I would have liked to have known him

Earlier this week, a Facebook page entitled "Chicken in the Car and the Car Won't Go" (it's the Facebook page for a book that my friend Melisa with one S has written) displayed a post about "The Rookery", a famous landmark building in Chicago.

Seeing that post set off a train of thought for me that eventually led to the memory that there had been a successful effort, at one point, to save "The Rookery" from redevelopment. I remembered how outraged I was that the effort was even necessary. "The Rookery" is one of the most important architectural masterpieces in the City, and greedy, uncaring people had wanted to tear it down and build some monstrosity of steel and glass in its place.

Thinking about all that reminded me of a man I'd read about, recently. A man I think I would like to have known. A photographer. A passionate lover of old buildings - especially those of Louis Sullivan. A hero. A man who died for his passion. His name was Richard Nickel, and but for him many fine buildings of Louis Sullivan and many other treasures would have been destroyed. As it is, many of those fine old buildings WERE destroyed - the Garrick Theater, for example, a landmark effort of Louis Sullivan's, was torn down and a parking garage built in its place.

Richard Nickel did his best to photograph and document the buildings that were being put to the wrecking ball. At some point during his efforts to document what the city was losing, he began saving pieces of the buildings, decorative cornices and facades, and stored them at his parent's home in Park Ridge, and then at his own place on the north side of the city. It was often a race between Richard and the wrecking ball, sometimes he'd be taking pieces out of buildings while the wrecking ball swung.

In 1972, the Chicago Stock Exchange Building was scheduled for demolition. Richard had fought against the demolition, but when he lost, in court, he began removing important pieces (the Art Institute of Chicago, at one point, reconstructed the Trading Floor as an exhibition, thanks to Richard's efforts at saving the interior) while the building was being demolished. He disappeared one day. A month later they found his body in the rubble of the building - a stairwell had collapsed onto the Trading Floor and then the Trading Floor itself had fallen in under the weight. Richard's body was under the staircase.

People tour "The Rookery" these days. They see the offices of Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright. Most don't know why that building is still there - who their hero is. Was. Who their hero was. Richard Nickel. After he died, it started getting much harder to tear down architecturally important buildings.

Richard Nickel. I would like to have known him.



PattiKen said...

How short-sight greed is. So much history has been lost to the fast buck.

The "big city" nearest us in MA once had a "union Station," a classic old train station with vaulted ceilings, arched windows, frescoes, mosaics, etc. Like many other such Union Stations, it's gone now. What stood in its stead for years was a shelter akin to a bus stop. Then a few years ago, they put up a new train station (oops, guess we needed one after all) called the Intermodal Transportation Center. It has all the charm its name would imply.


Big Mark 243 said...

I am torn between the retaining of culture v. progress. The characterless buildings that go up in place of the structures that we value will, in time, become as archaic and mere relics of a time and archiecture that has long since gone and by.

Preferring not to simply rage for the sake of raging... let what has been saved remain as the hallmarks of the past and let progress claim what is rightfully progress, without rancor. I mean, how different is saving old buildings from saving old social norms?

Melisa Wells said...

Haven't had time to look at my reader in about a week so I just now saw this: I'm posting my pics of the Rookery tomorrow and will totally link you up! (I wish I could've met him too. :) )