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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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The grand staircase in the main hall on the first floor of the mansion; the clock at the top of the stairs belonged to Lucius Fisher, the second owner of the house.

In the beginning, Driehaus says, the idea was simply to save and restore a remarkable historic house. Eventually, however, he realized that the residence would make an admirable repository for his collection—or, at least, part of his collection—of 19th-century art and decorative objects. Driehaus has one of the largest collections of Tiffany objects in the country, if not the world—dozens of rare windows, lamps, chandeliers, and tabletop pieces. These are displayed throughout the museum along with paintings, sculptures, and Herter Brothers furniture. (Herter Brothers was a celebrated New York interior design firm of the period whose furniture and decorative objects remain highly collectible.)

The museum is a stunner, starting with an imposing two-story entry hall and grand staircase that has the kind of lavish detailing one associates more with Renaissance palaces in Florence or Venice than with a Midwest boomtown like Chicago. The hall is flanked on both sides by a series of magnificent rooms that have been flawlessly restored to their original elegance. The dining room, for example, has elaborately embossed walls and an exuberant chandelier that incorporates wild boar heads, hunting horns, and brass arrows. The music room, meanwhile, has a rare 19th-century Chickering piano and walls covered in oyster, gold, and silver silk damask. Another highlight is the sculpture gallery, a two-story windowless space topped by a brilliantly colored art-glass dome. Positioned beneath the dome in a shaft of light is a dramatic 19th-century Roman sculpture of Cupid encountering Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul. Upstairs are bedrooms and a third-floor ballroom that will be used for special exhibitions.

The opulence at times overwhelms. The entry hall alone features 17 kinds of marble. Throughout, there is a profusion of exquisite details and materials such as multicolored marble columns and balustrades, carved and inlaid wooden mantels (every room has a fireplace) and doorways, art-glass windows, decorative mosaics, and ornamental brass grilles and railings.

The overall effect is of being transported back in time to a period when no one doubted that more—rather than less—was more. This was when the rich really knew how to live. And, to a great degree, Driehaus lives that way today.

The offices of his financial firm as well as his myriad other activities sit diagonally across the street from the Nickerson in a compound that consists of two historic houses—the 1886 Ransom Cable mansion and a century-old brick townhouse that was formerly occupied by the architecture firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Additional office space is located in a modern high-rise nearby.

The compound and its elaborate garden are all viewable from the sidewalk and are a regular stop on walking tours of the North Side. On a given day, it is rare not to find a tourist or two posing for photos in front of the complex’s imposing iron gate, a sign that Driehaus takes as evidence that the public—if not always the critics—understands and embraces his vision. “There are modern buildings on all sides of us,” he says, “and you never see anyone getting their picture taken in front of those.”

The Cable, which Driehaus bought in 1987, became his first historic restoration project. The first floor consists largely of reception and meeting rooms, while the second is occupied primarily by Driehaus’s vast office and what must be one of the most unusual trading floors in Chicago. In a room dripping with Tiffany chandeliers and glistening with marble statuary, young traders stare intently at their screens,
monitoring the minute fluctuations in the world’s financial markets. “I think great art and architecture are ennobling,” Driehaus says. “I think they help people do their jobs a little better.”

They must. Driehaus’s firm—the earliest incarnation of which he founded in 1979—has been on a roll in recent years, racking up double-digit annual gains for its two principal mutual funds. The firm manages assets of about $4 billion.

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Photography: William Zbaren

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