••• The International Writers Magazine: Travel with Hacktreks - Chicago
Driehaus Museum - Edwardian Era
Fred C Wilson 111
“You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
The Dreihaus Museum is a living testament to a much quieter time when quality craftsmanship was the measure of a person. It’s a study of the Gilded Age and all things Edwardian. Where I live there are scores of magnificent mansions built during the Gilded/Edwardian Eras standing nearby. The Edwardians were master builders. They had a flair for living large. The Driehaus is a treasure trove of dazzling wealth. It’s like stepping back in time or on the set of recent hit sitcoms ‘Downton Abbey/Upstairs-Downstairs’ albeit on a smaller scale.
The walls of the Smoking Room were decorated with blue Moorish tiles, the walls embossed with carvings and figures that set the mood for a good smoke. I took a seat. I thought about my years as an avid smoker. I dreamt about the times I sat in my Lazy Boy recliner and puffed away on my cigar brew in hand looking out of my window at Lake Michigan below. This ornate room reeked of richness; the expensive rug on the floor, the Saint Cecilia statue on a mantle piece over a fireplace that burned real logs, the hardwood floor with exotic woods different in every room, an authentic free standing Tiffany lamp, a very non-traditional chandelier and an oil painting by a person who could actually paint; no modernistic abstract crap here.
Despite the aesthetic quality of the room it didn’t feel comfortable; but then the definition of comfort could be open for interpretation. My idea of pleasurable smoking wasn’t exactly what the former owners of this majestic mansion had in mind. I picture a person sitting ramrod straight and dignified in one of those small stiff backed chairs in full smoking attire the exact opposite of my reclining in my shorts puffing away on a Thompson swilling down a ‘cold one’ seeking similar pleasures as the former owner of the mansion.
The next room I entered was large hall a receiving room. This room abounded in hand carved marble statuary, wood paneled walls with a copious number of mirrors, the grandest of stairways plus a grandfather clock so ornate I don’t think even the priciest stores on the Mile (Magnificent Mile) sold them. A room sized rug covered the floor and the walls abounded with paintings galore. My bad knees made it impossible to climb those high stairs going up; however I did brave the descent once my self-guided tour ended; I had taken the elevator to tour the museum.
When I entered the Drawing Room there were three statues resting on pedestals; another of the patron saint of music and two other well endowed ladies sporting harps whose names and legends I forgot or perhaps never knew. There were several ‘Downton Abbey’ costumes on display. Since the gowns were the originals used on both sitcoms these ladies must have been very short. The male costumes were larger. There were several pre-raphaelite and early impressionist paintings hanging on the walls. The overall décor enhanced the calm serenity of the room.
||I’m starting to understand why the people of that period were hooked on the ideal of romanticism; life was pretty grim back then. Having pretty pictures depicting pleasant subjects temporarily took Edwardian minds off the troublesome business of their day. At some point in their family histories these ‘1%ers’ were poor before their ascension to the big time.
Image: Millais - Apple Blossom 1859
Lady Lever Gallery
Pretty pictures dulled the pain of living. In spite of having to live during a period where people were literally here one day taken in death the next, I think the people of that time were justified in their saccharine selections in art, religion and entertainment though there were some rebels of note. 19th and early 20th century people deluded themselves into thinking the world was getting better. The attractiveness of classical art on their walls, halls and standing proud and tall on pedestals served as daily reminders of what life could be.
The home library was topped by a large Tiffany dome recently restored. Glass cabinets filled with big books lined the walls. In the wall was a fine fireplace. The large reading table added to the overall décor to the room. A huge silver samovar, an overlarge dining room table, a sitting room bigger than many pricy modern neighborhood apartment units, vintage photographs, more paintings, a 6 foot Japanese bronze with dragons climbing its length and more costumes worn on both ‘DowntonAbbey/Upstairs/Downstairs’.
Image: Tiffany Dome Driehaus
The male costumes were regal in the stern fashion of that period; women’s clothes appeared a bit liturgical and over matched the men in terms of ornate decoration.
One of the things I noticed during my Driehaus experience was the large number of well trained, highly motivated and friendly staff. I’ve always found excuses not to ‘do Driehaus.’ I unfairly assumed that all ‘proper people’ were effete snobs hence best avoided. I was in for a pleasant surprise; the people who worked Driehaus were friendly to a fault. Not only did they know their duties I sensed they enjoyed them, something I find rare in contemporary American society. They were eager to assist tourists. They treated each guest as a VIP.
One room I found especially thrilling was the dimly lit room that housed the diamond studded Queen Mary tiara. I walked around the glass case that contained the crown. I asked myself how could anyone afford stuff like this? I don’t think the former owners made their money doing 9 to 5. I couldn’t help notice an elderly gentleman sitting nearby staring intensely at the glass enclosed crown. The man never moved an inch for a number of minutes. I sat on the chair opposite him writing in my notepad. Perhaps he was engaged in wishful thinking wondering how his significant other would love him more if he had the resources to buy similar ornaments. Our secret thoughts are who we are.
I’ve never craved to be rich; coming from an impoverished background all I’ve ever wanted was enough to eat and to live in a safe neighborhood. Even to this day I could never understand why some people would do abominable things for the sake of a dollar. Sins of lust and gluttony I ‘understand’ my being a lover of good food, good liquor and pretty women but greed, envy and jealousy; naaaah-not even; but as they say it takes all kinds.
||A private residence until 2011 the museum was formerly owned by the affluent Nickerson and Fisher families of Chicago. The Driehaus Museum due to the special Downton Abbey exhibit has extended its viewing hours. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. but closed Mondays.
Please consult their website or email: firstname.lastname@example.org for information on ticket prices, English tea services, special movies and guest speakers and other items of interest. Blog.driehausmuseum.org contains archival footage, historical photographs and portraits of persons associated with the Fisher Mansion. Due to the immense popularity of ‘Dressing Downton’ the official title, the exhibit has been extended through May 29th. (Sold Out but tickets available on the day)
Things we take for granted in 2016 never existed in 1916. Air conditioning, electric fans, comfortable clothes, personal computers, air conditioned/radio equipped automobiles, antibiotics, Plexiglas, organ transplantation, Viagra and a myriad of other life saving/enhancing inventions were as distant from us as the bi-plane to the Space Shuttle. Their counterparts even in the realms of science fiction weren’t even dreamt of!
A few years ago my wife and I wanted an authentic Edwardian experience. We wanted to go back in time for a weekend. We drove to the nearby resort city of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and signed in for the weekend at a popular bed and breakfast we saw advertised in the Chicago Tribune’s travel section. We made our reservation, drove to the resort and checked in. Things went well until the summer heat took hold. How we longed for a fan/AC to cool off. In many ways the ‘good old days’ weren’t all that pleasant.
The Edwardian Age bar none is my favorite historical period. I’ve did extensive research on that period but I’m glad I never lived during that era. Labor problems abounded. Medicine was Medieval, women were considered and treated by men as overly decorated living dolls, good for sex, baby making, cooking and scrubbing floors. Spousal abuse was rife (see Evelyn Nesbit.). Though innovative and technically brilliant D. W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ increased the number of Black male bodies ‘decorating’ trees as lynching peaked during the 1900’s; having a virulently racist/anti-Catholic President Wilson in the White House added fuel to the fires of race/religious bigotry.
Technologies we take for granted were in their infancy where a faulty light switch could get you fried; literally. Countless people were electrocuted, burned and blinded due to ignorance of the dangers involved with emerging technologies. Being a baseball fan I would have loved seeing Ty Cobb hit and Walter Johnson pitch.
Product quality controls were marginal or nonexistent; point—Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ an expose-novel about the many hazards of Chicago’s meat packing industry. If you’ve read ‘The Jungle’ and asked yourself are Chicago’s rodents as aggressive as mentioned in the book; YES! The personal stories I could tell would make readers retch.
At 7:28 a.m. July 24, 1915 Great Lakes excursion steam ship Eastland sunk near the Clark Street Bridge on the Chicago River. The ship carried 2,573 passengers with crew. The steamer capsized dockside. More people died than in the previous two maritime disasters Titanic and Lusitania. Despite the high casualty rate the Eastland was quickly forgotten; why? No rich people or celebrities lost their lives. All victims were poor hardworking recent immigrants on holiday. Upon maritime investigation the cause of the accident was attributable to human error. That disaster was one of many such accidents that could have easily been avoided with a little more human forethought Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.).
Despite the opulence of that not so distant age the opening decades of the 20th century were turbulent times. Aforementioned the forces for social and political change were gathering strength as workers and suffragettes took to the streets demanding more say in the economics of living. In the United States things were bleaker still as the last of Reconstruction Era civil rights legislation were rescinded by racist government officials. During that bygone era African-Americans were hounded, harassed and hanged by white supremacists notably the Klu Klux Klan. In 1919 in the UK a Black man married to a white woman was forced to flee for his life while his Caucasian wife and mixed child were brutally beaten by mobs of angry whites. Their home was trashed while local police officers did nothing. Worse situations happened in Atlanta in 1906 and again in Springfield in 1908.
Here in Chicago 1,000 African-Americans many returning from the Great War as heroes were hounded down and by mobs of angry whites and brutally beaten and murdered ( Chicago Race Riot of 1919.). The rights and persons of West Coast Asian-Americans/Canadians were routinely violated, colonialism held sway over most of the planet, the Spanish Flu murdered millions and the nascent United States labor movement was brutally suppressed as troops/goons allied with greedy tycoons gunned down and assaulted labor rights protestors. Despite the Pollyannish portrait of the so-called ‘blissful’ Gilded Age and Edwardian Era the volcano of change was preparing to erupt. In 1914 it all came crashing down birthing the dawn of the modern era as centuries old certainties were suddenly swept away.
If people could go back in time would they really want to? While I’m fond of the early part of the 20th century no way on earth would I ever go back in time! Quite the contrary if I had a say in the grand scheme of things/situations I’d would go forward never backward. My hope is that our Earth as we know it will still exist in 3016. With the talk of war, pandemics, Yellowstone National Park’s super volcano looming under the surface waiting to blow, the almost near certainty of a mega-earthquake on America’s West Coast, future terrorists developing and using ‘dirty bombs’ to destroy entire cities on a whim, potential meteor strikes triggering mass extinctions and climate change; I have serious doubts as to the survivability of humanity living on our good Mother Earth. Take a ride out to the country away from city lights and gaze upon the majesty of the stars and search for your place in the immensity of the Multiverse; the Creator could do pretty well without us.
© Fred Wilson May 2016
Where to go:
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum
40 East Erie Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Tel: 312 482 8933
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