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In 1880s Chicago, the locals clamored for any details they could wangle about a private home they called the Marble Palace. Built by a distillery and banking magnate named Samuel Mayo Nickerson, the limestone and sandstone townhouse had cost $450,000 – then the top price ever paid for a Chicago residence. Nickerson, his wife Matilda and son Roland threw parties in their 20-odd rooms that were gushingly chronicled by newspaper reporters. After an evening reception there in 1885, The Chicago Daily Tribune noted that the guests had spent time "promenading through the lofty halls and finding retreats and easy rendezvous in the card, billiard, smoking, dancing, reception, and toilet rooms, and much to please and interest in the gallery and library." The Tribune even detailed the 24,400-sq.ft. mansion's "completely fireproof" construction method: "Floors are laid on iron beams, between which brick arches are sprung. Those arches are overlaid with cement."
The family had good reason to commission such over-engineering from their architecture firm, Burling & Whitehouse (best known for Chicago-area churches and mansions). Fire had destroyed Nickerson's first office in Florida in 1857, and he and Matilda lost their first Chicago home during the 1871 citywide blaze. Yet while every room in the Marble Palace is a sturdy brick box with brick substrate underfoot, no fear of architectural flourishes is evident.
The décor instead provides "a seemingly endless panoply of pleasurable visual surprises," writes Amsterdam-based art historian M. Kirby Talley, Jr., in a new history of the building, This House Was The Pride of The Town: Mr. Nickerson's Marble Palace Becomes Mr. Driehaus' Museum.
Richard H. Driehaus, the Chicago-based founder of an eponymous investment firm that manages some $4 billion, has just completed a five-year restoration of the Nickerson house and opened it as a decorative-arts museum. (Talley, the museum's founding executive director, oversaw the restoration and interior design.) Carved woodwork and stone, shimmering mosaics and jewel-toned stained glass, plus two dozen pieces of original furniture, now adjoin Driehaus' own collection of late-19th-century paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver and Tiffany lighting. Driehaus (pronounced DREE-house) calls the museum "my gift to the city," and adds, "I'm delighted to be able to bring the public into period room environments filled with these astonishingly beautifully crafted, classically inspired, yet endlessly inventive objects."
The museum is part of his longtime advocacy for Classicism; he gives an annual $200,000 prize to major forces in Classicism's revival – past winners have included Léon Krier, Allan Greenberg, and Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Driehaus is a tireless preservationist as well; the company is headquartered in restored Victorian townhouses cater-corner from the Nickerson mansion, and their stretch of Wabash Ave. is named Richard Driehaus Way. He has also restored the Murphy Auditorium, a 1920s French Renaissance theater next to the Nickerson townhouse, which is now open for functions and public lectures. "These two magnificent buildings, thanks to Richard's stewardship, are finally in the public domain," says Joseph Antunovich, head of Antunovich Associates, the restoration architects for both structures.
The Nickerson building had previously belonged to the American College of Surgeons (which still owns the auditorium). The mansion has had only one other owner: Lucius Fisher, Jr., a paper-bag and wood-pulp tycoon. During his family's tenancy (1900-1919), the interior was not changed much, despite its styles varying from Renaissance to Aesthetic Movement.
Burling & Whitehouse, in collaboration with interior designers including Chicago's William August Fiedler and New York's George A. Schastey, specified staircases, fireplaces, paneling and ceilings carved from onyx, alabaster, limestone and polychrome marbles quarried in France, Belgium, Italy and Tennessee. Arrays of woods also fill the walls, ceilings, doors and floors: mahogany, satinwood, cherry, rosewood, walnut, maple and quarter-sawn oak. Some decorative motifs recur, such as birds, foliage, flowers and lions. "But every room is so different from the next, people are flabbergasted as they walk through," says Antunovich.
The Fishers did make one major, fortunate addition. In 1900, they hired Sullivan-inspired architect George Washington Maher to renovate a rear gallery where the Nickersons had displayed sculpture, paintings and Asian objets d'art. Maher designed a domed stained-glass skylight depicting a forest scene, a high-relief frieze of intertwined thistles, and a forest-and-vine-pattern mosaic mantelpiece. According to Talley's book, the glass mosaic "shimmers like an ever-changing magical kaleidoscope in a Byzantine palette of gold, violet, magenta, mauve, amethyst, heliotrope, indigo, sapphire, aquamarine, viridian, and emerald."
During the College of Surgeons' eight-decade ownership, the administration rented out space for offices and art galleries, but left the architecture unspoiled. "They were fairly good stewards," says Antunovich. The surgeons did, however, defer some maintenance and upgrades. The chimneys had long disappeared, and the wood window sash had single panes (contractors Meyne Co. rebuilt the chimneys, and Restoration Works of Kankakee, IL, repaired the sash and inserted Thermopane). The exterior, Antunovich recalls, "had been dark with soot for so long, everyone assumed the original stone was black."
Chicago-based Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio (CSOS) was brought in to scrub the façade, but could not find a chemical formula that would not damage the iron-flecked Ohio sandstone. So CSOS pioneered the use of laser cleaning, which has proven effective on recent restorations in Europe and is catching on in the U.S. The Nickerson project, Antunovich says, "is the first American building to be entirely cleaned with lasers." (CSOS has also successfully applied the technique to landmarks including bronze statues on Philadelphia's City Hall and terra-cotta elements at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
Within the Nickerson mansion's newly whitened limestone shell, Antunovich explains, "we needled state-of-the-art systems into every cranny. We snuck kitchens into closets between bedrooms. The heart and lungs and kidneys of the building are totally brand new, but you don't see any of the electrical, mechanical or HVAC improvements." Instead you see surfaces that have mostly undergone what Talley calls "a very sensitive, careful, non-invasive cleaning," executed by up to 100 craftspeople onsite at a time. Only the gallery's cherry woodwork required wholesale stripping, staining, re-lacquering and hand-polishing — an eight-month-long process executed by restoration workshop Parenti & Raffaelli, Ltd, of Mount Prospect, IL. In the library, scrollwork-motif canvases on the ceiling had tenacious coats of over-painted lead white and casein. So Talley had a few visible scrolls replicated, and then printed up dozens of new canvas panels.
While funding such meticulousness, Driehaus gave Talley free rein with furnishings. "I had a candy store to choose from of high-quality objects appropriate to the 1880s," he says. He combined objects that the Nickersons had owned – Japanese bronze torchères, a Renaissance Revival suite, ebonized pieces attributed to New York firm Herter Brothers – with selections from Driehaus' warehouses full of Sèvres porcelain, landscape and portrait paintings, and Tiffany vases, lamps and chandeliers dripping with seashells and iridescent glass.
Talley meanwhile had copies made of original or appropriate furnishings. St. Louis Antique Lighting Co. and Chicago's Archistoric Workshop supplied bronze and brass gasoliers. (Supplementing the period-quality lighting are scores of concealed uplights, engineered by Gordon Anson of Rockville, MD, the deputy design chief for the National Gallery of Art.) Talley also commissioned reproductions of circa-1880 pedestals and chairs that Herter Brothers had fabricated for moguls like Mark Hopkins and William Henry Vanderbilt. New and old seating blends seamlessly, thanks to compatible upholstery fabrics from Scalamandré and Old World Weavers (which Talley chose in collaboration with Chicago-based Zirlin Interiors).
The Nickersons would nonetheless not quite recognize the scene. Talley did not replicate the multiple rows of paintings, tabletop clutter of leather-bound books and vitrines full of bibelots that appear in 1880s photos. The museum's interior design, he explains, is "in the spirit, rather than slavish imitation, of the original décor." Clutter, he adds, "would detract from the robust and dynamic interior architecture." His favorite moments at the museum, he says, occur when new visitors step inside: "I love watching their reactions, the amazement that crosses their faces. It's a breathtaking place that never fails to impress."
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