In the early decades of the 20th century, the fictional Crawley family of Downton Abbey® hosted grand dinners and fretted about the Great War. At the same time, the real Fisher family was doing the same—right here in this Gilded Age mansion the Driehaus Museum calls ‘home.’
In many ways the Fishers were foils to the Crawleys of Downton. The Fishers lived in America, the Crawleys in England. The Fishers dwelled in an urban palace built in 1883 by another prominent family, while the Crawleys inherited their ancient country estate from a long line of genteel landowners. Lucius George Fisher had everything to gain from the Industrial Revolution, the technical inventions of which made his career in the paper industry soar; Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, saw his own way of life rapidly disappearing in the wake of new changes.
And yet the Fishers and Crawleys shared the same world. Inspired by the era of our current Dressing Downton exhibition, we’ve been digging into our archives for this special blog post in order to share, for the first time, the story of the Nickerson Mansion’s second owners who lived here between 1900 and 1916.
The mouth of the Chicago River in 1831. Illustration from Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.
Lumberyards on the Chicago River, about 1870. From Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.
Chicago appeared out of nowhere.
As one New England newspaper put it back in the mid-1800s, it seemed to rise “like an exhalation from the morass upon which it was built.” Lucius George Fisher, Sr., the father of the man who would one day purchase the Nickerson House, came from Vermont to see the spectacle in 1837. There were just a few thousand pioneering citizens in the brand new city then, and it was in the middle of a financial crisis. He kept traveling, eventually landing in Beloit, Wisconsin—a city which he named, and where he made his own name. He played a leading role in all of the city’s major businesses and institutions—from the railway to the bank, newspaper, post office, local government, and police force.
His only son was also named Lucius George Fisher, born in Beloit in 1843. He was educated there and about to enter Beloit College when gold fever hit him, along with the rest of America. Lucius, Jr. convinced his father to let him go west with a wagon and team of oxen. He stayed on the frontier until he moved to New York City in 1861 to work as a clerk in a hardware store. The Civil War broke out that same year, and in 1863 Fisher was mustered with the 84th Regiment of the New York Infantry National Guard. The regiment was discharged after 100 days, so Fisher signed up for the navy and did administrative work aboard the US steamer Wyandack until the war was over in 1865.
By then Fisher’s parents had moved to Chicago, where his father invested in downtown real estate. Fisher joined them there and started working as a porter in the Rock River Paper Company. He ascended quickly, and within five years, he managed the whole paper bag operation. Fisher would stick with the paper industry for the rest of his career. He incorporated his own company, the Union Bag and Paper Co. in the 1870s, and it grew exponentially as he absorbed other manufacturers around the Midwest.
The Union Bag & Paper Company, 3737 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago.
Like his father before him, Fisher invested in Chicago real estate. He owned a 160-acre tract on the south side of the city, between Seventy-ninth and Eighty-third Streets and Cottage Grove and South Park Avenues. When the World’s Columbian Exposition fairgrounds were designated nearby, the land became worth $1 million—equivalent to $266 million today. He leased the land to the fair in 1892 for the building of 600 three-story houses, to be used as visitor accommodations. Perhaps more famously, Fisher invested in real estate closer to the city’s commercial center as well. He commissioned world’s fair architect Daniel H. Burnham to design the Fisher Building, which still stands at 343 S. Dearborn Street. Its 18 stories of orange terra cotta and glass, made it one of the tallest buildings in the world when completed in 1896.
From around 1885, Fisher and his wife of fifteen years, Katherine, lived in a new red brick Victorian home on Ellis Avenue in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood. It featured stained glass windows, built-in bookcases, large secluded back garden, and an elegant ballroom on the third floor. The lakeside community was populated, in the late 19th century, with other illustrious members of Chicago society. Many of them were entrepreneurs and industrialists who found it convenient to the stockyards, rail terminal, and factories on the South Side. But around the turn of the century, increasing pollution and immigrant neighbors made the area seem less desirable for some. These residents began migrating north, and the Fisher family also began looking for a new home.
Samuel M. Nickerson, recently retired president of First National Bank of Chicago, had constructed a gorgeous Italianate mansion on the north side of the Chicago River in 1883. The mansion at 40 East Erie Street was reported to be the most expensive and luxurious residence in Chicago at the time of its construction, featuring three stories, more than 17 different kinds of marbles from around the world, capacity for 11 live-in servants, and a grand Sculpture Gallery. Nickerson was 70 years old, and originally from Massachusetts. He wished to go live permanently in his summer home on Cape Cod, so he negotiated a $75,000 purchase—over $2 million in today’s dollars—with Lucius George Fisher for the mansion and many of its contents.
The FIsher’s 1885 residence on 4036 Ellis Avenue. (Google Streetview, 2014)
Front elevation, Samuel M. Nickerson House. Burling & Whitehouse, architects.
The Samuel M. Nickerson House, 1883.
The Fishers moved into the Nickerson House in the summer of 1900. The census recorded the home’s inhabitants as Lucius and Katherine, both in their 50s; their four children Lucius, Jr. (age 28), Alice (age 26), Ethel (age 17), and Katherine (age 14); Katherine’s sister Francis Eddy; and three female servants from Germany, Minnesota, and Sweden, respectively.
The Fishers kept most of the original furniture, which had been crafted to match the interior design. But their tastes had little else in common with the Nickersons’ clusters of Victorian objets d’art, competing wall and upholstery patterns, and plenteous furniture. The new century came with a new, streamlined aesthetic. By now Chicago’s Prairie School of architecture, with its horizontal lines and air of simplicity, had come into full swing. Fisher hired Prairie School architect George Washington Maher (1864–1926) to redesign Nickerson’s former Sculpture Gallery to his own liking. He re-envisioned the space as a Trophy Room and filled it with game animals, weaponry, rare books, and a mural of hunting scenes along the curved cornice. Among the crowning achievements of the new design was a massive fireplace, with iridescent Art Nouveau tilework, roaring lacquered cherry lion heads, and massive moose head above the mantel. The other striking feature was a stained glass dome featuring autumnal trees, which has been carefully restored and is on view today.
If Theodore Roosevelt, with his zeal for hunting large game, had anything to do with defining early 20th century masculinity in America, then Lucius George Fisher’s aesthetic would have fit it perfectly. The heads and bodies of wild game weren’t confined only to the Trophy Room; rather, they featured prominently as a defining decorative feature of the house. The Trophy Room displayed sea turtles, a 12-point buck, African antelope horns, birds both local and exotic, and a magnificent tiger skin rug. The first and second floor Halls featured bear rugs—one with the head still attached—and the heads of bison, buffalo, walrus, reindeer, and bighorn sheep lining the walls. The Dining Room featured a large silver fish bolted to the Lincrusta, an owl, and another grand moose head. Historic photographs, taken for fire insurance purposes, also feature a few hairy and indistinct mysterious animals on andirons and floors, including sheepskin throws and something that looks like a porcupine on the floor of the Drawing Room.
Perhaps a remnant of Fisher’s young days on the western frontier seeking gold, the few objets d’art often depicted the American West. A prominent bronze bust in the Smoking Room depicted a Native American chieftan, for example, and a blanket covering an upstairs divan was woven with the colorful triangles of the Southwest. He was not otherwise a major art collector as Nickerson had been before him, although he did purchase the Greek statuary from the 1893 world’s fair and donate it to Beloit College for its permanent collection.
Like the rest of Chicago in the early 20th century, the Fishers were confident in their success and enjoyed sharing it. One newspaper item from Christmastime 1902 mentions that the Fishers were the first to kick off that party season with a dinner and dance, and the “big Erie Street house…was decorated in American beauties and Christmas grace.” Few records survive of the other grand parties they certainly hosted in their urban palace in Near North, but previous special occasions, such as debutante receptions in their Ellis Avenue home, prove they were central characters in the city’s elite social class. The society pages in the Chicago Daily Tribune detailed costumes—“Mrs. Fisher wore an apple green and brown brocade gown trimmed with lace, Miss Fisher wore a white crêpe de soie with large white satin sleeves and lace bertha”—and menus—“chocolate, coffee and ice-cream in the billiard room” and “egg-nog in the dining room.”
Lucius George Fisher lived in the Nickerson House for a total of 16 years. In August 1910, he and his wife were traveling in Germany visiting the famous baths of Carlsbad, when Katherine died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 61. Fisher returned with her body by ship, and the news came as a shock to the whole family. Fisher himself died on March 16, 1916, inside the Erie Street mansion.
The estate was divided between the three sisters, and Fishers’ youngest daughter Katherine and her husband, Homer Dixon, occupied the mansion after his death. The 1920 census paints a picture of a lively, full household with 33-year-old Katherine at the head. At the time the Dixons had seven children under the age of 11, as well as 11 live-in servants, mainly Scandinavian immigrants.
Thirty-two prominent Chicago families purchased the residence from the Dixons and donated the building to the American College of Surgeons. The rest, of course, is history.