Review: Driehaus Museum Exhibit Honors Richard Nickel’s Passion to Preserve Louis Sullivan’s Legacy

The Richard Nickel story is both tragic and inspiring. The architectural photographer and salvager of ornament from Louis Sullivan buildings was committed to the fight for historic  preservation in the 1960s, the era of “urban renewal” and landmark demolition. The Driehaus Museum has just opened an exhibit of his work, titled Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw.

The exhibit is also a tribute to Nickel because 2022 is the 50th anniversary of his death. He was crushed by falling debris as he continued to salvage architectural ornament from the Chicago Stock Exchange building during its demolition. He  was killed on April 13, 1972, and his body was finally found among the debris 26 days later. He was 43 years old. 

The Driehaus exhibit, which features photographs and ornament salvaged by Nickel, is divided into galleries devoted to homes and commercial buildings designed by Adler & Sullivan and additional galleries devoted to the Chicago Stock Exchange and to some of the ornament that Nickel salvaged. The exhibition focuses on buildings that were the work of Adler & Sullivan in Chicago.

Installation view. Richard Nickel images of the Schiller Building and the Garrick Theatre, demolished 1961.

The exhibit is carefully curated to the Driehaus spaces by David Allen Hanks, a decorative arts specialist who joined the Art Institute of Chicago staff in 1969 and knew some of the principals involved in Nickel’s work. He also has worked at the Smithsonian Institution and at the Montreal Museum of Decorative Art.

Nickel’s work and his obsession with remnants of Adler & Sullivan buildings is credited with preserving Sullivan’s legacy: his devotion to the spare design of tall buildings and their organic ornamentation. Nickel was one of those engaged in protests about the demolition of Chicago architectural landmarks, beginning with the Garrick Theatre in 1961. (The Garrick Theatre story was told in a recent exhibit at Wrightwood 659.) After despairing over the possibility of saving those architectural treasures, Nickel determined he would preserve their majesty by salvaging ornament and other remnants during demotion and meticulously documenting the building interiors and the process of destruction through his photographs. 

In contrast to homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which are considered architectural treasures to be lived in, almost all of Sullivan’s work in the Chicago area has been demolished. Fortunately, we have Nickel’s photography and the architectural remnants he salvaged with the help of several young architects, who are still around to tell tales of working with Nickel—architects John Vinci and David Norris and Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson. Nickel collected ornament pried off homes and commercial buildings for years, first accumulating them in a garage. Later he worked with Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville to establish a Sullivan collection there when no one in Chicago was interested.

Reuben Rubel Residence, Chicago, 1884. Adler and Sullivan, Richard Nickel, photographer. Richard Nickel Archive, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architectu

The most poignant item in this impressive exhibit is a small one: one of Richard Nickel’s letters displayed under glass. It’s a letter written on a typewriter (complete with strikeovers) to his friend Tim Samuelson in March 1972. He tells Samuelson he might have to end their salvaging adventures because he has promised his fiancée Carol that the Stock Exchange would be the last building he would document. They planned to marry in June 1972.

The 40 Nickel photographs in the Driehaus exhibit are from the Richard Nickel Archive at the Ryerson & Burnham Archive at the Art Institute of Chicago. Many of the architectural remnants exhibited are part of the Richard H. Driehaus Collection. 

The Driehaus Museum itself is, of course, a landmark in carefully done historic preservation. The house, known as the Nickerson Mansion, was built in 1883 for a banker. It was the headquarters of the American College of Surgeons from 1919 to 1963. Driehaus, who had been collecting decorative arts for decades, bought the mansion in 2003 and commissioned its restoration and eventually its opening as a decorative arts museum in 2008.

Installation view. Richard Nickel images of two commercial buildings and salvaged ornament.

Other Sources on Sullivan and Nickel

Richard Cahan’s 1994 book, They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture, tells Nickel’s story in text and photos. The author details what happened on April 13, 1972. Nickel, who lived in the attic of his parents’ home in Park Ridge, was setting off for downtown to salvage a 4foot x 6foot lintel (a terra cotta panel between the second and third floors) from the Stock Exchange 30 N LaSalle St. His mother made blueberry muffins that morning and her son grabbed one as he left, promising he would see her that night.  

Cahan’s book was adapted for the play They All Fall Down produced by Lookingglass Theatre in 2001. The late Chicago actor, Larry Neumann Jr., played Nickel.  

A documentary of Nickel’s life and work produced by WTTW is also available online. You can view “The Richard Nickel Story,” a 2002 Chicago Stories episode, on YouTube and on PBS.org.

If you want to get a sense of the design of the Chicago Stock Exchange building, you can visit the Stock Exchange Trading Room at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sections of the Trading Room, including Sullivan’s elaborate stenciled decorations, molded plaster capitals, and art glass, were preserved and used in the 1976–77 reconstruction of the room. A visit to the trading floor is visual proof of the immediate and visceral power of the ornament he used so carefully in his building designs.

The arch salvaged from the building’s exterior is installed in Grant Park, at the southwest corner of Columbus Drive and Monroe Street. 

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Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw is on display at the Richard Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St., through February 19. The museum is open Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are $20 general admission with discounts for seniors and students. Public guided tours are offered at several times each day, and are $5 plus the cost of regular admission. See the website for more information. The museum encourages you to reserve tickets in advance. 

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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