The Richard H. Driehaus Museum: Chicago’s Downton Abbey

As a longtime Chicago resident, I’ve walked or driven past the Nickerson Mansion on Erie Street hundreds of times. But I never thought about going inside the place, which is now the Richard Driehaus Museum, until I read all the rave reviews of it on Trip Advisor. I had no idea that we had one of the country’s finest Gilded Age mansions and resolved to see the place for myself.

It’s easy to overlook historic sites in your hometown as you get caught in a routine, but every time I return home from a trip and feel a little sick about being home, I make a point of putting on my tourist cap and doing something I’ve never done before. On my first weekend back in Chicago after a glorious trip to warm and sunny Central America, I piled in the car with my wife and two little boys on a typically gloomy, cold March day to check out the Driehaus Museum.
The moment you step foot in this opulent place and feast your eyes on the main hall, with its decadently ornate grand staircase and dimly lit foyer, you are transported to Gilded Age Chicago, when this was the finest home in the city. If you want to see how the super rich lived in 19th Century America, look no further than the Nickerson mansion, which was called the Marble Palace in its heyday.

The mansion was built between 1879-1883 for Samuel Mayo Nickerson, (see photo) a self made millionaire who made his fortune distilling alcohol during the Civil War when it was used for explosives thanks to a shortage of gunpowder. Samantha, our tour guide, told us that the Nickersons original home on the site burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The family lived in hotels for most of the next dozen years and as they constructed their new dream home, using mostly skilled German-American craftsman, they used 17 types of marble in a bid to make the place the city’s first fireproof house.

Built at a cost of $450,000 and located in the neighborhood that was then called McCormickville, it was the city’s largest and most expensive home. (The Potter Palmer house, which was destroyed in 1950, later eclipsed it in terms of square footage). The three-story, 25,000 square foot mansion is filled with period antiques that belong to Richard Driehaus, the financier and philanthropist who bought the house in 2003 and spent five years refurbishing it before opening it as a “gift to the city” part time in 2008.

Driehaus, whose capital management company is headquartered in two stunning mansions diagonally across the street from the museum, is a showman who reportedly rode into his 65th birthday party on top of an elephant. According to Chicago magazine, he has one of the largest collection of rare Tiffany objects in the country, and many of his lamps, chandeliers and tabletop pieces are on display in the mansion.

Every room in the house has something of interest and even the quarters for the Nickerson’s 11 servants are noteworthy, but for me, the real jaw dropper is the art gallery, which has a stunningly opulent, domed stained glass ceiling and sculptures one would expect to find in a fine art gallery in Florence. Samantha told us that the Nickersons were keen travelers and on one of their trips to Spain they developed an appreciation for Moorish architecture, and you can see that influence in the house’s smoking room (see photo above) and in Mrs. Nickerson’s sitting room.

The house’s only relatively plain rooms in the house are the women’s bedrooms and this is by design because, at the time, men thought that if women had overly decorative bedrooms, they would be overstimulated and have nightmares. And even the bathroom near the
entrance has something you’ll want to photograph: a very cool reproduction of an original Thomas Crapper toilet.

We learned that despite the house’s grandeur, its value steadily declined in the years after it was built while Nickerson expanded his business empire, which included ownership of a dozen local banks. In 1900, the Nickersons decided to move back to Mr. Nickerson’s native Massachusetts (his family came over on the Mayflower, but he made his own money) and they sold the house to Lucius Fisher, a paper-bag manufacturer for just $75,000. In 1919, his heirs decided to sell it, but by that point the neighborhood was more commercial than residential and it took a collection of 30 prominent Chicago families who pooled their resources to buy it, in order to save it from demolition.

The preservationists donated the property to the American College of Surgeons, who used it as their headquarters until 1965 and then leased it out to various tenants, including the R. H. Love Art Gallery, which occupied the house until Driehaus bought it in 2003. He first visited the gallery in the 90’s, intending to buy a bust of Abraham Lincoln and became interested in the place. He never bought the bust, but eventually bought the whole place and refurbished it, restoring the mansion’s iconic stained glass dome and cleaning the exterior the building.

Five years after it opened on an appointment-only basis, the place is now open full time and it can also be rented out for occasions. They also have a host of lectures and special events, including a Christmas party for kids, a puppet show (coming up in April 28), and a Father’s Day celebration, which will feature a few of Driehaus’s antique cars. (And free admission for dads)

Visiting the Nickerson Mansion is an amazing little escape from the city that is just blocks away from the Magnificent Mile, which, if you ask me, is one of the city’s more overrated attractions. So take a break from all the chain stores on Michigan Avenue- you can find most of them at your local mall anyway- and travel back in time to the Gilded Age at the Driehaus Museum.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]