Richard Nickel's Chicago, creates an moving portrait of the city and its people at mid-century, of wonders lost, and of the photographer who gave his life trying to save them. (Originally published, in far better edited form, in the Chicago Reader of November 24th under the title, His City is Gone.)
-by Lynn Becker
Ward Miller on the decades long battle to bring Richard Nickel’s little known final masterwork to press.
Richard Nickel photographed ghosts. His subjects were the remains of the “City of the Century,” whose wild growth -- from 30,000 people to over a million and a half in under 50 years -- fueled the building boom that created Chicago’s early skyscrapers, its great houses, and the fantasy world of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. But by the time Nickel began taking pictures of Chicago in the 1950s, the inner city neighborhoods that had been the city’s pride had been panic-peddled s into slums, and by the late 60's rage piled on neglect and set the streets ablaze, while in the besieged Loop, a rich architectural heritage that was admired worldwide was decimated and discarded as if it were yesterday’s garbage.
Now, the 250 duotones included in the extraordinary new Richard Nickel’s Chicago provide a moving portrait of the era poignantly captured in the volume’s subtitle, Photographs of a Lost City. “This is a biography through pictures,” says Richard Cahan, who coauthored the book with Michael Williams. “Most photo books are portfolios,” showcases of a photographer’s skill. “This one, I think, is more of a poem.”
The tragic story of Richard Nickel often overshadows his work. He was born in 1928 to a working-class family; his father drove a truck, his mother was a factory worker. After a stint in the Army, Nickel used his G.I. Bill tuition to enroll in the Institute of Design, which turned out not to be a vocational school, but an offshoot of the New Bauhaus, founded in Chicago in 1937 to teach the curriculum of the original German Bauhaus, the modernist bastion that had been shuttered by the Nazis. It was there that Nickel’s talent with a camera was recognized and encouraged by legendary photographers Aaron Siskind and, especially, Harry Callahan.
“He pushed the shy Nickel out into the street,” says the book’s introduction, “and urged him to zero in on serious subjects. Callahan showed Nickel that a photographer’s life was built around a lifetime of work rather than a single photograph.” When Callahan gave his students the assignment of photographing all of the surviving buildings of architect Louis Sullivan, Nickel was put in charge of the project. Adler and Sullivan’s work quickly became his obsession. He discovered 38 unknown commissions, 23 of which were actually built, as well as nine structures Sullivan biographer Hugh Morrision had considered lost, beginning with a store and flats designed for sheet metal manufacturer Richard Knisely which Nickel found in 1958 by driving down Lake Street until he found a building with Sullivan's distinctive ornament, just west of Damen.
Just months after Nickel's discovery, The Knisely Store and Flats were demolished. The pattern was set. Even as he was cataloguing Sullivan’s buildings, they were being torn down with wanton disregard. Through his photographs and activism, Nickel became Chicago’s most eloquent spokesman for architectural preservation. He worked tirelessly to stop the 1961 demolition of Sullivan’s Garrick (originally Schiller) theater, which was spending its last days as a movie house. Nickel would go to the last showing and stay until morning photographing the details of the beautiful arched auditorium. In the end, the building was destroyed for a parking garage (the site is now home to the Goodman Theatre). You can see some of the busts that adorned its façade above the entrance to Second City on Wells Street.
Nickel clashed repeatedly with wrecking crews and developers to document the wonders that were being destroyed as, one by one, they disappeared: The brawny Walker Warehouse, the beautiful Babson residence, Holabird & Roche's grandly elegant Republic Building, the house Sullivan designed for his brother Albert.
Finally, it all came down to one last, doomed battle to save Sullivan’s incredible 1893 Stock Exchange Building on LaSalle. Although its remnants would be eagerly sought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the city scarcely thought twice before it threw it all away to build a skyscraper so mediocre it’s all but invisible. Again, Nickel swung into action to document the building through his photographs, including the great trading room, which his close friend John Vinci would later reconstruct inside the Art Institute. On April 13, 1972, Nickel snuck unnoticed into the building one more time and was killed as it collapsed around him. It took 28 days to find his body.
That’s the story Cahan spent 15 years telling when he created his sweeping 1995 biography of Nickel, They All Fall Down. It’s a great story, but in its own quiet way, Richard Nickel’s Chicago transcends it. Nickel’s photographs so immerse you in the city and the era that you feel it viscerally, as if you, yourself, had entered the frame.
Nickel’s photos of people, little seen before, make up the book’s early chapters. There’s a series of shots at the old Riverview amusement park: a man, a woman, each standing alone outside the Tunnel of Love; another woman carrying a lamp she’s just won. There’s the short-sleeved young slickster, cigarette dangling from his lips at Arlington Park; his personality comes through so strongly you feel somehow, from somewhere, you already know him. The photos are often less than technically perfect, but it doesn’t matter. In one of a women’s face in profile, the contrast is so muted that she seems to have already half dissolved into time.
In Nickel’s architectural photos, which make up the rest of the book, the presence of people often lend the structures their power. Most architectural photography is an offshoot of fashion and marketing--heroic shots that flatter egos and often can never be replicated in real life. Here, though, the soaring height of the lost concourse of Union Station is not depicted, but implied, in the thin perforated steel columns that rise up out of frame, and it’s personified in the posture of an elderly man in a crisply pressed suit, standing apart, as ramrod-erect as a sentry, who finds his counterpoint in a stout man in the foreground straightening his necktie in the mirror of a vending machine. You only see one small corner of that great space in this photograph, but it gives you get a truer feeling of what it was like than all those wide-angled shots that try to take in everything in a single glance.
The men in that photograph are dead, as are, it’s safe to say, most of people in Nickel’s photographs. Even the children he captured running and playing on Indiana Street in front of Adler and Sullivan’s Max M. Rothschild House have grown old. What ties them to us?
It may be true that "nothing stays the same but change", but without the continuity of shared experience - of family, culture, and values - our lives would dissolve into uncertainty and chaos. Nothing carries that continuity through generations more powerfully than architecture. Classic buildings allow us to inhabit the world of those who came before, and learn from how they still speak to us today.
Nickel lived in a time when that kind of continuity was considered expendable-- at best, an impediment to progress; at worst, a contagion of decay. It’s scarcely different today. Just this year, three more of Sullivan’s twenty-three surviving Chicago buildings have been destroyed, two in little more than ten days in disastrous fires. And while there’s been no shortage of dismayed reaction, I also regularly get comments on my blog along the lines of, “Get a life. No one wants to preserve crap,” and, “The idea that a group of people can impose their will on the property rights of others’ economic self interest is a slap in the face to the modern business spirit.” When the market economy remains our one true religion, there’s never a shortage of those who would destroy beauty with malice and replace it with shit for spite.
Richard Nickel's Chicago both poignantly conveys what we've lost, and captures the enduring beauty of what’s still here to save, from the Rookery and the Monadnock right down to their modernist successors, the John Hancock Building and Marina City, part of a generation that has now, in its turn, also grown aged and vulnerable. “Nickel was no antimodernist,” says Cahan. “He was a huge fan of Mies van der Rohe. He was against great works being replaced by mediocre works. He could not understand that.”
“In a city of slums,” Nickel wrote in a 1971 letter, “why must the quality buildings be doomed? . . . you can’t convince me there are no alternatives.”
We talked recently with Ward Miller, Director of the Richard Nickel Committee, the entity that serves as custodian of the photographer’s extensive archives, rescued after Nickel’s tragic death by his close friend, architect John Vinci.
“He ended up acquiring the collection from Nickel’s family,” says Miller. “A large part of it was housed at Vinci-Hamp architects. The Nickel Committee was formed back in 1972 to care for the photographs and historical research archives of Richard Nickel, and to allow access to those images. I’ve developed a finding aid that catalogues the photographs. If someone is looking for a photo of the Garrick Theater upper cornice, or some other specific components, I can help them find it. “
The archive has one great project: to finally publish the book by Richard Nickel that completely catalogues all the known works of the firm of Adler and Sullivan. For Nickel, it turned out to be a lifelong project, one that is still awaiting publication over three decades after his death.
“It started with Nickel’s thesis,” says Miller. “It was presented in 1957, I believe. He was encouraged by Aaron Suskind and others to keep pursuing the project. He kept finding more buildings, more information, and writing these essays. Later he asked Tim Samuelson to become involved and help him. I think he had some reservations about the job he was taking on. It must have seemed Herculean at the time. “
At Nickel’s death, “there were essays on most of the buildings. A variety of other people have gotten involved with the research. As new projects were found, they were written about. Today, the essays for all the projects have been written. I know we’re talking about roughly 250 to 300 images, which would include historical materials, drawings and images by Nickel. Tim Samuelson has committed to writing an essay on the Adler and Sullivan office, giving a sense of who was in the office and what projects they were working on. John Vinci has expressed interest in writing a brief history of Richard Nickel’s project, how it all began.”
Miller and his associates have been looking at potential publishers, but, as always, it comes down to money – “raising some money so we can hire the editor, begin honing the essays, and bring it all together into a package we can bring to publication."
In addition to the various grant proposals, “We do seek individual contributions and welcome them. They’ve been a great source of support between the grants coming in. People who use the library for research will sometimes give us donations. We also look to people in the architectural community.”
Miller is still hewing to a timeline that would see the publication of the book by this time next year. “I’d like the see the funding come through to support this publication. It’s waited a long time. We’ve taken the time to do it the right way. I think it’s important to get this done, right here, right now.”