Rick Kogan's Sidewalks
9:08 AM AKST, December 3, 2012
Increasingly awash in holiday art and entertainment offerings, we struggle to find something special, something new.
Judging by local television news broadcasts, one would think that the majestic lions that front the Art Institute are that building's only worthy holiday treats. They are lovely, yes, and, bedecked with Christmas wreaths, they are also very photo-friendly.
But after you have ogled them for a few minutes, might I suggest you go inside the building and visit one of its quiet and tiny treasures, the Thorne Rooms, formally and more cumbersomely titled the European and American Thorne Miniature Rooms.
They are tucked into Gallery 11 on the lower level of the building, and there are 68 of them: miniature rooms built at a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot. They encompass European interiors from the 1500s (a great hall of the Tudor period, when castles, once merely fortresses, started to be furnished with such homey touches as tapestries and carved furniture) to the 1930s, and American rooms from the 17th century up to the 1930s (a California home with chairs made of plastic and Cubist paintings).
They were all created at the behest and through the largesse of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.
What an interesting character she was. A native of Vincennes, Ind., she was born Narcissa Hoffman Niblack in 1882, and when she was 19 she married the son of the co-founder of Montgomery Ward & Co. The couple lived in Lake Forest.
But she also kept an apartment/studio on Oak Street in Chicago, where she would craft miniature rooms herself. Some were displayed at the Century of Progress in 1933-34, later making a world tour. Many of her miniature rooms wound up in private collections.
It was in her studio that she employed other artists to help create the rooms now in the Art Institute. The 31 European rooms were completed in 1937, and the 37 American rooms were finished in 1940. She was a sort of do-it-yourself-WPA.
She gave the rooms to the Art Institute in 1941, and they were installed in 1954. They have been spruced up now and then over the years, but until two years ago they changed not at all.
That year, six of the rooms were decorated for Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's, including a French Provincial room, where children's wooden shoes sit in front of the fireplace, waiting to be filled with presents; an English Victorian room with a fully decorated Christmas tree; and a California room decked out for Hanukkah.
The next year three more rooms were decorated, and this year brings one more.
"Some of the rooms will never have a holiday theme," says Lindsey Mican Morgan. "That is because many of them depict a room from a time when holidays were simply not celebrated as they are now."
Morgan has a lofty job title, but she prefers to be called the "keeper of the Thorne Rooms," and that is what she has been for nearly a decade. She is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute and has a master's degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"I have a strong conservation background but am also a researcher and a crafts person," she says. "I first saw the rooms in 1994 when I came to Chicago and was fascinated and intrigued. I jumped at the job when it became available in 2004, and in 2010 I had the idea of doing something seasonal in the gallery space. Then I started instead to think about doing something in the rooms. I was a bit tentative about stepping on Mrs. Thorne's toes, so to speak. I had to ask myself if I was being disrespectful."
As she started to do more research on Thorne, she discovered that the woman, who died in 1966, had a great affection for the holidays, making miniature holiday-theme rooms and selling them to help various charities. She also would stop all the work in her studio over the holidays while she and her artist pals made elaborate gift boxes.
"She really seemed to care about Christmas, and that made me happy. But I was careful, and for each of the rooms contacted specialists in the period and picked their brains," Morgan says. "I met a woman who had worked for Mrs. Thorne and made some of the rugs in the rooms, and that inspired me."
Morgan is responsible for some of the holiday additions to the rooms, but she also commissioned artists from across the country to create the decorations. Imagine how painstaking it was to create a ball gown, tiny garlands from twisted wire and paper, little (and I do mean little) cookies, ornaments and other items.
The great sculptor Edward Kemeys created the Art Institute's lions, which were first seen "prowling" the grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 before being bronzed and placed where they are now. Say hello to them for me on your way to the small but no less potent pleasures of the Thorne Rooms.
Rick Kogan interviews, among many guests, writer/actor/comic Harry Shearer and his wife/singer Judith Owen, on "The Afternoon Shift," 2-4 p.m. weekdays on WBEZ-FM 91.5.