Charnley-Persky House Blog

  • 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. 
    Go comment!
  • Work Begins on Charnley-Persky House Conservation Management Plan

    Pauline Saliga
    May 13, 2016

    On April 21, 2016, the SAH staff had its first official meeting to launch a Conservation Management Plan for Charnley-Persky House, SAH’s headquarters. The kick-off meeting, which also included architects from Harboe Associates and all of the contractors who will be gathering data and contributing recommendations to the plan, was the first of many discussions we will have over the next year about the 125-year-old National Historic Landmark. The Conservation Management Plan, which was fully funded by a generous grant from the Alphawood Foundation, will document the current state of the house’s structure and materials, will provide advice on addressing potential problems, and will outline conservation priorities and scheduled maintenance tasks so we at SAH can be proactive stewards of the house.


    For the nearly twenty years that SAH has been headquartered in Charnley-Persky House, we have raised grant funds to undertake many major projects. The largest funding to date was a $381,000 grant from the State’s Illinois First Program which funded a variety of infrastructure and repair projects in and around the house: demolishing the badly deteriorated vaulted sidewalk in front of the house and replacing it with a thick, code-compliant sidewalk; trenching around the entire foundation to install below-grade waterproofing to prevent moisture from seeping through the basement walls; tuck pointing the exterior brick and replacing about one third of the common bricks in the courtyard; repairing the water-damaged balcony and painting exterior wood; and adding new fences around parkway planting areas and new brick pavers in the parking area behind the house. Ironically, most of the work funded by this grant was invisible because it was either below grade or it returned materials and surfaces to a restored state. When neighbors commented that they couldn’t notice any difference, we took it as high praise.

    Trenching around the foundation in the early 2000s revealed a real surprise—a 19th-century midden directly behind the house. In an effort to learn more about the rich deposit of glass bottles, china chards, stoneware jugs, aluminum pots, and more, SAH collaborated with urban archaeologist and anthropologist Dr. Rebecca S. Graff to organize two archaeological field schools with students from DePaul University (2013) and Lake Forest College (2015). Some of the artifacts and their history are documented in a gallery of photographs. The Chicago media covered the digs extensively including this Chicago Tonight segment from WTTW, our local PBS station. As Dr. Graff and her students at Lake Forest College continue to analyze and catalog the artifacts, we are reminded that Charnley-Persky House is a living laboratory facilitating new discoveries about lifeways in well-heeled neighborhoods of 19th-century Chicago and other American cities.

    Despite all of the waterproofing work that SAH commissioned in the early 2000s, in 2014 Charnley-Persky House experienced a series of damaging floods starting on August 19 and continuing the following week. Unknown to us, an underground 19th-century U-shaped valve that connected the house’s interior downspouts with the municipal sewer became completely clogged with 100 years of sediment. The blockage caused rainwater from the roof to back up and discharge as two geysers of storm water in a second floor bathroom. The water cascaded down to the first floor library and basement below. Damage was extensive but through the generosity of Cynthia and Ben Weese, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Alphawood Foundation, Peterson Aluminum and nearly 100 individual donors, we were able to replace the connection to the sewer and repair the damaged ceiling, walls and woodwork.


    As alarming as the 2014 floods were, they were a catalyst that made us realize the importance of commissioning a full study of the house’s weak points and developing a multiyear Conservation Management Plan. We will document the year-long process of writing the plan through photographs, blog posts and regular updates. As part of the study, we also are collecting archival drawings, photographs and written documents to piece together as complete a history as possible of all the changes and restorations that have been made to the house in its 125 year history. This documentation will include the construction of an addition on the south end of the building in the 1920s, recreation of the balcony by architect John Vinci in the 1970s, demolition of the addition when Skidmore, Owings and Merrill undertook a major restoration in 1987, and continued restoration projects by managed by architect John Eifler in the early 2000s and 2014.  When Seymour H. Persky donated funds to SAH to purchase the house from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1995, the SAH Board gratefully accepted his offer and started a new chapter in SAH history. SAH advances its educational mission by using the house as one tool, among many, to inform our thinking about the importance of balancing the preservation of historic structures and the smart growth of cities.

    Pauline Saliga
    Executive Director