In 1919 over 100 men, women, and businesses donated funds to purchase the magnificent Nickerson Mansion, thereby ensuring the building’s survival. Over eighty years later, Richard H. Driehaus honored and expanded that impulse by obtaining the mansion to create a publicly accessible non-profit museum. From 2003 through 2008, he supported a meticulous restoration of the building. A gifted team of architects, conservators, craftsmen and technicians from more than forty specialist firms were engaged to accomplish the work. Since then, nearly one million visitors have marveled at this twice-saved Chicago treasure.
Here are some case studies from the restoration.
The Exterior 1
A 2003 survey of the exterior indicated that the accumulation of black soot, due in large part to the coal burning of the 19th-century, was causing the erosion of decorative stone elements. In order to prevent further damage to the sandstone it was determined that it was necessary to remove the soot encrustation.
The Exterior 2
After testing numerous processes, a laser cleaning system was determined to be the most efficient and least destructive process for removing the crust of heavy soot and soil deposits. On average the laser cleaned at a rate of approximately 2.5 square feet per hour, and the entire treatment took 18 months to complete. It was the first time this laser cleaning process had been used to restore the exterior of an entire building in the United States.
The Exterior 3
Thanks to the cleaning of the exterior, the original patina, veining, and coloration of the stone were all preserved. The removal of the soot encrustation allows the stone to oxidize naturally and since the completion of the laser cleaning the stone has proven to darken somewhat overtime, providing an age appropriate aesthetic.
Walls & Ceilings 1
Lincrusta-Walton was a popular 19th-century wall covering patented in 1877 by Englishman Frederick Walton, the inventor of linoleum. Lincrusta was first introduced to the U.S. market in 1879, the year construction began on the Nickerson Mansion. Much of the Lincrusta-Walton in the Nickerson Mansion was salvageable but required extensive conservation work.
Walls & Ceilings 2
Lincrusta is much more fragile than the elements it is made to look like. It is more like paper-mâché or handmade paper than wood or leather. Over the decades the wall covering had become increasingly brittle, and a century’s worth of grime, silt, and nicotine staining had accumulated over its surface. Analysis revealed that a layer of dirt and grime had adhered to the painted surface of the Lincrusta.
Walls & Ceilings 3
Conservators approached the Lincrusta as they would treat an oil painting that has darkened and discolored with age. This photograph shows an area of the Smoking Room during cleaning. The bright square seen to the right in this photograph shows an area of Lincrusta after the grime has been removed.
Walls & Ceilings 4
Hand-painted canvas panels, exquisitely stenciled and stretched across wooden strainers adorned the ceilings of some of the formal public rooms and the bedrooms of the Nickerson residence.
These panels were among the first elements of the house to be addressed in the restoration. Before any other work began within the historic rooms of the residence, the ceiling panels in each room needed to be carefully mapped, catalogued, and removed. This proved to be a daunting task as the Drawing Room ceiling alone features one hundred and twenty-seven canvas panels.
Walls & Ceilings 5
On a number of the original panels the paint was extremely brittle with deeply pronounced cracking and in several cases, there was severe paint loss due to water damage.
The panels with the most severely weakened paint layers required consolidation to re-adhere the damaged layers. Consolidation is a conservation treatment whereby flaking, tented, or insecure paint layers are re-adhered to the substrate canvas. The goal of the consolidation treatment was to save every extant chip of paint in each of the panels.
Walls & Ceilings 6
While the ceiling panels in the Front Parlor and the Drawing Room were restored, the ceiling panels in the Library and the Master Bedroom had been covered over with lead white and casein paint. Portions of the original panels were carefully cleaned in order to determine the design of the original decorative panels of the ceilings in the Library and the Master Bedroom. Digital reproductions were then printed on canvas, stretched over the original ceiling panels, and reinstalled.
The Stained Glass Dome 1
Upon inspection in 2004, the stained-glass dome and perimeter lay-light surround were found to be in a state of failure. Poorly conceived restoration attempts by previous owners of the house had added to the deteriorated condition of the structure. The lead cames, a structural element of the dome that holds the glass in place, were severely deteriorated. Many of the cames had separated and there were multiple breaks occurring between the solder joints.
The photograph on the right, taken before the restoration, shows damage where lead cames have stretched and pulled apart.
The Stained Glass Dome 2
The stained-glass dome was carefully dismantled and restored in an offsite workshop. In order to safely remove the dome, conservators created foam molds of the panels to support individual glass sections. These molds remained with the panels throughout the restoration process and were used to successfully re-assemble the dome when restoration was complete.
The Stained Glass Dome 3
In the workshop, the glass panels were dismantled, cleaned, and repaired or replaced. The Opalescent Glass Works in Kokomo, Indiana had fabricated the original glass for the dome, and the firm supplied glass for the missing or broken pieces of glass during the restoration. After the glass was restored, the panels were re-leaded.
The Stained Glass Dome 4
A new artificial lighting system was installed in the attic area above the stained glass so that the dome could be well-lit regardless of the weather or time of day.
Finally, the glass panels and lay-lights were reinstalled into the restored steel frame support system.
Ongoing Work Today
While substantial restoration was undertaken between 2003 and 2008, restoration and conservation efforts are ongoing.
Each January, the Driehaus Museum closes for a period of ten days. During this time, restoration experts complete small-scale projects- including the cleaning and polishing of the marble panels in the Museum.
Click here to learn how you can support ongoing restoration efforts.