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Travel


Getting back to the Gilded Age

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Chicago’s Driehaus Museum showcases opulent urban mansion

Published:

Story by Deneen Smith

The Driehaus Museum in Chicago is your ticket to Downton Abbey opulence in an urban American setting.

During the Gilded Age, Chicago’s homegrown royalty built limestone mansions of unimaginable luxury in the heart of the city. The Driehaus Museum, at 40 E. Erie St. off the Magnificent Mile, is a rare survivor of the era.

The mansion was restored to its original, over-the-top splendor by a local financier and patron of the arts, and opened to the public as a museum in 2008.

“It’s one of those places you have to see to believe,” said Lise Dubé-Scherr, the museum’s director. “It is very much a hidden jewel. It is really one of the few Gilded Age urban mansions left in the country.”

The three-story, 25,000-square-foot mansion was commissioned in 1879 by banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson. Completed in 1883, it was at the time one of the largest private houses in the city. The house cost $450,000 to build in 1879 — equal to $9 million in today’s dollars.

The urban palaces of the wealthy played a role in the literature of the age, from Henry James to Edith Warton, but most of the mansions preserved from the era are East Coast summer homes like The Breakers in Newport, R.I.

“There are very, very few urban mansions left from the period,” Dubé-Scherr said. “We say we are a concentrated version of the houses of Newport.”

Somewhat plain on the outside, the interior of the house is eye-popping.

“Every square inch of this house was lovingly designed in some way, was touched in some way, was carved in some way,” Dubé-Scherr said. “It is very in keeping of the aesthetic of the time.”

Designed to be fireproof, the house is filled with marble — at least 17 varieties of it — including a spectacular main hall with the floor, walls, columns, the staircase and even the ceiling built of marble.

Most of the huge mansions of the age have given way to changing times and more modern development. The Nickerson mansion was saved when it was purchased in 1916 by a group of wealthy Chicagoans who then donated it to the American College of Surgeons, which used it for offices, meeting rooms and gallery space, leaving the building itself largely unchanged.

Businessman Richard Driehaus, an art collector and philanthropist, has his offices in a historic building across the street from the mansion. He visited the Nickerson mansion for the first time to look at a sculpture for sale in a gallery there, and fell in love with the building instead.

Driehaus bought the building in 2003 with the aim of restoring it and opening it to the public. “There was really a beautiful alignment between the period of the building and the period of his collection,” Dubé-Scherr said. “He wanted to restore the building so it would be saved and preserved, but he also wanted it to be open to the public.”

After an extensive restoration the house — now filled with period art and furniture, including pieces from Driehaus’s own Tiffany glass collection — opened to the public.

Dubé-Scherr said the museum’s mission is not to recreate the house as it was when the original owners lived there. “Our mission is a little bit broader, it is focused on the preservation of the building and the preservation of the objects inside the museum,” she said. “We want to give people an immersion experience of a Guided Age mansion.”

The museum offers guided tours, along with special events like twilight tours, concerts and lecture series.

Dubé-Scherr said the summer Servants Tour is one of the most popular, with a guide in the guise of the housekeeper giving visitors a tour through the areas where the servants would have worked and lived. “There is a tremendous amount of interest in what life was like for the help,” she said.

Also popular during the summer months is a walking tour of the neighborhood, with a guide talking about life in “McCormickville,” as the area was once known for its concentration of wealthy members of Chicago’s McCormick family.

The Driehaus Museum entrance is located at:

40 East Erie Street, Chicago, Ill.

For general information, call 312 482 8933, ext. 21 or email info@driehausmuseum.org visit the website www.driehausmuseum.org.

Hours

The Driehaus Museum is open to the public at the following times:

Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Sunday, Noon–5 p.m.

The Museum is closed Mondays, Easter Sunday, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

Admission

$20 Adult, $12.50 Senior (65+), $10 Student with valid I.D.

$10 Youth (6-12 years)*

* Children five years and younger are free.

Advance registration is encouraged for special programs, such as the “High Society, Grand Mansions and the Gilded Age” tour, available on Thursdays and Fridays, which includes lunch at Lawry’s Prime Rib Chicago.