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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) the exterior of the building after cleaning. The offices of Driehaus’s financial firm are diagonally across the street from the museum in a compound that consists of two historic houses—the 1886 Ransom Cable mansion (right) and a century-old brick townhouse formerly occupied by the architecture firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.


This is quite a jump from where Driehaus began. He grew up on the Southwest Side in a classic octagon-front brick bungalow, the son of a mechanical engineer. His father, Herman, developed Alzheimer’s disease in his fifties, forcing his mother, Margaret, to return to work as a secretary at the Automatic Transportation Company. The family, while not poor, never had much disposable income.

By most accounts, Driehaus was a shy child. “He was not the extrovert he is today,” says Dorothy Driehaus Mellin, the elder of Driehaus’s two sisters. “I was the one who would be out dating, and he would wait up to make sure everything went well.”

“He always had a strong aesthetic sense,” she adds. “I used to help him on his paper route, and he would talk about the different houses—what he liked about this window or that style of brickwork.”

The Roman Catholic Church played a large role in the family’s life, and Driehaus attributes much of his later philanthropic bent to the lessons he absorbed from the nuns at the St. Margaret of Scotland grammar school. “In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he says, “they taught me three things—you have to continue to learn your whole life, you have to be responsible for your own actions, and you have to give something back to society.”

Driehaus has more than repaid the debt. Among his major grants to Catholic charities and causes are $1 million apiece to Old St. Pat’s, St. Margaret’s, St. Ignatius College Prep, and the Sisters of Notre Dame School in Berwyn.

An odd thing happened when he was 13, however—odd, at least, by the standards of a teenager—when he suddenly became obsessed with the stock market. He made his first investments using money he had earned as a paperboy delivering the Southtown Economist.

After graduating from DePaul University with an MBA, he became a research analyst and stock picker for firms such as Rothschild & Company, A. G. Becker, and Jesup & Lamont before going out on his own.

Did he ever consider becoming an architect? “No. It’s too complex and difficult,” he says. “It’s not my skill set.”

Architecture, however, remains his abiding passion. At his birthday party last summer, Driehaus concluded his remarks by quoting two 19th-century eminences who, collectively, sum up his approach to the art and business of historic preservation. The first is the British architectural critic John Ruskin, who tended to take the long view. “Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone,” he wrote. “Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us. . . .”

The second is P. T. Barnum, a considerably less exalted figure but one whose wisdom may prove handy in the coming months. “Without promotion,” said Barnum, “something terrible happens . . . nothing!”

 

Photography: William Zbaren

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