MAS CONTEXT: Seeing Richard Nickel

“On May 9, 1972, the body of architectural photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel was found amongst the ruins of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building. Nickel was last seen four weeks prior, salvaging architectural ornamentation from the 1893 Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan designed structure, which was undergoing demolition. The razing of the Chicago Stock Exchange had been fought by preservation advocates, architectural historians, planners, and architects. Despite the Chicago Landmarks Commission’s approval for local designation, and an intervention from then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, it was moving forward.

“Richard Nickel, who had advocated for the preservation of the Chicago Stock Exchange as well as other works of Adler & Sullivan through letter writing to city commissions and politicians, op-eds in local papers, picket lines, and architectural photography, was in the building hunting relics, a practice he had undertaken despite writing in 1960 that, ‘because architecture is three dimensional and functional it can only be saved, logically, by saving the whole building.’

“The death of Richard Nickel canonized him as a courageous martyr, a person who passionately fought for a cause against significant risk and opposition, a person who paid the passion tax’s ultimate price—death. Nickel’s death preserved his photography as a volume that mapped how architectural photography could be approached in the context of documentation, but also, as a component to preservation. The man and his work would be fused together as a modern legend, and would provide many preservationists, photographers, and salvagers the means to inspire and sanctify their own work.

“Recently, Richard Nickel was the direct or related subject of two recent exhibits, both created by iterations of a similar team of preservationists who ‘were there.’ In the winter of 2021, Wrightwood 659 mounted Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright. Romanticism to Ruin was an exhibit in two parts, an expression of two buildings of architectural significance that were razed prematurely: the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Garrick Theater in Chicago, by Adler & Sullivan. A key element of Romanticism to Ruin is a sixteen-minute visualization of the Garrick Theater, which was ‘rebuilt’ as a 3D model, and allowed for stunning views of the building’s physical body and monumental ornamentation. The rich, warm tones of the interior, previously known only in black in white, surge with the energy of a ‘whole building.’

The advocates fought to save the Garrick Theater–the first in which newly created preservation policies were tested by a coordinated effort—at the same time as the newly created Chicago Commission on Architectural Landmarks began awarding plaques to the owners of thirty-seven architectural landmarks in Chicago, including one presented to the Garrick. Despite those efforts, the building was demolished in 1961.” (Blasius, MAS Context)

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