Richard Nickel dedicated his life to photographing the buildings of reknowned Chicago architects Adler and Sullivan. He died while photographing the ruins of the Chicago Stock Exchange thirty-five years ago. As Karen and I, and now, also Randall do, Nickel chased the wrecking ball and often captured the last photographs of some of Chicago’s most magnificent architecture. The structures we chase on Squandered Heritage are much more humble but their loss will be realized years from now in the sheer magnitude of our situation post-Katrina.
Lynn Becker, in Chicago, wrote the piece linked to above. Lynn is one of my favorite architectural writers and I cut my baby teeth on my knowledge of architecture from the very thorough writing on Chicago architecture in the Chicago Reader.
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.
I grew up in Chicago and worked downtown for some time. The recreated trading room of the Chicago Stock Exchange at the Art Institute was a periodic inspiration. It is here where my my utter fascination for the masterful skill of the architects and builders of America’s great architecture began in my early teens. Like Nickel, I had never given my passion serious thought. I followed the renovation of the proto-skyscraper, the Monadnock Building in the Chicago Reader and I was so compelled by its design and dilemma that I had to visit it, to feel the spirit of this building being reborn.
This inspiration has evolved over a lifetime into my current passion for the unique architectural culture of New Orleans. We find ourselves today, in New Orleans, in the same painful place of loss that Nickel expressed only a couple years before his haunting demise, 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.
Please visit Lynn Becker’s blog entry on the release of Richard Nickel’s Chicago.
Lynn Becker encounters much of the same backlash that we do here on Squandered Heritage.
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.
Let us not waste our architectural identity in haste, because in it, we throw away generations of lost materials and hand construction which are no longer within reach in rebuilding. We risk throwing away the historical attachment to our city’s unique cultural past. It is not just buildings, within these buildings are the spirits of the lives and mastery that built New Orleans under great social and geographic duress. One way we, as one of the world’s most beloved cities, can survive this disaster, is by saving all we can of our fragile connection to our world renowned architectural history.
I was honored to meet and tour the city with Anthony Tung this past weekend. Here is his website: Anthony Tung: Preserving the World’s Great Cities. It made me wish Richard Nickel were here to share his experiences with us as well.
More links on Nickel: