Seeing Richard Nickel

November 14, 2022

What is left to understand about Richard Nickel as a legend? What is left to see about Richard Nickel the photographer? Richard Nickel the person? Elizabeth Blasius argues that investigating the style and expressions of his work and the backdrop behind it may provide some insight.


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View of Nickel with ornamental piece of the Schiller Building, demolished in 1961. Photographer: Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

On May 9, 1972, the body of architectural photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel was found amongst the ruins of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building. Nickel was last seen four weeks prior, salvaging architectural ornamentation from the 1893 Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan designed structure, which was undergoing demolition. The razing of the Chicago Stock Exchange had been fought by preservation advocates, architectural historians, planners, and architects. Despite the Chicago Landmarks Commission’s approval for local designation, and an intervention from then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, it was moving forward.

Richard Nickel, who had advocated for the preservation of the Chicago Stock Exchange as well as other works of Adler & Sullivan through letter writing to city commissions and politicians, op-eds in local papers, picket lines, and architectural photography, was in the building hunting relics, a practice he had undertaken despite writing in 1960 that, “because architecture is three dimensional and functional it can only be saved, logically, by saving the whole building.”

The death of Richard Nickel canonized him as a courageous martyr, a person who passionately fought for a cause against significant risk and opposition, a person who paid the passion tax’s ultimate price—death. Nickel’s death preserved his photography as a volume that mapped how architectural photography could be approached in the context of documentation, but also, as a component to preservation. The man and his work would be fused together as a modern legend, and would provide many preservationists, photographers, and salvagers the means to inspire and sanctify their own work.

The Richard Nickel epic isn’t the most legendary story in historic preservation in Chicago. It is the only story—or at least, it seems to be. Over the last fifty years it has been the subject of three primary texts and multiple exhibits, including one programmed by the Art Institute of Chicago the year of his death. It has been told through committees, archives and documentaries, a play, and a multimedia animation. It has provided preservationists who tagged along with Nickel on his salvaging adventures with a lifetime of priceless “I was there” anecdotes. Richard Nickel’s legacy is now much longer than his work, and the curiosity about him still has not abated.

Recently, Richard Nickel was the direct or related subject of two recent exhibits, both created by iterations of a similar team of preservationists who “were there.” In the winter of 2021, Wrightwood 659 mounted Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright. Romanticism to Ruin was an exhibit in two parts, an expression of two buildings of architectural significance that were razed prematurely: the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Garrick Theater in Chicago, by Adler & Sullivan. A key element of Romanticism to Ruin is a sixteen-minute visualization of the Garrick Theater, which was “rebuilt” as a 3D model, and allowed for stunning views of the building’s physical body and monumental ornamentation. The rich, warm tones of the interior, previously known only in black in white, surge with the energy of a “whole building.”

The advocates fought to save the Garrick Theater–the first in which newly created preservation policies were tested by a coordinated effort—at the same time as the newly created Chicago Commission on Architectural Landmarks began awarding plaques to the owners of thirty-seven architectural landmarks in Chicago, including one presented to the Garrick. Despite those efforts, the building was demolished in 1961.

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Mirror salvaged by Nickel (with a reflection of his photographing it and of newel posts from the Ruben Rubel House). Photographer: Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw, the second of the two recent exhibits, is currently on view at the Driehaus Museum. The Driehaus Museum is housed in the former Nickerson Mansion, an elegantly festooned 1883 Gilded Age landmark with marble walls and leaded glass windows. This context is important, because much of Richard Nickel’s work focused around documenting buildings similar to the Nickerson Mansion and provides an important framework for the first photograph in the exhibition that a visitor sees. The photograph is a self-portrait. Nickel is posed in the center of an ornate wood mirror with a rounded, beveled glass. The mirror is festooned with fans, coils, and tiny turrets, and salvaged from the Benjamin Lindauer Residence by Nickel himself. The mirror would be at home in the Nickerson Mansion, but instead it is inside Richard Nickel’s parent’s garage in suburban Park Ridge, in front of a tarp. Nickel stands beside a camera. In the foreground and background lay the detritus of both salvaged buildings and the labor of the salvage. The self-portrait seems to convey that he considered himself to be amongst the work that he did, or perhaps, a part of the work.

Both of these exhibits will not be the last to investigate Richard Nickel, but what is left to understand about Richard Nickel as a legend? What is left to see about Richard Nickel the photographer? Richard Nickel the person? Investigating the style and expressions of his work and the backdrop behind it may provide some insight.

Richard Nickel’s photographs are well known in part because every building he captured on film either became a landmark or was destroyed, and they capture many buildings as they teetered between both worlds. Richard Nickel captured buildings with fates not yet set as they were photographed, be that fate the wrecking ball, like the Chicago Stock Exchange, or a restoration, like the Reliance Building. Richard Nickel changed the way photographers—novice and professional alike—related to buildings as they were documenting them, and after the documentation had occurred. You know when you are gazing at a Richard Nickel photograph. Richard Nickel captured buildings in a way that allowed them to narrate themselves, and his relationship with the subject manifests in how Nickel chooses to fill the frame with details that other photographers might overlook. Richard Nickel’s photographs make the choice to not ignore the narrative of time, even as they served as the primary device to record the disappearing commodity that was Adler & Sullivan’s work.

In On Photography, cultural critic Susan Sontag writes, “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” The term “ruin porn” did not exist during Richard Nickel’s most prolific years, when he was searching Chicago for the lost works of Adler & Sullivan. One could still argue that there is a level of appropriation in every photograph made of a threatened urban building or neighborhood. Through Richard Nickel’s writing, photography, salvage, and advocacy we know he leveled judgment on those who contributed to the conditions of the buildings that were his subjects, but he did so without considering that broader social issues might have also been at fault.

Unlike the Wrightwood 659 exhibit, which focuses on one specific building within the canon of the dual Sullivan/Nickel legacy, the Driehaus Museum exhibit displays photographs taken by Richard Nickel amongst fragments that he himself had salvaged, many of which are assembled from private collections. These photographs and fragments displayed amongst the rich wallpapers and woodwork of the Nickerson Mansion appear to take on the qualities of decorative arts themselves. They work hard to disprove what Nickel himself wrote in 1960 about saving the whole building, and seem to cosign attitudes towards “architecture as art” rather than challenge them.

Architectural salvage has long been a complicated appendage of historic preservation. The ornament that Richard Nickel salvaged has undoubtedly assisted in making the work of Adler & Sullivan more widely known and easily studied. Museums and architecture schools all over the nation house pieces he salvaged from buildings, contributing to the scholarship. Yet, without the context of the building they were designed for or proper stewardship, salvage runs the risk of becoming merely a thousand-dollar product in a showroom. Worse yet, salvaged pieces might languish locked in the office of a scholar who is only available via a landline he notoriously leaves off the hook, or a private collector with no interest in sharing the piece publicly.

Architectural salvage was not practiced widely in the 1970s but is now a lucrative business. The current practice in Chicago and elsewhere includes the purchase and sale of items Richard Nickel himself saved, their provenance adding considerably to their value. Yet, this exchange produces a narrative of unresolved ethical quandaries. The democratization of architecture is lost when fragments remain in private hands. Even the most ornate, historically significant buildings in Chicago are on view to the public from their sidewalk right of ways. The same cannot be said for most of Nickel’s salvaged fragments.

Richard Nickel worked with demolition companies and was even hired by the City of Chicago to work with them to salvage larger buildings, such as the Garrick Theater and the Chicago Stock Exchange. But how did this exchange work when a lesser building in a disinvested neighborhood was the subject of a salvage endeavor? In many ways, the field of preservation developed without a clear understanding of consent; preservationists assumed that having the best interests of the buildings in mind could override the well-meaning existing stewards of historic places, especially if those stewards made choices that preservationists found to be out of line with their idea of integrity or care. The assumed “default good” of historic preservation doesn’t answer to how this salvage was acquired, or whether it was fair to salvage in communities that had already seen their resources stripped away.

Richard Nickel worked in areas of Chicago where disinvestment, redlining, and urban renewal were reshaping the built environment, yet the time in which he worked did not require any context for his documentation or his salvage. Similar contemporary work demands context or it is rendered exploitative or irrelevant. While it’s impossible to completely disengage Richard Nickel from the time in which he was active, it is valuable to see him through a critical lens that interrogates this lack of context. Together, the photographs and salvaged items could be read today in a way that has memorialized harm. The value is not in the building as a place where life or community thrived or occurred, but as a work of a “master.” And that building has no value when its artistic components can be extracted and taken away from the ugly disinvestment around it and displayed under glass with a spotlight and a smartly written museum label. Sullivan himself once said that “the building’s identity resided in the ornament.”

Richard Nickel was prolific in the volume of buildings he documented across Chicago. That abundance was undeniably linked to both his privilege and his identity. After serving in the Army, Richard Nickel enrolled in the photography program at the Institute of Design (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) when he returned to Chicago in 1948. While his degree was interrupted when he was called to serve in the Korean War in 1951, he earned a Master’s degree by 1957. Nickel acquired work as an architectural photographer, but maintained the work he began as a student, a thesis on the work of Adler & Sullivan. While it is documented that he struggled to support himself financially, he lived with his parents in their home in suburban Park Ridge during the period when he was most active, both as an advocate and as a photographer, and he was known to store salvaged ornament in his parents’ garage, where he photographed himself as well as the ornament he collected. He was able to devote time to documentation, salvage, and advocacy because he had the resources to do so without the expectation of pay. How else would he have been able to picket in front of the Garrick Theater for five consecutive days, holding a sign that famously read “Do we dare squander Chicago’s great architectural heritage?” Historic preservation has long been influenced by those working in advocacy who volunteer, and even those who are compensated are subject to regular “enthusiasm exploitation.” It is not clear what amount of money Richard Nickel earned during his most active years, but it was enough to purchase a house on Cortland Street in Bucktown and a sailboat by 1970.

Race and gender plays an undeniable role in the spaces a photographer can or cannot access. Richard Nickel’s photographs convey seemingly unrestricted access to his subjects, both the neighborhoods in which the buildings were situated and the physical interiors and extremities of the structures. His presentation as a cisgendered white male gave him authority to move freely in almost any space without suspicion through the 1960s and into the 1970s, during a time when social movements were seeking to reform the inequality between men and women, white and Black, heterosexual and gay. An examination of his photographs conveys access to buildings that were in use, such as the Carson Pirie Scott & Company Store on State Street, under construction, like the Richard J. Daley Center, and buildings that were unoccupied, like the Charles P. Kimball Residence in River North. He visited buildings many times, taking photos of them from multiple angles, in various states of use and decay. Access and comfort likely never entered Richard Nickel’s mind in the same way it might have entered the mind of a contemporary who would need to consider how their identity, presentation, or race might affect the production of such photographs, or their personal safety.

Richard Nickel was comfortable enough to linger on street corners, among scaffolding, and atop building roofs. That ability to linger allowed Richard Nickel to get creative. Richard would do so by placing himself within the image of what he was documenting. These self-portraits are a unique addition to the rest of his work and an invitation to interrogate how he viewed himself within the zeitgeist.

Richard Nickel’s most well-known self-portrait is one where he is heroically perched atop the roof of the Republic Building, just behind a supersized, leafed cornice. The higher a building’s ornament was designed to be placed, the more monumental in scale, as it was meant to convey its design primarily from those that viewed it from the street, hundreds of feet below. Nickel poses himself like the captain of a ship amongst this massive ornament, posed with his hands in the pocket of his coat. The photo is heroic but also self-indulgent.

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Untitled (Self-Portrait atop the Republic Building), 1960. Photographer: Richard Nickel. Photography Department Exhibition funds. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Another self-portrait shows Richard Nickel on the roof of the Rosenfield Building. The camera faces east, the Gold Coast far in the background. It’s a busy picture, made busier by the overlay of a second image, the ornament that Nickel salvaged from the building. Richard is isolated in the field of the image, perhaps a representation of his feelings of loneliness and isolation with the work.

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Nickel on the roof of the Rosenfeld Building. Images of the building’s ornament have been overlaid on the picture. Photographer: Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

At home in Park Ridge, Richard Nickel poses himself in the bathroom in front of a shower curtain. The photo is said to have been taken after a day of salvaging. Richard has left his clothes and face filthy to convey the work he has just completed. The photo captures his pride through a slight smile and an uplifted chin. He carries the dirt of a hard day’s labor, his own cleanliness sacrificed to the cause of salvaging ornament.

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Said to have been taken after a day of salvaging at the Louis Frank house in 1968. Photographer: Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

It is perhaps these self-portraits where a viewer sees Richard Nickel as he most desires to be seen. In one photograph, Richard Nickel uses a second camera to capture himself casually adjusting the lens of another, head turned dramatically towards a wall of torn floral wallpaper. He is wearing a tight-fitting white undershirt, an intimate image loaded with ennui.

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Nickel with large format camera. Photographer: Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Then, there is the most curious self-portrait Richard Nickel ever made. He is shirtless, standing beside a human-sized piece of Sullivan ornament, salvaged from the Richard Knisely Store and Flats. A box labeled “Prune Juice” sits on a shelf behind him. It is vulnerable, erotic, and silly all at once, and it invites the viewer to ask if the photo was intended for someone who enjoyed a level of intimacy with Nickel. Was it taken for a lover? These photos seem to express an identity that Richard Nickel did not show in his photographs of architecture.

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Nickel with a piece of salvaged exterior ornament from the Richard Knisely Building. Photographer: Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Back at the Driehaus Museum, a letter dated March 20, 1972, written by Richard Nickel sits under glass. The letter announces to the recipient that Richard is done “adventuring, salvaging and avoiding the cops,” then follows with a personal revelation that Richard had recently developed feelings for a woman, and that he intended to marry her, two declarative statements that make it clear that Richard Nickel was ready to forge ahead towards a life of heteronormativity. In the typed letter is a damning sentence: “I just can’t care about these buildings anymore.” It was prophetic. Less than a month later, Richard Nickel would be killed in the demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange.

An association with Richard Nickel, either through him directly or through the people he worked with and befriended, has become a badge of authenticity in Chicago preservation. Richard Nickel’s co-conspirators continued to work in preservation as architects, scholars, and bureaucrats. Some of these associates carried his legacy through the twenty-first century, keeping Nickel’s photographs, his salvaged items, his personal effects, and his legend circulating, eventually turning the work that began as Nickel’s graduate school thesis into a nearly five-hundred-page catalog of the work of Adler & Sullivan, published in 2010.

It is plausible that Richard was done with the physical toil and low rewards of architectural salvage, but it is difficult to imagine that had he lived he wouldn’t have continued to document buildings, or perhaps impact the field of historic preservation broadly. His growth as a professional ran concurrently alongside milestones in historic preservation policy in the 1950s and 1960s. His work clearly informed them and influenced the departments that created those policies. Rebels, however, don’t always age well, and it’s not known whether Richard Nickel would have carried the same desire to make radical change into his later years or if he would have settled into the comfort of bureaucracy. We can only hope that he would have been on the right side of history as the field advanced, advancing towards the preservation of the modern, the vernacular, and the culturally relevant.

“Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can enforce one,” said Sontag in On Photography. Richard Nickel’s photographs enforce our thinking that preservation has value because preservation provides evidence of our past lives, even when we are unable to control the ends of our own. Richard Nickel’s death is seen less as a tragedy and more as the result of uncontrolled passion, and preservation expects that level of passion and sacrifice in exchange for its attention. Richard Nickel still has much to teach us, but only if the legend and legacy can be allowed to unfurl, not unlike the complexity of the ornament Sullivan designed, the ornament that Nickel was so obsessed with. Perhaps then we can truly see Richard Nickel.