The Driehaus Museum: Ode to the Gilded Age

By Matthew Reiss | Community Contributor

On a recent stroll through Streeterville, I came upon a tourist attraction I had never seen before—The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St. In truth, I have probably walked past it several times, but its proximity to the Magnificent Mile made me assume it was a restaurant or an upscale store, when in fact, tucked away in the heart of Chicago’s retail hub is an elegant museum that houses an impressive collection of Gilded Age art.

Chicago philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus founded the museum 2003 with a vision to influence today’s environment by preserving and promoting the architecture
and design of the past.

The museum’s palatial building was once one of the most expensive private homes
in Chicago, featuring ornate stained glass and 18 different types of marble. Elegant
furnishings and Driehaus’ prodigious collection of late 19th century art adorn each room, giving visitors a glimpse into the lives of the era’s wealthy. At the center of the home is a giant vault that was used to protect valuables. Marble statuary stands in the green-hued library, a round room topped with a green stainedglass dome and decorated with green glass chandeliers.

Driehaus Museum. Photo courtesy of Richie Diesterheft.

The home was built in 1883 for the
Nickerson family to replace a home that burned in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Owner Samuel Nickerson became wealthy by selling alcohol to the Union Army for use in explosives in the Civil War.

The Nickersons were so afraid of losing
their new residence to a similar fate that they attempted to build a fireproof house. Non-flammable materials such as marble were used, and the rooms were designed to contain any conflagration. The Nickersons sold the house in 1900 to Lucius Fisher, who redecorated the home with his collection of animal trophies, some of which can be viewed in the museum.

The second floor of the Driehaus Museum formerly housed family bedrooms. It is now the site of the museum’s special exhibitions. The museum will be featuring a new exhibition, beginning February 10.

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design will display an array of chairs creat-
ed by noted designers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. This exhibition will explore how these artistic master-works were shaped by the cultural trends prevalent during their construction. The decorative rooms of the Driehaus provide the perfect backdrop for these special works of functional art.

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