Help Wanted

I was looking for this post this morning and couldn’t find it.  In fact, all of Illinois seems to be missing.  No worries — since I’ve had nothing new to offer for weeks, I’ll simply repost this experience from August of 2012.

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At 2:00 one morning in February 1899, robbers climbed through a window at the home of Samuel Mayo Nickerson, founder and president of Chicago’s First National Bank, and robbed it of silver, jewelry, and other small but valuable knick-knacks.   Since the normally locked windows and cabinets were not forced opened, it seemed to be an inside job.  Suspicion fell on the butler (who held the keys) and others on the household staff, and all were dismissed.

The Nickerson house is now the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, named after the businessman who bought it in 2003, restored it to its turn-of-the-century splendor, and opened it to the public.  I had time to visit only one historic site in Chicago and that was the Driehaus Museum and its Summer Servant’s Tour.  The tour took place after regular museum hours, at 5:30 PM, conveniently filling unscheduled post-day-time/pre-evening activity space.

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We were met at front of the house by an interpreter dressed in a Victorian maid’s dress, taken around to the servants’ entrance, and led to the basement servants’ hall where we waited for the tour to begin.    As we waited, I asked the maid/interpreter if I could take photographs inside the house.  “You mean with one of those big boxes?” she exclaimed, in a not-entirely successful English accent, “You don’t have a big box.”

I sighed.  It was going to be like that.  “If I had a big box,” I said, “would I be allowed to use it?”

“Oh yes,” she said.  I wasn’t convinced by her answer, so later I asked another staffer, not in costume.  Photographs are allowed, the second staffer said, as long as flash wasn’t used.

There was a staircase bisecting one end of the room and at 5:30, the door at the top opened. A young woman swept in and announced, “I am Mrs. Williams, the housekeeper, yes?” Her speech was rapid, staccato and identifiably English.  “We have had an incident that requires us to hire a considerable number of staff, yes?  You are fortunate enough to be considered, yes?  Please put yourselves into two straight lines for me: women on my left, men on my right.”  I knew that the premise of the Servant’s Tour was that the Nickersons were looking to hire staff after the robbery, but hadn’t considered that we might be required to role-play applicants.

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She came down the stairs as we took our positions.  “Now, with a show of hands, how many of you are here to apply for the position of cook?”  We’d been given a sheet of paper, as we’d come in, describing each position.  Kitchen maid? Parlor maid? Lady’s maid? Laundry maid? Valet? Footman?  We were a group of 24, and each position elicited a couple of unenthusiastic hands.  I can ply a mean needle, so I went with Lady’s maid.  “I am going to tell you what your duties will be and show you where you will perform them, yes?  But first, I need you to put your hands out, palm side up, so that I can inspect them.”  My mind was in a happy wedding place, which is the only excuse I can come up with for my compliance.  “Now palms down, yes?”  She swept up and down the row.  “I see very, very dirty hands,” she said, “but we don’t have time to wash them, yes?  So please make sure that you do not…do not…touch anything, yes?”

She pointed out the doors to the butler’s rooms in the basement, but we didn’t go in.  I’d peeked through a slight opening in the door earlier and knew that they contained a modern kitchen and office.  Also in basement: the billiard room (now party rental space), which we were allowed to look at through a glass window in the door.

“Now, follow me, yes?  Quickly!”  She whooshed out.  Mary Poppins on speed.

We went up the servants’ stairs at the back of the house. First stop was the reception and ticketing area on the first floor, formerly the kitchen.  “The kitchen is being renovated, yes?” Mrs. Williams said before moving us up to the third floor.  We stood in the hall while Mrs. Williams explained that behind the closed doors were her room and the maids’ rooms.  Male staff lived on the fourth floor.  That’s the way it went in the back of the house – we were told what was there, but their doors remained firmly closed.

What we were allowed to see was the front of the house:  the Nickerson bedrooms on the second floor and public rooms on the first.  There wasn’t much furniture and what there was belonged to Richard Driehaus’ collection of late 18th century/early 20th century decorative arts.  The only Nickerson piece left in the house was a Chinese motif Japanese-made sculpture bought my Mr. Nickerson at the Chicago world’s fair in 1893.  Mrs. Nickerson hated it, which would explain why it was left behind when they sold the house and moved to New York in 1900.  When they moved, the Nickersons donated most of the art collection from their Chicago house to the Chicago Art Institute.

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With Mrs. Williams chiding, “Quickly, quickly,” at us in each room, we fairly ran through the house.  But we were allowed, once the tour was over, to wander through again at our leisure.

The house definitely is worth a visit and I hope to go back someday, for a regular, day-time tour.  The Servants’ Tour just wasn’t my cut of tea.  I know that “make visitors a part of the story” is a trend in historical interpretation but it’s one that doesn’t work for me.  It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a bad amateur theater production. The tour is very popular, however, and sells out days in advance.  So if you’re interested, you must book early, yes?  Spit spot!

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