Chicago fund manager Richard H. Driehaus has reportedly given away about $100 million. Part of it has gone to restore the Samuel M. Nickerson mansion at 40 East Erie Street in the Streeterville neighborhood about 5 blocks from Chicago’s landmark Water Tower. Driehaus bought it to showcase his decorative arts collection that contains a significant number of Tiffany treasures.
Driehaus first discovered the Nickerson House in 1994. It’s a miracle that it and the Ransom Cable mansion diagonally across the street, which now serves as offices for Driehaus’ financial firm, survived the march of the high-rises. In 1994 the Nickerson home was occupied by the R.H. Love Galleries. Driehaus went there with a friend, interior designer Reuben Harper, to see a marble bust he was thinking of buying. Harper wisely advised him, “Richard, don’t buy the bust. Buy the building.”
In 2003 Driehaus did just that and kicked off a 5 year restoration project. Because the American College of Surgeons occupied it from about 1919 until 1965, it was rather well-preserved and opened as the Driehaus Museum on a limited basis in 2008. It didn’t become a major, 5 Compass Chicago tourist attraction until 2011.
Nickerson made his fortune selling alcohol to the Union Army during the Civil War, and after it he became a banker. Construction of his Chicago house began in 1879, 8 years after the Great Fire. When completed in 1883 at a cost of $450,000, it was this city’s largest private residence. In 1900 Lucius Fisher bought it for $75,000 (not a misprint) and hired a Prairie School architect to extensively redesign it. When Fisher died 16 years later, prominent Chicagoans with names like McCormick and Wrigley bought it. Three years later it was deeded to the American College of Surgeons. Every time it sold, the Nickerson changed hands totally furnished, preserving much of it Gilded Age splendor. The term Gilded Age, by the way, was coined by Mark Twain in a co-written satirical novel.
Ruth & I have been through a lot of historic homes. The Nickerson, now the Driehaus Museum, is among the very best. It must be seen to be believed with rooms, halls, and staircases so opulent that they elicit appreciative gasps. The English Renaissance library sports ebonized cherrywood bookcases, visitors look up to see art glass domes and digitally reproduced ceilings, the white oak dining table is original to the house, etc.
After touring its 2 exquisite floors, I asked one of the enthusiastic hosts stationed throughout to answer questions where the servants lived. As she led me to their quarters, which aren’t necessarily on the house tour, she told me that there were 11 live-ins. Their rooms and halls were so reminiscent of Downton Abbey that I had an idea that I passed along to the staff. In Season 3 of Downton the Countess of Grantham’s mother swans in to do battle with the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith. If a series was to be built around Shirley MacLaine’s outspoken American character, Martha Levinson, the Driehaus would be the ideal place to film it.