“Richard Nickel was nothing if not a man of his word.
“‘I’m afraid our days of adventuring, salvaging, avoiding the cops, etc. in the cause of Sullivan will soon terminate. For me, anyway, since I plan to marry Carol sometime this early summer,’ the photographer and activist wrote to his friend Tim Samuelson in 1972.
“‘Sullivan’ meant Louis Sullivan, the visionary behind ornate, turn-of-the-century buildings that, at the time, were swiftly becoming an endangered species. For nearly two decades, Nickel and his compatriots petitioned the city to preserve Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s oeuvre. When they failed — as they usually did — Nickel led risky expeditions to save what he could from the condemned buildings’ crumbling infrastructure. He documented it all with his camera, capturing their Olympic grandeur while caressing their craftsmanly details.
“Nickel’s oft-repeated mantra was that these artifacts were a pale substitute for the buildings themselves. Watching scores of them nonetheless reduced to rubble, he was exhausted and ready to plot his exit when he embarked on one last mission, scouring for ornaments in the Chicago Stock Exchange on April 13, 1972. His final letter to Samuelson ended up being prescient. Nickel had arrived early to comb over the Stock Exchange trading room, a space he once called ‘a holy room.’ He likely died there, when a section of the building collapsed around him.
“‘Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw,’ which opened recently, spotlights his photography and salvage collection in no less fitting a space than the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, a restored Gilded Age mansion itself narrowly saved from destruction — twice. The shift in public consciousness that drove its namesake philanthropist to save the mansion owes much to Nickel and the preservationist movement of 50 years ago.
“‘His death really mobilized people. Landmarks laws had been strengthened before that, but then along came the Stock Exchange, and obviously, the landmarks laws weren’t strong enough to save that building. So they became even stronger,’ says exhibit curator David Hanks.
“I think people were very quick to recognize the loss of the Stock Exchange. Pieces of the building are in museums all over the world — a staircase is at the Metropolitan Museum, there are fragments all over Europe, and the trading room and arch is with the Art Institute,” he says.
“Nickel, were he here, would probably scoff and say those relics are no substitute for the real deal. He’d be right, of course. But the Art Institute’s 1977 reconstruction of the trading room likely wouldn’t exist at all without the pieces Nickel salvaged, and the determination of his friends and allies. That room might have lost the original’s sanctity, but it’s the closest thing to a public memorial to both Adler and Sullivan’s lost works and their most ardent pilgrim.
“If that’s not a little holy, too, I don’t know what is.
“Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw,” until Feb. 19, 2023, Thursdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St.; admission is $20, more information at driehausmuseum.org
” (Edgar, Chicago Tribune, 8/31/22)