When traveling, a fun way to get a sense of a city’s history is to visit one of its historic homes. Often grand dwellings, these throwbacks to a different era give us a snapshot into the past…frequently from the perspective of the rich and famous.
In the Gilded Age, Chicago boasted many wealthy citizens. They built magnificent mansions to stand the test of time…and many have. Although several are owned privately and not on display for the average visitor to the city, there are some the public can roam through on a tour. One of my favorites is the Driehaus Museum.
The Richard Driehaus Museum is housed in the former residence of banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson and society leader Matilda Pinkham Nickerson. They were an integral part of the social, economic, and civic life of Chicago. They lived during events such as the Great Chicago Fire, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and the founding of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1879, the home was commissioned to be built on Erie Street during the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain to describe the excesses of the era. It was completed in 1883. The ‘Marble Palace,’ as it was called, cost $450,000 to build and was one of the largest private residences in Chicago at the time. The Nickersons started amassing their art collection using their home to showcase their collection; Samuel sat on the board of the Art Institute (then called the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts) and Matilda was president of the Antiquarian Society of the Art Institute. In 1900, they sold the residence and moved to the East Coast. It changed hands a few times until 2003 when Richard Driehaus acquired it, restored it, and turned it into a museum.
The house is meticulously restored; one can wander throughout to see fine art, stained glass, and period furnishings. On the first floor, the magnificent entry positively screams wealth and culture. A dark wood staircase centers the room with marble accenting the walls. “In keeping with the tendencies of the time, the Nickersons kept the hall sparsely furnished with pieces that were beautiful but not comfortable, reflecting that the hall was intended as only a temporary resting place.” (https://driehausmuseum.org/about/about-the-driehaus-museum)
Also on the first floor is the Reception Room (the place one would wait to hear if the family would receive them), the Front Parlor (in the Renaissance Revival style), the Dining Room, the Drawing Room (a feminine space where women would go after dinner), the Maher Gallery (a place to show off their collections), and the Library. “The library is perhaps the handsomest room in this princely home. It is finished in ebony, relieved with carvings in apple-tree wood. High book-cases line the walls, which are covered in heavy silk, in gold and olive.” (Artistic Houses, 1883, p. 50, https://driehausmuseum.org/about/about-the-driehaus-museum)
On the second floor were the family’s quarters; today, you can see changing exhibitions. When taking a private tour before, I’ve asked to be shown the servants quarters and the guide was very happy to do so. I found those rooms to be interesting as well. The accommodations made for those who cared for them said as much about the Nickersons as did the rooms they created to make an image of themselves for the world to see.
On the third floor is the Ballroom. The Nickersons were avid socialites who entertained regularly it seemed. The Chicago Daily Tribune described an event, “Every room in the house was open to the guests, who came, and came, and came, and staid promenading through the lofty halls and finding retreats and easy rendezvous in the card, billiard, smoking, dancing, reception, and toilet rooms, and much to please and interest in the gallery and library…” (Chicago Daily Tribune, February 8, 1885, page 11, https://driehausmuseum.org/about/about-the-driehaus-museum).
If you’re in Chicago, I highly recommend visiting the Driehaus Museum. It’s a perfect place to soak in the history of the Gilded Age while living for a little bit like the rich and famous.
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