Remembering John H. Bryan Jr.—Philanthropist, Collector, and Connoisseur

By Carrie Villar posted 10-24-2018 14:12


Many tributes are sure to be written to honor John H. Bryan Jr., as his death this October marked the end of a life of achievement. Beyond his career accomplishments, most recently as CEO of the Sara Lee Corporation, he will be remembered for his incredible generosity in the fields of the arts, architecture, culture, and historic preservation. He had a lasting impact on the Chicago landscape, helping protect landmarks such as the Lyric Opera House and Orchestra Hall and spearheading the effort that created Millennium Park.


John Bryan and his wife Neville | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Passionate about preserving historic buildings and objects, John was an active supporter of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and chairman emeritus of the National Trust Council. In 2001 John, along with his wife Neville and the Sara Lee Corporation, gifted $1 million to endow the John and Neville Bryan Director of Museum Collections position at the National Trust. His support has ensured that the Trust’s museum collection—which includes more than 60,000 pieces of fine art and decorative arts across its historic sites—will be stewarded at the highest possible standards.

Beyond this landmark gift, John also played a pivotal role in raising funds to purchase and preserve the Farnsworth House, the Mies Van Der Rohe designed home in Plano, Illinois. Thanks to that acquisition, the Farnsworth House is now a National Trust Historic Site allowing the public to enjoy, explore, and experience the Modernist masterpiece for years to come.


John Bryan and his wife Neville (front row left) with the National Trust Council at President Lincoln’s Cottage in 2005. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

With generosity like this, it is no wonder that John Bryan received countless awards during his lifetime, including the National Trust’s highest preservation honor, the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award.

While his civic and preservation gifts are impressive, John was also a notable collector and patron of the arts. John spent close to two decades developing Sara Lee’s corporate art collection, which included many masterworks of American art. Ultimately, he led the corporation in its “Millennium Gift to America,” which donated $100 million worth of art from the Sara Lee collection to museums across the United States, an unprecedented gift to the nation.

John was also an avid connoisseur and collector of the American and English Arts and Crafts Movement, as well as contemporary furniture. Buildings at his historic Crab Tree Farm, in Lake Bluff, Illinois, display his collections in settings that are designed to reflect the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts era. The farm also promotes contemporary craftsmanship through artist residencies and exhibitions.

While John’s passing leaves us all mourning his loss, his profound and lasting impact on the National Trust and its historic sites will serve as a legacy for future generations.

Carrie Villar is the John and Neville Bryan Associate Director of Museum Collections at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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