Charnley-Persky House Blog

  • Conserving Charnley-Persky House

    SAH News
    Dec 4, 2018

    Charnley-Persky House at twilight, November 2018.

    In 2017, when SAH received the completed Conservation Management Plan for Charnley-Persky House, we decided to tackle some of the highest-priority items on the list of potential repairs and restorations. We’re pleased to announce that one of them has been completed. In November 2018, masonry specialists from Central Building & Preservation in Chicago, tuckpointed the four chimneys on the roof of Charnley-Persky House. Although the rest of the house had been tuckpointed in 2003, to the best of our knowledge the chimneys at the roof level had not been tuckpointed since the 1980s. As a result, water was infiltrating through the mortar and causing damage to interior plaster walls on the third floor of the house. The work was specified and supervised by Harboe Architects who also authored the Conservation Management Plan. The project was funded by a grant from the Landmarks Illinois Heritage Preservation Fund and proceeds from annual SAH Galas from 2010 to the present.

    Newly repointed chimney at Charnley-Persky House, 2018. (Gunny Harboe)

    Future bricks and mortar projects include repairing a low spot in the roof where rainwater pools and seeps into the house under the flashing around the atrium skylight, and replacing the antiquated HVAC system in the house. For Giving Tuesday on November 27th, 41 generous donors contributed $7,370 to help us purchase and install a pair of energy-efficient boilers that would replace the 1970s-era boiler that is unreliable in Chicago winters. Every donation was matched 1:1 by two challenge grants from Charnley-Persky House Board members Cynthia (and Ben) Weese and Laurie (and Mike) Petersen so the grand total raised to replace the boiler is $14,740. We extend our sincere thanks the Weeses and Petersens for issuing the challenge and to all who contributed to the Giving Tuesday campaign.

    Finally, also in November 2018 SAH completed a beautification project to light Charnley-Persky House at night. Funded by a generous grant from The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Fund at The Chicago Community Trust, the improvements focused on installing a new LED lighting system that would be controlled through a central wireless hub that would allow SAH staff to control the lights remotely through a smart phone application. By installing new interior light fixtures in the main rooms of the house and exterior fixtures on and underneath the balcony, Charnley-Persky House now has a lighted façade at night and lighted rooms that create a warm lantern effect. The dual goal was to enhance the features of the house as only night-time lighting could and to contribute to the beauty of the nighttime streetscape in this historic Gold Coast neighborhood. 

    Parkway garden in front of Charnley-Persky House, June 2017.

    In a parallel effort, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Fund at The Chicago Community Trust also funded landscaping of the two parkway areas in front of Charnley-Persky House. Since summer 2016 the small parkway gardens have featured shade-friendly plants and flowers that, like the lighting, enhance both the appearance of the house and contribute to the beauty of the streetscape. We are extremely grateful to neighbor Richard H. Driehaus who recognized that Charnley-Persky House could and should enhance its historic surroundings.

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  • Charnley-Persky House Conservation Management Plan Complete

    Pauline Saliga, Executive Director
    Oct 18, 2017

    On September 13 of this year, SAH celebrated the completion of a comprehensive conservation management plan (CMP) for Charnley-Persky House, SAH’s landmark headquarters building designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in 1891–1892. SAH opted to commission a CMP, which is a relatively new approach in the US to managing a historic structure, because we wanted a study that both acknowledges the significance of the building and serves as a planning tool for the long-term care and use of the site. It is a living document that will guide SAH’s decisions about restoration priorities and future possible uses.

    Charnley-Persky House exterior
    Charnley-Persky House exterior. Photo by Leslie Schwartz.

    Charnley-Persky House fireplace
    Fireplace on first floor of Charnley-Persky House. Photo by Leslie Schwartz.

    Although SAH prided itself on being a good steward of the house since it took ownership in 1995, a flash flood in 2014 caused significant damage to the building, which prompted SAH to commission an in-depth study of the house’s strengths and weaknesses. The year-long study, funded by a generous grant from the Alphawood Foundation, was managed by Chicago architectural firm Harboe Architects.  The 451-page study focused on the house’s history, description, significance, condition assessment, programming possibilities, and recommended policies. Additional studies were done to assess the condition of the house, including an interior finishes and paint color analysis, an HVAC analysis and blower door test of energy efficiency, temperature and humidity recording over time, and an engineering report on stairway and balcony deflection. The full report is available on the Charnley-Persky House website here:

    Charnley-Persky House Conservation Management Plan

    The major findings of the report state that the building is generally in sound condition with several high-, medium-, and long-range priorities. Highest priorities include repairing the 30-year-old skylight that leaks during rainstorms, replacing the boiler and air conditioning units that are at the end of their useful lives, and adding fire extinguishers and other public safety features throughout the building. Additional priorities include rerouting the plumbing that caused the 2014 flood and doing further study on the second floor staircase to learn how it is engineered and to devise a way to prevent further deflection. The cost for addressing the highest priorities is estimated at $209,500.

    Charnley-Persky House screen
    ​View of screen and second floor of Charnley-Persky House. Photos by Leslie Schwartz.

    Third floor of Charnley-Persky House
    ​View from third floor of Charnley-Persky House.

    We at SAH extend our sincere thanks to the Alphawood Foundation for funding the study and to Gunny Harboe and his team, particularly architect Tim Scovic, for managing the study and writing the CMP report. It will be an enlightened guide for our efforts to maintain the 125-year-old landmark entrusted to our care.

    Pauline Saliga
    Executive Director

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  • New Charnley-Persky House “Charrette Tours” for Architecture Students

    Anne Hill Bird, SAH Director of Membership and Charnley-Persky House Tour Program
    Nov 9, 2016

    IMG_1532This past year, the Chicago House Museums Collective, also known as At Home in Chicago (Charnley-Persky House is a member), discussed the recent book by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (2016). The manifesto calls for America’s house museums to take new approaches and expand their purpose beyond the traditional museum, creating more inclusive, interactive, and engaging experiences for visitors. In other words, get rid of the velvet ropes and let visitors actually experience what it was like to live in the house. In addition, the authors encourage museums to reveal the untold stories of those who lived in the house, including slaves or servants, and those often left out of the social history that makes house museums so interesting. While I missed Mr. Vagnone’s visit to the Glessner House Museum in Chicago, I did read the book, and started thinking about how we could make the Society of Architectural Historians' headquarters, the Charnley-Persky House, more interactive for those who visit. It’s all about transforming a “don’t touch” historic structure into a welcoming invitation to explore a participant’s own experience. 

    Part of SAH’s mission involves encouraging the study and understanding of the built environment and this is accomplished in part by offering public tours of Charnley-Persky House every Wednesday and Saturday throughout the year. This was an opportunity waiting to happen!

    Lacking velvet ropes and historic furniture and artifacts, the Charnley-Persky House tour focuses on the actual bones of the house and the relationship between architect Louis Sullivan and his young draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright. The docent-led tours we offer are chock-full of information and observations, and no two tours are exactly alike. Our docents are intellectually and architecturally savvy individuals who have developed a personal relationship to the house. While not part of the typical house museum visitor’s expectation, we thought architecture students would be a perfect audience for trying out a new and interactive experience, where the docent functions as a resource for the participants, rather than as a lecturer.

    IMG_1528We have dubbed this new experience the “Charrette Tour.” Charrettes have been a long-standing practice within the architectural community to tackle a design issue, encouraging participation from all involved. We “reverse engineered” portions of the tour to direct participants to observe details in the house and come up with their own conclusions. We start by describing the property, the architect, the client, and the budget. The students receive a number of questions on a clipboard and are let loose around the house, free to explore every room. They open doors, and move freely about, checking out various features and making observations about how various elements were handled in the house like HVAC, historical references, how servants accomplished their work, and even the balance between natural and artificial lighting. The students are encouraged to create a brief sketch of a feature of the house. After about 45 minutes of walking around the house, we meet back in the dining room and ask for observations and impressions.

    It has been amazing to hear the initial students’ observations and how they reveal their interests and training. Where one group sees an open floor plan, another group notices symmetry. Where one group sees a Roman house with an interior cloister, another group sees a waste of useable space, or toddlers and pets in grave danger of falling to their deaths in the atrium. The students are asked, “What would you change?” Most would update the large service kitchen on the lower level into today’s open family room/kitchen. One wanted to remove all the walls in the front hallway to open the space further, and create a new kitchen in the current dining room.  However, they all come away with respect and even amazement for Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright’s design solutions for the Charnley family which at the time included a husband and wife, a teenaged son, two maids, possibly a male chauffeur, and frequent family visitors. 

    If you are interested in arranging a “Charrette Tour” for your group (limit 15 individuals), please contact Anne Bird at to arrange. We encourage all manner of groups, from pre-collegiate through graduate students and architectural professionals to participate. 
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