Preserving the vast history of the 19th century Nickerson Mansion within the city of Chicago has been a successful personal accomplishment for philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus (1942-2021).
My training in historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute (2015-2017) allowed me the opportunity to complete my internship at the Driehaus Museum and work as an interpretative guide (2015-2018). I had the honor of meeting Mr. Richard H. Driehaus in the company of Professor Rolf Achilles.
It has been a truly satisfying experience, learning from, and becoming acquainted with, both a well-known Chicago scholar and a preservation philanthropist, dedicated and committed individuals of high caliber.
My original article was to interview Richard H. Driehaus and Rolf Achilles in late February or early March of 2021 Sadly, Mr. Driehaus passed away on the 9th of March 2021. Therefore, this article is dedicated in memory of Richard H. Driehaus, while I am honored to continue my interview with Rolf Achilles.
The Driehaus Museum has been devoted to the conservation of one of the most precious and prestigious decorative art collections from nineteenth and early twentieth century Chicago. The interiors displayed cover a plethora of different civilizations. You can begin with the Egyptians in the exquisite chairs by George A. Schastey on display in the Drawing Room. Continue with Homer in the tiles that decorate Mr. Nickerson's private bathroom. Then continue to the Roman god Mercury in the Smoking Room, and the Renaissance in the Dining Room, arriving at the beginning of electricity in the Parlor Room. To see everything will take approximately one hour of visiting time.
What was Mr. Driehaus's ideal itinerary, and what were his favorite objects to share when he toured friends through this museum?
Richard was especially fond of the unique blue Lowe Tiled walls and the intricate contrasting wood inlay of that room. Though the room is generally Aesthetic in style, his placing in that room of the incomparable Tiffany Nautilus lamp in high Art Nouveau style was precisely calculated. Richard admired the Art Nouveau of the United States, France and Germany and would juxtapose them with neo-Baroque or neo-Rococo or Aesthetic period designs. He is one of the rare collectors who thought they all complemented each other. He also always thought the shelving in the various rooms just above eye-level as the perfect intentional display places for his collection of glassware and ceramic objects. The Museum now has a superb collection on display of some of America’s and Europe’s greatest masters of decorative arts from the late 19thto the early 20thcentury.
From 2003 to 2008, Richard H. Driehaus sponsored what I call a multicultural restoration of the Nickerson Mansion. Offering attention to detail to many different cultural backgrounds in the building's restoration, most of the interiors including the walls, floors, and ceilings, are original or have been restored. The interior decorations of the rooms represent several different countries and cultures.
In my planned interview with Mr. Driehaus, I was prepared to ask him why the Museum Director, or its Board of Directors, do not reach out to the different consulates in Chicago to showcase how his museum represents different countries and cultures within his museum's interiors, such as Saracen, Greek, Italian, English, French, Belgian and German. This includes his private collections of decorative arts which he collected from predominately the U.S and Europe.
With you having been close friends with Mr. Driehaus, how would he have replied to my question?
While rarely working with specific consulates, Richard did over the years host foreign dignitaries, such as the President of Latvia, the Mayor of Prague, the Governor of Illinois, in the museum as background to a lecture, symposium or awards ceremony. For Richard, pleasing politicians was not a good long-term investment while hosting events that elevated the awareness of the public fit well into his ideas of art for every person.
When you visited with the director of the Vatican Mosaic Studio to discuss the possible origins of the mosaic depicting an Italianate courtyard on the fireplace in the Reception Room. This was an impressive and important visit. Can you share with me some details about this fascinating mosaic and what was Mr. Driehaus’s reaction to your findings?
When I met the Director of the Vatican Mosaic Studio, I was under the impression that the mosaic of the fireplace was what the 18th and 19th century literature on mosaics called micro-mosaics. I was instantly proven ill-advised by a quick, but highly learned explanation by the director when he told me the mosaic was most probably by Italian craftsmen, but that it was likely a studio in New York City that designed and fabricated it. He also pointed out that the mosaic’s frame had palm fronds left and right like fronds in the woodwork to the side of the fireplace opening. This suggestion that it came from one workshop in New York fit very well with the overall woodwork of the room as being by George A. Shastey (1839-1894) of New York and August Fiedler (1842-1903) of Chicago.
In my role as a tour guide in Rome, including the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome, I have been privileged to also be an interpretive guide at the Driehaus Museum under the leadership of Lise Dube Sherr. Dube-Scherr is the art educator and the executive director at the time, working with Mr. Driehaus for over a decade. It was Dube-Scherr and Mr. Driehaus who, who with the Museums’ Board agreed to host the traveling Downton Abbey exhibition at its only stop in a time appropriate original environment, the Driehaus Museum. It was a great success because people could identify with it. It was recognizable and attracted non-museum goers and people who had never heard about the museum but knew the TV series well.
I worked at the museum during this phenomenal exhibition. Thus, I personally observed how Dube-Scherr’s upbringing and education in Canada gave personal insight on how to tell the story of a popular English mini-series inside the 19th century home of Mr. Nickerson, whose family was originally English and had emigrated to the U.S.A.
One of the other questions I was prepared to ask Mr. Driehaus was this: would he work again closely with an individual trained in art history, art education, architecture, preservation, and especially historians from diverse backgrounds and cultures, who can offer specific insights and experiences, as Dube-Sherr was able to do for the International Downton Abbey exhibition?
Yes! Richard always worked with recognized scholars on each of the Museum’s exhibitions and catalogs. The scholars wrote the essays and highly skilled photographers captured the portraits of the individual objects on display for the accompanying catalogs.
Mr. Driehaus believed in the transformative power of art and architecture. He felt that architecture, in its evanescent ways, will awaken one’s visual senses. He felt that architecture was not about disposability, but rather that architecture was about distance, reality, and time, inviting longer-term enjoyment. He felt that one should be considerate about its space, its neighborhood, its community, and the larger civic responsibility it expresses. He strongly believed that personal involvement with architecture should not strive for quick high rates of current return, but rather represent human achievements for the finest and most enduring return over time.
This was his vision back in 2008 - which led to the establishment of The Richard H. Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame. It is a prestigious global award to honor a major contributor in the field of contemporary traditional and classical architecture.
I understand that you knew Mr. Driehaus as well as anyone. Not only were you his personal friend and consultant. You are, as well, the only Academic Art Historian on the Board of Directors of the Driehaus Museum with Richard’s range of interests.
And so, how will his legacy move forward with the current leadership in the museum and its Board of Directors, who all come from backgrounds of law and finance rather than architecture, art history, multicultural history, and 19th and early 20thcentury decorative art history?
This is a very important question, Brenda. Already under Richard, the museum strove to be multi-cultural and involved broad cultural awareness in its programming and exhibition schedule. This will probably continue alongside its Eurocentric architecture and Richard’s collection. All art has aesthetics as its guide, and the museum will continue to represent that interspersed in its main mission of exploring the aesthetic sensitivity of its founder, Richard H. Driehaus.
I want to thank you for your time in granting me this brilliant interview with you. And, most importantly, on behalf of my husband and myself, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the most treasured and memorable day we all shared together with Mr. Driehaus. It was an exiting experience for my Italian husband, a Vatican Mosaic artist, to share his insights and expertise on the mosaic floors decorating the personal office in the majestic 19th century Ransom R. Cable house, now the offices of the firm.
We would like to express our sincere condolences and I kindly thank you for your time.
May his memory be a blessing
To Mr. Richard H. Driehaus, who passed away March 9, 2021
"May his memory be a blessing" is a traditional Jewish honorific after a person dies. It denotes that, whenever you think of the person who has passed on, may the very remembering of the person bless you and, that beloved person. In other words, may our memories of Richard H. Driehaus bless the deceased, and ourselves, through the sacred act of our remembering and not forgetting.