The Gilded Age

The Driehaus Museum is housed at 40 East Erie Street in what is known at the Nickerson Mansion.  The original structure that stood on this site was one of 18,000 that were destroyed by by the Great Chicago Fire (October 8 through October 10, 1871).  The owners of the original structure, Samuel Mayo Nickerson and Matilda Pinkham Nickerson, were prominent Chicago insiders at the time of the fire.  Samuel founded the First National Bank of Chicago, which became First Chicago before being acquired by Bank One in 1995, and then Chase following the merger of Bank One and JP Morgan Chase in 2004.

In 1879, the Nickersons retained Burling and Whitehouse to design a new residence on the site of the old one.  The Nickersons and their architects took every precaution against fire, which is why the home is built of marble, stone, and glass.  The new house was ready for occupancy in 1883.  Its design is emblematic of the Gilded Age, a term coined Mark Twain as the title for his 1873 novel.  

What did the term "fire-proof" mean in 1883?  In the case of the Nickerson Mansion, it meant iron floor beams, brick arches, and marble covered walls. No plaster, and only decorative wood.  The mansion's total cost came to $450,000 (about $100 million in today's dollars), which is less than many one-bedroom condos cost in the tonier parts of Chicago.  

Ten years after the "Marble Mansion" was completed, the Nickersons hosted a gala for 800 guests during the World's Fair (aka the "Columbian Exposition").  Some 27 million visitors attended, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. 

As important as the mansion is to Chicago's history, by 1919, the building was in some danger of being torn down.  Thanks to William Wrigley Jr., Cyrus McCormick, Julius Rosenwald, and over 100 other prominent Chicagoans, the mansion was preserved through purchase and then donation to the American College of Surgeons.  From 1920 to 1965, the mansion served as the College's headquarters until the it outgrew the space.   It was then occupied by an advertising agency (1965 to 1991) and R. H. Love Galleries (1991 to 2003).

In 2003, Chicago money manager Richard H. Driehaus purchased the structure.  After undergoing a five-year renovation, the mansion now houses the Driehaus Museum.  

Driehaus had visited the building to examine a bust of Abraham Lincoln for purchase, but then had an epiphany that lead him to buy the building.  The museum now houses one of the largest collections of Tiffany objects in the world, which include windows, lamps, and chandeliers, as well as period furniture and other pieces.  The second floor galleries host special exhibitions, which have included an exhibition featuring costumes from Downton Abbey.   

The Museum is a must-see stop on any visit to Chicago.  Thank you to the Driehaus Museum for the excellent historical summary of the house's history on the Museum's website.

Photographer's Notes.  I've been back to this site multiple times.  Often, there was a car or truck parked in front of the building.  Today I was lucky.  The Lesson:  Keep going back until the conditions are right.

This photograph was made using an Arca Swiss tech camera, with a 23mm Rodenstock Copal lens mounted.  I also attached a dark glass filter to sharpen the image in-camera.  It is comprised of two photographs stitched together.


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