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  1. My grandfather(1880-1968), who grew up in Chicago and lived on both the south and the north sides, always seemed to find the most interesting places to take me as a kid on school holidays. One cold, gray, wet February holiday, back in the days when February had two holidays for the two honored presidents, we went off to the Harding Museum, which featured among other curiosities a torture chamber in the basement. It was a terrific day, so much so that ever since, when days are cold and gray, we say “it’s a
    George F. Harding kind of day to go exploring.” Whatever happened to this museum and its collections?

  2. This was one of my very favorite places in 1950s Chicago. Besides the arms and armor what really made an impression on me were the meticulously hand-crafted model wooden sailing ships. What DETAIL! Museum was torn down in 1965. Stuff went into storage as heirs squabbled over its disposition. There were reports that some of the choicest pieces were sold off clandestinely to European collectors. I have a feeling that whatever wound up at the Art Institute was but a small fraction of the original collection. A tragedy.

    • Terry, we shared a fascination with this place. As a young boy in Hyde Park, it held a special place in my imagination.

      I saw the collection on display at the Art Institute about a decade ago, and I very much suspect you are right on the disposal of pieces.


  3. During the 1940s and most of the 1950s (except for three years during WWII) I was at the U of C, and on a number of rainy afternoons I went to the George Harding Museum. After I was married, in 1954, my wife usually accompanied me. I remember the old building, backed up to the IC tracks. I remember the armor, the paintings, the model ships and the scrimshaw. I learned a great deal there, and I am sorry at what I have just learned—that the building has been demolished, and the collection scattered to who-knows-where.
    It was a collection made by a curious man. I don’t mean a strange man, but one who was curious. It reminds me of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and the strange collection in London, which sits in a house at the edge of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. These kinds of museums are really much more interesting than all the big museums with curators, recorded acoustiguides and galleries.

    Robert Wolfson
    • Hi Robert,

      I too loved that museum as a boy living in Hyde Park.

      There was a time when the collection’s integrity – at least the armor collection, my favorite – was in doubt, but I believe it was finally taken in toto by the Art Institute.

      I agree about such museums, and I know a number of them.

      The Musee Guimet in Paris is one focusing on Asian art and culture.

      The little Remington Museum in Ogsdenburg, New York, was collected by one man and focuses on the work of the American sculptor.

      There is an interesting little museum in Goderich, Ontario – home of the world’s largest salt mine under Lake Huron – started by a curious eccentric as with the Harding, but now a county museum, which has a remarkable collection of early farm implements and engines plus great Victorian household stuff.

      I’ll have to search more, but I’ve not in the past been able to ascertain who it was that started the Harding. A member of the restaurant family? A local political family of that name? Background information seems to be lost.

      John Chuckman

  4. When I was still too young to ride the IC by myself my parents took me to the museum. I loved it! By the time I was allowed to go on my own it had been torn down. I remember how small the suits of armor looked, my father was over 6 foot & there was no way he could have worn one. The Art Institute did get the collection, but it took them several decades to get it all out in the public.

  5. I remember in1975 I worked for 7 santini bros. moving and storage and we were packing up a small museum in downtown Chicago called the harding museum and had sent a couple of truckloads to auction to new yorks sothebys to go to auction because the museum was running out of money to operate. the story went that the artifacts had to be sent back to Chicago because the museum was left to the people and could not be sold’. we were there for a couple of months packing and the history we handled there was something ill never forget.

    • Thanks for the interesting anecdote.

      I loved this place as a young kid, and I was sad to read, from afar, at the time about its closing.

      I also read about the uncertainties hanging over the collection. It was not at all clear that the Art Institute would pick the collection up.

      Still, even with it preserved intact now, something was lost when the Harding closed.

      Small specialized museums are very appealing things, and the Harding’s castle-like atmosphere made it especially so. With the added appeal of a somewhat eccentric collector building it all.

      But of course, the place was doomed as its neighborhood came under great social change. No one visits places surrounded with crime and decay. The neighborhood, before my time, was once a pretty elegant place.

  6. My connection with George F. Harding was most unusual. . . and the first funeral I went to as small cihild – 1939 – if I remember correctly, it was large and in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. . and he was my great uncle. And then it was my uncle – George Harding (and his wife Jule) who lived on site and ran the museum for a number of years. Going to Kenwood School, stopping off at the mansion and museum on my return from school was so normal to me. I would go into the kitchen and switch the interior lights of the museum itself and it became “mine”, scary as the low light and men-in-armor would be to a child. I felt I saw the armour move !

    I was told that this castle was “mine” and believed it . . and it DID became my home away from home. There was lots of talk there – and at home later – when it was to be moved — and a strange woman called Jessie Katz (who I had seen since a child) seemed to be the moving force on the future. For years later, the collection was stored on Michigan Avenue on Randolph building – across from the main Chicago Library – while law cases were fought out. I still thought it mine – foolishly.

    The Art Institute was a grand location to show pieces of it off . . . and for years I would go down to visit there, once again seeing the treasures and looking back on my own life there and time at the museum. Recently, I have wondered if the museum has sold off many of the pieces in storage – that were never shown – in private deals in Europe – to keep up Art Institute. There seems no way to find out!

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