addition to design history, cultural history, and social history—increases an overall understanding of the Victorian period in the United States. My attendance at the Victorian Society of America’s Chicago Summer School, generously funded by a Decorative Arts Trust’s Continuing Education Scholarship, fulfilled both professional and personal goals of understanding how these threads intertwine to support a fuller understanding of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

In my role as the Manuscripts Archivist at Winterthur Library, I am called upon to understand a wide range of social, cultural, and artistic history from the 17th to the early 20th centuries in order to aid researchers and to make our collections accessible to new scholars. The collections cover a wide range of topics, from business papers to diaries and personal letters. While many of these collections do not directly relate to Chicago or the city’s architecture, learning about urban architecture and society during the period has increased my overall understanding of these materials by adding to their context. 

The Winterthur Library does have a sizable group of collections related to the American Arts and Crafts Movement and Aesthetic Movement, however, among which include the business papers of Gustav Stickley and the Herter Brothers. Furniture from these two manufacturing firms were featured prominently at sites we visited, including Crab Tree Farm and Glessner House. To see furniture produced by these companies displayed in their original context, rather than a museum gallery or modern interior, imparted greater perspective on the records in Winterthur Library’s collections. 

Although it goes hand in hand with my work as an archivist at Winterthur, the Chicago Summer School was of immense benefit to me personally as well. As a decorative arts historian, it can be very easy to get caught up in how 19th-century industrialization influenced the design and production of objects. Visiting the Monadnock Building, The Rookery, the Marshall Field and Company building, and the many other notable skyscrapers, office buildings, and public spaces in Chicago provided a great lesson and reminder in how industrialization also affected the built environment, especially in urban areas. 

I was also appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his work, and to gain a better understanding of how his career fit into the proliferation of styles that were popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Prior to the Chicago Summer School, I had few opportunities to visit Wright sites or study his architecture in depth. The Summer School presented the opportunity to evaluate a range of buildings, from Wright’s home and studio to the celebrated Unity Temple. Learning about his projects alongside those of other great Chicago architects like Adler & Sullivan, Holabird & Roche, and Burnham & Root, also provided context as to why his architecture is so important. 

Carley C. Altenburger is the Manuscripts Archivist at Winterthur Library.

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