In the 1950s, the City of Chicago decreed that thousands of structures on the South Side be demolished in the name of urban renewal. Among them, all huddled within half a square mile, were 19 stately houses designed in the 1880s by the Chicago architectural firm of Adler & Sullivan.
Few people protested or even took notice. But a young architectural photographer named Richard Nickel saw something no one else did. He knew it was here that Dankmar Adler’s partner, Louis Sullivan, had tested his ideas, playing with light, shadow, proportion, and materials. Sullivan gave each house its own ornamentation, using terra cotta he could mold, limestone he could chisel, wood he could carve, plaster he could shape, and iron and sheet metal he could stamp. His ornament did not embellish—“Form ever follows function,” Sullivan said—but rather was an essential part of his architecture.
Nickel sprang into action. He photographed and measured Sullivan’s houses and devised detailed drawings so that they could be re-created—on paper, at least. As they were razed, he rescued what he could, using little more than an extension ladder to scale the exteriors, a hammer and crowbar to extract the ornament, and rope to lasso and carefully guide the pieces down to his waiting Chevy.
Inflamed by the destruction of what he perceived to be art, Nickel devoted the next 20 years to trying to save the work of Adler & Sullivan, including the Chicago Stock Exchange Building and the Garrick Theater Building in the Loop. He organized picket lines and blasted city officials. “In this day of mass tourist flights to the capitals of Europe where Americans continue to see ‘culture,’ ” he wrote in the Tribune, “can we not open our eyes to our own treasures and heed what is happening to them?”
Though Nickel is now considered a heroic guardian of important buildings, he was too far ahead of his time to stem the tide of modernization. He died in 1972, at age 43, killed when a portion of the partially demolished Stock Exchange collapsed as he was picking through the rubble.
Nickel left behind mountains of contact sheets and negatives that show what he was seeing. And he left behind tens of thousands of pages that show what he was thinking. We first saw them in 1979, and over a period of many months, we looked at each note and letter. His writing is philosophical, astute, and funny. We have thought a lot about the power of Nickel’s letters. Their touch and feel. Their rawness and authenticity.
During the past few years, the Art Institute has organized and archived Nickel’s papers, along with his photographic work. Several standouts follow. Like the man himself, they inspire people to stop and look.