Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Richard Nickel: Dangerous Years

My friend Rich Cahan has done it again.  Along with Michael Williams he just compiled and published the third of (what his wife hopes to be) a trilogy on the life and work of the Chicago photographer Richard Nickel. Cahan's first Nickel book, They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture, was a straight ahead biography which depicted his subject as a driven young man whose life's work began as a grad school project documenting the work of the architect Louis Sullivan. The project which Nickel made his own, to record and save everything he could of the architect's disappearing work, turned into an all consuming passion that ultimately cost him his life. In I972 Richard Nickel was crushed underneath the rubble of Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building while attempting to salvage artifacts of the building as it was being demolished.

The second book was called Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, a book that allowed Nickel's camera speak for him. Beyond proof sheets, Nickel didn't make many publication or exhibition prints of his own work, so the lion's share of images in this exquisitely printed book had not been seen outside of a small circle. The book, not limited to the work of Louis Sullivan, or architecture for that matter, could be considered the definitive work on Richard Nickel the photographer, as it is to the best of my knowledge the most comprehensive collection of his photographic work to be found.

Richard Nickel was the Charles Marville of Chicago. Marville if you recall was the photographer who was commissioned to document the city of Paris as it existed before and during its mid-nineteenth century destruction and re-construction under the hand of Baron Haussmann in the reign of Napoleon III . Here is a link to a site describing a major exhibition of Marville's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art In New York.

Unlike Marville, Nickel's work documenting the destruction of his city was for the most part, self-commissioned. Richard Nickel's Chicago shows us the ways and means of a soon to be post-industrial city, rooftops with their smokestacks and water tanks, steel rails reflecting the sun, automobiles in motion, and the incessant building up and tearing down of a restless city.

Early on, Nickel photographed people. Many of his early pictures show the influence of his school, the Institute of Design, especially the work of Harry Callahan with whom Nickel studied. The very first picture in the book proper in the chapter titled, The Passing Scene, is a provocative image of a woman standing alone in front of the Tunnel of Love at Riverview amusement park. Her expression suggests concern or maybe disappointment. Perhaps she is waiting for a lover who has stood her up, or one that never existed at all. One can't help but think of this image as a metaphor for Richard Nickel and his first love, the City of Chicago. a love that was unrequited.

As Callahan taught Nickel how to construct a photograph, it would be his other major influence at the ID, Aaron Siskind, who would teach him how to tell a story. Siskind initiated the Sullivan project and the two worked closely on the project during Nickel's remaining time at the Institute and beyond.

Eventually Nickel became a one man band with the Sullivan project which remained incomplete at the time of his death. Were it not for the steadfast work of Nickel's close friend and accomplice in salvaging Sullivan's work, architect John Vinci, Nickel's project would have died along with him in the rubble of the Stock Exchange Building. Forty years after Nickel's death, Vinci managed to complete Nickel's project with the publication of the massive tome The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan.

Cajan's third Nickel book, Richard Nickel: Dangerous Years, What He Saw and What He Wrote, puts the photographer/preservationist's life, work and times into context. This time along with Nickel's photographs, his words speak for him. Nickel was a compulsive letter writer who kept carbon copies of all the letters he sent out as well as copies of letters he never sent. The current book reproduces in full color, selections of Nickel's letters to friends, collaborators, newspaper columnists, architects, landmarks commissioners, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the residents of buildings about to be demolished, and the owners of those buildings whose help he enlisted in gaining access before and during demolition, even though he openly opposed their intentions to destroy them. The book also reproduces Nickel's personal notes, sketches and detailed itineraries for photographic road trips in minute by minute detail.

Two of Nickel's struggles to save Chicago Landmarks are covered in great detail in the book, the Garrick Theater and the Stock Exchange Building, two of Louis Sullivan's greatest works.

Another great loss, and perhaps a bigger personal blow to Nickel was the demolition of Holibard and Roche's Republic Building on State at Adams. A self-portrait of Nickel on the roof of the Republic graces the cover of They All Fall Down. The new book includes two Nickel photographs of the Republic that I've never seen. The first is a stunning cityscape from about 30 stories up looking southeast. The stepped pyramid atop the Metropolitan Tower with its famous beehive beacon, dominates the picture. Grant Park and Lake Michigan can seen in the background. Virtually every building in the photograph still exists, save for the Republic Building, smack dab in the middle of the frame. The Republic stands out from its neighbors with its classic Chicago School facade, gleaming, (despite its grimy surface), in the hazy late afternoon light.

The other photograph, taken from the NW corner of State and Adams, shows the building toward the end of its demolition, with only the first two floors remaining. (the caption mistakenly identifies the picture taken at the start of the construction of the building that would replace it). Signs on the scaffolding proudly announce the coming of the new building, the Home Federal Savings Savings and Loan Building. Even the architects of the new building, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, shamelessly display their stylized logo, despite the fact that part of the ornament of the doomed building was still visible through the scaffolding. Talk about a lack of respect! In the photograph, passersby go about their business, causing me to wonder what must have been going through their minds as one of the best buildings to have ever graced this city turns to dust before their eyes, about to be replaced by a second rate building, despite the first class pedigree of its designers. My guess is that most of them, as was the popular opinion of the day, thought that new necessarily meant better.

Richard Nickel begged to differ. In one letter reprinted in Cahan's book addressed to a Chicago Daily News reporter he wrote:
I had a good look recently at that Home Federal S&L building which replaced the Republic several years ago. That looms in my mind now as one of the great tragedies... or rather as one of the most willful unnecessary destructive acts to Chicago School heritage. I'll  never forgive Hartmann (Bill Hartmann, then senior partner of Skidmore Owings and Merrill) and SOM for that. The Republic was a work of art, and the new building is nothing... maybe some tinsel!
Nickel wrote a much more scathing letter to the editor of a publication called The American City, responding to an article they wrote in praise of the Garrick Parking Garage which replaced the Garrick Theater, The article pointed out the design of an ornamental panel which consisted of 233 slabs of concrete that were cast from a molding of a detail from the Sullivan building, plus one of the original details, all stuck together. in a large mass. Nickel scoffed at the caption of a photograph of the garage that said: "Chicago's new Civic Center Parking Garage represents a growing awareness of Chicago's architectural heritage." In response Nickel wrote:
...what about the lines, "the building pays graceful tribute to the memory of "Louis Sullivan"? They wreck one of his masterpieces, and you conclude it is a tribute. How? Why? Would  you say that if someone wrecked St. Peter's Cathedral [sic] in Rome and erected a garage on the site,  using some statues and whatever, that that was a tribute to St. Peter???
Whoever wrote that article is soft in the head...
Nickel was one of the leading advocates for saving the Garrick Theater. It turns out that he was successful in convincing none other than Mayor Richard J. Daley that the building was worth saving. The city of Chicago filed an injunction in an attempt to halt the demolition of the Sullivan building, but were over-ruled by the courts.

Daley was not so moved to save the old Stock Exchange Building. In a letter to CBS News, praising their coverage of the fate of the building, Nickel wrote:
it doesn't surprise me at all that hizzoner Daley is the dumbhead who lacked the imagination to save this unquestionable work of art. ... 
The question now is, well, it obviously isn't even a question... why do we have a landmark commission (headed at the time by the aforementioned William Hartmann), which gets $100,000 a year (?) funding, and is getting nothing done, is working at odds with the City Council and the blankety-blank mayor?
Nickel goes on in the letter to lambaste the cultural elite of Chicago who turned a blind eye to the fate of the city's architecture, by failing to show up for demonstrations to save the building:
Where was the cultural leadership of Chicago?? The architects, the curators, the professors and historians, etc. So perhaps it boils down to our getting what we deserve... 
Cahan follows that letter with another, a bitter attack of the city fathers, perhaps written under the influence, a double scotch to be exact, to William Hartmann himself. What does the letter say? Well you'll just have to buy the book to find out.

What follows these two letters are a series of heartbreaking photographs of the construction of the scaffolding around the Old Stock Exchange Building, symbolizing the demise of both the building and the photographer. This time, passersby stop and look in dismay at the sight of impending doom for a marvelous building.

The book is a fascinating look into the psyche of Richard Nickel, into what drove him, and the conflicts he faced as the life's work of the artist he chose to devote a good portion of his life to, was crumbling all around him.

It's easy to imagine Nickel as a bitter, tragic figure, pursuing a quixotic mission, doomed to failure, much the way Cahan portrays him in his biography. But the correspondence in this book show another side to the man: funny, engaging, awkward and perhaps like any good artist, just a bit off.

One letter (presumably never sent), which Nickel put huge crosses through, is a comical, rambling, stream of consciousness rant to a potential collaborator, referencing everything from sailing, to the author's car troubles, to his frustration about the apparent sexual advances from a male art historian. As if it were necessary to point out which side of the fence he was on, Nickel writes: "I often do a lot of things I don't want to do just to accommodate people and then I get impossible and bitchy. And art history is so full of old ladies...and whilst I'm not married, that doesn't mean I like to travel with men, or associate with men much at all." then at the bottom of the typed page he writes out by hand: "I'm beginning to appreciate women more and more! Backlash?" There he closes the letter with "Regards, Dick", but he wasn't finished. On the flip side of the page he typed another half page explaining the tone of the letter by saying he was sitting listening to (the composer) Janacek while downing some Johnny Walker Black, a "real luxury." Once again he closes the letter, this time with "Drunken Dick."

Nickel did have one release valve and that was a sailboat which he kept moored in Burnham Harbor. He delighted in inviting friends to sail with him. One post card printed in the book was an invitation written to the daughter of the ID professor and photographer, Arthur Siegel. "Oh I love to have pretty girls aboard the boat..." he writes, "wear your bikini (or whatever the girls are not wearing nowadays)." At a recent lecture at the Art Institute promoting his book, Cahan flashed on the screen that postcard, not commenting on its content, when who should turn up but the recipient of that letter, Julie Siegel. Being perhaps the one person in the room who actually knew Nickel, she tried to assure the audience that while tragedy befell Richard Nickel, he was quite a lovely, engaging character, not at all the sullen, miserable wretch as he is often portrayed.

Having written three books on Richard Nickel, Richard Cahan must now be considered the world authority on the subject. His quest to document the man rates up there in tenacity with Nickel's pursuit of Louis Sullivan. Cahan said at his talk at the Art Institute that when you think about it, Richard Nickel was a failure in everything he did. He lived much of his life with his parents in Park Ridge, Illinois. He wasn't successful in preserving any of the Sullivan buildings he worked diligently to save. He never came close to finishing the Sullivan project. And he never finished the house he bought for himself in Bucktown.

This time I beg to differ. Cahan is certainly right in asserting that Nickel left this world with an unfinished legacy. But his work to save the most important Sullivan buildings did make a difference. The group that Nickel led, protesting the raising of the Garrick Theater in the early sixties was a ragtag bunch that managed to get the mayor's attention and his tacit support. By the time the Stock Exchange Building was about to turn to dust, there was a more significant presence of protesters opposed to the demolition. The ultimate loss of the building and the tragic death of Nickel inside it, galvanized the preservation movement in Chicago. It would be premature to say battle lost but war won, as the struggle to save Chicago's architectural heritage continues. Yet I'm convinced that Nickel both in life and in death was and is the driving force of the preservation movement in this town and for that we have much to be thankful, as well for the efforts of Messers Vinci and Cahan who have worked so diligently to care for and preserve the legacy and the work of Richard Nickel.

My heartfelt thanks to all of you.

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