A House …
My association with the Nickerson Mansion began in August 1994. I had just moved my office to the restored Ransom Cable House across the street and was celebrating that milestone.
At that time, the R. H. Love Galleries occupied the Nickerson House and had a large bust of Abraham Lincoln for sale. I asked my friend Reuben “Buzz” Harper, an interior designer from New Orleans, to come take a look at the marble sculpture. He took one look at the Nickerson’s grand lobby and emphatically said, “Richard, don’t buy the bust. Buy the building!” “But Buzz,” I responded, “it’s not for sale.”
Eight years later, with my friend’s suggestion still implanted in my mind, I approached the American College of Surgeons about purchasing the Nickerson Mansion. They had owned the mansion for decades along with the adjacent Murphy Auditorium. The college kindly reviewed my request and even went as far as running it past Mayor Daley for his blessing. Thankfully, both agreed I would be a worthy custodian. The rest, as they say, is history.
Life is about taking steps, right ones, of course, that lead you forward. It was time in my life and career to branch out and become involved in a world-class preservation and conservation project. The Nickerson presented a new challenge, the magnitude of which I hadn’t experienced.
And, an endeavor it has been.
A Collection …
Louis Comfort Tiffany once described his life’s work as a “quest of beauty.” A similar philosophy has governed my collecting habits for the past three decades. My deep appreciation for art and design of the late 19th and early 20th centuries began during the 1970s when I was drawn to the richness and novelty of design in the posters of graphic artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Théophile Steinlen, and Jules Chéret.
From that early start my collection has grown to include decorative metalwork, ceramics, glassware, furniture, stained glass, marbles and bronzes, and architectural elements. My commitment to stewardship of 19th-century culture has evolved over the years to include entire buildings and historic preservation. Today my collection contains major holdings from many of the most important art movements of the fin de siècle including Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Vienna Secession, Wiener Werkstätte, Arts & Crafts, and the American Aesthetic Movement. It features master works of design by such luminaries of the Belle Epoque as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Alphonse Mucha, Louis Majorelle, the Herter Brothers, Édouard Colonna, John La Farge, Emile Gallé, Josef Hoffmann, and others.
Over time I would often contemplate how best to exhibit my collection in a meaningful way. Then one day I remembered Buzz’s directive: “Buy the building!”
Now the Nickerson Mansion is home for my collection.
A Vision …
The restoration of the Nickerson Mansion and its transformation into the Driehaus Museum has been life-changing. This feat could not have been accomplished without the help of many uniquely gifted artisans and tradesmen, each with a passion for excellence and dedication to restoring the Nickerson Mansion to the highest possible standards. Their work, masterminded by the Director of the Nickerson Restoration, my good friend Dr. M. Kirby Talley, has exceeded my greatest expectations. It strikingly demonstrates William Blake’s insightful quote that “Execution is the chariot of genius.” I cannot find words to fully describe this building’s rich metamorphosis over the past five years. How does one respond to a painting by Turner, a sculpture by Bernini, or the works of the visionary Michelangelo?
The architect Leon Battista Alberti defined beauty as “the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change, without impairing the harmony of the whole.” This restoration of the Nickerson House is not just about the experience of viewing a grand house, but also about neighborhoods and the context of architecture in helping to create them.
It is my hope that visitors to the Driehaus Museum will think about the importance of the built environment and what it means to their lives on a daily basis. Good architecture brings pleasure; it makes people feel comfortable in their larger home — this great city of Chicago.
—Richard H. Driehaus
Photo by Alexander Vertikoff.
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum embodies the highest ideals of preservation, conservation, and restoration. Between 2003 and 2008, Richard H. Driehaus supported a meticulous restoration of the historic Samuel M. Nickerson House. Read more
The History of the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion
In 1879, Chicago banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson commissioned a new house from the architectural firm of Burling and Whitehouse of Chicago. Read more