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]

Budget cuts may axe Washington historic sites

As the Great Recession drags on, more and more state programs are feeling the pinch. This includes many sites of historic interest. In the latest budget announced by Washington Governor Chris Gregiore, the state’s three Historical Society museums will all have to close.

The State Capital Museum in the Lord Mansion in Olympia, and museums in Tacoma and Spokane, would all be affected. The governor has earmarked $2.4 million to maintain the sites and their archives, but it would cost twice as much to keep them open, The News Tribune reports.

The Lord Mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places and in addition to having a museum, it hosts many public events. The Washington State Historical Society Museum in Tacoma gets an average of 100,000 visitors a year.

To be fair to Governor Gregiore, she’s facing a serious problem. If she keeps the museums open, that means $2.4 million less for other programs, and then some non-travel-related blog would be complaining about her budget. But museums and historical societies are important parts of the community, not just for old-timers who want to reminisce and tourists interested in history, but newcomers who want some background on their surroundings. I’ve moved way too many times, and one thing I always do to get grounded is study the history of my new home.

I also do Civil War research, and that means I’ve seen the inner workings of many historical societies. One place you’ll often find me is the State Historical Society of Missouri. Once or twice a week my studies are interrupted by a crowd of schoolkids coming into the library to see the treasures of the archives. Some researchers grumble about this, but I’m always happy to see them come in. One object that always arouses interest is a long, thin map of the Mississippi River that unrolls like a scroll. Steamboat pilots used it to navigate the perilous waters of the river more than a century ago. The students are fascinated by it, not just because of its odd appearance but because of what it symbolizes. More than once I’ve overheard kids talking about what it would have been like to use the map to avoid sandbars, sunken logs, and dangerous currents just like Mark Twain did.

This historical society, like so many others, has had its share of budget cuts. They recently had to stop a theatrical series and a traveling lecture tour. Both were popular, but the society simply can’t afford them.

It would be a shame if they had to cut the tours. Missouri schoolkids wouldn’t get their imaginations fired by that map anymore.

[Photo courtesy Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons]

Benjamin Franklin’s historic London home

Of all the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the most interesting. A true genius, he was a printer, writer, scientist, philosopher, ladies man, politician, businessman, inventor, and much more.

Despite his crucial role in the development of the early United States, none of his American homes still exist. The house where he lived in London, however, is open to the public.

The Benjamin Franklin House makes for an interesting insight into American history, and tells about life in 18th century London as well. Franklin lived here from 1757 to 1775 and worked as a representative for various colonial interests. In the early years he tried to act as an intermediary, a calm voice of reason opposed to hotheads on both sides of the Atlantic. But as dissent grew louder in the colonies, and the British government became ever more intransigent, Franklin threw his lot in with the rebels. In fact, he had to leave London in haste to avoid being arrested by the British government.

The home is tucked away on Craven Street, a quiet little lane of well-preserved Georgian-era homes not far from Trafalgar Square. Here he lived with his landlady Margaret Stevenson and her family, including a relative who ran an anatomy school. This doctor buried discarded human remains in the garden and they now make a fascinating if rather gruesome addition to an exhibition that otherwise features artifacts from Franklin’s life and times.

The tour is run by an attractive and talented actress playing Mrs. Stevenson, who takes you from room to room as audiovisual displays tell of Franklin’s stay at the house. There is little in the way of period furnishings, but the combination of the actress and recordings bring you into the era much better than old furniture ever could. It seems his London period was one of the intellectual highlights of Franklin’s life. A constant stream of visitors came to the home to discuss science, philosophy, and politics. Europe was in the midst of the Enlightenment and Franklin became a central figure in London’s intellectual scene. So if you’re interested in learning more about one of America’s truly great figures, give the Benjamin Franklin House a try.

Image courtesy the Benjamin Franklin House.

Top ten historic hotels from around the world

Hotel price comparison site has put together a list of ten historic international hotels and the famous individuals that stayed in them.

The lineup includes some of the most beautiful hotels from around the world and was compiled using reviews submitted to Trivago,, and others.

The top ten lineup is:

1. Palace Beau Rivage, Lausanne, Switzerland

2. Hotel Copernicus, Krakow, Poland

3. Las Casas De La Juderia, Seville, Spain

4. The Willard, Washington DC, USA

5. Reid’s Palace, Funchal, Portugal

6. Steigenberger Grandhotel Petersberg, Bonn, Germany

7. Le Plaza, Brussels, Belgium

8. Grand Hotel Rimini, Rimini, Italy

9. The Cadogan, London, United Kingdom

10. Grand Hotel de Cabourg, Cabourg, France


Spending the Night in a Frank Lloyd Wright House

Frank Lloyd Wright houses can often be admired from afar and can sometimes be admired from within. Unless you’re fabulously wealthy, however, they can almost never be admired as a resident.

We’ve got some good news for you, however, if your dream is to spend the night in a Wright masterpiece. For just $385, visitors can shack up in the famed Duncan House, located in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

The house, which was built in the 1950s, was originally located in the suburbs of Chicago. Its present owner has not only relocated it, but modernized it as well. This means that guests can relish in the Usonian architecture of half a century ago while at the same time surfing on a wireless connection or popping popcorn in the microwave.

Now that, folks, is the best of both worlds.