April 12: Richard Nickel in the Stock Exchange

2012/04/12 § 5 Comments

On this day in 1972 Richard Nickel spent his last full day preserving pieces and taking photographs of the condemned Stock Exchange Building in Chicago.

Born and raised in Chicago, Nickel came to architecture and architectural photography, somewhat on a fluke: it was his avocation rather than his vocation, but much more than a hobby.  Among the rich material he admired in his city’s architecture, Sullivan’s buildings were of special interest to him.  In this era of “urban renewal” (planningspeak for architectural holocaust), many of Chicago’s early skyscrapers, believed to be functionally and/or aesthetically outmoded, were in the crosshairs of planners, developers, and architects bent on making Chicago a taller city of more mechanistic-looking architecture.  The city of Burnham and Root, of  Adler and Sullivan, of Ernest Graham and of John Holabird was replaced with realities like this by planners who dreamt of things like this.  The demolition of the thirteen-floor, arcaded, bow-windowed and Sullivan-ornamented Stock Exchange is hardly surprising when you consider its teardown was sandwiched immediately between the construction of this and this.

Nickel campaigned on behalf of the old buildings that inspired him by their beauty, and when he knew a lost cause, he set about photographing it and saving as much spolia as possible.  His photos record gorgeoussometimes gorgeously haunting–images of lost buildings.  Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building (1894) was Nickel’s last campaign.  When its demolition was eminent, he photographed it, and worked (with many others) to remove the trading room, piece by piece, so that it could be reconstructed.  Its brilliant restoration at the Art Institute is a focus of this nice short film (see the Art Institute’s own images here).

On Thursday, April 13, Nickel returned to the Stock Exchange in the last of his solo missions.  When he didn’t return home, friends searched the site the next day and found his hard hat; weeks passed before his body was discovered beneath the rubble.  Nickel had been killed when a stair tower collapsed on him, and was buried in the building that was his final battle.

No one who goes into preservation, especially in the public or civic setting, survives unscathed.  Few pay with their lives, the way that Richard Nickel did.  Although his gravesite in Graceland Cemetery, not far from the architects whom he did so much to honor through his photography, honors his work on behalf of Chicago’s architecture, his real monument is in the photographs, the remnants he pulled out of condemned buildings and, finally, the preservation movement that he helped to goad on, and which is inspired by his ultimate dedication to preservation of the beautiful, lovely and delightful in Chicago’s architecture.

See the Art Institute’s online archive of Nickel’s photography here

Image: Richard Nickel with a chunk of the heritage he worked steadily to save (from this source)


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§ 5 Responses to April 12: Richard Nickel in the Stock Exchange

  • Susan Barsy says:

    When I walk past the Federal Court buildings on my way to work, I try to imagine what it would have been like when the old Chicago post office, with its great dome, was there. Or before that the old custom house building. It would be cool to use some of the virtual technology now at our disposal to create a 3-d time map of the city, rendering the different combinations of buildings as they existed at a particular point in time. SB

  • stephenwhoward says:

    A tragic end for a man with such a noble cause. Does Clio recommend a biography of the good Mr. Nickels?

  • Clio says:

    Stephen, A book of his photographs was FINALLY published a few years back; otherwise, it’s slim pickings, unfortunately. Your dissertation, perhaps?

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