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It’s all in the details at Driehaus mansion museum

Richard Driehaus outside Driehaus Museum restored Gilded Age mansi40 East Erie Street. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Richard Driehaus outside the Driehaus Museum, a restored Gilded Age mansion at 40 East Erie Street. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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The Driehaus

♦ 40 E. Erie

♦ 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues. - Sat.; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

♦ Admission, $10-$20; kids 5 and under, free

♦ Visit

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Updated: September 21, 2012 2:17PM

One section of marble could use a little more polish, Richard Driehaus noted, as the fund manager and philanthropist walked through the Richard H. Driehaus Museum’s grand entryway built with 17 types of marble, alabaster and onyx.

And the small stained-glass cabinet doors would look even better if lit from within, Driehaus mentioned amicably. And that curtain hanging about an inch too far from the edge of the picture window? See if it can be moved.

The owner and founder of Driehaus Capital Management, which manages slightly less than $8 billion in assets, could certainly pay someone to handle the tiniest of details at the Gold Coast museum bearing his name.

But the beauty of the total experience is found in these small moments, and museum founder Driehaus wants those entering the restored Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion to totally immerse themselves in luxury and artistry. He wants visitors to have an “ineffable experience.”

“The work is really fantastic — about beauty, harmony and arrangement,” Driehaus said, adding that he was guided by 15th century Italian architect and artist Leon Battista Alberti’s definition of beauty as “the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change without impairing the harmony of the whole.”

An art collector for more than 40 years, Driehaus said he envisioned the museum initially as a place for his collection, but he didn’t want to overload the ornate rooms with spectacular art.

“My grandmother’s place had so much stuff going on, it was fuddy duddy,” he said. “I want this to come to [visitors] like a visual music. I want them not to be overwhelmed.”

More and more people are taking in his visual symphony at 40 E. Erie. Last month, for the first time in the museum’s four-year history, attendance hit 10,000, breaking in eight months, 2011’s total attendance of 7,238.

While the Driehaus Museum sees a small fraction of visitors compared to some of the city’s powerhouse cultural institutions — more than 1.4 million visited the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011, for example — the staff see the uptick as building a base of fans who support art, architecture and preservation.

Filled with hand-carved wood, custom-made stained-glass, and floors and ceilings as interesting and elaborate as the walls, art and furnishings, the home cost $450,000 when it was built between 1879 and 1883 for the family of wholesale liquor trader and banker Samuel M. Nickerson. Today, construction would run an estimated $80 million, according to the musuem’s director, Lise Dube-Scherr .

A previous owner had divided the Nickerson mansion into offices. Driehaus reintegrated it as a single family home after he purchased it in 2002. After five years of extensive restoration, the museum opened as a homage to America’s Gilded Age, a period of explosive economic growth from the Civil War’s end until the 1890s.

“We’re not trying to re-create what it was like when the Nickersons lived here,” Dube-Scherr said. “We want to showcase the decorative arts for the time period. The overarching theme is preservation.”

It is one of the few urban mansions open to the public in the country, said Dube-Scherr.

Walking off the bright and noisy Chicago street into the home’s dimly lit main hall, museum staff suggests you turn off your cellphone and immerse yourself fully in the experience of another time and place.

“We live in such a mediated world,” Dube-Scherr said. “It’s nice for people to unplug and walk into something that is 130 years old.”

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