Richard Nickel – photographer, preservationist, hero

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”   –      Richard Nickel

photo by Nickel of the demolition of the First Regiment Armory

The archive of photographer Richard Nickel was recently donated to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Nickel is a hero in the Chicago preservation and architecture communities for his early and dedicated work to preserve and document so much of Chicago’s early architectural history.  Working throughout the 1950’s and into early 1970’s, Nickel tirelessly recorded much of the work of Adler and Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Holabird and Roche, Frank Lloyd Wright and others.  These were the ugly, dark days for urbanism and architecture in the US, as hundreds of magnificent buildings were demolished by private developers and public institutions to make way for “progress” and urban renewal.  What was lost was priceless buildings, glorious creations of great architecture and great neighborhoods.

photo by Nickel of the Rookery Building stair by Adler & Sullivan, via the Richard Nickel Committee

Nickel not only took countless photos of endangered buildings, but he was also an ardent campaigner against the kind of wanton destruction that some Chicagoans were attempting.  The demolition of Louis Sullivan’s work was Nickel’s prime target and his efforts included not only taking photos but saving actual pieces of soon-to-be-demolished buildings.  The interior of the Chicago Stock Exchange building is a part of the Art Institute, on permanent display, due his work and that of other zealots he recruited.  Louis Sullivan is now known as one of the greatest of all American architects and much of his body of work exists solely in Nickel’s archive.

Louis Sullivan ornament, photo by Richard Nickel

Nickel’s story ended tragically and in some mystery.  His body was found inside the demolition site of the Chicago Stock Exchange building, buried under a collapsed stair.   Under great risk, he often entered building sites where demolition was already underway, and his photos are often the only documentary evidence that exists of so many buildings.  In the case of the Stock Exchange, he returned many times after the official salvage operation was complete to retrieve and document.

demolition of the Garrick Theater, designed by Sullivan, photo by Nickel

His archive, some 15,000 photographs, prints and negatives, has been held by The Richard Nickel Committee and available for viewing only by professionals and academics.  Hopefully now that it is housed at the Art Institute, some of this man’s heroic and beautiful images can be viewed more easily by the citizens of Chicago, who have benefited so powerfully from his heroic efforts.

For more info on Nickel, I recommend They All Fall Down by Richard Cahan, on Nickel, his preservation efforts and those of Chicago architect John Vinci.

Modern Art Wing, Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago has recently opened the new Modern Art wing designed by Renzo Piano.  Piano’s Design Workshop is probably the most consistently innovative and interesting big-name international architecture office out there.  Every building they execute is marked by an acute attention to detail and they all seem to serve their clients rather than the architect’s ego.

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So, on a recent visit, I found myself really appreciating the building, but not loving it.  As mentioned, it is beautifully and simply put together – the spaces flow nicely, the materials are clearly and cleanly brought together.  Maybe most importantly, and in light of Denver’s Art Museum, it is clear that the building is there to serve the art that it displays, not the reverse.

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However, in its simplicity and lightness, it lacks the robust material quality that I think distinguishes the best of Chicago architecture.  For while the Chicago skyscrapers and the Chicago window of the early twentieth century championed a kind of structural determinism and rationality, it exerted this as the primary formal expression.  The Modern wing more like a series of screens, horizontal and vertical, that wrap the building.  So, while this is a great response to the program of the building, to the housing and display of art,  it does not have to be the primary driver of the building.

Gage Building

This is a photo of the Gage Building, near the museum on Michigan Avenue, designed by Louis Sullivan.  You can feel the frame and weight of this building, the decorative medallions seeming to hold up the middle piers.  This is what I think of when I  think of Chicago architecture – taut buildings that are both light and heavy, rational and expressive.

Piano’s addition is a very good building, a great addition to the museum and the city.  But it speaks more to an international, place-less design than one rooted in a city of a great architectural tradition.

Louis Sullivan imposter bank, Poseyville, Indiana

I recently was driving a round-about way to New Harmony, Indiana and passed through Poseyville.  Much to my surprise, right in the middle of town, what appears to be a bank by Louis Sullivan.

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No mistaking the ornament, both in their individual designs and how they ‘strap’ the building.  However, having studied Sullivan in school and later while living in Chicago, while I was familiar with many of his late career bank designs, I had never heard of this one.  It is extremely similar in its long facade to the bank in Sidney, Ohio.

Sidney Bank 01

However, as you can see, the Poseyville bank is more of a shoe-box than a jewel box, simply repeating the long facade ornamentation to the main entry.  The individual ornamentations however are unmistakable:

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Poseyville bank

Sidney Bank 02

Sidney bank

Well, it turns out the Poseyville bank is not a Sullivan work at all.  Rather, it is a knock-off, by Edward Thole, built in 1924 (documented in the excellent essay “The Banks and the Image of Progressive Banking” by Wim de Wit in Louis Sullivan, The Function of Ornament. ( I highly recommend this essay as it gives cultural context to the intentions of the architect and clients of the bank projects.  Rarely are the needs and desires of the engaged clients presented or discussed in architecture books)

Maybe the Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company had the molds available for use?

Sidney bank image from the website maintained by Mary Ann Sullivan:  http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/sidney/sidney.html

In any case, it is an interesting building and though not a Sullivan original, a commanding presence in the small town and a fascinating attempt to convey strength and security for a bank without resorting to the usual Greek temple forms.