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Man  Out  of  Time

Before the city gave much thought to preserving its architectural gems, Richard Nickel devoted his life to saving them. His writings, sketches, and photos—now presented in a new book—offer a fresh view of a Chicago original.

Man Out of Time

Before the city gave much thought to preserving its architectural gems, Richard Nickel devoted his life to saving them. His writings, sketches, and photos—now presented in a new book—offer a fresh view of a Chicago original.

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?”

Richard Nickel
Nickel (holding placard) organized a 1960 protest to save Adler & Sullivan’s Garrick Theater Building at 64 West Randolph Street.  Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Waters/Chicago Sun-Times; all other photos courtesy of the Richard Nickel Archive, Ryerson and Burnham library Archives, Art Institute of Chicago
Adapted from Richard Cahan and Michael Williams’s Richard Nickel Dangerous Years: What He Saw and What He Wrote (CityFiles Press, out December 3, $60)

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.


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House Hunting
One of the many notes Nickel left for neighbors and wreckers of the Adler & Sullivan buildings he tracked down. If he couldn’t save the structures, he at least wanted to save their ornamentation. The 1958 razing of the 1883 house at 2147 West Lake Street began before Nickel could get there.
Albert Sullivan’s house at 4575 South Lake Park Avenue, which his brother, the architect Louis Sullivan, designed in 1891. Nickel took this photo in 1970 after removing pieces of the façade, including an extraordinary limestone lintel, from the doomed building. They are now on permanent display at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Nickel made photographic records of what was soon to be lost. Here he stands with his tools on the mosaic floor in the entryway of the house.
Desperate Measures
The elaborate proscenium arch of the Garrick Theater—Adler & Sullivan’s tallest structure, built in 1891—“ravishes and strikes one speechless in its rise and sweep,” Nickel wrote. He took this photo in the late 1950s.
Nickel begged civic leaders, such as Inland Steel executive Leigh Block, a prominent art collector (who, in contrast to Nickel’s salutation, was actually a man), to help save the Garrick.
After it became clear that the theater was doomed, Nickel sketched a highly impractical plan to airlift the arch to safety.
Busts of cultural figures were removed from the Garrick’s second-floor balcony. Some of them now adorn the entrance of the Second City building at 1616 North Wells Street.
The Wrecking Ball Cometh
Hope flared in 1960 when Mayor Richard J. Daley sent Nickel a telegram inviting him to a meeting to discuss saving the Garrick Theater Building. It did not go Nickel’s way.
A disappointed Nickel roamed the building with his camera as it was being demolished. This photo shows several floors in the Garrick’s tower.
Nickel’s most iconic photograph, from 1961, shows a gaping hole where the spectacular arch once stood. After the building came down, it was replaced with a parking garage.
His Final Fight
In 1971, Nickel sent a despairing letter to architect William Hartmann, who ran the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in a failed effort to save Adler & Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building at 30 North LaSalle Street.
By the following March, he would tell his friend Tim Samuelson that he was ready to give up on their “adventuring, salvaging, avoiding the cops, etc., in the cause of Sullivan”—partly because he planned to marry his fiancée, Carol Sutter, shown with Nickel below.
The once magnificent Trading Room—since reconstructed at the Art Institute—during demolition. Nickel, who took this photograph in early 1972, defied orders from wreckers to leave the unstable structure. Twenty-six days after he was reported missing, Nickel’s body was found in the rubble.

Go To view Richard Nickel’s papers, visit the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago. To see Nickel’s artifacts, visit the Lovejoy Library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.


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