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.

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Individual Landmarks – preservation one at a time

In Boulder, like many other cities, there are a number of historic districts designed to save the architecture of individual buildings but also the overall look and feel of a neighborhood.  In addition to this kind of district-based preservation, there are programs to save individual buildings where the immediate neighborhood may not justify a district designation or there is just too much homeowner resistance to the idea.  In Boulder, the program to preserve single buildings is called Individual Landmark Designation and the criteria are in line with many other such programs across the nation.

Volsky house, by Charles Haertling, in LIFE magazine

What is abundantly clear as espoused in almost every public meeting, is why in the world would anyone want to have their building designated in that way and held to the close scrutiny for any changes in the future.  I would like to describe some of the benefits of this kind of individual landmark designation:

  1. Tax Credits.  There are state tax credits available for approved renovations to designated properties.  These credits can be applied for work to rehab the exterior siding, roofing, windows, and other exterior details.  Maybe most applicable however, is that these credits can be gained for upgrading interior systems as well – electrical, heating, cooling, etc.
  2. Commercial tax credits.  These are similar as those described above, but are federal tax credits and are only available for commercial properties.  However, residential rental properties are eligible.  As Boulder moves forward with its SmartRegs ordinance requiring the upgrading of energy systems for residential rental units, these kinds of tax credits may apply and greatly offset some of the costs of complying.
  3. Sales Tax Credits.  Local sales taxes for building materials can be waived if the materials represent at least 30% of the value of the materials are for the building’s exterior.
  4. State Grants.  If sponsored by a local municipality, some renovation costs may be paid for from a grant fund from the Colorado State Historical fund.  The Boulder Landmarks Board reviews and often approves this type of request as a benefit to building owners as an incentive for preservation.
  5. Regulatory relief.  As Boulder has layered more restrictive requirements on the development of properties in the city, the potential of this aspect of preservation has become more important.  Anyone owning an individually landmarked building can petition the Landmarks Board to approve their proposed changes even though some of the new work may be in violation of the Solar Shadow ordinance, zoning requirements, the new Compatible Development regulations like bulk planes, and even some aspects of the International Building Code.
Brenton house, aka Mushroom house, by Charles Haertling

And the negatives of individual landmark designation:

  1. Alterations.  If your building is individually landmarked, then any changes you might like to make to the building will have to be reviewed by either the Historic Preservation staff or the Landmarks Board.  This is not as painful or fear-inducing as it might appear at first.  Most all changes can be reviewed and approved with a simple sit down meeting with staff and the Design Review Committee of the Landmarks Board.  These are casual meetings held every Wednesday where the homeowner, staff and committee members talk over the project, discuss the merits and make suggestions, and often approve the changes right away.  Major changes, like partial demolitions and major additions, take longer to work through and the committee and staff can usually provide advice to make the project better while still preserving the building and meeting the desires of the homeowner.
  2. Demolition.  An individually landmarked building can not be demolished unless proven unsafe for use and/or habitation.  This may limit some future speculator’s designs on your property, but did you really want your legacy in the neighborhood to be new McMansion down the street.
  3. Costs.  Unlike so many taxes and fees, the costs for applying for individual landmark designation is crazy cheap – $25 bucks.
Dammann house, by Charles Haertling

So, if you love your house, if you don’t plan on demolishing it, it might be eligible for designation.  And this is not a program for only those grand old Victorian houses, but for anything that has some architectural or historical significance, including mid-century modernist buildings and the odd, quirky structures that give Boulder its architectural character.  What is missing from Boulder’s list of individually designated buildings are those wonderful, sometimes odd, buildings and houses designed in the 1950’s and 60’s when Boulder came into its own as a place of scientific excellence, environmental consciousness and progressive ideals.  Those buildings, designed by Charles Haertling, James Hunter, Hobie Wagner, Jacques Hampton and others reflect not so much a specific style copped from the East Coast, but the individual desires of their clients and the liberating topography of the West.  These buildings, beyond their architectural brillance, represent the best of what Boulder is and still strives to be.  And we should honor these buildings and their spirit by preserving their essence and ensuring that our kids will come to know Boulder by these buildings and not the newly minted McMansions of generic neighborhoods.

Boulder Eye Clinic, by Charles Haertling

Preserving Modernism

That title may seem like an oxymoron to some folks but the reality is that Modernism as a philosophy and style of architecture is about 100 years old.  The national standard for the consideration of historic and architectural significance is 50 years old or greater.  More importantly, with the passage of time we have seen that mid-century modern homes and other buildings, once the objects of scorn, are now eagerly sought after and enthusiastically restored.  Arapahoe Acres in Denver is the best local example of mid-century residential development but there are so many individual buildings not recognized or protected.

Arapahoe Acres houses

There are three major reasons why these buildings, often beautifully designed and extremely well-built, are so frequently on the roles of demolitions.  The first is simple house size.  The average size house has doubled since the 1950s and of course so have buyer’s expectations.  Most folks are no longer willing to share a single bathroom or live with 8′ x 10′ bedrooms.  And these mid-century modern homes certainly do not have the swelling show kitchens of newer builder homes.

kitchen and family space in Arapahoe Acres house

The second reason is familiarity.  Most folks in the United States now recognize the need and desire for preserving some portions of our architectural past.  The frankly fetishistic preservation of every Victorian shack knows no bounds.  However, so many of us find it hard to believe that the small, cramped houses that we grew up in can have any lasting architectural value that the temptation is to demolish these buildings blinded as we are by our own myopic histories.  Not many of us were raised in the grand Victorian houses that represent so much of historic districts across the country.  They seem like sentinels of a better time and place – large, spacious rooms, fine craftsmanship, broad lawns.  However, all the crappy, drafty junky shed-like houses and tenements where the vast majority of people lived have been torn down (or fell down on their own).  The preserved fine homes of yesteryear are only a very small and select portion of the housing stock of that era.  My thoughts would extend as well to the mid-century houses in a similar fashion – save the very best, not all the rest.

window/masonry detail, mid-century modern house

The third reason is a phantom – the bogey man of energy efficiency.  I am not going to argue that these houses are easy and cost-effective to heat or cool, they are not.  But neither are their Victorian cousins with the huge interior volumes and equal lack of insulation.  The thin, non-thermally-broken aluminum windows of the 1950s-70s are truly dreadful in both R-value and air infiltration, but the vast majority of a house’s energy loss is through the wall envelope and the windows usually represent no more than 10% of the building’s energy losses.  Blowing in insulation in wall cavities, adding it in ceiling/roofs, does far better than replacing windows and is the same need and process for a Modernist house as it for any other style and era of architecture.

As a local example, the City of Boulder has hundreds of individually landmarked buildings in addition to the 10 historic districts (which are largely made up of traditional, non-Modern buildings).  Of these hundreds of buildings, there are only about 5 that are Modernist in design and sensibility.  Two of them, a house and a multi-family residence, are designed by noted local architect Glen Huntington:

Huntington Arms

Thornton House

Only one of works of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s finest Modernist architect, is individually landmarked.  Few of the houses of James Hunter, Jacques Hampton and many other notable architects are protected although many of these buildings are at least as architecturally significant as so many other protected works.   I am not advocating a battle between saving yet another generic Victorian house versus a really fine mid-century masterpiece like the Willard House.  Preservation is not a mutually-exclusive game.  I am advocating looking at our recent past, to buildings and houses of the 1950’s- 1970’s and carefully assessing their value and meaning and providing some protections for the really great works among them.

Willard House, by Charles Haertling

Winks Lodge

A number of months ago I wrote a post about the historic Lincoln Hills neighborhood in rural Gilpin County, Colorado, about 20 miles southwest of Boulder.  In the 1920’s when many of Colorado’s mayors and governors were KKK members, this African-American resort community thrived as the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi.  At the heart of Lincoln Hills was The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA camp for girls, Camp Nizhoni,  and Winks Lodge.

Built in 1925 by Naomi and Obrey “Winks” Hamlet, the lodge consisted of 6 bedrooms, some common rooms and a large wrap around porch.  The list of visiting luminaries is impressive by anyone’s standard: Billy Eckstein, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston.  Although much of Lincoln Hills has disappeared, the lodge remains and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  With a grant from the Colorado State Historical Fund, the Beckwourth Outdoors Club purchased the lodge and has begun a partial renovation.

The lodge is not a remarkable piece of architecture, but its historical significance is immense.  In a state not known for its racial diversity, preservation and encouragement of this community and this building is rare and welcome.  Although the lodge is not open to the public, I would encourage folks to go up to Lincoln Hills and take a look at what remains of this once vibrant, thriving community, an artistic and intellectual salon that has faded with the years.  Like Chicago’s Bronzeville, Lincoln Hills owed some of its existence to institutionalized and legalized racism.  Around that kind of malevolent exterior pressure grew some amazingly fertile and rich intellectual and artistic communities, with the Harlem Renaissance as maybe the shining example.  The loss of these places is a good sign – they existed because of repression and lack of opportunity.  But it is a bittersweet loss nevertheless.

time and architecture

Having spent the last twenty years or so trying to figure out how a building works in space, I have been spending a lot of time over the last few years increasingly interested in how a building works in time.  The young-architect years spent working out cutting-edge, avant garde work has given way to a more subtle deliberation over the span of life of a building.  This has embodied itself in many different forms:

a growing concern and interest in life cycle costs of materials and sustainability

Issues of sustainability have been on the front-burner for most architects for quite a few years now.  In Colorado, the environment, both political and natural, has pushed many of these issues further, faster than many other places.  The standard practices of architects here are in general, far in front of our colleagues from other areas of the country.

maybe we should keep those old wood windows?

This isn’t necessarily due to the fore-thought of the architects, but increasingly demanded by our clients and aggressive local energy codes. Of particular interest here is the sticky issue of embodied energy in buildings.  This is extremely hard to calculate and assign value.  As a result, most local energy codes and LEED do not give due credit for the energy saved in retaining a building instead of demolition.  Most people think they should tear down and old, energy-inefficient building, but the cost in lost embodied energy takes some 40 years of savings to equal.  And with notion of the most sustainable building is the one already there, that has lead me to…

a renewed interest in historic preservation and membership on the City of Boulder’s Landmarks Board

As more and more of my projects involved careful, surgical interventions in older buildings, my interest in the fabric of these buildings has dramatically increased.  This is never more true than when some initial deconstruction has revealed old lath and plaster, exposed roof rafters and old double-hung window counterweights.  These “technologies” were the latest and greatest of their day and are endlessly fascinating for a building geek like myself.

Of course there is also the realization that the buildings that were shiny and new when I was a kid are beginning to reach that critical 50-year mark that makes them eligible for preservation.  In fact, many municipalities are cutting this time down to 20 years – the past is catching up with us.  The notion of what and how to protect buildings, for their architectural or historical value or maybe just embodied energy, is quickly changing, establishing the building arts as an ongoing process, not one that is so reliant on notions of “completeness” or “originality”.

a increased fascination with the history of architectural problems, the recurring issues that architect’s have had to deal with over centuries of practice

As so many projects the past couple of years have been smaller and with tighter budgets, the architectural issues have in a sense become more distilled.  Along with the occasional dog-house design, I have done a number of porch additions, often on older homes.  What seems like at first a pretty simple project leads to a historically/architecturally rich conundrum.  As a series of posts or columns are proposed, what happens when you take that porch around to the wall of the house?  Do you put a pilaster or half-column on the wall to “receive” the porch?  You don’t need this structurally, but it seems like it should be there to complete the post-and-lintel rhythm of the porch.  How about an inside corner when the “column” is really buried inside the corner of two walls?

WWMD - What Would Michelangelo Do - or maybe Mies?

A simple problem, but one that architects have struggled with for centuries – Alberti, Palladio, Vitruvius, Michelangelo all wrestled with the same notion of architectural expression vs. structural “truth”.  It certainly makes a simple porch addition into something richer and more interesting (are my client’s aware of this…sometimes, yes, sometimes, not)

ideology has been supplanted by historiography

Having never really been much of a formalist (much to the dismay of some of my former bosses), the supplanting of ideology by a more complex narrative, was not so much a shift as part of a long, slow slide over twenty years.  Frankly, for most architects, ideology is greatly devolved into questions of merely architectural language – modern vs. traditional.  To be anything other than a committed modernist was, and still is in some circles, seen as a moral failure of severest kind.  Of course, Modernism itself has long been bleed of any moral values and to most Americans represents “corporate” style rather than its original utopian vision.

the promise and the reality

That architects haven’t and can’t seem to catch up with this is tragic.  Some of the basic aesthetic notions embedded in modernism still resonant with me – simplicity, spatial richness, clarity – but to continue to cloak the preference for these qualities in an insistence on the use of an architectural language based on a style of architecture from 1920’s Europe… The time of a building has not replaced the space of a building in my interest or daily work.  Rather it has become another layer of richness and potential meaning that seems too valuable to waste.

or maybe all this increased interest in time is all a part of the same mechanism, as one’s mortality becomes more apparent, time becomes more precious.

main street vs. walmart

In small rural towns all over the United States, there are a lot of empty storefronts. These great little main streets have a wealth of simple, pedestrian-scaled buildings that, if not already empty, are small, locally-owned family businesses barely hanging on. Where has the hardware store gone? How about the pharmacy, little dry-goods store, bank, optician, deli, coffee shop, gun shop, and green grocer?

If they are at all like Farmville, Virginia, and in my experience many of them are, they are located in one, massive building, about the same size and length, out by the bypass – Walmart. There’s plenty of parking, the prices are cheap, and it’s air-conditioned. And it may be the death of small town America.

In a recent week spent in Farmville, I went up and down Main Street, into the fine Walker’s Diner and some local shops and also out to the Walmart (the only place to left to buy a fishing rod). The interactions between customers and owner/employees at the local shops was significantly more meaningful and humane than anything I witnessed at the big box store. I know I am beating a dead horse, and that almost everyone decries this loss of the local, small-scale businesses, but it is quite a different thing to see and feel it on the ground than to read it in the news or hear about it anecdotally.

I have spent a fair amount of time in my career as an architect, working within, writing and administering building guidelines meant to bolster and restore once vibrant small retail downtowns. Committees, boards, architects, owners, and citizens fret over the size of storefront windows and sign bands whenever a new addition to a cherished old-timey Main Street is proposed. My advice to myself and to the rest: just look at the storefronts of Farmville, almost perfect in the scale and variety, warmth and details. And almost all in jeopardy.

new construction in historic contexts

City of Boulder, along with most other municipalities, has embedded within its Historic Preservation guidelines, a complex philosophical conundrum.  According to the guidelines, sections 4.2 and 6.1, new construction and additions to historic structures should be not mimic the style of the neighborhood or building, but rather “be of its own time.”  The guidelines then go on for many other sections describing how the new work should be compatible with the old in materials, colors, form, mass, scale and proportion.  Now this is not just Boulder’s rules, but it comes directly from the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

ignoring the problem (and just plain stupid)

As you can imagine, there is great variety of interpretation here.  Every board has a different approach to this delicate balancing act, ranging from approving almost complete mimicry to outright stylistic opposition.  The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has addressed this problem directly in their guidelines and outlined four strategies for understanding this problem (see Part One).

Libeskind, in Toronto - radical bad-boy chic (really??!!)

It often comes as a shock to homeowners that they should not, and may not be allowed, to exactly copy portions of their existing house for an addition.  It comes as a surprise to architects as well, many of whom tend to sit on either distant end of this spectrum, from the accurate historicists to the radical confrontationalistas.

a new Victorian, fakery and lots of trim (oh my)

Exactly reproducing a older house or its parts blurs the distinction between old and new and begs the question of why not tear down all old buildings and rebuild them with new construction, energy efficiency, and modern systems as long as they look exactly like the old houses. This is not historic preservation, but stylistic prejudice parading as such.  On the other hand, creating additions or new buildings in historic districts that are in outright opposition to the historic fabric puts into question the very reason for establishing historic districts.  It is the messy ground in between these poles that real work ought to take place.  This is not easy and asks a lot of architects, homeowners and contractors.

the very painstakingly fake, circa 1990's not 1790's ("where's my carriage!")

In the end what is usually required is the arduous task of creating a new style or language for a building that incorporates elements of the existing building or neighborhood but re-contextualizes them in a form for the present.  This isn’t then the relatively easy task of duplicating a style – a chore that any architect with chops can easily execute. But rather it is invention in the best sense – by balance and judgement and experience and necessity.