Thursday, July 29, 2010

1810 W. Cortland

So here it stands today, the center of a landmarks controversy of sorts, the former home of the photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel. I decided to make the pilgrimage after I picked up my wife from work about a mile away. Last week I wrote a post about an article in "Time Out Chicago" which balked at the idea that the building was worthy of landmark status.

I've been thinking a lot about Nickel lately as we've recently installed an exhibition at the Art Institute of his photographs along with those Aaron Siskind and John Szarkowski, all dealing with the architecture of Louis Sullivan.

Of the three photographers it was Nickel who devoted his life to the single minded pursuit of documenting Sullivan buildings as they disappeared at a horrifying rate during his twenty plus year career. In 1972 while he was in the process of recovering fragments from the Old Stock Exchange Building during its demolition, he was killed as the building collapsed around him.

His life is chronicled in Richard Cahan's excellent book; "They All Fall Down; Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture".

According to Cahan, Nickel was a difficult, irascible perfectionist. His character on the one hand enabled him to set his focus narrowly on the subject of Sullivan, but his perfectionism prevented him from following through on his most ambitious project, a book that was to be a compendium of the complete work of the Master. The book was begun while Nickel was under the tutelage of Siskind at the Institute of Design in 1953, and remained unfinished at the time of his death.

His character also resulted in a tumultuous life, never financially secure, couldn't hold down a job or a relationship, he was constantly reckless and depressed. Nickel's depression no doubt was exacerbated by the fact that the subject of his work was literally turned to dust before his eyes. This is the stuff of the quintessential artist melodrama and it would have made for a good movie. An alternate title for Cahan's book could have been: "The Agony and the Agony."

That said, Nickel's work was sublime. In his endless passion for the work of Sullivan, he developed such a comprehensive understanding of the Master, it was almost as if the two had become one. Nickel documented Sullivan's works not only with a camera, he also drew up scrupulously detailed plans of doomed buildings and removed whatever he could of Sullivan's magnificent ornament. The fruits of his work are virtually all that remains today of the bulk of Louis Sullivan's work.

Nickel was more of an advocate for Sullivan's buildings than Sullivan himself.

Here is a quote from Sullivan's "Kindergarten Chats" that Rich Cahan reproduced in his biography of Nickel:

And decay proceeds as inevitably as growth, function is declined, structures, disintegrate, differentiation is blurred, the fabric dissolves, life disappears, time engulfed. The eternal life falls.

Out of oblivion into oblivion, so go the drama of creative things.

Those exact words were read as testimony in favor of destroying the Stock Exchange Building in a 1970 hearing before the Landmarks Commission.

Nickel bought the Cortland St. building that housed a bakery, remembered fondly by long time residents of the neighborhood as the "Punchki Bakery", in its storefront in 1969 for $7,500 after an exhaustive search. The building is in Bucktown, only a few miles from Nickel's childhood home in Logan Square. Moving into the midst of an old Polish neighborhood, catty-cornered from the magnificent Polish Cathedral style St. Mary of the Angels Church, Nickel was returning to his own heritage and he called the house his "Polish Palazzo."

It is an attractive Italianate Style building, built the same year as the Auditorium Building. It's a vernacular building that proudly announces its place in the world with its original name, Grims Building, prominently spelled out in abbreviated form on the frieze. Nickel loved the little touches of detail which grace the storefront.

Nickel spent an enormous amount of time reconfiguring the house to suit his needs. He and his friend and some-time collaborator, the architect John Vinci, drew up plans and executed the rear wall of the building to replace the bakery section of the building. Again, Nickel's perfectionism got in the way, he never completely moved into it, living for the most part with his parents in suburban Park Ridge. His work on the building also remained unfinished at the time of his death.

For many years the building served as the studio for the portrait photographer Mark Houser.

In 2009 when the owner of the adjacent property to the east purchased the property, Preservation Chicago, a citizen's advocacy group, included the building on its list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago. The owner then made a deal with the Chicago Landmarks Commission agreeing not to challenge landmarks status for the facade in exchange for a construction permit to alter the rest of the building.

The house has been gutted down to the beams and joists, the back wall that Nickel and Vinci built is gone, and as you can see from this snapshot taken from the alley, even the honey locust tree that Nickel planted in the backyard has disappeared. All that's left of the structure are the outside walls and the facade.

This begs the valid question, is this house worthy of landmark status as virtually nothing is left of Nickel's work?

There are seven requirements for landmark status in Chicago, and at least two of need to apply in order for a building to become a landmark. The seven are listed in this post on Lynn Becker's blog.

Preservation Chicago claims that three necessary criteria for landmark status apply to the Nickel house, although they don't say which three in their web site.

Here are three requirements that I believe the house fulfills:

1) Identification with a significant person: Richard Nickel's life and work was devoted to the preservation and documentation of the work of not only Sullivan, but to the rest of the significant architects of Chicago. He created a body of work that not only showed the city as it once was, but created a unique and cohesive vision. Nickel is in his own right, one of our city's most significant artists.

2) Critical part of the city's heritage: Nickel's life and death brought public attention to the importance of this city's architectural heritage. While he in no way constituted the entire preservation movement, he became the public face of it. In addition, without Nickel's steadfast devotion to the documentation of the work of Sullivan and others, much of the heritage of the Chicago School of Architecture would be lost forever.

I would say that last sentence speaks for itself. But to convince those who see architecture only as a disposable commodity, let us consider the unquestionable fact that Chicago's architectural legacy brings business to this city. Look at every tourist brochure, every ad, every enticement to come here, and you will see, hear or read some reference to the city's great architecture. People come to Chicago from all over the world to see the work of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. At best this is practical thinking, at worst cynical, but it is a fact worth noting that our great buildings are our golden goose that we would be terribly foolish to squander. And Richard Nickel is at least partly responsible for that phenomenon.

Every city worth its salt takes pains to address its history. One can't walk a few dozen steps through London, Paris or Berlin without stumbling upon some reminder of what happened on a particular site decades or even centuries ago. In our own country, New York City has landmarks ordinances that put ours to shame.

3) The home in question is a terrific example of late 19th Century storefront architecture, a style that is typically not protected and is disappearing throughout the city. This would probably fall under the Unique visual feature category. In a neighborhood that has seen a great deal of development over the years with a mish-mash of styles being employed, the house I believe is worth saving for this reason alone. Contrary to opinions expressed by the author of the "Time Out Chicago" piece, the building is not "drab" at all, as are many of its neighbors. Even in a state of reconstruction, with its orange face brick and the splendid detail work on the cornice and around the windows, the house is a gem.

I think that were he alive today Richard Nickel, would find delicious irony in the fact that people were willing to fight tooth and nail over his modest little home, when in his day he witnessed the destruction of some of the greatest buildings ever built.

As for singling out only the facade for landmark status, I would say that it makes sense in this case. Richard Nickel significantly altered the building when he converted it from a bakery to exclusively a residence. The facade remains the only historically significant part of the building. True it would have been nice to leave the building preserved as Nickel left it, but one can only assume that subsequent owners changed it as well in the last 38 years. Short of the city buying the property and converting the house into a Richard Nickel museum, a highly unlikely scenario indeed, I think it's a good thing that the current owner and the Landmarks Commission worked out an arrangement that benefitted all parties. It was a compromise to be sure but given the fact that this building was admittedly not a slam dunk candidate for landmark status, I think everyone came out ahead in the end.

The preservation of our history doesn't impede progress in the least. In front of the Landmarks Commission, testifying against the demolition of the Stock Exchange Building, preservation activist Thomas Stauffer said:

Progress does not consist of starting over at every sunrise. Progress consists of the accumulation of achievements.

That, in a nutshell is what great cities are all about.

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