In our current May issue “The Scene” takes readers to the antiques shops and vintage dealers of Chicago where mid-century design and the Prairie School reign. Although the city is known for its progressive architecture, it is refreshing to find there a historic house that fully embraces its Gilded Age opulence, and the Richard H. Driehaus Museum does just that. Opened to the public in June 2008 after an extensive five-year restoration, Driehaus, the Chicago businessman, philanthropist and preservationist has transformed the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion into a breathtaking museum devoted to the decorative arts.
The “Marble Palace,” as the 25,000-square foot mansion is called, was built between 1879 and 1883 as a residence for Nickerson, a liquor and banking magnate, at a cost of $450,000. Architectural highlights of the interiors include the two-story main hall, clad in over seventeen types of marble, and the carved oak dining room with its original oak table, a rare survival from the period. Paper baron Lucius G. Fisher, who purchased the mansion in 1900 and lived in it until his death in 1916, made later renovations, and employed the architect George Washington Maher to re-envision Nickerson’s art gallery (now the sculpture gallery) as a trophy room. At this time, a monumental fireplace with a mosaic mural surround made by Giannini & Hilgart was added, and a dramatic stained glass dome (also attributed to the firm), which rises 25 feet above the first floor.
Complementing the original objects and interiors are period objects from the Driehaus Collection of Fine and Decorative Arts, which is overseen by the museum’s director and curator David Bagnall, and which includes major works by artists and designers such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Herter Brothers, Emile Gallé, and Louis Majorelle, as well as American and European paintings. Some standouts include a Tiffany & Co. silver punch bowl made for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a chandelier originally from in the billiard room of California Governor Milton Latham’s Thurlow Lodge, and a 19th-century marble sculpture of Cupid and Psyche from the studio of Orazio Andreoni.
Those interested in the details of the mansion’s restoration (undertaken by the architectural firm of Antunovich Associates with contractors Bulley & Andrews) and the history of the building can learn more in M. Kirby Talley Jr.’s book, This House Was the Pride of the Town: Mr. Nickerson’s Marble Palace Becomes Mr. Driehaus’ Museum (Cottontail Publications, 2008). Those that would just like to see the stunning results should take a look at our slideshow of the interiors, and start planning their visit today.
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum is located at 40 East Erie Street and is open to the public (except children under 12) for guided tours on a first-come, first-served basis on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays (10 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm). For admissions and other information visit www.driehausmuseum.org.