The Transportation Security Administration must be one of the most confused and useless government agencies. For whatever reason, I need to take off my boots, remove my 3oz bottles from my bag, and place each item in a separate bin. Meanwhile, my girlfriend can stroll right through, collecting her bag in which she stowed a pair of foot-long knitting needles. Evidently, my Dr. Bronner’s soap will do more damage than a sharp poke in the eye.
Why, you wonderful readers, you Brightest Young Things, do I find myself at BWI, visibly hung over, struggling to put my boots back on as I grab my backpack from a conveyor belt, ears still ringing from the previous night’s Halloween Circus? We’re off to Chicago, of course.
Barely a month back in town from my adventures in Europe (for more on said exploits, read here, here, and here), I’m off for a week in Chicago with my girlfriend. She has a conference to attend, which means that she’ll be hard at work during the day, changing lives and learning how to save the world, leaving me to hop around Chicago’s streets like a history nerd for the week. And what better place for the grand history of Chicago’s upper crust than The Driehaus Museum?
Palatial, extravagant, lavish, and opulent don’t even come close to describing this place. Not even if you were to string them together. The house was built in 1883 by Burling & Whitehouse, and still stands proudly, if somewhat anachronistically, on the corner of Erie and Wabash. It’s odd and slightly disconcerting to see a gorgeous, Gilded Age mansion standing in the shadow of a hotel and a Starbucks. After a trip inside, it’s clear no one living in that house would have given a damn about the surrounding buildings five times its height. This house was built with confidence.
Samuel M. Nickerson was a man of means. After losing his fortune to a giant fire at age 28, he moved back in with mom and dad in Massachusetts, married his cousin, and headed west to Chicago, Nickerson started over. He got involved in the whiskey and rum distribution business (the legal kind), and within three years, owned his own distillery. They supplied liquor to the Union troops during the American Civil War, and sold off the raw spirits to the army for use in explosives. (At the risk of sounding like Tyler Durden, you can in fact use distilled spirits in conventional explosives. Go figure.)
In 1883, Nickerson built the palatial estate on Wabash for roughly $450,000 (about $12,000,000 today), and filled it full of the most gorgeous trappings of industry. From floor to ceiling, the Nickersons spared no expense. They used exorbitantly expensive woods for the trim, recessed paneling in the ceilings, wainscoting on the walls, and a special new material developed by Frederick Walton, called Lincrusta. Mixing linseed oil and wood flour makes a paste that can be easily rolled over with an etched roller, creating an embossing effect. (Walton would later make much more money for his much more boring invention: linoleum.)
The Nickersons lived in the house for seventeen years. Shortly after their move back east to Massachusetts, the house was acquired by the American College of Surgeons. The ACS operated out of the house, using it as an office for their headquarters, for the better part of fifty years. The ACS quickly outgrew the space, and began leasing the house to tenants in 1965.
In 2003, Chicago-based philanthropist/businessman Richard Driehaus (yes, that Richard Driehaus) bought the house and converted it into a museum. To his surprise, the ACS had covered the floors with industrial-grade carpet, which miraculously preserved the ornate and unbelievably expensive wood floors. Driehaus happens to be in the possession of one of the largest collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, who founded Tiffany & Co. The younger Tiffany showed prowess and skill in the fields of stained glass and furniture. The house has an extensive permanent collection on view.
In addition to the permanent collection, the house has a a special exhibit of jewelry from the Arts and Crafts movement, a stark contrast to the ever-expanding world of industry outside the door. The pieces in the current exhibit showcase not just skill in the tradition of silversmithing and jewel cutting, but highlight the care and precision only seen in works made by hand.
This house was built originally to show off status, wealth, and knowledge of the wide world. There’s a reason the ballroom was put on the top floor– party guests would have to walk through the grand foyer, up the marble staircase, past all the Nickersons’ trappings, surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance a distilling magnate could stuff in his house. Driehaus has a different approach to the space. In his care, the house is treated as a living museum where one could indeed see how the better half lived over a hundred years ago, but also see the work done by hundreds of hands to build this colossus of artistic knowledge and craftsmanship.
And when I was finished looking through the former home of one of Chicago’s elite, and done taking pictures of dimming elegance, I made my way two blocks north, and devoured a polish sausage at where a working craftsman should eat: Mr. J’s.