History of the Nickerson Mansion

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Above: Matilda Nickerson (left), Samuel Nickerson (right)

The Nickerson Family Arrives in Chicago

The Richard H. Driehaus Museum is housed in the residence of banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson (1830-1914) and society leader Matilda Pinkham Nickerson (1837-1912). Samuel and Matilda Nickerson moved to Chicago from Chatham, Massachusetts in 1858. Over the next four decades, the Nickersons became an integral part of the industrial, social, and civic life of the city of Chicago. Their lives touched many of the most significant events in Chicago’s early history, including the Great Chicago Fire, the founding of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Nickerson residence on Erie Street is a lasting legacy of their cultural contributions.

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Above: Destruction of Chicago by Fire, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

The Great Chicago Fire

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned from the evening of October 8 until the morning of October 10. The incident began in the O’Leary barn on DeKoven Street and laid waste to over three-square miles of the city, resulting in the loss of nearly three hundred lives and the destruction of over 18,000 structures, including the Nickersons’ original residence on the corner of Cass (now Wabash) and Erie Streets. The Fire and subsequent period of Great Rebuilding had a profound impact on the city-and ultimately helped to establish Chicago as a powerful, modern city.

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Above: Residence of S. M. Nickerson, front elevation. The American Architect and Building News, February 26, 1881, Vol. 9, Iss. 270.

Something New in Houses: A Fire Proof Residence

In 1879, the Nickersons commissioned the Chicago architectural firm of Burling and Whitehouse (1879-1892) to design their new home. A Chicago Daily Tribune article from that year marveled at the residence’s innovative “fire-proof” design. 

The residence was built at the height of America’s Gilded Age. The term “Gilded Age” was coined by author Mark Twain in his 1873 satirical novel of the same name and came to refer to the period following the close of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I.  Thanks to advances in industry and commerce, this era was the most prosperous the country had experienced until that point. Alongside the stories of success and growing affluence were parallel narratives of the immigrant experience, wealth disparity, and a wide-range of social ills - all contributing to the need for serious social, political, and economic reform.

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Above: The Nickerson Mansion, c. 1883

Construction of the Nickerson Mansion is Complete

The newly built Nickerson residence was hailed for its artistic achievements and technological advances.  According to the Inland Architect of February 1883, the house “reached a standard of excellence never before attained in Chicago.”

“The Marble Palace,” as the Nickerson residence became known, cost a substantial $450,000 to build and was one of the largest private residences in Chicago at the time of its completion. While Burling and Whitehouse were the architects for the residence, the elaborate interiors were the work of the highly skilled Chicago-based designers R. W. Bates & Co. (est. 1868) and William August Fielder (1843-1903), along with George A. Schastey & Co. (1873-1897) of New York. 

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Above: The Gallery during the Nickerson Period, 1883-1900

The Nickerson Art Collection 1883 - 1900

Samuel and Matilda Nickerson amassed a significant art collection and showcased it at their Chicago residence. The Nickersons encouraged students to study art in their gallery and Matilda often hosted receptions to showcase their collection.

Besides collecting art, the Nickersons were patrons of the arts and were actively involved in promoting and sustaining Chicago’s artistic culture in the years following the Great Fire. Samuel Nickerson was a founding trustee of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (later renamed the Art Institute of Chicago) until his death in 1914. Matilda Nickerson served as the president of the Antiquarian Society of the Art Institute, whose mission was to support and train female artists and artisans.

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Above: Images from The Chicago Herald, “They Danced in Masks: The Nickerson Fancy Dress Ball,” December, 1888.

The Nickersons Host a Masquerade

Entertaining was an important part of Gilded Age culture, and women like Bertha Palmer in Chicago and Alva Vanderbilt in New York used their positions in society to influence culture and set trends in taste.  Matilda Nickerson was an accomplished hostess and entertained members of her social circle and leaders of the period in her Chicago residence.  In December of 1888, the society pages of Chicago newspapers were filled with accounts of the Nickersons’ grand “bal-masque.”  Attended by 250 guests in elaborate costumes, the event featured music, dancing, and a formal unmasking.

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Above: Views Of The World's Columbian Exposition, 1893, Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

Chicago hosts the World’s Columbian Exposition

The World’s Columbian Exposition, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, opened in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side on May 1,1893. Over 27 million visitors experienced the Fair’s celebration of art, culture, industry, and technological innovation. The World’s Fair was a triumph for Chicago as the culmination of the period of recovery following the Great Chicago Fire, and marked the city’s emergence as a cultural and artistic center on the world stage.

The Nickerson family were actively involved in the celebration of the World’s Fair. Matilda Nickerson hosted a reception of over 800 guests celebrating the event.  Several paintings from the Nickersons’ private collection were featured in the Fine Arts Building of the World’s Fair.  

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Above: The Gallery during the Nickerson Period, 1883-1900.

The Nickerson Art Collection: A Meaningful Donation

In 1900, shortly before leaving permanently to live on the East coast, Samuel and Matilda Nickerson made a substantial donation to the Art Institute of Chicago. The donated art included European paintings, etchings and engravings, Japanese prints, a significant collection of carved jade, and a wide selection of Chinese and Japanese porcelains, ceramics, and bronzes.  This gift received the attention of the press, with the Chicago Daily Tribune noting, “The collection of crystals, jades, lacquers, and porcelains…is said to be the only one of its kind in the world in a public institution, except that in the British Museum” (“To Move Nickerson Gift” Jan. 27, 1900).  

The Nickerson gift was originally housed in galleries 41 and 42 of the Art Institute, in a space lavishly decorated with colorful marble mosaics. Today, while the Nickerson Galleries no longer exist, the donation is a lasting legacy and an important part of the cultural heritage of the city of Chicago.

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Above: Katherine Eddy Fisher, 1890. Lucius George Fisher, n.d.

The Fisher Family occupies the Nickerson Mansion

In 1900, Samuel Nickerson stepped down as President of the First National Bank of Chicago and Matilda retired as President of the Society of Colonial Dames, and they permanently relocated to the East Coast. They sold the residence to Lucius George Fisher (1843-1916), a Chicago real estate mogul and president of the Union Bag and Paper Company. He, his wife, Katherine Fisher (1849-1910), and three of his four children moved into the house sometime in late-1900.

Mr. Fisher commissioned one of Chicago’s first skyscrapers, the Fisher building, designed by Daniel Burnham & Co., and completed in 1896.

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Above: The Fisher “den,” c. 1900.

The Fisher Renovation

In 1901, Fisher commissioned Prairie School architect George Washington Maher (1864-1926) to redesign the Gallery. In Maher’s renovation, the room was transformed into a den and featured Fisher’s collection of historical weapons and animal trophies. Architect Robert Seyfarth (1878-1950) collaborated with Maher and was responsible for the lion-motif carvings throughout as well as the center table, cabinetry, and mantelpiece.  New features in the room included the magnificent stained-glass dome, attributed to the Chicago firm Giannini and Hilgart (est. 1899), and the monumental fireplace with iridescent tiles arranged in sinuous, curving lines that reflect a modern Art Nouveau design.

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Above: The Nickerson Mansion at Cass [Wabash] and Erie, c. 1910.

The Dixon Family

In 1910, Katherine Fisher passed away after a long illness. Her youngest daughter, Katherine Fisher Dixon, moved into the residence on Erie Street along with her husband, Homer Laing Dixon, and their three young children. Homer Laing Dixon was first Secretary and later President for the Arthur Dixon Transfer Company and Katherine Dixon was a society leader and actively involved in the Fourth Presbyterian Church. The Dixon family continued to live in the residence even after the death of Lucius George Fisher in 1916.

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Above: List of citizens who purchased and donated the Nickerson Mansion from “Surgeons Pick Chicago as Site of Huge School,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 21, 1919.

Now City Landmark, Mansion Saved by Fellow Citizens

In 1919, the residence was purchased from the Dixon family by a group of over 100 Chicago citizens, including William Wrigley Jr. (1861-1932), Edith Rockefeller McCormick (1872-1932), and Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), who donated the building to the newly-established American College of Surgeons to use as their national headquarters. This act helped ensure that the building was saved from the possibility of destruction. The ACS occupied the building beginning in 1920.

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Above: Mr. Nickerson's bedroom being used as an office

The Nickerson Mansion in the late-20th Century

In 1963, The ACS outgrew the space and moved out of the former Nickerson Mansion. The organization leased the space to other firms in this period, including the advertising firm Pinnn Productions in the 1960s and the R.H. Love Art Gallery in the 1990s. In 1976, the residence was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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Above: Richard H. Driehaus

The Founding and Restoration of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum

In 2003, Chicago businessman, collector, and philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus acquired the building and established the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. Following was a meticulous restoration of the historic Nickerson Mansion, over a period of five years.

Read more about Richard H. Driehaus here.

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Above: The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, 2014.

The Richard H. Driehaus Museum Opens to the Public

In June of 2008, The Richard H. Driehaus Museum opened to the public. Today, visitors enjoy the restored interiors and surviving furnishings alongside period art selected from the Driehaus Collection. The second-floor galleries, formally the family’s living quarters, now house special exhibitions

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