During the event, attendees were able to see in person some of the ornaments that Nickel and his team salvaged. Tim and Bianca also discussed the newly formed Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive (CAPA), an organization devoted to the documentation and stewardship of materials related to the practices of early urban preservationists who gravitated around Richard Nickel. We were honored to have the presence of many people in the audience related to Richard Nickel, from family relatives to authors of reference books on his work and custodians of his legacy.
Below is a transcription of the event with an introduction by Iker Gil (IG).
Today’s event is prompted by the desire to commemorate what would have been the 90th birthday of architectural photographer and historical preservationist Richard Nickel. We want to discuss his relevance more than four decades after his untimely passing as well as the newly formed Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive. It is also part of an ongoing effort by MAS Context to support preservation efforts that involve essays, lectures, and other types of public events. This includes essays on midcentury public schools in New Orleans, Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, Josep Maria Sert’s Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Cambridge, and Miguel Fisac’s Pagoda building in Madrid; lectures on Brutalist buildings in Boston, and modernist buildings in Mexico City; the US premiere and international digital premiere of the short film Starship Chicago about the Thompson Center; and the most recent project, the comprehensive vision and unified branding system for the Schweikher House done in collaboration with Carlos Segura.
The figure of Richard Nickel is well known in Chicago so I’ll be very brief. Born in 1928, he studied photography at the Institute of Design. He encountered Louis Sullivan’s work while photographing the architect’s buildings in the mid-1950s for a school project for Aaron Siskind. During that time, Mayor Richard J. Daley had a vision for a modern metroplis and the City ordered thousands of structures to be demolished in the name of urban renewal and progress. On the South Side, some of the demolished structured included 19 houses designed in the 1880s by Adler & Sullivan, something that went unnoticed for many but not Nickel. He would visit buildings across the country, drawing floor plans, photographing them, and saving pieces of ornamentation if the buildings were set to be demolished. Nickel sought a broad base of support from the general public by raising awareness of the city’s important historic architecture. He led fights to preserve architectural gems, organized picket lines, and wrote to city officials and other possible allies, including architects. Nickel would ultimately die in 1972, at age 43, killed when a portion of the partially demolished Stock Exchange collapsed as he was picking through the rubble. I want to highlight both aspects of Richard Nickel, one of very accomplished architectural photographer in his own right and another of historical preservationist. While both aspects supported each other in many cases, I think it’s important to point it out.
Today’s event title uses Nickel’s own words from a letter to the editor published in the Chicago Tribune on May 24, 1960. “In this day of mass tourist flights to the capitals of Europe where Americans continue to see ‘culture’ can we not open our eyes to our own treasures and heed what is happening to them?”
For this event I am honored to have three important people that are connected with Richard Nickel in different ways: Tim Samuelson (TS), director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive and Chicago’s cultural historian since 2002; Bianca Bova (BB), curator and associate director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive; and John Vinci (JV), architect and principal of his own firm since 1969.
IG: John, while still a student at IIT in the 1950s, you, David Norris, Phil Zielinski, and David Sharpe organized an exhibition at Crown Hall on the work of Louis Sullivan and I believe that is how you got to know Richard Nickel. Can you talk about that early experience and meeting Nickel?
JV: In the 1950s, many Louis Sullivan buildings were abandoned and you could walk through them and even take things. They were virtually open and there was no policing of much importance. In one of the buildings, the 1885 Lindauer House, Zielinski started to tear the house apart to get that baluster, which I inherited from him and brought to the event today. I was not so much a vandal. Richard Nickel came in and chastised us all for tearing apart the building before he photographed it. The house was torn down in 1959 but there are still some extraordinary photographs of it. During that time we put together the exhibition in the center of Crown Hall on the work of Louis Sullivan. It was very modest but very beautifully done. Richard cooperated in loaning us the photographs from the Institute of Design that, at the time, was located in the basement of Crown Hall. They had all these mounted photographs in storage, so we took them out and put them on the wall. We all went around collecting ornament from buildings saving such things as the angel on the top of the Falkenau House, which was included in the exhibition and that is now at the Art Institute. I went to the Chicago Stock Exchange Building and I asked Larry Ackley, who was the manager, if I could have anything. He gave me a kick plate, which I cleaned and returned it after the exhibition. He would eventually sell me the top and bottom of the elevator cages for $5 each, which Tim has in his collection now.
IG: What did the faculty at IIT think of the exhibition?
JV: Dan Brenner, who I ended up working for for eight years in the early 1960s, was very impressed with it. Mies van der Rohe was around, but I don’t remember if he or other faculty said anything.
IG: Tim, there is an anecdote that John mentions in his interview with Betty J. Blum for the Chicago Architects Oral History Project. He sais that when Mies was building the Federal Center, you were upset that they were demolishing the old post office with the big dome by Henry Ives Cobb. So you had a meeting with Mies at the age of fifteen or sixteen to tell Mies that he shouldn’t do it. Mies said, “Yes, it’s a noble building.” You also went to Roosevelt University because it was in a Sullivan building. Can you talk about that early interest in architecture and meeting Nickel?
TS: I was interested in old buildings. I was even crawling around my grade school and trying to figure out what colors the classrooms were painted in 1912. Needless to say, it didn’t make me that popular in the school playground. I loved old buildings and I responded to them. I used to sneak downtown and look at buildings while my parents thought I was at the playground. They had no idea where I was. I did love the Federal Building. I would say if it were still standing it would be a building that was worth keeping but it was in some ways a pretty bad building. In any case, I loved it. It had a big dome, and eagles, and light bulbs. If you looked at the top of the dome there were clouds in the sky. I think I was twelve when a story appeared in the Chicago Daily News that said, “Goodbye, Old Federal Building.” Oh my gosh, I was heartbroken.
The name of the architect of the new Federal Building was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I looked him up in the phone book, found his office, showed up there, and I said, “I’d like to see Mr. van der Rohe, please. He wants to tear down the old Federal Building and he can’t do it.” You could see it caused a stir. The receptionist disappeared. Heads were poking out the doors. Finally, someone opened the door and there was Mies at the end of this long table. I run into this whole routine, “Oh, Mr. van der Rohe, don’t tear the Federal Building down. It’s a beautiful building. Can’t you move your new building somewhere else?” I spoke my whole piece and there was a silence, after which he said, “Some day I hope you look at the new building and see many of the things you admire in the old.”
When it came time to go to college, I wasn’t even that interested in going to college, but I wanted to go to Roosevelt University because it was located in the Auditorium Building. When you were going to apply for schools, your counselor in high school had you fill in a piece of paper that said, “Why do you want to go to Roosevelt?” I answered, “Because I want to go to school in Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building.” I turned my application in and I got called down to the guidance counselor. He says, “Okay, Mr. Smartass, what is this supposed to mean?” I said, “Well, it says at the bottom that if you don’t tell the truth, it is cause for them to reject it, and that is the truth. It is the only reason I want to go there.” I would even have to say that going to school there. There is nothing really memorable about it except for being in that building every day. Frankly, I didn’t need Roosevelt because I had the best teachers on the planet. That was Richard Nickel, John Vinci, David Norris, Bob Furhoff, and Charlie Gregerson, who were part of the Richard Nickel gang. I was just a teenager when I first met up with them and I was the kid. They were talking about taking a building apart. Richard was also telling me about what the disappointments were going to be in life while dealing with preservation. You might as well learn this early. That is my teacher. It is those people who have been the guiding force that I can thank or blame for everything I have done throughout my life ever since.
IG: Bianca, you are from another generation and obviously never met Richard Nickel in person. Can you talk about how you discovered his work and why you found it relevant all these decades after?
BB: I grew up in Chicago and my father would always take me with him when he would do errands around the city. I would go to the County Building with him. I would come here, to the Chicago Cultural Center, with him. When I was about nine or ten years old, my father brought me here to see an exhibition of Richard’s work. Coincidentally, Tim had curated it. Seeing images of these grand buildings, finding out that all of them were gone, and learning that narrative as I saw this show stuck with me in a way that I am sure at the time I could never have articulated. Looking back, it was the first inkling of civic responsibility or the idea that the people who live in a city are responsible for the city. You have the agency to take action if you see something that you feel is mismanagement or something that is altering the course of the direction in which your city is going. The work stuck with me; the name stuck with me.
A few years ago I had occasion to revisit that work and I realized how much of an impact it might have had. It actually got me on the idea that I wanted to see the city do a memorial to Richard Nickel, which is something that has been in process. That brought me to meeting Tim, to getting into the Ryerson & Burnham Archives, and to doing the deep dive looking at the scope of Nickel’s work. It is still relevant and that is what has led to our forming the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive (CAPA) and looking at this incredible body of work, from the photographs and the floor plans to the objects and everything that Richard Nickel and everyone else who worked with him has left us with. Now the question is, what do we do with that? What is the 21st century answer to preservation? That is what we are hoping to figure out going forward in the next year.
IG: It seems like Nickel’s efforts had two impacts. One was advocating and saving important buildings. The other one was educating or generating a public discussion about why architecture matters and the need to save significant buildings. How much progress or lack of has there been in this city since Richard’s efforts in the last four decades? Do you think there’s been improvement since that?
JV: Believe it or not, in the 1950s there was a list of 37 buildings that the city made. But the list was rescinded with the destruction of the Garrick Theater in early 1961 because it had no teeth. On that list, there were about seven buildings that everybody, including the City, thought were universally going to be saved: the Rookery Building, the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building, the Monadnock Building, the Auditorium Building, the Reliance Building, and one or two others. It was an unwritten rule. But in the process we lost buildings almost equal to them, like the Republic Building, the Cable Building, and the First Leiter Building. They were coming down like flies. We didn’t know which one to go to next or what to save or what to fight for. We didn’t fight for the Cable Building. At least Richard Nickel and I both thought that Jacques Brownson, chief of design for C.F. Murphy & Associates, would do a good building in its place and he did. It was one of the first long span buildings. We wrote a letter to the Chicago Sun Times that got printed saying that we thought it was a shame that the Cable Building was going to be demolished but that the building that was going to replace it was a good one. We were both on the Chicago Heritage Committee and Ben Weese, also in the committee, was really angry with us for writing that, but we stuck to our guns. Jacques went on to do Chicago Civic Center (later the Daley Center). When the Civic Center went up, that site had the Erlanger Theater and many other good buildings but it was a time of renewal. Of course, the Garrick Theater wasn’t saved. The Mayor didn’t want it looking over the plaza. Imagine how wonderful that would have been.
IG: Tim, you led also some of the efforts to save buildings on Chicago’s South Side that were culturally significant and not just what was considered architecturally significant. How did those relate to some of the earlier efforts?
TS: It was interesting to see landmarking evolve in Chicago. In 1968, Chicago finally established a Landmark Ordinance that gave protection to landmarked buildings. The Landmark Commission was actually a pretty idealistic group of people who were really interested and passionate about saving buildings and doing a good job of documenting them. However, it was a small department that was looked up by the other larger departments as some little bunch of crackpots or whatnot. It wasn’t just in our hands to get the buildings through the state. You had to go through the staff, other politically appointed people and, if you got it through that, then you had to get it through the City Council.
If you had a building that had influential owners, you were going to have a tough time. I do remember one of the early efforts when they were doing the laundry list of the things to protect first. One of the early ones was the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building. Now occupied by Target, it is one of the great buildings by Louis Sullivan. In comes a letter from the Field Museum saying that they owned some of the land underneath the building and that the designation was going to harm their potential to benefit from the financial advantage of having a good piece of property at State and Madison. They were against the designation. Of course, I wrote them a nasty letter. You got things like that but, over time, it evolved. Many of the major buildings that were available received protection, but there were many things that were being ignored in terms of Chicago historical sites and social history. Buildings on the South Side of Chicago were not being covered at all. The renegades in the office stood up for things like Adler and Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Roloson Row Houses, and the Black Metropolis historic district. Some of them took some real fight, but it did open up a more diverse picture of what was considered a landmark. In the end, the regulations protecting them are still a disappointment. Let’s just say there is some interference getting in the way of the process. But it is definitely better than it was.
JV: Tell the story about Al Capone’s house. That is my favorite.
TS: We at the City were asked to generate national register nominations. People from the State of Illinois, which has its own historic preservation agency, came to us and said, “Well, we find the story of the gangster era to be of great importance and there are no historical sites.” To landmark a building doesn’t mean you are honoring the people who are named in it. It is recognizing an aspect of history. The house that they were most impressed with was Al Capone’s house, a little tiny two-flat on the South Side. His neighbors were policemen. Next door was a Presbyterian minister, who said that the Capones were nice people and that when they borrowed a cup of sugar, they would always return it properly heaping full. It did make an interesting perspective of somebody who was portrayed through media and movies of living in elegant surroundings. He very much lived the life of what his family would have experienced in New York where he came from and lived very modestly. I wrote it up and put it up just that way. It made perfectly good sense. Well, all hell broke loose. In the end, it went up the pipeline and there was pushback from a couple of senators. They actually built into a bill and, by law, there are two buildings that you cannot designate as an historic landmark under the National Register. One is the United States Capitol and the other is Al Capone’s house. I guess this was an achievement of some sort.
IG: When Nickel was trying to save the buildings from the turn of the twentieth century, these were buildings that were out of style, not old enough but architecturally and culturally relevant. Today, we can apply that same situation to the Brutalist buildings that are 50 years old and even the postmodern buildings that are being threatened. History repeats itself. As Richard Nickel said, “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” How can we discuss the value of buildings that are not considered old or removed from us by several generations?
TS: There is something that works against the preservation of buildings that, for a lack of a better word, I always call it the period of aesthetic limbo. It is a place in time where buildings are too new for people to have historical perspective on them. They are not old enough for people to appreciate them. The thing that often happens too is that we get a building that is 40 or 50 years old and it starts to look out of style, out of fashion. Even things like the Garrick Theater were tough to explain. The ground floor was just charted up with signs. They had repainted the interior in pink and black in the 1950s. What you do have is a younger audience that will look at these buildings with fresh eyes and say, “These are important buildings.” Older folks, especially the people who owned the buildings, see them as a fading, aging financial asset and the need to remodel them. This is the period when buildings either have a horrible remodeling or they get torn down all together. The people who have the money, who have the control, are the older folks. The younger folks don’t have that investment in it. If a building could make it through that period, it would be great because now we look at buildings that were torn down and say, “How could they ever do that?” But there were people who always saw it as an old outmoded building. They probably needed upgrades and that is a really critical issue. One time I tried to head it off. We fought for a Stanley Tigerman building, the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. It was a wonderful building of a really important period in Chicago architectural history. For all of our efforts, the building got really messed up. I don’t even consider it standing anymore. There was another building by Stanley, a parking structure that looks like a Rolls Royce front on Lake Street. Somebody had graffitied the front and one of the headlights was missing. I thought, “I’m going to see if I can pull this through the period of aesthetic limbo.” I contacted the owner and I said, “I have a background in historic preservation and restoration. This is a building that I think as time goes on people will appreciate. It is a vulnerable time. I will help you for free to restore this building.” The manager said, “How the hell am I going to replace a 10-foot automobile lens from the front of the building?” I said, “Well, I’ll find out.” I wrote a letter to Stanley Tigerman. I said, “Dear Stanley, I am trying to do an experiment, get this building through the period of aesthetic limbo. Could you provide me the drawings of the headlight, the connections, and where it came from?” A week went by, nothing. Two weeks went by, nothing. A month went by, nothing. Two months, I am sitting at my desk and an email comes in. “Dear Tim, sometimes buildings should just be allowed to get old. Stanley.” So much for that effort, but that is Stanley. I didn’t help the building, but the building is still there and I got a good Stanley story out of it.
IG: Bianca, last month, you and Tim launched the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive (CAPA), an organization devoted to the documentation and stewardship of materials related to the practices of early urban preservationists who gravitated around Richard Nickel. Can you talk more about the goals of the organization as well as provide an overview of the objects that we have here?
BB: The objects here, as well as the majority of what makes up the collections, comes from the private collections of Tim Samuelson, John Vinci, and Richard Nickel amongst others. We also hold the working files from the complete architecture of Adler and Sullivan amongst other papers. Initially, the idea was to create a safekeeping and repository for these items. But as we developed this idea, we realized that museums like the Art Institute of Chicago have items of a similar nature and sometimes the same items in a collection where they can be held in safekeeping, can stay on the wall, and be admired for their object value as well as their historic value. However, the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive has the unique ability to let these things out the door, to put them out on loan, and to engage in projects that otherwise might not come to fruition. Last month we launched with a project at IIT’s Open House that involved the Sullivan exhibition that John referenced earlier. We were able to take archival footage of that exhibition that Richard Nickel shot on Super 8 film and project it back on the walls in Crown Hall as a ghost of this exhibition and put it back in space where it actually came from.
As some of you might know, during the recent construction work being done around Crown Hall, some of the original portions of the historic Mecca Flats apartment building were unearthed. We are engaging with that site and some of the artifacts from our archive, including a piece of the railing, to see what can be done through the application of modern technology like 3D printing. The goal is to be able to recreate aspects of these buildings and place them once again in time and space where they once were. We have the ability to take these objects, loan them, let them out the door, and engage new processes to be able to raise the physical presence of these buildings.
As much as we need to continue to help save buildings, I think that this new approach is also in a small way the 21st century answer to preservation. These items are of great value in and of themselves, but now we can actually put them to use. In a way, now we can get as close as possible to saving the whole idea of the building.
IG: Tim, do you want to give a general overview of the artifacts that we have here and maybe select a few special pieces that you would like to talk about?
TS: There are different pieces and some of them have a relevance to Richard Nickel. Some of them are things I just had in my office, which is down the corridor. What I value and I learned from Richard, John, Bob, and David Norris is that all of them approach the architecture’s essence of what Sullivan gave these buildings. The architecture could parallel something you had experienced in nature. At a very young age, these buildings spoke to us. When Richard would take me to see a building I hadn’t seen, we would get out of the car and we would just look at it and not say a word. We would take it in and maybe talk about it later. That was part of the spirit. The nice thing about these buildings is that, even as they changed over the years, there were things that were built into them. The human heart and emotions responded to them no matter who it was that was in the building. The buildings were doing what Sullivan intended. That is what made it a wonderful thing. We weren’t looking to make any kind of thesis or whatnot. We were trying to save what we could. Sometimes that would be the whole building and, when we couldn’t, we had to pick up the pieces.
For example, this is a piece of the 1885 Henry Stern House designed by Adler and Sullivan. It stood near 29th and Prairie [2915 South Prairie Avenue]. It was torn down in 1959 during the urban renewal period where the city just basically condemned the whole neighborhood and tore the buildings down. Residents didn’t move out fast enough and people “mysteriously” would burn the house next to it. In 1958 people were not saving Sullivan ornaments, especially the early ornaments. Richard would go and visit the sites, trying to see the ornaments. I used to go with him. We would take a day and visit the site of the different Sullivan buildings. One day he would go back and see that house had a door kicked open and the windows had been broken. He knew it was going to disappear. You keep watching until you knew it was finally going to get demolished. Then Richard would go. In some cases, he would have his team of John Vinci, David Norris, and Bob Furhoff to try to save things. Sometimes he would go on his own. One that he did by himself was the Stern House. The house was a big three-story house. This is the piece of ornament. He basically went in the evening with a wooden extension ladder and climbed the equivalent of a three-story building, pounding down the bricks and then hauling the thing down. I invite anyone who doubts the achievement of what Richard did here to come and take this thing out. It can be done, but a man by himself being three stories in the air with a rope rescuing this piece is something that I might consider a miracle. I would like to know if I can still do it.
We also have Bob Furhoff with us here. When I talked about my mentors, I have two of my mentors here. Bob was the one who brought back the colors of the Chicago Stock Exchange stencils. Here is a picture of David Norris and Bob Furhoff taking rusted sheet metal from the top of the Frank House. A third artifact is from an early Sullivan building that was built in 1884 at 32nd and Michigan Avenue. Bob rescued the little finial, the last little burst of energy, and it is here thanks to Bob. The other thing that Bob has done is an arm of the state. Here is a piece of ornament of the Garrick Theater. I went to it once and it was horrible. Its interior had been painted pink and black. Nothing came out in better shape than this piece. Bob was able to do tests on the ornamentation and find out what the original color was. We are able to take those pieces, strip them down, and paint them to the specifications provided by Bob. The more we find, the more we can recreate how that entire theater was because it wasn’t just arbitrary color. The color and the architecture worked together. Why don’t you talk about this piece, Bob?
BF: A group of us were in the demolition site of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building watching the wreckers. We were actually looking for Richard.
TS: This was when Richard Nickel was missing. Of course, he was missing for a good month, but this was in the rubble.
BF: Walking out of the demolition site, this piece was lying in the ground, so I picked it up.
TS: You were lucky. I found a piece that was sitting there and one of the trucks was running over it. I asked the wrecker, “Could I have that?” He said, “No.”
BF: This comes from the elevator cages. It is the last piece I collected in Richard’s presence.
TS: That is a special and important piece. Certainly the story of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building is a powerful thing. Nobody in the group collects these things because they want to own them. Every one of these has a story behind them and every one of these things belongs somewhere else. Each one is a heartbreak in its own way, like this of Richard. It was a heartbreak in a very personal way.
Another thing that I find interesting is people using the archives. We have an open archive so we let people borrow things. The Art Institute of Chicago won’t do that. I respect the fact that they don’t because they have to protect things for the long haul, but sometimes there are small museums that will look for a piece of Sullivan art or a Wright window. The big museum will say, “You can’t borrow. You don’t have this kind of security,” or whatever. I can say, “Take it and bring it back when you are done.” I was very pleased when Michael Rakowitz, one of Chicago’s great artists, was doing a piece at the Istanbul Biennial where he was going to compare Chicago to Istanbul. Both had fires and both had traditions of decorative plaster. In this Biennial, he wanted to include a piece of melted stuff from the Chicago Fire. He wanted some Sullivan plaster. After not being able to secure it from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society, he found out about me. He wound up coming to my office with his carry-on luggage and I gave him some melted pieces from the Chicago Fire that I had and some Sullivan plaster. Am I careful where things go? Sure! I am not going to take some irreplaceable really fragile object, but whenever possible, I like to make share it.
Another object that I really love is what I think is considered the first 3D printed book. Tom Burtonwood, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a specialist in 3D printing, took nine Louis Sullivan’s earliest ornaments from the collection, 3D scanned them, and created a page for each. Nobody pays attention to these early ornaments done by Sullivan when he was in his 20s. They are some of my favorite things. The name of the book is Twenty Something Sullivan. One side reproduces the ornament and on the other side there is the negative that you could use to press Play-Doh, cookie dough, and just whatever you wanted to make your own ornament. I love the idea of this book and that it is not just sitting on a shelf. I really want to share the passion and the matter of heart, which was the spirit of what Nickel was all about. To take this ornament and these materials and use them in a way that is new and different from the way a traditional institution might have to operate.
IG: We have a few minutes for questions from the audience that you might have for any of the participants.
Audience: Are there plans to house all these artifacts in a specific location?
BB: The archive is currently based out of Mana Contemporary Chicago, which is located on 2233 S Throop St by Cermak Road. Right now it is open by appointment only. The building, in fact, is undergoing some renovations and won’t open to the public again until this fall. The hope is to eventually have it as a public resource.
Audience: Do Sullivan artifacts form the collection exclusively or do you see it going beyond?
TS: It does go beyond. What we have talked about here focused on the work of Sullivan, especially since in talking about Richard Nickel. But the scope is much larger, exploring architecture but also cultural history and historical sites. The idea too is to catalog these artifacts. Part of this project includes objects that I have and that I know what they are. But if for some reason something happens to me, they just become objects with no history. Instead of the traditional museum cataloging, we are trying to blend storytelling with the idea of a formal archive. For example, John has the top of the elevator cab from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, the only one that exists. John very kindly passed along these artifacts to be kept with the other artifacts and in taking it away, John mentioned a story that he never told me that when Richard and the crew was taking apart the trading room. There was an area where they would go and eat their lunch. Being good children of depression era parents, you took your lunch in your brown bag and sat on this metal box. I sat on this metal box every day until John finally flipped the thing over. It turned out it was this top of the elevator cab. I always think of those stories as personal history, but it turns out that the context of these early salvaging efforts in the overall story is just as important to document as the date of the building and how it fits into architectural context. It’s gathering the materials and putting the stories with them. Not just dates and figures but the story. Richard Nickel roping that piece of ornament and putting a record with that.
Audience: If Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois building [Thompson Center] gets torn down, what parts of the building would you save?
TS: It is an interesting issue for contemporary architecture. There really isn’t a lot that you can isolate. There are fragments that you could put out that people could relate to. That building is not going anywhere, not if I can help it. I have a lot to say about it. But it would be interesting if somebody would save an example of every one of those color panels on the building and even to find examples that were protected. It would be interesting to see how they had faded over time. The other thing too would be to get ahold of Helmut Jahn himself while you can and get his inside stories about it. That would be important as well. I could see things like these, but it is not the same as the decorative objects. There is nothing from the State of Illinois Building that you would necessarily hang on the wall, but there is definitely important physical material and stories that need to be gotten from and preserved.
Audience: Are there currently areas in Chicago that are being salvaged now?
TS: Salvaging is very different from what it used to be. First, when Richard was doing it, nobody was salvaging anything. In fact, nobody cared. There was no market for these pieces back in the 1950s or early 1960s. He could go down there and help himself. Sometimes the police would come and say, “What are you doing?” He said what he was doing and they would just shake their heads and drive off. Now, architectural salvage is a big business when a building is demolished. The wreckers actually build it into their estimate. They try to undercut their bidders by figuring out what is salvageable and could be resold. Many of the pieces are actually accounted for already. In my era, after the early Richard Nickel days, you would give a $10 or a box of donuts to the wrecker and say, “Can you get that down for me?” That is no longer the case. One person that I always remember, one of my other heroes that I have learned from, is Butch Mandell of National Wrecking of Chicago. He really was the one who taught me how buildings were put together because I would want to save things from buildings that would involve his workmen going up and taking time to take things out and cost them money. I actually worked on wrecking crews. I would hose down the debris and I would run for coffee and whatnot.
Butch Mandell said that he would always get whatever I wanted. One time some guy came and tried to buy something that Butch had promised to me. The guy offered him money and Butch said, “Get the hell out of here.” The guy kept insisting and Butch said, “What part of get the hell out of here don’t you understand?” Once the guy left, Butch shook his head and said, “I hate those guys. But Tim, any time you want something, it is yours. All you have to do is ask me. You know why that is? Because you are not one of those college educated assholes.” It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me.
IG: Thank you very much to Bianca, Tim, John, and Bob for a fantastic conversation and all of you for coming.
Thank you to the Chicago Cultural Center for hosting the event and to Enric Turull for the photographs of the event.