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A 19th-century Roman rendering of Cupid and Psyche stands beneath an art-glass dome in the sculpture gallery.
This fall, however, the spotlight is on the museum, which will open in late October, initially by appointment only. “It’s my gift to the city,” Driehaus says. “The museum is about protecting the past. The idea is to display the period, the materials and objects, and to organize that as a whole experience. It’s not about any one object. It’s about the environment, the space.”
Samuel Nickerson, the founder of the First National Bank of Chicago, was one of the city’s leading plutocrats in the era between the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1883, he commissioned the architectural firm of Burling & Whitehouse to design a house commensurate with his position and also to display his extensive art collection.
The site was several blocks west of what is now Michigan Avenue in a section of the city then known as McCormickville, so named because a number of the members of the McCormick family also lived in the area. (The last remaining McCormick residence is the Robert H. McCormick house, located steps away from the Nickerson at the corner of Erie and Rush streets.)
The cost for the three-story, 24,000-square-foot mansion was $450,000, a fantastic amount and equivalent on a square-foot basis to what East Coast swells like the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers were spending on their houses in the same period. The cost today would be more than $100 million.
“It’s one of the grandest 19th-century houses in the country,” says Kirby Talley, the Amsterdam-based curator and author whom Driehaus hired in the fall of 2003 to oversee the restoration. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The Nickersons moved out in 1900 after selling the house and most of the original furnishings to Lucius Fisher, a paper-bag manufacturer and the developer of the Fisher Building in the Loop. (The price, reflecting both the decline of the neighborhood and the persistent economic recession that gripped Chicago in the aftermath of the Columbian Exposition, was $75,000.) When Fisher’s heirs decided to sell in 1919, they sparked what Tim Samuelson says was the city’s first successful preservation effort. “Even in its day,” he says, “the Nickerson house was regarded as something special.”
Fearing that it might be demolished, a group of friends and neighbors that included such prominent Chicago figures as William Wrigley, Cyrus McCormick, and Julius Rosenwald raised enough money to buy the house and donate it to the American College of Surgeons, a medical association, for use as its headquarters. In 1926, the college also constructed the John B. Murphy Auditorium next door.
In 1965, the college relocated but continued to own the property. For years, it was leased to a variety of tenants. Today, it is probably best remembered as the home of R. H. Love Galleries, an art gallery that occupied the house for 12 years before Driehaus bought it in 2003. (He declined to disclose what he paid for the house, and county records do not list a price.)
“I went over there one day with my friend Buzz Harper, an antiques dealer, to look at a bust of Abraham Lincoln I was thinking about buying,” Driehaus recalls. “Buzz took one look and said, ‘Forget the bust. Buy the house.’ It was like a light going off in my head. I suddenly started to see a lot of possibilities.”
By then, the house had an air of genteel decline. Outside, the buff-colored sandstone façade had turned a sooty black. The interior, meanwhile, was banged and chipped after decades of use as a commercial facility. The heating and cooling systems—not to mention the bathrooms—were antiquated. All of this has now been reversed, starting with the exterior, where lasers were used to remove a century’s worth of grime.
“It’s a method that is fairly common in Europe for cleaning sculpture, but I’m not aware that it has ever been used to clean an entire building,” says the architect Joseph Antunovich, who oversaw the restoration. “The whole project has been a labor of love on Richard’s part.”
“Brainstorming with Richard is like throwing gasoline on a fire,” Antunovich adds. “The ideas keep getting bigger and better. At times, you have to hold him back.”
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Photography: William Zbaren