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Collector Richard Driehaus's private museum gets a classical makeover

Who said it was all about modernism?

In a city best known for its modern architecture, Richard Driehaus is breaking new ground with his own museums and contributions to classical architecture and decorative arts rooted in the 19th century. The founder and chairman of the Chicago firm Driehaus Capital Management, which oversees more than $4bn in funds, has two museums in Chicago, with another planned, and has stepped up his preservation efforts. His 7,000 strong collection contains everything from a Hector Guimard metro entrance to a Tiffany Studios 1910 nautilus shell centrepiece.

“I opted for a holistic approach and wanted to showcase some of my holdings in the context in which they were created,” says Mr Driehaus, explaining the raison d’être for his eponymous museum, which preserves the 1883 Burling and Whitehouse-designed mansion of Samuel Mayo Nickerson (1830-1914), founder of the First National Bank of Chicago. He confirms that the cost of the five-year restoration project, completed in 2008, was “in the ballpark of $15m”.

Dubbed the “Marble Palace”, the 24,000 sq. ft mansion, which cost $450,000 to build, features a marble entrance hall, an expansive ballroom, intricate parquet floors and a stained-glass dome. Few original furnishings survive, but the house contains works by Emile Gallé and Tiffany.

Mr Driehaus also established the Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass, at Navy Pier, and his Public Housing Museum—in the last remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, a 1930s public-housing project—is planned for completion in 2010. His foundation has given more than $37m to preservation and arts projects. In addition, Mr Driehaus established the annual $200,000 Richard Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture. In March, he initiated a four-year $1m grant programme to preserve Illinois’ historic courthouses. “The modern period doesn’t resonate for me,” says Mr Driehaus, who refused to participate in the efforts to save and preserve Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.

So is Mr Driehaus an American Prince Charles? “I would say that he is the closest thing we have today,” says Paul Gunther, president of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America. “His personal and philanthropic pursuits include preservation, but extend far beyond to embrace the theory and pedagogy that underscore and complement it.”

Mr Driehaus’s own home, an 1887 Queen Anne brick townhouse, reflects his interest in French rococo and French art deco.

He began his collection by acquiring French, pre-World War II posters: “Paintings were highly priced so I focused on architectural elements and furniture.” Close to 80% of his collection was purchased at auction.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Who said it was all about modernism?'