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]

Live A Day In The Life Of ‘Downton Abbey’ At These English Castles

The British TV series “Downton Abbey” has taken America by storm with millions of viewers tuning in each week to watch the lives of the wealthy Crawley family unfold. The glamorous outfits, the decadent dinners, the lavish estate – it’s a splendorous life most of us can only dream of.

But take a trip to England and you’ll see that sprawling country estates like Downton Abbey are very real. In fact, some are still home to noble families. But that doesn’t mean you can only look at these castles from afar, because many of England’s grand estates have opened their doors to visitors. Not only can you tour the grounds, you can experience life as it was a hundred years ago. Step into the shoes of Mary or Matthew Crawley and be whisked back in time as you take part in Easter egg hunts, high tea, jousting tournaments, clay pigeon shooting and more.

Highclere Castle

Naturally, the first place that comes to mind if you want the true Downton experience is the very estate where the TV show is filmed – Highclere Castle (see image above). Located in Hampshire, England, Highclere is set on 1000 acres of parkland. The castle itself has around 300 rooms, some of which can be rented out for weddings or private dinners. Visitors here can take part in Highclere’s annual Easter egg hunt, stroll through fairs, listen to concerts or enjoy afternoon tea in the estate’s tea rooms or out on the perfectly manicured lawn.However, if you have a spare 8,000 GPB lying around, why settle for an Easter egg hunt when you can get the luxury package we told you about last year? Enjoy tea with the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, a private tour of the estate led by the Lord or Lady of the house, a grand luncheon and more.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard is an 18th century residence situated 15 miles north of York. It’s currently home to the Howard family, whose ancestors have lived in the sprawling estate for more than three centuries. Like Highclere, Castle Howard has also been immortalized on film – the movie and TV show based on the novel “Brideshead Revisited” was filmed on the grounds.

Visitors to Castle Howard are able to tour the residence, and explore the gardens, lakes, statues, and mausoleum on the grounds. The estate also hosts a range of events throughout the year, including an Easter fair, dog shows, craft fairs, Christmas celebrations, talks discussing the portraits and artwork in the home, and a range of outdoor theater performances (a rendition of “Pride and Prejudice” is among the shows scheduled this year).

Blenheim Palace

This 18th century palace located 8 miles from Oxford is the birthplace of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The estate, which is now home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Blenheim Palace runs dozens of events throughout the year ranging from sports to the arts. Among the more colorful events is a jousting tournament where visitors can watch knights dressed in medieval garb competing on horseback. Reenactments of historic battles also draw huge crowds to the estate. If you prefer something a little more sedate, there’s a flower show, literary festival, and an art and antique fair. You can also enjoy a picnic as you watch summer theater performances or take part in Blenheim’s annual Easter egg hunt.

Chatsworth House

Located in Derbyshire, Chatsworth House has been passed down through the same family for 16 generations. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire now call the mansion home, but about 30 of the estate’s rooms remain open to the public.

Visitors can walk through the grand sculpture galleries and state rooms, meet an actor dressed as a Lady’s Maid, or dress in period costume. You can also tour the glasshouses and learn how the orchids and vines are looked after, or take a floral arrangement workshop. If you’re still thirsty for more, Chatsworth offers tours teaching visitors how beer was brewed at the estate during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Chatsworth House also hosts a traditional country fair featuring hot air balloons, military bands and vintage cars. Here, guests can try their hand at clay pigeon shooting or take part in an old-fashioned archery competition.

Lyme Park

Lyme Park, found in Cheshire, England, was once a great sporting estate, and today, visitors can stroll the vast grounds, which include several lakes, rose gardens and lots of deer. If the mansion looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you recognize it from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice,” which filmed several scenes here.

Visitors to Lyme Park are allowed to truly explore and enjoy the estate – this includes playing the piano or lounging with a book from the library. You can also dress up in old-timey costume and take photos to remember the experience.

Lyme Park also hosts several activities, including a Sunday luncheon for mothers, an Easter “eggstravaganza,” and the opportunity to make an Edwardian scrapbook. There is also a range of family activities to help visitors learn what life was like during the Edwardian period.

Note: Not all events at these estates are held on a regular basis. If you want to take part in a particular activity, check the estate’s website or call ahead to find out when events will be taking place. Some activities may also need to be pre-booked.

[Photo credits: Flickr users Richard Munckton; Paul Stevenson; Josh Friedman; Phillip Capper; and A Pillow of Winds]

Virgin Atlantic Brings Tea Time To 35,000 Feet

Afternoon tea is making a come back – at 35,000 feet. Virgin Atlantic says that overseas visitors influenced by TV period dramas such as “Downton Abbey” asked … and so they will deliver.

Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class passengers can now choose between a full tea service featuring ‘English’ Breakfast or Earl Grey tea plus finger sandwiches, scones and cakes served in their own purpose-made dainty cake stand.

“Introducing Afternoon Tea onboard our aircraft is also part of our drive to put style back into flying,” said Simon Bradley, Vice President of Marketing, North America, Virgin Atlantic Airways. “We want our Upper Class passengers to be able to have the same civilized experience as the Queen or indeed to be able to imagine that they are a character in ‘Downton Abbey.'”

The re-emergence of Afternoon Tea was confirmed earlier this month when The Queen, The Duchess of Cornwall, and The Duchess of Cambridge all went to afternoon tea at Fortnum and Masons. And so popular is the trend with smart London hotels that The Ritz and The Savoy now regularly have queues to attend their traditional afternoon teas.

Sadly, this service isn’t available in economy. We guess some ‘class’ divides still stand.

Luxury Travel: Visit England’s Highclere Castle, filming location of Downton Abbey

Fans of English history will leap at any chance to tour the country’s stately homes – but a private one-on-one with a real-life Earl and Countess might just be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Of course, any such experience comes with a price. For GBP 7,900, guests can step into the shoes of a Downton Abbey cast member with a private day trip to Highclere Castle, the filming location for the Emmy-winning series on PBS Masterpiece Classic.
Begin the day with tea and coffee in the private morning room after being personally greeted by the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, followed by a tour of the State rooms led by the Lord or Lady of the house. After a lunch with wines chosen from the Earl’s cellar, it’s off in one of the Earl’s private 4x4s to Beacon Hill.
After lunch, be transported in one of the Earl’s private 4×4 off-road vehicles to Beacon Hill. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon (who funded and assisted Howard Carter’s investigations, culminating in the discovery of Tutankhamen’s fabulous tomb in 1922) is buried at the summit and see the remains of an Iron Age fort. If the weather is inclement, enjoy an escorted tour of Highclere’s Egyptogology Exhibition.

The visit ends with the serving of High Tea, at which guests have an opportunity to gain an intimate and informal insight into the working life of the Countess. The package can be booked through Noteworthy Events.

Of course, if you’re simply a lover of the show and looking for a package that’s a bit less expensive – check out this hotel experience in New York that we covered a few weeks ago.

Live like your favorite ‘Downton Abbey’ character with this chic hotel package

Fans of the Masterpiece Classic PBS program ‘Downton Abbey‘ have even more reason to be excited. Not only did the cult fave show return to television in the states for its second season last night, but now you don’t even have to escape to the UK to live like your favorite characters.

New York‘s Oheka Castle, located on the historic Gold Coast, is offering a special “Aristocratic Escape Package,” that includes overnight accommodations, afternoon tea, a bottle of Champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries in your room, continental breakfast and a copy of Season I of the show on DVD. The overnight package $695 and includes an optional $100 upgrade per room category.

Here’s the real question – have you already managed to sneak a peek at the rest of the season online?