Richard Nickel

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Richard Stanley Nickel (May 31, 1928 – April 13, 1972) was an American photographer and historian of Polish descent best known for his efforts to preserve and document the buildings of architect Louis Sullivan and the work of the architecture firm of Adler & Sullivan.

Early life[edit]

The historic church of St. Wenceslaus in Chicago's Polish Village is where Richard Nickel married Adrienne Dembo in 1950.

Richard Nickel was born in the Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park in a two-flat located at 4327 W. Haddon.[1] He was raised by first-generation Polish-Americans with his grandfather John Nikiel, born in Posen, Germany in 1880.[2] Richard's father, John, a driver for the Polish Daily News, Americanized the surname to Nickel in the face of Anti-Polish sentiment.[3] The family soon moved to 4329 W. Crystal where a young Richard attended grammar school at St. Cyril and Methodius.[4] It was here that Richard first became fascinated by light as he stared at the saintly figures drawn in stained glass. Nickel would tell a reporter in 1969 "That makes an impression on you that you never completely forget. It might be subconscious and, at some point, something triggers it".[5]

The family moved to a second floor apartment at 2457 N. Rockwell in the Logan Square community, while Nickel was in fifth grade and enrolled at St. John Berchman's School.[6] At the time the neighborhood was predominately Polish, and years later Nickel described it as the "Polish neighborhood where I became happily abnormal".[7] The family lived near Logan Boulevard, an area lined with historic mansions and wide parkways that would later become recognized as a Chicago Landmark. More importantly was his father Stanley's acute interest in photography which Richard would take up as well.[8]

In 1948 after leaving the Army, Nickel was given a victory medal and subsequently enrolled at the Institute of Design, which became part of IIT- The Illinois Institute of Technology. The school was housed in the former Chicago Historical Society building, located at 632 N. Dearborn Street(Northwest corner of Dearborn and Ontario Streets, now called the Excaliber nightclub).[9]

Nickel married Adrienne Dembo, a young Polish-American girl at St. Wenceslaus in Chicago, an Art Deco church noted for its design on June 10, 1950.[10] Shortly after Richard was recalled to serve in the Korean War.[11] After Richard's return a few years later, he was a changed man, with recurring nightmares he was still in Korea, and his mother-in law commenting that she saw him as a "casualty of war", and the marriage ultimately ended in divorce.[12]

Photography and Historic Preservation[edit]

Demolition of the First Regiment Infantry Armory, Chicago, 1967, photographed by Richard Nickel for the Historic American Buildings Survey

During the urban regeneration of the 1960s and 1970s, scores of 19th century buildings in Chicago were being demolished. Among these were the works of Louis Sullivan and members of the Prairie School. By this time many of the buildings were neglected, with little public interest in their retention. Nickel encountered Sullivan's work while photographing the architect's buildings for a school project at the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago under Aaron Siskind. Studying and photographing Sullivan's buildings quickly became an obsession for him. Ultimately, he devoted much of his life to photographing them, hoping to produce a comprehensive photographic compendium.

Richard Nickel came to believe that such buildings were an important part of the city's architectural and cultural heritage. Realizing that the pace of urban renewal and development seriously threatened many of these historic buildings, Nickel campaigned and lobbied for their preservation. Celebrated buildings such as the Garrick Theater and the Chicago Stock Exchange were torn down despite the best efforts of Nickel and others to preserve them. However, after Nickel's death, his crusade gained momentum and was responsible for many of Sullivan's buildings eventually being spared. Of the ongoing threat to Chicago's buildings Nickel said "Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men."

In the cases where he was unable to protect a building, Nickel extensively photographed both its interior and exterior to archive the craftsmanship and attempt to preserve the buildings' character in his images. He also stripped some of the doomed buildings of their distinctive ornamentation before their destruction. Dozens of such items were sold to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) and are still on display.

Nickel's home at 1810 West Cortland Street in Bucktown served as his base for photography and salvage operations. Infatuated with the building's front elevation, simple floor plan and history, Nickel referred to it as his "Polish Palazzo",[13] a building he worked hard to restore in its own right.

Richard Nickel documented many of the architectural masters of Chicago, photographing the work of Burnham & Root, Holabird & Roche, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, C. F. Murphy Associates, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Death and Legacy[edit]

Nickel was killed on April 13, 1972, while attempting to obtain more items, when a portion of the Chicago Stock Exchange building collapsed on him. He is buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery, not very far from where Sullivan is buried. He died without completing his publication containing a great collection of photographs of Sullivan's work, but Nickel's black-and-white photos have been displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago and elsewhere. The Richard Nickel Committee and Photographic Archive, a non-profit organization was devoted to preserving the photographer's work, for more than 40 years, and holds the copyrights for most of his pictures. This collection has now transferred to the Burnham and Ryerson Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago.

The 1994 book They All Fall Down by Richard Cahan is about Nickel's lifelong effort to preserve Chicago's architectural heritage along with friend and architect John Vinci. Cahan and Michael Williams co-edited Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, a collection of Nickel's photography.

Work[edit]

Richard Nickel's work, his negatives, photographs and research papers have been donated to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago by the Richard Nickel Committee in 2010 and 2011, following the completion and publication of the long-awaited book "The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan" by Richard Nickel, Aaron Siskind, John Vinci and Ward Miller.

This collection is accessible to all at the museum and there are more than 1,300 images from the Richard Nickel Committee's collection viewable on the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries website. Numerous duplicate photographs have been donated over time to other institutions, including The Arts Club of Chicago, the Society of Architectural Historians, Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago. Two prints of the Garrick Theatre were recently donated by the Richard Nickel Committee to the Polish Museum of America in Chicago for their museum collections.

Further reading[edit]

The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan - Richard Nickel and Aaron Siskind, with John Vinci and Ward Miller - The Richard Nickel Committee, Chicago, IL - 2010

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 31
  2. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 30
  3. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 29
  4. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 31
  5. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 31
  6. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 32
  7. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 32
  8. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 32
  9. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 39
  10. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 44
  11. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 45
  12. ^ They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture by Richard Cahan p. 47
  13. ^ http://www.preservationchicago.org/success-story/19

External links[edit]