I used to play the board game Clue all the time, but it’s not because I have a penchant for problem-solving. It’s because I was obsessed with the game board. The mansion in which the supposed murder took place absolutely intrigued me; there were secret passages, rooms that seemed to have simultaneously a very specific purpose and no purpose at all (“lounge,” I’m looking at you), and most alarmingly of all, no bathroom anywhere. I longed to be able to visit this actual mansion myself, to wander the hallways that connected these rooms that were built in an era when no detail was too trivial to be included. And just yesterday, I feel like I had that very experience in the Driehaus Museum, located in a Gilded Age mansion in River North.
Holy smokes. This place is impressive. It’s unlike any museum I’ve ever been to, firstly because the moment you step inside, you find yourself in a hall composed of seventeen types of marble. 17 types of marble alone—that’s not even counting all the other fancy stone and woodwork. Anyway, you feel like you’re walking into a really rich friend of a friend’s house, where you know it’s okay you’re there, but you still wonder if they’re just doing you a favor by letting you inside. From the main hall, you get escorted back to the reception desk by a staff member, and already their individualized attention recalls the turn-of-the-twentieth-century kind of hospitality that is featured on Titanic or Downton Abbey—just without that feeling of imminent death from sinking or the flu.
The museum lets you wander amongst the mansion at your own pace and in whatever order you want, unless you want to take a guided tour. As Katie and I moseyed from room to room, we immediately became jealous of all the spare time that the original owners (the Nickersons) apparently had. We could think of no other reason why they would need a Reception Hall, a Sitting Room, and a Drawing Room (whatever that is anyway) except to vary it up a little bit when they got tired of sitting and being rich all in the same place. On top of that, we also toured the Sewing Room, Smoking Room (because apparently these are activities that could only happen in preordained spaces), the bedrooms, Dining Room, and Library—not to mention the additional elaborate common spaces and stairwells.
Each room is incredibly detailed and has its own theme. We were consistently impressed by the decorative wood flooring, the intricately carved beams on the ceilings, the colorful tiling—there was pretty much nothing we saw that wasn’t worth a closer look. Even more shockingly, there is something about this place that seemed to bring out the art historian in both of us. While in the sitting room, I suddenly found myself talking about “art nouveau influences”—and I have no idea where I pulled that out of. Katie complimented the “Japanese influence” in a bedroom, and then looked at me as if to convey she just had an out-of-body experience. Mind you, we are not the kind of people that know about this stuff. Most of my information on interior decorating comes from the episodes of House Hunters I watch while preparing dinner. But this house will make you feel like you’re the curator of an art museum.
I could write pages about each tiny detail of the Driehaus Museum, but trust me, you’re much better off just going to experience it for yourself. The employees were incredibly welcoming and eager to share their knowledge, and the museum often hosts special events that would make a trip here well worth your time and money. Oh, and the bathroom has one of those toilets with the elevated tank just like in old timey days. You can’t find that just anywhere, folks. Give yourself an afternoon or evening to explore Chicago from the days when it was socially acceptable to flaunt your wealth with stuff. Oh, who am I kidding. It’s still perfectly acceptable to flaunt wealth—the stuff was just a lot prettier back then.
Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie
Admission: about $20 (depending on age, membership, and optional tours)