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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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(Left) Woman with Rose Garlands, a late-19th-century sculpture in the dining room of the Nickerson mansion; (center) an early-20th-century Tiffany turtleback chandelier in Driehaus’s headquarters; (right) an early-20th-century silver punch bowl by Tiffany in the dining room.

The results have fueled both Driehaus’s lifestyle and his philanthropy. In addition to the 36-acre Lake Geneva estate (and the Nickerson, Cable, and century-old houses), he owns a beautifully renovated Gold Coast mansion that serves as his primary residence and houses in Nantucket and St. Thomas. He travels by private jet and dresses in Paul Smith suits and Dolce & Gabbana jeans.

Driehaus was married briefly in his early 50s, long enough to father two daughters. By all accounts, he is a doting parent. His Lake Geneva estate, for example, features a deluxe playground in the form of a carefully detailed child-size village, complete with houses, stores, and a working soda fountain.

The philanthropy starts with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, which has an endowment of more than $70 million and dispenses about $2.5 million a year in grants, most of which go to Chicago causes and institutions. About 60 percent of the grants are related to architecture and landscape design. Through an alliance with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Driehaus’s foundation also awards another $1 million a year in grants to community arts groups.  

The foundation is very much a family affair. The board, which meets three times a year to discuss and approve initiatives, consists of Driehaus and his two younger sisters, Dorothy and Elizabeth.

“Our priority has been to see how architecture and design can benefit people who don’t normally have the benefit of those disciplines,” says Sunny Fischer, the foundation’s executive director since the early 1990s. “It’s the social aspects of architecture and design that interest us.” A case in point is another new museum the foundation is working on, the Public Housing Museum, which will be located on Taylor Street in the last remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, a 1930s public-housing project. The museum is modeled on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, which uses public housing as a prism to examine a range of social and cultural issues, everything from immigration and racial segregation to attitudes about modern architecture.

“We’ve taken the lead in trying to organize it, and the board approved a $50,000 grant,” says Fischer. The current plan is to break ground next year and be finished in 2010.

Driehaus’s other major cultural initiative is the annual Richard H. Driehaus Prize, which he established in 2003. The $100,000 award, which is administered by the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, is the classical equivalent of the Pritzker Prize. While the Pritzker tends to honor avant-gardists such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, the Driehaus goes to architects such as the Washington, D.C.-based Allan Greenberg and the London-based Léon Krier. The former has worked with everyone from Martha Stewart and Harrison Ford to the State Department, and the latter designed Poundbury, Prince Charles’s model city in Dorset, England. (Blair Kamin makes the interesting—and depressing—point that while the architecture world’s two top prizes are funded by local families, no Chicago architect has ever won either award.)

“There’s a philosophical difference between us and the Pritzker Prize,” says Michael Lykoudis, the dean of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. “We are very focused on issues like sustainability and the environment. We see the city and its buildings as being inseparable. I’m not sure that’s the tack the Pritzker Committee takes.”

The Pritzkers, however, are very much on Driehaus’s radar screen. Both financiers J. B. and James Pritzker attended Driehaus’s birthday party last summer, highlighting what many people say has been a rapid sprint to the top of Chicago’s social world.

“I hear it all the time from people involved in planning parties or charitable events,” says the author and socialite Sugar Rautbord. “Is this something that would interest Richard? Do you think we can get Richard involved? He’s one of a handful of people in town where if they decide to support something, it automatically becomes a major event.”

Rautbord, who has observed more than a few moguls in action, says that Driehaus typifies the breed in that he creates his own universe. “He’s totally focused on those things he’s interested in,” she says. “He’s not a time waster. Every conversation is about something he’s passionate about, whether it’s business, restoring historic architecture, 19th-century art, or any of the charities he supports.”

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Photography: William Zbaren


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