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Unearthing Nickel

The legacy of historical preservationist Richard Nickel is finally being rediscovered through the diligent work of a local curator-historian.

By Arts & Culture, Featured

Image courtesy of John Vinci.


This past April marked the anniversary of the death of architectural giant Louis Sullivan as well as Richard Nickel, his greatest steward.

Sullivan, founder of the Chicago School of Architecture, known for its cladded steel-frame skyscrapers and dramatic grid of bay windows, died a penniless alcoholic on April 13, 1924. His funeral was paid for by Frank Lloyd Wright, a mentee of Sullivan’s whose tutelage influenced Wright’s own Prairie School.

Nickel also died on April 13, but in 1972, after the old Chicago Stock Exchange collapsed on him.

The building was designed by Adler & Sullivan, the late architect’s firm. Nickel, a photographer turned preservationist responsible for documenting much of Sullivan’s achievements, went with a small team to salvage some of its pieces for posterity.

Four generations on, this symbiotic relationship of influence conjuring stewardship is alive and well. Both through individuals and institutions, Nickel’s legacy is being preserved.

Bianca Bova is currently a communications consultant at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) College of Architecture, located in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the city’s South Side. Bova was taken to a Louis Sullivan exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center by her father when she was young.

“It was kind of the first inclination of civic responsibility,” she says, “where the people responsible for a place are the people who
live in it.”

After keeping a pamphlet tacked onto her bedroom wall for “way too long,” it became apparent to Bova’s family that she had an interest in architecture.

Bova went on to curate shows for Gunder Exhibitions, the now-shuttered contemporary arts gallery which operated out of the Berger Park North Mansion (AKA, the Gunder House). She’s also responsible for “Girlhood,” the recent Alyce Haliday McQueen show at Wedge Projects. Intersecting with these tasks, however, was research taken up at the Ryerson-Burnham Library at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC).

Three years ago, Bova was putting together a proposal for a Richard Nickel memorial. (The concept was presented to the city and is currently under consideration.) Her current employer, IIT, happens to be where Nickel discovered Sullivan’s work at the age of 23 while studying under the photographer Aaron Siskind — the same age Bova was when she began her research on the preservationist.

Long acknowledged for its shepherdship of Chicago’s architectural movements, the school boasts multiple presciences. Architect and New Bauhaus proponent Crombie Taylor was IIT’s Director back when it was referred to simply as the Institute of Design. He was instrumental in saving several of Sullivan’s buildings from demolition. Decades later, Mies van der Rohe, the arch minimalist, helmed the College of Architecture; today, a drive down State Street reveals his sleek, stripped down campus remains mostly intact.

While researching, Bova began discovering discrepancies between Nickel’s public perception and reality: claims easily rebuffed by a simple perusal of his work. The discrepancy revealed a sequestered humanity in architecture and design.

Nickel’s assessment of Sullivan displayed humanism manifested in “a fusion of geometry and nature.” For Nickel himself, the direhood of potential loss propelled him, rather than saintly moral conviction.

“There was no incentive,” Bova says, “just a situation in which something needed to be done, and there was no one to do it, so he took it upon himself.”

In a photograph of Nickel on top of the Garrick Theater, “he’s wearing a topcoat, the wrong type of shoes, no gloves, no respirator. He just showed up and did what needed to be done.”

Bova also takes issue with the perception of Nickel as an anti-social, humorless loner.

“He certainly didn’t have a high tolerance for the frivolity of popular culture,” she says, “but he was far from anti-social.” He was often invited to cocktail and dinner parties, and regularly attended the symphony, the opera, and museum openings. Nickel also loved to travel, and sailing with friends.

“He had the abstract moral authority of someone who sincerely loves art,” Bova adds, but there were “moments in which his frustration and regret was made manifest—times when the tone-deaf civic response overwhelmed him. He was, by all appearances, quite average in most regards.”

But an average citizen rolling up their sleeves and getting to work doesn’t trump martyrdom, even in The City of Broad Shoulders. After all, being crushed in an attempt to preserve a demolished building implies selflessness — a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for art. Paradoxically, framing it as such strips away the personhood of both the preservationist and the preserved.

“[Nickel] becomes a very convenient symbol, Bova says. “I don’t think for one instant that Richard would want that label attached to him.”

Solving the disparity proved simple: Allowing Nickel to speak for himself. Bova is currently at work on a Richard Nickel biography intended to serve as a “corrective measure against the misconceptions that have been perpetuated … both personally and professionally, she says. “It will draw primarily from his own written accounts of his work, personal letters and memoranda, and contain as little opinion as possible.”

Outside of the Ryerson, Bova has been working within Mana Contemporary’s archives, perusing research files from “The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan,” the book Nickel co-authored with Siskind. But meeting Nickel’s former classmates and colleagues led to something larger.

Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official Cultural Historian, worked for Nickel as a teenager. This May, he’ll be announced as the Director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive (CAPA), a center containing salvaged/collected research about the city’s rich architectural heritage.

Bova will be named Associate Director.

“Richard Nickel and his practice are central to CAPA,” she says. “It’s devoted to documenting and preserving the legacies and archives of the early urban preservationists who gravitated around him. He was, for better or for worse, often at the center of things.”

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