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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Positively Opulent - From Mansion to Museum

by Mauverneen

It’s always a pleasure to ‘discover’ some little known gem you’ve somehow missed in your own backyard.  Chicago is extremely rich with history and lore so coming across a treasure like the Driehaus Museum is a rich pleasure indeed.

Formal dining room with original table
 Unlike the palatial Biltmore or Hearst residences, the former Nickerson Mansion is an unassuming structure in modern Chicago’s downtown landscape of glassy highrises. Located at 40 S. Erie between Michigan Ave and State Street, a look at the fa├žade would never give away what opulence lies behind those carved front doors. But step inside and it is no less luxurious and impressive.

40 S. Erie
Built in 1883 for Samuel and Mathilda Nickerson and their son, the 3-story, 24,000 square foot residence was reportedly the largest, most extravagant private residence in Chicago at the time - a distinction eventually given up to the Potter Palmer Mansion. 17 types of marble decorate the interior, earning it the nickname ‘The Marble Palace.’ 
View into the 'Trophy Room'
Nickerson made his money in the wholesale liquor business, later becoming a prominent figure in the banking industry.  Upon his retirement he sold the home to Lucius George Fisher, president of Union Bag & Paper Co.  Few changes were made, but turning the Nickerson’s art gallery into a library/trophy room for Fisher’s hunting trophies and adding a massive mantlepiece to give it a ‘lodge’ look was one. Replacing the skylight with a stained glass dome was another.

Looking up into the dome
The family's decision to sell the mansion after Fisher's death in 1916 sparked what is believed to be Chicago's first successful preservation effort. After three years without a buyer, a group of prominent Chicagoans, concerned about possible demolition of the magnificent residence, raised money to purchase the house and in 1919 presented the deed to the American College of Surgeons, which located their headquarters there until 1965.
Ceiling detail
Fortunately for us all, in 2003 Chicago businessman Richard Driehaus acquired the building with the goal of preserving the structure and it’s fabulous interior. A 5 year restoration was begun, which included laser cleaning of the sandstone and limestone exterior, winning a Chicago Landmark Award for Preservation Excellence in 2008.

Tiffany glass display atop one of the fireplaces
The rooms are not over-filled with furnishings as they would have been when they were being lived in, but instead are carefully fitted with a selection of tasteful furnishings of the period, providing a much better opportunity to see the intricately inlaid floors, tile hearths and rich hand carved wooden panels and Lincrusta wall coverings.
Reception room fireplace - note the tiles and carvings
Mr. Driehaus is also a collector of, among other things, works by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Currently showing at the Museum is a selection of more than 60 pieces from his extensive collection, impressively arranged throughout the mansion.

Tiffany floor lamp
From this alcove the Nickerson's could see Lake Michigan - not possible today
A trip through this fabulous former residence is truly a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the Tiffany exhibition enhances that experience.  The tour guides are both knowledgable and enthusiastic, sharing details and anecdotes about the house and the families who lived in it and happy to answer questions.  Walking through the rooms and listening to the narratives, I could easily imagine myself attending dinner parties or even living there. It was a house meant to be lived in - with style!
Tiffany glass window Garden Landscape
 The museum is generally open Tuesday through Sunday. For hours go to

Next week – more about Tiffany!
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  1. isn't it lovely to know that we can always find something new and interesting in our own city - we just need to look!
    Have a wonderful week, and thank you for stopping by my blog this week.

  2. I'd never heard of this place. It seems wonderful. I love the old Mid-western culture. Chicago has so much to explore.