The Gallery (present)
The Gallery marks the culmination of the vista of rooms on the west side of the first floor. The room originally served as Nickerson’s Art Gallery. The domestic art museum, a concept that developed during the waning decades of the late 19th century in America, satisfied many ideological functions for the Gilded Age nouveaux riches. Amassing a private art collection helped foster an appearance of learning and sophisticated taste, while simultaneously serving as a demonstration of one’s status and financial success. The room was dramatically altered by Lucius Fisher in 1900–1901, in order to display his collection of game animals, weaponry and rare books. It was during Fisher’s renovation of the room that the fireplace, tall bookcases and stained glass dome were installed.
Trophy Room and Rare Book Library, Fisher period, c. 1901
In 1900–1901, Lucius Fisher engaged architect George Washington Maher (1864–1926) to redesign Nickerson’s Art Gallery. In Maher’s renovation, the low ebonized cabinets of the Nickerson period were replaced with tall lacquered cherry book cases in which Fisher housed his rare book collection. A monumental mantelpiece, also of lacquered cherry, was installed along the north wall. Architect Robert Seyfarth (1878–1950), who early in his career served as a draftsman in Maher’s office, is attributed with the design of the cabinetry and mantelpiece.
The Library (present)
The décor of the Nickerson Library is predominantly derived from the English Renaissance style, a conservative style considered suitable for a scholarly room. Ebonized cherry wood was used for the paneling of the room, including the built-in bookcases that line the south and east walls. Throughout the frieze a series of carved panels in maple provide points of contrast within the expanse of ebonized paneling. The 16 smaller square panels of the frieze are each carved with a wreath enclosing a central floral element, while the four larger rectangular panels in the corners of the room feature elaborate floral swags comprised of fruit and foliage. Subtle differences render each panel unique. The walls of the Library have been upholstered with a sumptuous black and gold fabric from Jacquard by Georgette.
The Library (Nickerson period, c. 1890)
Contemporary authors suggested that a large desk or table serve as the central focus of a library, “the table[s] should be large, substantial, and clear of everything but lamps, books and papers.”* The frieze of Nickerson's leather-topped table is decorated with panels of stop-fluted maple. The corner blocks each feature two full relief carved lion masks with rectangular pendant ‘handles’ while the table legs themselves terminate in carved bestial feet.
Beyond the library, the Nickerson Art Gallery is visible, where four substantial vitrine cases were filled with oriental objets d’art. The eclectic combination of contemporary European and American paintings and oriental agates, jades, crystals and porcelains lent the room an extremely cluttered appearance. The Gallery also displayed paintings by many fashionable European and American artists, including: Schreyer, Daubigny, Doré, F. C. Church, Bierstadt, Mignot, Hubner, Verschnur, Corot, Bouguereau, and Diaz. It was said that "the art gallery of Mr. Samuel M. Nickerson, President of the First National Bank, is one of the handsomest, best appointed, and best lighted in the West".
The Drawing Room (present)
The Drawing Room provides some insight into the collaborative process between the decorators of the Nickerson Mansion. Contemporary documentation identifies the overall design of the room as the work of George A. Schastey of New York, while the parquet floor was designed by William August Fiedler. The set of four Empire-style armchairs in the Drawing Room is attributed to George Schastey, and was created specifically for the room. The chairs survive as premier examples of American furniture design from the period. The armrests take the form of crowned sphinxes, their wings fanning behind them to meet the rear stile of the chair.
The Drawing Room (Nickerson period, c.1890)
A drawing room was traditionally considered to be a feminine space; decorators thus favored lighter tones for the woodwork and wall fill. Woods including maple and satinwood, which was used for the paneling of the Nickerson Drawing Room, were advocated for their warm, golden hues. Delicate colors including white, gold, and cream were preferred for the wall fill.
In this photograph, the traditional grouping of a matching parlor suite around a center table has been abandoned in place of a less formal arrangement of furniture. The furniture has been placed throughout the room with a composed informality that was meant to foster a relaxed atmosphere conducive to conversation. The four Empire-style armchairs and settee that can be seen in this photograph survived with the house and remain in the Drawing room to this day.
The Front Parlor (present)
The division of the walls into a series of horizontal bands was advocated in contemporary literature on the decoration of houses. A tripartite division of the wall treatment was generally preferred for rooms on the scale of those in the Nickerson House. The walls of the parlor are thus comprised of wainscoting in the lowest third of the room, wall fill above, and a frieze.
Beveled mirrors mounted throughout the wainscoting and window frames establish a dynamic visual aesthetic within the room as the objects and interiors are fractured and reflected across the space. The frieze, commonly the most decorative part of the wall treatment, is exemplary of the superlative craftsmanship of the Nickerson Mansion interiors. It comprises a series of mahogany panels depicting fruit and foliage all carved in high relief. Each panel is unique; not one of them repeats.
The Front Parlor (Nickerson period, c. 1883)
To the modern eye, the profusion of surface ornament and the staggering array of decorative objects seem overwhelming. However, the décor of the Nickerson House is exemplary of many of the prevailing theories that governed late 19th-century American interior design.
Indicative of the late 19th-century fascination with exotic cultures, the shelves and mantelpiece of the room displayed a multitude of Oriental ornaments. In 1854 trade between Japan and the West recommenced after a period of more than two hundred years. European and American artists and designers were introduced to a wealth of new sources for inspiration. The period also witnessed a growing appreciation for Oriental objets d’art among the wealthy elite.
The Main Hall (present)
The restrained exterior of the mansion belies the wealth of detail found within. Visitors to the house originally entered through a vestibule that led into the main hall, around which were arranged a series of formal reception rooms. The hall rises dramatically through two stories and is clad in 17 different types of marble from both Europe and America, along with onyx and alabaster. It was the lavish use of marble throughout this space that gave rise to the mansion’s moniker of the Marble Palace.
The Main Hall (Nickerson period, ca. 1890)
Since the hall of a house was intended as only a temporary resting place upon entrance, furnishings of a comfortable nature were not encouraged. Heavy furniture of oak was the preferred choice for a hall, as can be evinced by the Renaissance Revival oak settee and high-backed side chair shown in this photograph.
An Oriental rug extends almost wall-to-wall across the marble floor, leaving a narrow band that reveals the decorative border of black and white marble. Room-sized rugs from exotic locales such as Turkey, Persia, and India were favored floor coverings during the Gilded Age.
The Dining Room (present)
The Dining Room is undoubtedly one of the grandest rooms of the Nickerson House. Quarter-sawn white oak was used for the Renaissance Revival interior of the room. The focus of the south wall is an architectural fireplace mantel that extends from floor to ceiling, mirrored on the north wall by an equally impressive built-in sideboard. At the center of the room is the original Nickerson dining table, attributed to the Herter Brothers. The oak table features an apron carved with pendant lappets, and stands on legs that rise from boldly articulated claw feet. The legs are further decorated with spiral carved ovoid globes, motifs that are also featured in the sideboard. Atop the table is a silver punch bowl by Tiffany & Co. festooned with vine leaves and grapes. The punch bowl was first exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The Dining Room (Nickerson period, c. 1883)
“At the Wednesday sale of Oriental porcelains collected by Brayton Ives Chicago.… The two most important purchases of the day were by S. M. Nickerson and Potter Palmer. Mr. Nickerson’s purchase was a temple vase of grand size … and is the most notable piece … that is known in any of the museums or private collections in this country.” — “Purchases Made By Chicagoans at the Brayton Ives Sale,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 14, 1891
Nickerson was an avid collector of Oriental art, as can be evinced by the vast array of Chinese and Japanese ornaments that decorate the rooms of the house. The Dining Room sideboard and mantel were filled with a profusion of Oriental porcelains.
The Reception Room (present)
The prolific number of rooms that a visitor might encounter in houses of the Gilded Age further signified the wealth and sophistication of the home’s owner. A reception room was used to receive visitors to the house. The Reception Room of the Nickerson House is located towards the southeast end of the Main Hall, and would have allowed easy access from the original east facing port cochère entrance from the garden.
The upper half of each wall is clad in tile by the J. & J. G. Low Art Tile Company of Chelsea, Massachusetts. The Low Company was one of the leading tile producers in the United States during this period. The tiles in the Reception Room feature a repeating pattern of passionflower vines that weave their way up to the ceiling of polished limestone panels above. Along the north wall of the Reception Room stands an immense fireplace that extends from floor to ceiling. Five carved rams' heads form brackets that support the sloping roof of the mantel. The firebox is framed with Low tiles in the buttercup pattern that match the wall fill in color. The bronze surround of the firebox with its fish scale pattern echoes the carved shingled roof in which the mantelpiece culminates.
The Reception Room (Nickerson period, c. 1883)
Despite its lavish interior, the Reception Room was informally furnished during both the Nickerson and Fisher periods. In this photograph circa 1883, a pair of Eastlake-style rocking chairs, each with an upholstered seat and back cushion, was arranged around a hexagonal table at the center of the room. Also visible in the photograph are two armchairs, two side chairs and a chaise longue at the far left. The bracket shelves on the south and west walls were densely filled with oriental vases, while the walls were adorned with an eclectic combination of Japanese watercolors on silk and European oil paintings.
The center table was decorated with motifs used throughout the Reception Room. The edge of the table top and the apron were both inlaid with floral marquetry bands that repeated the pattern found in the marquetry panels of the wainscoting.
The Smoking Room (present)
The Smoking Room stands at the southeast corner of the Main Hall. A smoking room as a retreat for gentlemen to retire after dinner was a common feature in grand European houses. The concept was only embraced in the United States during the last third of the 19th century. Walnut is employed for the decorative woodwork in the Smoking Room of the Nickerson House. The room although small in scale, is grand in the scope and richness of its Islamic influenced interior.
Moorish-style tiles in pale blue by the J. & J. G. Low Art Tile Works of Massachusetts are employed for the main wall fill. Tastemakers of the time deemed certain styles appropriate for certain rooms. The use of Moorish motifs was considered suitable for a smoking room as they complemented the exotic connotations of the act of smoking.
The mantelpiece at the center of the north wall is carved with a profile portrait of the god Mercury wreathed in a profusion of acorns and oak leaves, motifs that appear throughout the house. Historically Mercury was not only the messenger of the gods but worshipped as god of trade and commerce, a fitting symbol for a successful man of business such as Nickerson.
The Smoking Room (Fisher period, c. 1901)
Only one historic photograph of the Smoking Room survives. The Fisher period photograph was taken from the southwest corner looking towards the north wall. From this narrow viewpoint the room appears sparsely furnished, with only two chairs visible, a rocking chair and a small wooden armchair. To the right of the door was an umbrella stand filled with a variety of walking canes and umbrellas. The parquet floor was covered with a large rug.
The sole object to adorn the mantelpiece was a bronze bust depicting a Native American chieftain. Fisher, a man who reputedly drove cattle across the United States before the Civil War had tastes of a different ilk to those of Nickerson. During the Fisher period of occupancy, while the walls of the house were predominantly adorned with game animals, sculptural pieces representing the American West abound. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, artwork depicting romanticized and mythologized western imagery found resonance with the urban American populace.