The short, happy life of Richard Nickel

General / People / Places / Products / January 11, 2011

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies:” photographer Richard Nickel once wrote. “Water and stupid men.”

He was certainly in a position to know.  From 1952 until 1972, he devoted his life first to photographing the work of Adler & Sullivan in Chicago, then to salvaging artifacts when the firm’s buildings faced the wrecking ball, and finally to saving what few structures he could.

It was a decidedly uphill battle.  Of the 256 buildings designed together and separately by Adler and Sullivan,  only 30 remain standing across the nation today.  Most of Chicago’s stock was lost in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Chicago columnist Mike Royko once wrote of Nickel, “I figure that anyone who tries to save landmarks in Chicago is goofy enough to teach celibacy in a Playboy Club or nonviolence to Dick Butkus.”

But try he did.  And today, after decades of trial and error, a book documenting his efforts has been published.  It’s twelve inches square, with 815 photos, many of them large-format, lavishly spread across 461 pages.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Ward Miller, Director of the Richard Nickel Committee, the entity that serves as custodian of the photographer’s extensive archives.  “It contains the complete works – all the buildings, all the projects, and a catalogue raisonne, a full body of work chronicled and cataloged in the back 108 pages of the book.”

Nickel got started in 1952 as a student in photographer Aaron Siskind’s class at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Together they mounted an exhibit on the architecture of Louis Sullivan in 1954, and then embarked on a book project that has evolved into “The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan” today.

Nickel’s master thesis was a continuation of the Sullivan project in which the photographer discovered and documented 38 previously unknown commissions by Adler & Sullivan. 

“He wanted to show the structures in their context,” Ward said.  “Some were in dire straits.  Some were remodeled.  Some were beyond recognition.  But still, you can see the intense detail – the master’s capabilities in the best qualities of these buildings.”

In 1972, his work came to a tragic end.  While he was inside the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, its demolition underway, the floor collapsed.  His body was found 28 days later, perfectly preserved and encased in plaster dust.

“He’d salvaged the staircase for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the trading floor for the Art Institute of Chicago,” Ward said.  “On that day, he was salvaging a stringer from the staircase.”

He was killed on April 14, 1972 – 46 years to the day after the death of Louis Sullivan.

To order a copy of the book, go to the University of Chicago Press,  the Richard Nickel Committee,  or call 773.528.1300.

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Mike Welton

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