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Friday, April 14, 2006

Anniversary of Richard Nickel's death passes again

Thirty-four years ago day, Chicago photographer, historian and salvager Richard Nickel was killed when several thousand pounds of the steel and concrete guts of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building fell on him. Nickel was inside of the building -- designed by Louis Sullivan -- on the first floor, having come to the building to rescue a stair stringer and a few other items after repeated warnings from wreckers to stay away. Nickel stepped forward a few years too far ahead of the preservation game to have had things easy. He saw destruction around him, especially of the works of the now-lauded Sullivan, and set out to at least document condemned buildings through photographs. Then he made the fatal discovery that he could recover parts of these buildings that would otherwise never be seen again. Motivated only by a love for preserving knowledge, and often privately very bitter, Nickel took over 11,000 photographs and saved countless pieces of architectural ornament, most of which now belongs to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Nickel rarely made a dime from his efforts, and never held a steady job except for the one that he assigned himself. He was somehat reclusive and shunned public attention, instead exerting influence through relationships with writers, architects and historians whom he thought were sympathetic to his lonely cause.

Nickel's work demonstrated that systematic efforts for photographic documentation and architectural ornament recovery were as important to architectural history as theory and research. While his amateur salvage efforts pale in comparison to those of St. Louis' own Larry Giles, at the time Nickel started saving parts of Sullivan buildings in the 1950s scholarly interest in architectural salvage was nonexistant. Nickel blazed his own path, and influenced architectural historians and preservationists that have come since his departure. Without Nickel, so much that I hold as certain may not even exist at all -- buildings and ideas both.


Thomas Crone said...

I was introduced to his work by Margie Newman's wonderful documentary a few years back. That was truly one of the better, short docs that I've seen in that time frame.

Time for another public showing?

Michael R. Allen said...

Yes! Let's how it again.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize Nickel died the same day as Abe Lincoln.

tobyweiss.com said...

I found out about Nickel in the early 1990s because of an intense self-education phase I went through with Louis Sullivan. That then lead to Richard Cahan's book about him, "They All Fall Down," just one of the most inspiring books about preservation and passion. I love that Sullivan and Nickel are forever linked in the minds of so many. I think of Nickel every time I'm spelunking by myself in an abandoned building: What if I die like Nicel did? And would that be so horrible? Thank you for remembering his anniversary.

Anonymous said...

The Nickel doc was in fact inspired by Cahan's book (which is recognized in the film's credits and on the film's website). And I was inspired to read the book by visiting the City Museum's excellent exhibit on Nickel.

I would be honored to bring the doc back to St. Louis. Just say the word!