Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 78°F
Just a few decades ago, Chicago was tearing down its architectural landmarks
with a vengeance. Among these were the work of legendary architect Louis
Sullivan, and no one, it seemed, felt it was important to document and
preserve them. No one, that is, except photographer Richard Nickel. This
idealistic crusader's passion to save Chicago's architectural treasures
consumed his life and ultimately caused his untimely death.
Richard Nickel had never given architecture any serious thought, or even heard of Louis Sullivan, before he enrolled in a photography class at the Institute of Design in Chicago in the early 1950s. There, photography teacher Aaron Siskind gave Nickel and his classmates a simple assignment: go out and photograph Sullivan's buildings. It was an assignment that would change Nickel's life as he became captivated by Sullivan's decorative details. As he continued to photograph the buildings, he began to devour Sullivan's writings. In Louis Sullivan, Richard Nickel had found a kindred spirit.
Nickel's brother Donald remembers that Richard was an outsider, even in his own family. "He read a lot. He'd be up all hours of the night playing Bach and Mozart, and of course, my folks didn't know Mozart from the man on the moon." By the time he was 25, Nickel had already been married and divorced, and had served time in the Army as a paratrooper and photographer. Now he was living in his parent's attic, which would remain his home until he died twenty years later.
Nickel began documenting every known Sullivan building. But the buildings began coming down almost as quickly as he could document them, and it soon became a race between Nickel and the wreckers. Then it dawned on him: it was not enough to simply take photographs. He must save as much of the actual buildings as he could. In 1958, Nickel met two young architecture students, John Vinci and David Norris, who shared his devotion to Sullivan and were eager to help him salvage pieces of other buildings. They recall, "He'd come with his Chevrolet with a bucket in it. . .and a crow bar, a couple of hammers and coal chisels." He enlisted his brother Donald's help as well. "I thought he was crazy," Donald says. "You know, I didn't know Sullivan from Mr. Magoo." Nickel stored the huge pieces of salvaged ornament outside his parents' home in Park Ridge, despite complaints from the neighbors about, as Nickel wrote, "the unsightly appearance of the yard."
By 1960, he was exhausted, discouraged, and ready to give up the cause and get a regular job. But then he learned of plans to demolish Sullivan's 17-story Garrick Theater building to make way for a parking garage. In all his years of saving ornament, Nickel had never attempted to stop the wrecking ball and save an entire building.
But the Garrick was one building he could not bear to see torn down. He fought hard, but in the end the building owners prevailed in court, and demolition was approved. Losing the Garrick took a great toll on Nickel; he was mentally and physically drained. But when he heard that Sullivan's Stock Exchange building was in jeopardy, he entered the fray one last time. Unable to stop the demolition, Vinci and Nickel were able to save a significant portion of the building's ornament, including the complete interior of the Trading Room, which was later recreated at the Art Institute. Even after the official salvage operation ended, Nickel kept returning to the site for more pieces. On April 13, 1972, he disappeared. A month later, after a protracted search, his body was found in the rubble of the building. He had been crushed when the Trading Room floor collapsed.
Louis Sullivan is now widely viewed as one of the icons of American architecture, and his lost masterpieces live on in Richard Nickel's photographs and in the salvaged ornament displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago and around the world. As for Nickel, history will view him as one of the heroes of architectural preservation, a man who lived—and died—for the love of old buildings.
In 1973, the Art Institute of Chicago presented a one-man exhibition of 100 photographs by Richard Nickel. Curator of Photography David Travis recalls it as a signal event: "The Ward Gallery was one of our premier spaces for temporary exhibitions and I believe this was the first time it was devoted to a single photographer. The museum had not previously focused such attention on a single photographer and his work."
Richard Nickel Speaking for Himself
Richard Nickel was a prolific and passionate letter writer. Here are a few quotes:
"I am on earth in [Sullivan's] behalf, and I have only begun to fight."
"What is going on in Chicago?. . .Many smaller insignificant Adler and Sullivan buildings have gone, but now the Garrick?"
"Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men."
"Marvelous being in a work of art under rape. How often do you experience the bones, veins, skin of a work of art, even if it be in dissection?"
"What a fool I must be. Why am I horsing around, moving the stones from one warehouse to another, while everybody else is making a dandy living, have their own lives and apartments and houses, etc.? It's even a problem for me to buy a car."
(reacting to a magazine's praise of the parking garage that replaced the Garrick)
"They wreck one of [Sullivan's] masterpieces, and you conclude it is a tribute? Would you say that if someone wrecked St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome and erected a garage. . .that that was a tribute to St. Peter?"
The Moral of the Story?
Nickel's friend David Norris comments: "I think what Richard had to teach was that if you find some way to express your deepest convictions, you should exercise that talent to the very utmost of your ability. . .even if it leads somehow to your destruction."
On the day after his body was discovered, a Chicago Sun-Times editorial cartoon honored him with a drawing of a gravestone with the epitaph:
Killed in Action
rescuing Chicago architectural treasures
The Chicago Daily News characterized Nickel's death as "a sacrifice to art--a civic offering on the altar of greed."
Links of Interest
They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture
Richard Cahan's biography of the photographer is profusely illustrated.
Louis Sullivan: The Architect and His Work
A good source of general information on Sullivan's life and buildings.
Chicago Landmarks: Architect Louis Sullivan
This City of Chicago site includes a map of Sullivan buildings.
Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture
Hugh Morrison's authoritative biography of Louis Sullivan.
Louis Sullivan, 1856-1924
MIT's informational site about its architecture graduates, includes this page devoted to Sullivan.
GreatBuildings.com: Louis Sullivan
Links to information on many Sullivan buildings.
Louis Henri Sullivan Gravestone
This stone at Graceland Cemetery was erected by his admirers using private contributions.
Telling the Story of Richard Nickel by program co-producer Margie Newman
Many Chicagoans have heard of Richard Nickel, but too few have seen his work.
In 1999, I attended an exhibit on architect Louis Sullivan at the City Museum in St. Louis. Sullivan, who has been called a "prophet of modern architecture," was a central figure in the Chicago School, an architect who defined a truly American style and a unique aesthetic vision. But many of his buildings had been torn down since his death in 1924.
While I was somewhat familiar with Sullivan's work, the powerful photographs in this exhibit confronted me with the full weight of what had been lost. A sense of "how could they?" was the overwhelming emotional impact: how could they obliterate beautiful works of art like these buildings?
Compelled to learn more, I sought out information on both Sullivan and on Richard Nickel, the photographer whose reverent images of Sullivan buildings demanded my attention. I was astounded to read Richard Cahan's biography of Nickel and to learn of this extraordinary man's life and untimely death.
Nickel's story begged to be brought to television, and the story of Chicago's lost architectural masterpieces is one that every Chicagoan should know. I am grateful to WTTW for agreeing that this story should be included in the acclaimed Chicago Stories series, and to co-producer Jay Shefsky for sharing my enthusiasm for this project.
About the Program Producers
Jay Shefsky, a life-long Chicagoan, has been with WTTW since 1986. His 1999 documentary, "To Live Until I Die," which profiled six remarkable people as they approached their own deaths, won a CINE Golden Eagle, and was broadcast nationally on PBS. His 2000 documentary, "A Justice That Heals," a story of murder and forgiveness in a Chicago suburb, was broadcast on the ABC News Nightline program. His work has also been awarded with an Ohio State Award, a Peter Lisagor Award for Broadcast Journalism, three Emmy Awards, and other honors.
Margie Newman has collaborated with co-producer Jay Shefsky to script three documentaries in WTTW's Chicago Matters series ("To Live Until I Die," "A Justice That Heals" and "Teaching Parents"). In addition to her work at WTTW, Margie produced several episodes of World Museum Classics, a PBS series featuring special exhibits at museums around the world. She is a resident of St. Louis.
The Voice of Richard Nickel
In this Chicago Stories documentary, Chicago actor Larry Neumann, Jr. provides the narrative voice of Richard Nickel, reprising his role in the recent Lookingglass Theatre production about the photographer.
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