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“Don’t buy the bust, buy the building”: The story of the Richard Driehaus Museum

Richard Driehaus

The following article is an excerpt from  an interview by Diana Mehl. This article originally appeared in the luxury online publication Panache Privee.

Chicago businessman, investor extraordinaire and philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus founded the The Richard H. Driehaus Museum in 2003, and opened it to the public on June 1, 2008. Housed in the Gilded Age mansion built by Samuel M. Nickerson, the Museum exhibits period objects from the Driehaus Collection of Fine and Decorative Arts displayed alongside original furnishings from the mansion. Nickerson’s “Marble Palace,” built between 1879 and 1883, was one of the grandest residential buildings erected in nineteenth-century Chicago. Between 2003 and 2008, the building underwent an extensive and meticulous restoration to return it to its former glory.

Mr. Driehaus’ historic preservation efforts have also included the restoration of the Ransom Cable House in Chicago (the current headquarters of Driehaus Capital Management LLC, an investment management firm that he founded in 1982 and currently manages $4.5 billion in assets) and the award winning restoration of a 1905 Georgian Revival style country house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. In addition, The Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass adjacent to the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago, features important stained glass pieces from the Driehaus collection.

Main Hall, Richard H. Driehaus Museum

Can you share the story behind the acquisition of the Nickerson Mansion?

I had just moved my office to the restored Ransom Cable House and was celebrating its grand opening in August of ‘94. At that time R.H. Love Galleries occupied the Nickerson and had a large bust of Abraham Lincoln for sale. I asked my long time friend Reuben “Buzz” Harper, an interior designer from New Orleans to come and take a look at the marble sculpture. As soon as he saw the lobby, he said to me, “don’t buy the bust, buy the building.” Eight years later, I approached the American College of Surgeons, who had owned the mansion for decades, with the idea of buying the building and establishing it as a museum. The college kindly reviewed my request, and even went as far as running it by Mayor Daley for his blessing. Thankfully, both agreed I would be a worthy custodian. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Nickerson Mansion is considered the grandest house ever built in Chicago. What are the unique features of this building?

When this building was built, it was one of the most expensive residences in Chicago. The estimated cost was $450,000, and that today might be about a hundred million dollars. The interiors of the Nickerson Mansion survive today as some of the finest examples of period rooms from America’s Gilded Age. The interiors suggest a masterful combination of Renaissance Revival and Aesthetic Movement design and stand testament to the skill of the designers and craftsmen who created them.

The Dining Room is one of the greatest examples of a carved room from this period surviving in the United States today. Another room of particular note is the Drawing Room designed by George A. Schastey. The room features some of the most elaborate marquetry work and wood carving found in the house. Mr. Nickerson’s Art Gallery, which was redesigned during Mr. Fisher’s occupancy of the house, also deserves mention. Mr. Fisher’s additions to the room include a magnificent stained glass dome that rises twenty five feet above the gallery floor, and a monumental fireplace fronted with a striking Art Nouveau style mural in iridescent glass tile.

This was the house that made the city proud and it still does today, but it’s hard to describe unless you have seen it. I once heard an expression about a room, that once you see it, you will never forget it, but you won’t be able to describe it either. And that’s the experience that you would feel at the Nickerson.

Dining Room, Richard H. Driehaus Museum

Can you discuss the efforts that were made to integrate the artwork with the Museum’s interiors? Please highlight a particular example of this.

Ironically this is not a museum where any one object stands out. It’s more about an experience, rather than a priceless object. This is about the whole. The restoration of the Nickerson House was not meant to result in an “archaeological” recreation of the house as it appeared in Samuel Nickerson’s day, but rather to create an authentic presentation of Gilded Age interior decoration. Surviving original furnishings have been returned to their former settings, and objects from my period art collection have been used to compliment these furnishings in the spirit of the décor. We avoided a cluttered look, since it would detract from the magnificent interior architecture itself. A prime example is the restoration of Mr. Nickerson’s Art Gallery on the first floor of the house. Mr. Fisher remodeled the room in 1900 as his trophy gallery in which he displayed his collection of game animals. It was decided to return the room to its original use as a gallery, now devoted to sculpture.

What are you hoping to achieve with the opening of your Museum?

I hope that visitors to the Nickerson Mansion will think about the importance of the built environment and what it means to their lives on a daily basis. I hope that the museum will influence the way people value, experience and learn from historic architecture and design.

Nautilus Shell Centerpiece Lamp, Tiffany Studios, c. 1910. Richard H. Driehaus Museum

You have one of the largest collections of Tiffany objects in the world. Can you describe a favorite piece?

The centerpiece of my collection is undoubtedly the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany’s dominance of the decorative arts scene in the United States during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries was unparalleled. His oeuvre was vast and varied, including stained glass windows and lamps, jewelry, ceramics, furniture and other objects of virtù.

One of my collection’s favorite pieces is a rare nautilus shell centerpiece lamp. The lamp base is inlaid with mother of pearl and features eight real nautilus shells. The shade itself is composed of panels of pearlescent shell instead of stained glass, and is completed with a fringe of chain mail tiles in amber iridescent glass. While there are a small number of other Tiffany lamps that share similarities with this one, there is no other quite like it.

What is driving you to be so philanthropic? I find it pretty amazing that you are giving back so much to the community and also to the world of art.

Well, this is the way I was raised. I went to a Roman Catholic grammar school, St. Margaret of Scotland. The nuns at the school taught me the basics, reading, writing, and arithmetic, but they also taught me the following three important lessons – you have to continue to learn your whole life, you have to be responsible for your own actions, and you have to give something back to society.

What about your architecture prize, The Richard H. Driehaus Prize and its impact?

I am interested not just in the world of finance, but the world that lives outside – architecture, performing arts, collecting and design. The goal of the prize is to foster community and build beautiful environments that stand the test of time, while simultaneously honoring the classical tradition. The Driehaus prize embodies these ideals.

Read the full article, which originally appeared in the luxury online publication Panache Privee.
All Images originally appeared in Panache Privee, courtesy of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum; Photos by Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing