PostHeaderIcon Not Just Any Old House

Editor’s Note: The blogs posted this month will feature lesser-known personal discoveries that can provide enjoyable holiday outings.

Driehaus Museum

Driehaus Museum

If you passed the imposing three-story brownstone at 40 East Erie in recent years, you would have found the building dark and open only by appointment. One would never know that, beyond the front door, lies one of nation’s grandest mansions of the Gilded Age. However, with the arrival of Lise Dube-Scherr last April as director, the Richard H. Driehaus Museum has come alive.

The museum is now open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Sundays 12-5 p.m and closed Monday). Banners identifying the museum hang above the front door and the public is warmly welcomed inside for personal tours of this architectural and decorative arts showpiece. Ms. Dube-Scherr has worked hard in the last nine months to establish a membership program, themed visits and evening soirees as might have been held in the home by its original owners.

Noted investment adviser, Richard Driehaus, is passionate about architectural preservation and decorative arts. He purchased the mansion in 2003 and then spent several million dollars over five years restoring it to its former glory. He has also lent the house period furnishings, works from his art collection, pieces from his extensive collection of Tiffany-designed lamps and antique chandeliers; all to give the galleries a true feeling of late 19th Century splendor.

Samuel Nickerson, the founder of the First National Bank of Chicago, was the original owner. He and his family lived there from 1887 to 1900. It cost a staggering $450,000 to build the 25,000 square foot mansion, the largest private residence in Chicago when it was completed (the cost in 2011 dollars would exceed $100 million). That part of town, at the time, was known as McCormickville since several members of the McCormick family lived in the area.

Nickerson sold the house to Lucius Fisher, a paper-bag manufacturer and big-game hunting enthusiast, who resided there until his death in 1916. Fearing that it might be demolished, one hundred prominent Chicagoans, including William Wrigley, Cyrus McCormick and Julius Rosenwald, bought the home and donated it to the American College of Surgeons, for use as its headquarters.

Driehaus Main Hall

Driehaus Main Hall

Inside the front door on Erie (though early visitors arrived by horse-drawn coach at a porte cochere on the side), you enter a two-story Main Hall and your jaw drops.

Straight ahead you see a grand staircase that leads to the family’s living quarters on the second floor and ballroom. Off the main hall on both sides are the Front Parlor, Reception Room, Drawing Room, Dining Room, Smoking Room, Library and the stunning Sculpture Gallery.

At your feet, the floor is covered in 17 kinds of inlaid marble. The house quickly became known as The Marble Palace. Equally impressive are the wood moldings used for the rooms’ rich wainscotting and the dropped ceilings’ paneling. The majestic Sculpture Gallery holds three masterpieces, making it hard to choose a favorite: the 19th-Century  sculpture of “Cupid and Psyche”, a 7-foot-high fireplace with a gorgeous fireplace surround of mosaic tile and an oversize Tiffany-inspired dome overhead.

"Cupic and Psyche"

"Cupid and Psyche"

Other special touches in rooms throughout the house include inlaid marquetry wood in the Library, rare blue-green wall tiles, fabrics by Scalamandre and some original sconses and small flickering gas lights. Such detail and craftsmanship is unavailable today, even in the infamous McMansions erected by modern-day financial wizards.

I cannot readily recall being as overwhelmed by the beauty of a private residence as I was touring Driehaus’ recreation of the Nickerson mansion. Dube-Scherr points out that “we’re not trying to perfectly recreate how the house appeared in Nickerson’s time but to give people a sense of what life was like in the Gilded Age.”

To that end, she scheduled strolling carolers, an evening cabaret performance and a magic show for family visitors during the holiday season. Twilight tours, on the first and third Tuesday of each month, let visitors glimpse how the Nickersons socialized in the evening.

Looking for a different holiday treat? A visit to the museum strikes me as a perfect outing. Its “Deck the Marble Halls” observance is on daily (except Mondays) through January 8th. You can take a self-guided audio tour or a guided tour daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (1:30 and 3 p.m. on Sunday).

Admission is $20, $12.50 for seniors and $10 for students, children under 18.

The Museum is also available for rental for intimate dinners, private receptions, board meetings. Dube-Scherr says she is awaiting its first wedding booking. For full details, visit the museum at Phone is 312/932-8665.

2 Responses to “Not Just Any Old House”

  • Nancy Donohoe says:

    RMU hosted a dinner for our Board of Trustees a few years ago at the Driehaus Museum. It is a beautiful setting and so wonderfully maintained!

  • Llani says:

    Sounds great – will go. Have a Merry Merry.

Leave a Reply