History of the Nickerson Mansion: 2003

Richard H. Driehaus

Above: Richard H. Driehaus

The Founding and Restoration of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum

Chicago Magazine, September 27, 2007.

"A Classic Act” by Robert Sharoff

In the past two decades, Driehaus has emerged as one of Chicago’s most prominent advocates for historic preservation. He has also taken a leading role in encouraging the city and public institutions and groups to adopt a more design-centered approach to civic projects.

Now he is taking his commitment a step further with the Richard H. Driehaus Museum of Decorative Arts, a new institution housed in what has been called the most expensive residence ever built in Chicago. In many ways, the project is the culmination of Driehaus’s long-term love affair with the city and the 19th century.

“It’s my gift to the city,” Driehaus says. “The museum is about protecting the past. The idea is to display the period, the materials and objects, and to organize that as a whole experience. It’s not about any one object. It’s about the environment, the space.”

Samuel Nickerson, the founder of the First National Bank of Chicago, was one of the city’s leading plutocrats in the era between the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1883, he commissioned the architectural firm of Burling & Whitehouse to design a house commensurate with his position and also to display his extensive art collection.

The site was several blocks west of what is now Michigan Avenue in a section of the city then known as McCormickville, so named because a number of the members of the McCormick family also lived in the area. 

The cost for the three-story, 24,000-square-foot mansion was $450,000, a fantastic amount and equivalent on a square-foot basis to what East Coast swells like the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers were spending on their houses in the same period. The cost today would be more than $100 million.

“It’s one of the grandest 19th-century houses in the country,” says Kirby Talley, the Amsterdam-based curator and author whom Driehaus hired in the fall of 2003 to oversee the restoration. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

The Nickersons moved out in 1900 after selling the house and most of the original furnishings to Lucius Fisher, a paper-bag manufacturer and the developer of the Fisher Building in the Loop. (The price, reflecting both the decline of the neighborhood and the persistent economic recession that gripped Chicago in the aftermath of the Columbian Exposition, was $75,000.) When Fisher’s heirs decided to sell in 1919, they sparked what Tim Samuelson says was the city’s first successful preservation effort. “Even in its day,” he says, “the Nickerson house was regarded as something special.”

Fearing that it might be demolished, a group of friends and neighbors that included such prominent Chicago figures as William Wrigley, Cyrus McCormick, and Julius Rosenwald raised enough money to buy the house and donate it to the American College of Surgeons, a medical association, for use as its headquarters. In 1926, the college also constructed the John B. Murphy Auditorium next door.

In 1965, the college relocated but continued to own the property. For years, it was leased to a variety of tenants. Today, it is probably best remembered as the home of R. H. Love Galleries, an art gallery that occupied the house for 12 years before Driehaus bought it in 2003...

“I went over there one day with my friend Buzz Harper, an antiques dealer, to look at a bust of Abraham Lincoln I was thinking about buying,” Driehaus recalls. “Buzz took one look and said, ‘Forget the bust. Buy the house.’ It was like a light going off in my head. I suddenly started to see a lot of possibilities.”

In the beginning, Driehaus says, the idea was simply to save and restore a remarkable historic house. Eventually, however, he realized that the residence would make an admirable repository for his collection—or, at least, part of his collection—of 19th-century art and decorative objects. Driehaus has one of the largest collections of Tiffany objects in the country, if not the world—dozens of rare windows, lamps, chandeliers, and tabletop pieces. These are displayed throughout the museum along with paintings, sculptures, and Herter Brothers furniture. (Herter Brothers was a celebrated New York interior design firm of the period whose furniture and decorative objects remain highly collectible.)

The museum is a stunner, starting with an imposing two-story entry hall and grand staircase that has the kind of lavish detailing one associates more with Renaissance palaces in Florence or Venice than with a Midwest boomtown like Chicago. The hall is flanked on both sides by a series of magnificent rooms that have been flawlessly restored to their original elegance. The dining room, for example, has elaborately embossed walls and an exuberant chandelier that incorporates wild boar heads, hunting horns, and brass arrows. The music room, meanwhile, has a rare 19th-century Chickering piano and walls covered in oyster, gold, and silver silk damask. Another highlight is the sculpture gallery, a two-story windowless space topped by a brilliantly colored art-glass dome. Positioned beneath the dome in a shaft of light is a dramatic 19th-century Roman sculpture of Cupid encountering Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul. Upstairs are bedrooms and a third-floor ballroom that will be used for special exhibitions.

The opulence at times overwhelms. The entry hall alone features 17 kinds of marble. Throughout, there is a profusion of exquisite details and materials such as multicolored marble columns and balustrades, carved and inlaid wooden mantels (every room has a fireplace) and doorways, art-glass windows, decorative mosaics, and ornamental brass grilles and railings.

The overall effect is of being transported back in time to a period when no one doubted that more—rather than less—was more. This was when the rich really knew how to live…