May 15, 2013

Party Like It's 1888

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We are so inspired by the image of Robert Redford as the lovelorn Jay Gatsby, standing on a Newport mansion’s balcony—an image that combines a character of the Lost Generation with the architecture of the Gilded Age—that we decided to show the 1974 film in our own Gilded Age mansion as the first of our new Mix and Mingle at the Movies program series. (More information on that here.) It also got us thinking about the long history of parties this mansion has hosted over the years.

Gatsby
Still from the 1974 film The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby is literature’s greatest party host, throwing wild soirees lasting deep into the night with all the entertainment, schmoozing, and wine and spirits you could handle. It’s safe to bet that the Nickerson family would have thrown their parties at a more subdued pitch—the Gilded Age came before Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties, after all—but they did entertain on an equally lavish scale.

Take the winter of 1888. A favorite in our archives is a December 12 Tribune article called “Fashion Dons a Mask,” which describes the “fancy dress ball” given the evening prior by Mrs. Roland C. Nickerson (Addie, wife of the Nickersons’ son, Roland; the two couples, plus Addie and Roland’s own children, lived here together). The event was effusively called “one of the most brilliant entertainments of the season” and “one of the most perfect and delightful affairs of the kind ever given in this city.”

The Main Hall of the Nickerson Mansion / Driehaus Museum, c. 1890
The Main Hall, ca. 1890.

The ballroom wasn’t used; the hosts instead threw open all of the reception rooms on the first floor and converted the Nickersons’ private bedrooms into “dressing-rooms” on the second. All of the furniture was removed to make room for an incredible 250 guests. Adorning the marbled Main Hall were flags of all nations and lanterns, while “all the lights in the house were shaded by colored globes: red, white, and blue in the sitting room, rose-pink in the delicate blue parlor, and various other tints in the different apartments.” New electric lights, quite the luxury in 1888, made their debut in the Art Gallery, and a uniformed 12-piece orchestra played all night.

Western Procession Nickerson Mansion Driehaus Museum
The Western Procession, ca. 1890.

At 11:30 p.m., the whole group commenced a merry procession to the Art Gallery, parading to the orchestra’s marching tune. Stepping forward one by one, the guests removed their masks before Roland and Addie. The host and hostess, for their part, were dressed as Harlequin and Harlequine, in costumes selected in Paris.

Dining Room, Nickerson Mansion, Driehaus Museum
The Dining Room, ca. 1883.

The merry unmasking was followed by a midnight dinner in the dining room, where the table was decked in satin harlequin stripes. (Unfortunately, the reporter doesn’t tell us how many of the 250 guests managed to squeeze in!)

That’s just one of many parties, afternoon receptions, and other society events that took place within the walls of the Driehaus Museum. Even Mr. and Mrs. Lucius G. Fisher, the second occupants of this historic home, did their part by hosting several news-worthy parties, including a party for one of their daughters for which a precipitous platform was constructed for the musicians to sit atop the stair’s bannisters to make room for more guests. 

Main Hall Driehaus Museum
The Main Hall of the Driehaus Museum. Photo by Steve Hall of Hedrich Blessing, 2008.

And of course as the Driehaus Museum, we continue to entertain our friends in Chicago and all over the world with a steady flow of jazz concerts, cabarets, dramatic performances, lectures by notable scholars, holiday events, family-friendly activities, and more. We like to think the Nickersons would be proud.

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