“April 13, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Richard Nickel in the partially demolished Chicago Stock Exchange building at 30 North LaSalle Street, where he was attempting to salvage ornament from the Adler & Sullivan masterpiece. Nickel’s impact on the emerging preservation movement in Chicago was enormous, including his efforts to save Glessner House in the 1960s. A talented photographer, he documented the work of Louis Sullivan and other architects, his outstanding photographs serving as an irreplaceable record of Chicago’s architectural heritage that was disappearing at an alarming rate during 1950s and 1960s urban renewal.
“This article will focus on Nickel’s close connection with Glessner House from the time it was threatened with demolition in 1965 until his death in 1972. Selected photographs of the house, from a rich archive of images by Nickel documenting the earliest years of the preservation and restoration of the house, are scattered throughout the article. We will conclude with a look at Nickel’s death, and the tribute service held in the courtyard of Glessner House two months after his passing.
“Nickel was born in Chicago on May 31, 1928, to first-generation Polish Americans. After serving in the U.S. Army, 11th Airborne Division, during its occupation of Japan following World War II, he returned to Chicago to study photography at the Institute of Design, which soon became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was recalled to the Army at the start of the Korean War, serving an additional year before resuming his studies at the Institute.
“It was during this time that he enrolled in an architectural history course taught by the eminent landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, who instilled in him an abiding interest in architecture. Nickel began photographing the buildings of Louis Sullivan as part of a school project assigned by photographer Aaron Siskind, and it turned into an obsession.
“Quickly discovering that many of the buildings were threatened by demolition, Nickel devoted himself to photographing and documenting them. He received his bachelor’s degree from I.I.T. in 1954 and, three years later, his Master of Science in photography with his thesis topic being “A Photographic Documentation of the Architecture of Adler & Sullivan.”
“In 1960, Nickel learned that one of Adler & Sullivan’s most important buildings was to be razed – the Schiller Theater Building (later the Garrick) at 64 W. Randolph Street. He joined the picket line in front of the building alongside architects Wilbert Hasbrouck, John Vinci, and Ben Weese, and Alderman Leon Despres, an early champion of preservation and landmarking in Chicago. When it became clear that the building could not be saved, Nickel engaged Vinci and David Norris to assist him with a massive effort to salvage ornament, literally rescuing the plaster and terra cotta fragments as the building was being demolished around them.
“The bonds formed during that effort proved valuable a few years later, when the Glessner house was put up for sale in early 1965. This time, the undertaking proved successful, and a resolution creating the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation was signed on April 16, 1966, by Nickel and 18 others. He was appointed a trustee and a member of the executive committee. By December, the new organization had acquired Glessner house for $35,000.” (Tyre, Glessner House, 4/13/22)