The Life and Times of Charles R. Crane

October 29th, 2013by Gary JohnsonFiled under: Stories

In his Author! Author! blog series, Museum president Gary T. Johnson highlights works that draw on our collection.


Norman E. Saul. The Life and Times of Charles R. Crane, 1858–1939: American Businessman, Philanthropist, and a Founder of Russian Studies in America. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books (2012).

The story of Charles R. Crane begins with familiar notes from Chicago history: a family-owned plumbing fixture business that took off during the construction boom following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; philanthropic support for nurseries affiliated with Jane Addams’s Hull-House; the tragedy of two nieces who died in the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903; and summers spent at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

The shock is that this wealthy child of the Midwest left his mark on international understanding and foreign study in America, particularly with regard to Russia. His eyes opened to the world not through formal education, but through travel and personal encounters. As Crane’s associate Walter Rogers wrote: “His father tolerated his gadding about because through his son, he kept abreast of the world. . . . [Charles R. Crane] never went to high school. All his knowledge was self-acquired.” Chicago civic leader Martin Antoine Ryerson, Crane’s relative and friend, enriched Crane’s understanding of cultural and educational philanthropy, but it was Crane, himself, who developed a deep love of Russia.

By the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Crane was positioned to welcome and facilitate the extensive Russian presence in Chicago, a presence that, among other accomplishments, greatly enhanced the reputation of Russian music in America. Crane went on to promote Russian studies at institutions including Harvard and the University of Chicago, as well as publications, cultural exchanges, and artistic and musical endeavors. Even after he took up residence in New York, Massachusetts, and California, Chicago continued to be a part of Crane’s life. The family business remained here, and Crane supported Chicago’s Holy Trinity Church, a Russian Orthodox church constructed in 1903. Crane chose Louis Sullivan as the architect, and the church remains a gem.

As a biographer, Norman E. Saul tells a surprising and fascinating story, but in the annals of the history of philanthropy, Saul does the near-impossible by compiling a meticulous listing of the known details of Crane’s contributions. The chief disclaimer, of course, is that many of Crane’s donations were done informally and without any trace in the record. The traces that remain, if they could be combined with similar lists to be written for other philanthropists, would shed new light on a signature feature of American social history.

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One Response to “The Life and Times of Charles R. Crane”

  1. Thomas A Sedell Says:

    I have in my possession the masonic sword belonging to Charles R Crane.

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