It’s like the Gilded Age never quite left the Driehaus Museum, and that’s just how owner and investment manager Richard Driehaus likes it. Driehaus, an art collector and philanthropist, whose Driehaus Capital Management firm is cattycorner from the museum, “discovered” this home in 1994 and in 2003 founded the museum. The home was originally built in 1879 by Samuel Nickerson, who’d made his money by scoring a contract to sell alcohol to the Union army during the Civil War (he later became president of First National Bank of Chicago). Constructed by more than 600 artisans from Italy and Germany, it was, at the time, the largest and most opulent house in the city, and its 17 types of marble earned it the nickname The Marble Palace. Over the years, the home changed hands a number of times, but thanks to restoration by Driehaus, it remains in pristine condition.
Today, the art inside is a combination of art owned by the Nickerson family, along with the Driehaus collection, which includes an extensive array of glass from Louis Comfort Tiffany. Although self-guided audio tours are available, I highly recommend taking one of the staff-guided tours offered throughout the day (tours focus on the house, the revolving second-floor exhibits, or both and cost only $5 more than general admission). The guides are not only knowledgeable about Driehaus and Nickerson, but also adept at discussing the home’s place in the larger context of Chicago history. The museum also offers themed tours seasonally, and my tour guide mentioned an upcoming tour led by characters dressed as servants, speaking about the house from their perspective, which has quite a bit of quirky potential. Tip: As you’re wandering around the house, ask to see the servants’ quarters, and one of the staff members will take you to where the current offices are, today. It’s a narrow hallway with access to the back-of-the-house stairs and photos of the cots where the help slept. It’s an eye-opening contrast to the elegance surrounding you. Allow 1 to 2 hours.