I always used to make fun of my late brother, Jim, when he would tell me about getting up in the middle of the night to drive hundreds of miles to go bass fishing. He never was interested in woodworking, and I never cared for fishing, although I can see the appeal of going out in a boat to drink beer. But on Saturday morning I felt Jim’s ghost give me a nudge in the ribs as I set out at 5 a.m. to drive 300 miles to see a chair. I realized that he didn’t go to catch just any fish, and I wasn’t on my way to see just any chair. I was after a big one, a Greene & Greene chair coming up for auction in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill.
We all have passions that will lead us to do things most people consider nutty. I saw making this trip as a perfectly sensible thing to do. The opportunity to see this chair, and several other Arts & Crafts pieces at close range, would make the long day worthwhile. I put on an Allison Kraus CD and let her break my heart before the sun came up as I drove toward Indianapolis.
In Indy, I tuned in a Chicago radio station for a weather report. A storm was headed that way: Rain in the late afternoon turning to a wintry mix and then 3″ or 4″ of snow. I grew up in the snow belt of Northeastern Ohio and don’t mind a little snow, but I didn’t want to get stuck in Chicago traffic. My plan was to head for home when it started to rain.
The people at the auction gallery were incredibly nice. They allowed me to take all the pictures I wanted, and I promised not to make a pest of myself and not to knock anything over. One of the workers pulled aside the velvet ropes and turned the chair around a couple times so I could get the shots I wanted. The chair was made for Belle Barlow Bush, to go in the living room of the house she rented that was originally built for William Bolton.
The chair is much simpler than the other pieces I have seen from that house, and it has an interesting mix of details. The lower stretchers are similar to the tall Bolton Hall chair, but the back details are an understated combination of curves and cloudlifts. It isn’t as spectacular as some of the inlaid chairs from the Ford, Gamble or Blacker Houses, but it isn’t the kind of thing you get to see without taking a trip to California.
The gallery was crowded with many fine examples of Arts & Crafts and modern furniture. There were several excellent pieces by Gustav Stickley and his brothers, as well as some Frank Lloyd Wright, Hans Wegner and George Nakashima. I can’t think of any museum where this much great stuff can be seen at one time, in one place.
And that’s what I like about an auction like this. Furniture is treated like furniture. You can take a close look, peek around the back or underneath and sometimes even open a door or drawer without setting off an alarm. The pieces on display can run the gamut from museum quality on down and there will always be a pleasant surprise or two.
Seeing the details, how things are put together, how they fit and how they’ve held up over a 100 years is an unforgettable experience, worth some effort to get there and back home. After noon, the crowd of people in the gallery increased, and I decided that the 150 or so photos I had taken were probably as many as it was possible to take. I took another loop through the auction house to enjoy the pottery, metalwork and glass, and decided to take a walk around Oak Park and find a place to eat lunch.
As I crossed the street trying to decide between gyros or pizza for lunch it began to snow. The wind picked up and I decided maybe I should call it a day and head home. This turned out to be a less than brilliant move on my part. I was feeling smart as I passed through downtown Chicago and headed east. It was really snowing hard when I hit Gary, Ind. I stopped to fill the gas tank, thought about getting lunch, but decided to wait until I was a bit further south and out of the weather. The radio said that it was above freezing and clear in Indianapolis so I headed that direction.
The snow turned to rain and I thought I was in the clear until the rain turned to ice and the interstate turned into a parking lot. Traffic slowed and ground to a halt and I spent the next four hours sitting in one spot, watching a police car or tow truck crawl by on the shoulder every 20 minutes or so. Eventually we moved again, I finally ate lunch after dinner time and the five-hour drive up became a 10-hour drive back. Things like this happen, but when you spend the day doing your favorite things these things don’t matter that much. I’ll forget the time spent sitting and remember the things I saw.