A Classic Act

With a passion for tradition, the investment guru Richard Driehaus has become one of the city’s most dedicated advocates for historic preservation. This fall, he takes his commitment further by opening a museum of decorative arts in a phenomenally lavish 19th-century mansion on the Near North Side.

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“It’s my gift to the city,” says Driehaus, pictured in the second-floor hallway of the 1883 Nickerson mansion.


Richard Driehaus loves a party almost as much as he loves historic architecture.

At his recent birthday extravaganza, held at his baronial estate in Lake Geneva last July, the 65-year-old philanthropist rode in high atop an elephant, beaming and waving. The theme of the party was historic circuses, and he was dressed in a custom-tailored ringmaster’s costume.

“As I consider what lies ahead,” he told the thousand or so guests, “my larger interest is that the Driehaus legacy will be focused on historic preservation efforts, encouraging design competitions of architecture and landscape and supporting fashion and interior design.”

But Driehaus, the founder of Driehaus Capital Management, one of the city’s largest investment firms, is no ordinary preservationist. He is a man who can afford to indulge his passions—for art, for parties, but mainly for restoring historic architecture—on a boundless scale, as anyone who has visited his many residences and offices around the world can attest.

In the past two decades, Driehaus has emerged as one of Chicago’s most prominent advocates for historic preservation. He has also taken a leading role in encouraging the city and public institutions and groups to adopt a more design-centered approach to civic projects.

Now he is taking his commitment a step further with the Richard H. Driehaus Museum of Decorative Arts, a new institution housed in what has been called the most expensive residence ever built in Chicago. In many ways, the project is the culmination of Driehaus’s long-term love affair with the city and the 19th century.

“Richard’s an amazing person,” says David Bahlman, the president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. “The causes he supports and the projects he has funded over the years have had a great impact on the appreciation of art and architecture in Chicago.”

By focusing on high-profile projects that have an immediate impact, Driehaus has reinvigorated a preservation scene that many say was sunk in academic torpor. “You can go to him and get a fast turnaround,” says Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian and a veteran of more than a few major preservation battles. “If you have a preservation crisis and are up against a team of high-powered developers, he provides you with the means to compete on an even level.”

An example is the recent brouhaha over Promontory Point, the Alfred Caldwell-designed lakefront landscape in Hyde Park. Driehaus’s funds allowed a citizens’ group to successfully challenge the city’s plans to pave over the original naturalistic breakfront.

In backing such efforts, he has at times courted controversy with his open dislike of modernism and his championing of the lively neoclassicism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, Driehaus refused to fight the recent preservation battle to save and restore the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in suburban Plano, by most accounts one of the Chicago area’s most important modernist structures. “The problem is there’s no poetry in modern architecture,” says Driehaus. “There’s money—but no feeling or spirit or soul. Classicism has a mysterious power. It’s part of our past and how we evolved as human beings and as a civilization. It’s more organic, more individual, and more interesting.”

In a city renowned as a modernist bastion, those would seem to be fighting words. Surprisingly, however, the critics—for the most part—have given him a pass. “I think what he’s doing is just short of God’s work,” says Lee Bey, the former architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and currently the executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee, a civic group committed to improving the city.  “You take a stand where a stand needs to be taken. Somebody has to stand up for the classical buildings.”

“I have enormous respect and admiration for the way Richard has put his money where his mouth is in terms of trying to uplift design,” says Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic. “I do think there is a modernist bias in a lot of architectural dialogue today, and the world does not live entirely in works that are avant-garde. Most Americans live in traditional buildings, and the more we understand traditional buildings and their language and nuances, the better off we are.”

Even Donna Robertson, the dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s architecture school, the unofficial Vatican of American modernism, endorses Driehaus. “For God’s sake,” she says, “there are enough people around here who are interested in modernism. It’s his money. Let him do with it what he wants.”

Despite his love of classicism, Driehaus has funded modern projects if they have raised the general level of design while fulfilling their basic missions. In the late 1990s, he sponsored an international competition for IIT that resulted in the new Rem Koolhaas–designed student center. (He demurs when asked what he thinks of the building.) In the same period, he funded a second international competition that led to the selection of the modernist landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson to design the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.

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Photography: William Zbaren

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