BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
A suite of rare furniture from the World’s Columbian Exposition, Illinois fine art and decorative works, welcoming reception rooms with docents who’ll share fascinating state history, and virtual tours soon will combine to create a state of wonder.
The official resident of the Governor of Illinois, known as the People’s House, will open August 2018 as part of the Illinois Bicentennial. Everyone is invited to Springfield.
Illinois First Lady, Diana Rauner, and a team of art experts and civic leaders, including Chicagoans John Bryan, Leslie Hindman, and Joe Gromacki have put into action plans to restore the Executive Mansion, home to every Illinois governor and their families since 1855.
Mrs. Rauner recently sat down with Classic Chicago to convey her enthusiasm for the comprehensive plan, to be funded entirely by donations.
“The People’s House is a symbol for the state. It will be a center for all sorts of events and art exhibitions, and an opportunity for well-trained docents to tell the history of our state through the perspective of the House.
“Period rooms will tell of important times in our state, such as one dedicated to the World’s Columbian Exposition. We have located amazing treasures across the state, including a 17-piece bedroom set shown at the Illinois Pavilion of the 1893 Exposition, done by an Illinois farmer from Carthage.
“For the last 14 or 15 years, the house has been in disrepair, and the leaking roof hadn’t been repaired. The front has been so overgrown that you can’t even see the house.”
Chicago’s Renaissance man, businessman, art scholar, and preservationist John Bryan, serves as a key member of the Illinois Executive Mansion Association, founded in 1972 as a non-profit charitable corporation. He began two years ago when invited to join the project by asking the purpose of the house and the narrative it should tell. How best to create an inspiring tourist attraction that would make people proud of their state?
“I was intrigued when I was asked to be on the committee, and now I am very excited. Springfield is a much-visited place, and ours is the third oldest governor’s mansion and the largest in the country.
“Mrs. Rauner has been wonderful to work with us on the project, and it was decided at the very first not to get it paid for by the state. For about the last 12 years, it was mainly used as a rental hall by the staff, and literally nothing was done to keep it in repair. It was definitely worn out. We spent a year’s worth of work just getting bids.”
“Our architect, John Vinci, who is perhaps the most important figure in the preservation movement in the state, has developed a wonderful plan. The Mansion has, of course, undergone several restorations, and the thought is to make it an 1850s Italianate house.
“The first step was to take the jungle away that had grown up around it. Plants smothered it, and you could barely see in the iron gates. Right now we are concentrating on the façade.”
Bryan says two second-floor suites represent significant periods in Illinois history:
“The World’s Fair of 1893 was about the grandest period in our history, and the suite containing furniture crafted seven or eight years before the Fair, and then exhibited there, will have wallpaper, furniture, and light fixtures from that period.
“Former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson is deeply interested in decorative arts and bought this rare furniture which he donated it to the State. The Governors Suite is decorated in the Civil War and Reconstruction periods of the 1860s and 1870s at the time of Governors Yates and Oglesby.”
Joe Gromacki, a lawyer with deep expertise in historic preservation and antiques, serves as a committee member:
“Mrs. Rauner has brought a high degree of professionalism and intellectual rigor, as well as tremendous enthusiasm and commitment, to the project, which will not only focus on art, architecture, and history but also on civic pride and education.
“The Illinois Executive Mansion Association has as its purpose to enhance the understanding, appreciation, enjoyment, operation, and publicly accessible use of buildings and land owned by the state.”
Leslie Hindman, Founder and President of one of the country’s largest auction houses (the largest in the Midwest), also serves on the committee.
“It is a wonderful opportunity to make the mansion pretty again. Its one elevator has been broken for 10 years, and it is sad that the house became so run-down. The Rauners have really been camping out there.
“It will become a real showcase of Illinois art, including paintings by Roger Brown, Ivan Albright, Ed Paschke, and Ellen Lanyon; a sculpture by George P.A. Healy; important furniture; magnificent Illinois silver and pottery; and so much more.”
“The art selected for the exhibition balances a rich variety of subjects and styles in works by recognized masters, as well as emerging names. It encompasses women, outsiders, African American, and Latino artists from the late 19th century to today.
“In addition, the exhibition will include art glass and furniture designed by prominent Chicago architects; tableware hand-wrought by well-known Chicago metalsmiths, including Robert R. Jarvie and the Kalo Shop; and china painted by members of Chicago’s reformist Atlan Ceramic Art Club done between 1893 and 1923.
“Complementing the Chicago-area items are pottery, cut glass, furniture, and metalwork made by craftsmen, shops, and factories located in western and southern Illinois.
“Also featured are items associated with Illinois governors and state history, including the official state china made by Pickard China Company of Antioch, Illinois; the elegant sterling silver service made for the USS Illinois; and various objects made for or owned by Abraham Lincoln and his family.”
Bryan feels that no one has ever defined Illinois art.
“We thought that instead of decorative paintings and mirrors, we would focus on important artists from all periods. Pieces have been loaned by museums, including the Chicago History Museum, and private collectors.
“Susan Darling, an expert on Illinois furniture, Teco pottery, and other areas, serves as curator of the decorative arts. Wendy Greenhouse, who is the world’s expert on Illinois fine arts, curates that area. There will be catalogues, didactics, and tours. The exhibits will be managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.”
Gromacki summed up the committee’s enthusiasm:
“This is a wonderful project that will celebrate the great State of Illinois, its distinguished and rich history during its bicentennial year, and leave an indelible mark on the state’s cultural and civic landscape, for the benefit of future generations of Illinoisans.”
The Opening Night of the Chicago Antiques + Art + Design Show on May 18 benefits the Illinois Executive Mansion Association. Former Governor Jim Thompson serves as Honorary Chairman. The Show runs May 18-21 at the Merchandise Mart.