Happy Birthday Richard Nickel!

May is National Historic Preservation Month. Preservation organizations at the neighborhood on up to the state level proclaimed “This Place Matters” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by holding up a printable sign emblazoned with the phrase and a train of hashtags after it. For many in the field here in Chicago and elsewhere, Preservation Month was business as usual. National Register nominations were drafted, letters to legislators were sent, buildings were researched and photographed, conferences were held and lectures were given. A whole month of work and public reflection that concluded on May 31st, the birthday of Chicago preservationist and photographer Richard Nickel. He would have been 87.

A cake was baked and decorated. Candles were lit. Happy Birthday was sung.

As a student at the Institute of Design in 1954, Richard Nickel was given an assignment in a photography class taught by Aaron Siskind to document works by Chicago School Architect Louis Sullivan. Nickel’s interest in Sullivan’s work metastasized to the point of obsession after the class concluded. Growing up in Logan Square, Nickel was smart but solitary, and had served as a paratrooper and photographer in the US Army but had no defined direction. As Richard J. Daley’s plans for slum clearance surged, demolishing over 6,000 buildings between 1957 and 1960, Richard Nickel was finding purpose in the overlooked work of Sullivan. Documenting and identifying extant buildings designed by Louis Sullivan became Richard Nickel’s life’s work. As wrecking crews approached and a building prepared to meet its fate, Nickel would intervene on behalf of Sullivan’s busy and organic ornament, salvaging what he could and using his parent’s garage in Park Ridge, Illinois to store bits of elaborate stonework and column capitals. Before the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, before the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Action, before Heartbombs, rightsizing and blexting, Richard Nickel was the only person in Chicago “doing” preservation. He had no language for it. He had no architectural history courses under his belt. He had a Chevrolet, a camera, and a whole lot of fucking soul.

Richard Nickel, undated photograph (image courtesy of the Richard Nickel Archive)
Richard Nickel, undated photograph (image courtesy of the Richard Nickel Archive)

This year, as Chicago’s snow melted and gave way to spring a surge of change began. Demolition permits were filed, and approved. Bulldozers lined up at the ready. Demolition Season has begun, and is surging forward in a way that seems to want to make up for lost time. Good and even great buildings long-mothballed and unoccupied; seemingly waiting for their next chapter since before the financial crisis have been knocked down flat, a blank canvas for new developments with names like “West Town Crossing,” “South Loop Station” or “The Lofts at Roosevelt Village.” Just as often, buildings are demolished without any plan. Coming Soon: Nothing! Chicago’s Landmark Ordinance and demolition delay process is showing its age, seemingly meant for historic architecture with a capital “H” and a capital “A”, and unable to forecast a future where cast iron storefronts had gone from being ubiquitous to rare.

May was also pocked with terror on the regulatory front in Chicagoland, as Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner pushed to dramatically restructure the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, jeopardizing programs such as the admistration of federal historic tax credits and regulatory compliance review. Promoting economic development while preserving the past is a slippery slope, and while the Illinois house approved a measure creating two state agencies for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, alleviating some pressure on the issue and allowing the IHPA to remain, it’s still pretty bad news. State Historic Preservation Offices across the country are struggling to maintain functionality under cuts and while this measure is a compromise (the Illinois Legislature will still have to vote) it leaves our SHPO vulnerable, and allows Governor Rauner to appoint a new historic preservation director with senate approval. The state of Illinois’s top job in preservation could be offered up to the gods of cronyism. Bozo the Clown could be the next head of the Illinois SHPO.

Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital is now a sodded lot in Streeterville. The vernacular fabric of our neighborhoods are under attack, and the demand for newer, glassier, taller and denser jeopardizes what’s existing. Historic Preservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but a lot of practitioners seem to want to keep it in the hands of the gray-haired, bow-tied and time-tested academic, the public sector employee that clocks out of work and out of preservation at 3:30 p.m., or the historian that insists that architectural history stopped after Art Moderne. And we are all still kind of shaking our coffee cans, emblazoned with SAVE THE CLOCK TOWER in front of all those necking teenagers and wondering why no one drops a quarter in. In 2015, there seems to be a breach in connection between historic preservation, determination, appreciation of the works of art that great buildings are and most importantly, inclusion.

It shatters me that we tear down these obvious works of art. I’ll fight the goddamn system till the bitter end, like Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gently Into The Night”-Richard Nickel

It was not enough for Richard Nickel to take photographs. On June 8th, 1960, Nickel turned from salvager to activist, leading the charge on Randolph Street to save the 1892 Garrick Theatre from demolition. The outcome was a sadly familiar one in the 1960s as well as today, the Garrick was ultimately demolished for a parking garage.

Documenting a building and salvaging its ornament is always a sad sort of consolation prize, but, like Richard Nickel, we cannot let the bitterness over demolition affect our idealism. Like the rebar, wires and other types of building guts revealed as a building is dismantled, letting our determination falter exposes us to the elements and weakens us.

As Richard Nickel understood it, visiting and revisiting Sullivan buildings; watching as they went from being full of life, to becoming unoccupied, documentation was often the last line of defense, and the last chance for a building to ever be known.

Nickel’s work is eyes-straight ahead documentary photography. People are used for scale, and the presence of objects such as light standards and automobiles seem to have been framed so as to purposefully establish time. Architectural photography in Chicago carries the immense weight of this body of work within it. Natural curiousity and thoughtfulness governs each of Richard Nickel’s images. Like piece of double exposed film, almost every photo of an old building takes on a bit of this life.

Great Architecture has only two natural enemies, water and stupid men.- Richard Nickel

Richard Nickel, date unknown (Image via The Richard Nickel Archive)
Richard Nickel, date unknown (Image via The Richard Nickel Archive)

Ten years after the loss of the Garrick in a move that seems exponentially stupider then it did at the time, Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building was slated for demolition. Advocacy efforts to save the 1894 Stock Exchange proved ineffective, but would ultimately lead to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, now Landmarks Illinois. The City of Chicago recognized the importance of the building’s ornament, and paid to have much of it salvaged. The Art Institute of Chicago was to dismantle and recreate the entire Trading Room within one of the museum’s wings. All the while, Richard Nickel photographed the building’s deconstruction, and continued to pull ornament from the site. The Stock Exchange Building was so heavily salvaged and documented that the sum of its exalted existing pieces not so subtly negates the need for it to be demolished in the first place. And for what? Not a parking garage, but the building that replaced it has all the character of one.

When demolition to a building is eminent, it’s popular to state that “Preservationists have lost the battle.” In truth, when a great building is demolished, it’s a battle that we have lost collectively.

On Thursday, April 13th, 1972, Richard Nickel had left home early to salvage inside the Stock Exchange. He was working alone amidst the active demolition around him. It had been unseasonably warm in Chicago that month. Perhaps it was sunny, and the sunshine lit up the dust particles and debris in the air, making it sparkle. That old building smell; damp and warm and made of wood and metal and stone and carpet and everything else, filled the dismantled spaces. Polyester double-knit jacquard shorts were on sale at Carson Pirie Scott & Company, only blocks away. The Stanley Cup-bound Chicago Blackhawks were threatening to strike. US forces were still committed in South Vietnam. Nickel was in love, and recently engaged. It was Richard’s last day on earth.

Demolition halted after Richard Nickel didn’t return home, and friends and family searched frantically for him for a week. Almost a month after his briefcase and hardhat were found in the rubble and demolition resumed, a worker spotted what looked like a human shoulder, two floors beneath the Trading Room, in the Stock Exchange’s sub-basement. Richard Nickel had been crushed to death, but his body had remained intact. Debris and rubble, along with cold water seeping into the building had kept decomposition at bay. An autopsy later revealed that Richard Nickel had suffered from pulmonary emphysema and chronic bronchitis, a result of breathing in 20 years of dust and airborne debris from salvage sites and old buildings.

Demolition has a strange way of preserving a building forever, but in time only. The Chicago Stock Exchange never got the opportunity to work through the shift in technology of the 1980s. It never had its mortar joints filled inappropriately, and then lovingly corrected as the culture to physically restore a building continued to mature. It never had the opportunity for its coffee shop to turn into a Currency Exchange, and then to be re-imagined as an Intelligentsia. It will never be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or be given the opportunity for someone to stealth cellular antennas on the roof.

Richard Nickel is often called a martyr for historic preservation, his death somehow akin to the tragic fate of the source of his obsession, Louis Sullivan. But perhaps canonization throws the bar too far out for us to grasp back onto. Richard was determined and driven by an impetuous passion, remained intellectually curious, and understood the rapid pace of change. These are important characteristics for anyone that practices preservation. Nickel lived for old buildings, and he died for them; but the most important thing to remember is that he really lived, and for something he loved.

At 87, Richard Nickel would have had a wide view of what architectural heritage is today, and it’s doubtful after advocating for the work of Louis Sullivan 50 years after Sullivan’s time it wouldn’t be difficult for Nickel to understand that butterfly roofs are as radical as some of the Chicago School Architecture he was trying to save in the 1960s. He would have championed the shift in ideas of slum clearance and urban renewal to the assets of neighborhoods and Chicago’s vernacular architecture. Perhaps his most recent project would have been documenting the insensitive changes made to C.F. Murphy and Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, built in 1985.

Not gently into the night, but loudly expressing his convictions.

Happy Birthday, Richard!

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One thought on “Happy Birthday Richard Nickel!”

  1. Richard Nickel was the reason I did what I did when I did. I am old enough to remember the buildings that turned to dust under the wrecking ball that seemed to never stop swinging once it had momentum.

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