Glimpses of a Vanished World

Richard H. Driehaus restored Chicago’s faded “Marble Palace” and turned it into a stunning new downtown museum

Chicago
Lighting experts restored cornice fixtures in the main hall after consulting a photograph from 1900.

Credit: Matthew Gilson

This is the story of a love affair—between a Chicago financier with a passion for the past, and the Victorian mansion outside his office window.

An unlikely couple? Certainly. But this romance has a happy ending, because the care and attention Richard H. Driehaus lavished upon the storied Nickerson Mansion resulted in a remarkable new museum that has just opened. "It was a labor of love," Driehaus says, "an exhilarating experience that speaks to the importance of preservation, and the significance of beauty in our lives."

Driehaus first saw the inside of the sprawling 1883 sandstone house at the corner of Erie and Wabash when he visited an art gallery there, hunting for a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The consultant who accompanied him said, "You don't want to buy the statue É you should buy the house." And Driehaus, who already owned several historic properties in Illinois, agreed.

"It was the experience of walking in through the front door and seeing this space," he says. "Even that day, when the marble and stone hadn't been touched for years, it was unforgettable."

The main hall remains unforgettable today—15 years and thousands of hours of labor after that initial visit. At least 17 different types of marble cover nearly every surface, appearing as polished columns, tiles, paneling, and intricate carvings. The steps of an imposing marble staircase narrow as they ascend, drawing visitors upstairs to a gallery crowned by still more marble and brilliant, period light fixtures. The effect is both striking and overwhelming.

"It makes quite an impression," says M. Kirby Talley Jr., director and interior designer for the restoration. He has seen scores of visitors stop in their tracks and reach for something to hold when entering the space. "I've worked here for almost five years, and it still has the same impact on me. There's a reason local writers called this Mr. Nickerson's 'Marble Palace.' "

Built by the wildly successful Samuel Mayo Nickerson, who made his first fortune distilling alcohol during the Civil War, the house cost $450,000 (the equivalent of more than $9 million today) to construct, and encloses 24,416 square feet of space. Nickerson entertained on a grand scale, using seven elegant public rooms on the first floor, and a billiard room in the basement, as well as a ballroom at the top of the house. He sold his mansion after moving east in 1900, and the property changed hands once more in 1919, when the American College of Surgeons took possession. For the next 80 years, it was used as office space, a party venue, and a fine-art gallery.

Enter Driehaus, an enthusiastic collector with a special interest in works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. (Driehaus' advocacy of classical architecture and preservation earned him a National Trust for Historic Preservation Restore America Hero award this year.) "I wanted to create a statement about beauty within these walls," he explains. "The house had a sense of peace and calm, and I thought we could use it to teach visitors about Chicago's fine craftsmen, and about the building and art of the 19th century."

Searching for a partner to guide and advise him, Driehaus turned to Talley, who directed fine art and conservation programs throughout Europe for the Dutch Ministry of Culture. Intrigued by the scope of the project, and by Driehaus' commitment to a superior restoration, Talley signed on. Over the next five years, he directed a scientific investigation and comprehensive restoration of the entire mansion, returning all four floors to the splendor of the late 1800s—and discovering a cadre of gifted local experts in the process.

"At one of my first meetings in Chicago, I remember saying that we'd have to bring in restoration experts from Paris or perhaps New York for this job," Talley remembers. "But I noticed Rick Juneau, vice president of Bulley & Andrews, our general contractor, gripping the table. With great patience he replied, 'I think we can find the craftsmen you'll need for most of this project in and around Chicago,' and he was absolutely right."

Read about the experts who contributed to the restoration

An architectural woodworking firm in Mount Prospect cleaned and conserved the wood interiors. Architectural lighting experts based in Chicago repaired overhead fixtures and gasoliers, and replaced the strings of Edison bulbs that illuminate the entry hall. Skilled masons from Buffalo Grove restored and polished marble throughout the house. And a glass conservation studio in Evanston removed and repaired the elaborate dome atop the art gallery, as well as stained glass throughout the house. "The companies' commitment to this project was simply astounding," Talley says. "Several of the craftsmen told me they realized they would never again have the chance to work on a project of this scale, where attention to detail and getting the job done right were more important than any budget concern."

The exterior of the landmark structure presented conservation challenges as well. A century of soot and pollution had transformed the carved sandstone walls into vast expanses of blackened masonry. Sensitive to the destruction that aggressive cleaning can wreak, Driehaus, Talley, and their collaborators searched for alternatives. They considered poultice cleaning, sand blasting, and chemical solvents, but finally opted for a laser-cleaning process. Each day, workers equipped with special goggles tackled a tiny portion of the exterior, removing accumulated dirt without compromising the hand-wrought details that lend the facade so much character.

With multimillion-dollar restoration efforts complete, Talley implemented Driehaus' vision for the museum. Downstairs he restored and re-covered original pieces of furniture (which had miraculously stayed in the house), and returned as many chairs and sofas to their original settings as possible. Period objects from Driehaus' collection—including museum-quality works of art—completed the rooms.

Upstairs, he created galleries to display additional objects from the collection. One room is devoted to Tiffany lamps. Another displays historical photographs of the mansion. "Everywhere, I stayed as close as possible to the fabrics and colors that would have been used when the house was built," Talley explains. "That was only possible because we found remnants of textiles in rooms here."

Today, with the antique furnishings back in place and chandeliers glowing in nearly every room, the Richard H. Driehaus Museum stands ready for visitors. "This really is the product of a partnership," the owner says, "between me and Kirby, and the workers who took such pride in this project. It's pretty extraordinary, and it's always rewarding to see people's reactions when they see the museum for the first time."

To schedule a tour of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, at 40 East Erie Street, Chicago, IL, call 312.932.8665 or email info@driehausmuseum.org. For more information, go to driehausmuseum.org.

A list of restoration experts who aided the project 

For more information about the Marble Palace, see nickersonmansionrestored.com.

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