Documentation North St. Louis

The Dart Veers North

by Michael R. Allen

Check out dArt St. Louis: 100 people threw a dart at a map of the city of St. Louis and photographed the spot where their dart landed.

Looking through the photographs, I am struck by how many were taken in North St. Louis. While I was not present to watch the dart throw — perhaps the north end of the map had some kind of advantage — I think it’s great that the interesting and varied locations of the north side received so much attention. By my count, at least half of the photographs come from the northern half of the city.

What will be interesting is to re-photograph those locations in 25 years. What will these places look like then?

Chicago Documentation Louis Sullivan People Salvage

Richard Nickel’s Chicago: A Review

by Michael R. Allen

This article first appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of the NewsLetter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Missouri Valley Chapter.

David Norris, friend of photographer, salvager and historian Richard Nickel, once said that “I think what Richard had to teach was that if you find some way to express your deepest convictions, you should exercise that talent to the very utmost of your ability. . .even if it leads somehow to your destruction.” Nickel died in 1972 while rescuing interior ornament from Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange building, then under demolition. The attitude toward life’s work that Norris summarizes is readily apparent in the vivid, arresting images in Richard Nickel’s Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, published at the end of 2006. The book amasses many of Nickel’s images of condemned Louis Sullivan buildings, as well as his glimpses into other long-gone parts of Chicago: Chicagoans enjoying the carnival at Riverview Park; a Loop landscape prior to the Congress Expressway; downtown offices with stenciled lettering on frosted glass doors; youth making a strong show of protest at Grant Park in 1968; other hallmarks of a vibrant urban culture in which the built environment is both backdrop for human action and a pivotal character.

Richard Nickel’s body of work is the result of chance. After serving in the Army immediately after World War II, Nickel was seeking a mission in life and use of the free tuition the GI Bill offered. Newly-divorced, the young man happened upon photography classes at the Institute of Design, founded and directed by Bauhaus transplant László Moholy-Nagy. There his primary instructors were noted photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Siskind taught a class in which he assigned his students to photograph the surviving buildings of Louis Sullivan. Because he was draft-exempt, Nickel was put in charge of the students’ efforts and an exhibition held at the Institute in 1954. No matter; the young photographer had enthusiastically taken up his assignment, and took steps that made the study of Sullivan’s architecture his life’s work. Under Siskind’s direction, Nickel embarked upon a still-incomplete book entitled The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan. After completing his courses, Nickel continued the book project but began to get sidetracked. Chicago seemed to be disappearing around him, and Nickel responded by documenting doomed buildings (Sullivan’s and others’) through drawing floor plans and taking photographs and then, when demolition was certain, salvaging ornament.

Most of the images in Richard Nickel’s Chicago were never printed in Nickel’s lifetime, making the book a remarkable document. Nickel took some 11,000 photographs in his life, but mostly made contact sheets unless a client was willing to pay for development. Even more remarkable than the book is the way in which Nickel was able to capture so carefully each scene without ever seeing a large print. Somehow Nickel was able to deftly find the drama in the still life of many architectural scenes, and carefully transmit the sorrowful scenes he witnessed directly. Those images are his best known, although most in the book are new to even his admirers. Less known are Nickel’s gentle shots of people at festivals, expressing the glee, anger or longing in what seem to be private moments between subject and photographer. Those images show a breadth to Nickel’s body of work previously unknown.

The architectural images convey both respect and resignation — a painful combination. The parade of lost masterpieces is staggering — Adler and Sullivan’s Schiller Theatre, Meyer Building, Rothschild Building, Babson Residence and Stock Exchange; Burnham and Root’s Church of the Covenant and First Infantry Armory; Holabird and Roche’s Republic and Cable building. Even the photographs of surviving landmarks like the Rookery and the Auditorium Building have a weary gaze, as if the photographer has doubts of their permanence at the hands of his society. Nickel conveys the glory of these buildings while making statements about Chicago’s arrogant disregard for them; he poses wry scenes that are statements of protest in which the beauty of the building makes the loudest statement.

Ever faithful to his subjects, Nickel avoids taking photographs that are easily digested or ignored. Nickel prefers wide views and the occasional vivid close-up to iconic images. At first glance, the photographs can seem carefully workmanlike. Then, a detail jumps out — the postures of men standing in the foreground of a demolition scene, words on a church wall next to a gaping hole made by wreckers, the appearance of a church steeple in a photograph of a roof. As one studies the photographs, the intentional nature of the details becomes apparent.

Nickel thought through his capturing of the details of every building he shot, just as the architects who designed them conceived of the intricate parts. Every foreground, background and shadow was chosen. The genius of Nickel emerges; he has taken photographs that reward a multitude of viewings and whose technique emulates the subjects’ complexity as much as any documentation can. Nickel’s photographs teach us the values of patience and observation, and of the power of making careful choices. These were the values that led Nickel to study and defend the works of Sullivan and other Chicago masters. These were the values that could have kept the buildings around as long as the photographs.

Cahan, Richard and Michael Williams, editors. Richard Nickel’s Chicago. Chicago: CityFiles Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-9785450-2-8.


CSB Records Again Freely Available Through Geo St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

Citizens Service Bureau (CSB) complaints records again appear to the public on the Geo St. Louis website. Apparently, city government was strictly interpreting a newly-enacted Sunshine Act compliance ordinance sponsored by Alderman Craig Schmid (D-20th). The ordinance specifies ways in which citizens have access to public records, with an emphasis on expanding access through established city policy. (More discussion on the CSB part of the law here.) Schmid claimed his intention was to put the city into compliance with existing state laws on public records, not restrict citizen access to CSB information. Schmid opposed the city’s interpretation.

I noted on November 27 that the records had become password-protected.


Citizens’ Service Bureau Records Now Password-Protected on Geo St. Louis

Geo St. Louis no longer displays records of Citizens’ Service Bureau (CSB) complaints for parcels. Now, only users with passwords can access those records. The site instructs people who want a password to contact the Planning and Urban Design Agency via a generic feedback form. I wonder what precipitated the change, and I wonder who can get a password.

Many residents of Old North St. Louis, where I live, use Geo St. Louis to see just how much of a problem a property is. CSB complaints offer neighbors (and potential neighbors!) the chance to monitor the history of problem properties to determine if a recently-observed nuisance is part of a chronic pattern of neglect. Some neighborhoods lack staffed neighborhood organizations, and citizens may need direct access to CSB complaint records. Geo St. Louis has been a leader among American cities’ public geospatial systems in terms of breadth and depth of information available to any site user.

While those records are public and a citizen has always been able to to obtain them with a written request, the sudden departure of open online access seems unnecessary.

Chicago Documentation Media People

Past the Margins of Chicago

by Michael R. Allen

Rob Powers (creator of Built St. Louis) has launched A Chicago Sojourn to chronicle the non-iconic corners of his new home. In his first post, Rob writes that “I’ve always gravitated to the forgotten: in St. Louis, in Milwaukee, everywhere I go. And so it shall be here.”

Beautifully-designed Forgotten Chicago features photo essays on those traces of Chicago’s past few celebrate, let alone investigate. Recent topics the Schoenhofen Brewery, pre-1909 street numbering system and Chicago’s largest vacant lot, the site of US Steel’s South Works. Jacob Kaplan and photographer Serhii Chrucky are the editors.

Abandonment Documentation Media

Sonic Atrophy Returns

Sonic Atrophy has returned to the internet after a two year absence. The website features photographs of abandoned places along with narratives on the anonymous site creator’s experiences visiting and photographing the places. Most of the locations featured on Sonic Atrophy are in the St. Louis region, but some are located in other places including Peoria and Cairo, Illinois and Gary, Indiana.  Visit the website here.

Detroit Documentation People

Detroit Ruins

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Nicole Rork for Detroit Ruins. Used with permission.

I want you to look at a website of photographs of abandoned places…

I already sense the disinterest.

Well, hear me out. I want you to look at Detroit Ruins.

I want you to see how Nicole Rork offers a tour of the ruins of Detroit, Gary and a few other cities through images that are at once prosaic and beautiful. I want you to notice that she provides short histories of the places she documents, with accurate information and links to other sources. Rork captures the vividness of faded colors, the brightness in dark rooms and the larger world in confined spaces. She’s a bit of a conjurer — taking shots with views wide enough to suggest that life in some form is lurking right outside of the frame of the still scenes she documents. Perhaps she is confronting that force somewhere while her camera takes its picture. Perhaps not. Does it matter? The subject matter itself gains a new life through her gaze.

I want you to look at Detroit Ruins.

Documentation Historic Preservation People Salvage

Richard Nickel, Thirty Five Years After Death

by Michael R. Allen

Chicago salvager, photographer, historian and activist Richard Nickel was killed thirty-five years ago on April 13, 1972 while salvaging at the Chicago Stock Exchange Building. Thirty-five years later, Nickel’s legacy is evident in the contemporary preservation movement. Today architectural salvage, systematic photographic documentation, appreciation of commercial and industrial buildings and concern for the effects of widespread demolition are widely understood as important components of historic preservation — even if not as widely implemented as they should be.

Edward Lifson, himself an interesting interpreter of architectural history, commemorates the anniversary of Nickel’s death and celebrates the new book Richard Nickel’s Chicago in a segment from NPR that ran earlier this week.

Although not as famous as many contemporaries, Nickel sparks an intensity in people as they consider his haunting images, fiercely-argued writings and the awareness he kindled in people still alive today. Years later, for American historic preservation, Nickel stands as a pioneer whose accomplishments have not been fully considered (or even recorded) and whose ideas will provoke our minds for generations.

Documentation Gaslight Square People

Where is Gaslight Square?

by Michael R. Allen

After work, I headed over to the Metropolis-sponsored reading from Gaslight Square: An Oral History by my friend Thomas Crone. The experience was unique, to say the least: Thomas narrated his own reading with stories about the making of the book along with bits of history and gossip that did not make it through. His presentation summoned forth ideas about a history with a palpable intangibility. After all, the reading took place in one of the new houses on Olive Street that sits on the site of long-gone building where the famous events went down. Through the windows of the new house, all one can see are other new houses occupying the sites of building vital to one of the most culturally formative stages in St. Louis’ recent past. (The exception is the brick building that once housed Ben Selkirk & Sons auction house, newly rehabbed at the southeast corner of Whittier and Olive.)

Listening to Thomas invoke the history of this place in its stunningly reference-stripped incarnation gave me great appreciation for his work. While his account is not a thorough narrative of the events that went down, it is an essential record of impressions, memories, ideas and connections between his interview subjects and one place that doesn’t even seem like itself anymore. Without buildings or other landmarks, an urban place could very well die in collective memory over time. Those who directly experience a place during a particular incarnation won’t live forever, after all.

However, with Gaslight Square there is an enduring key to a place otherwise lost. Even away from the place itself and the author’s voice, the book offers a chance to help us know where Gaslight Square is — in many senses. Thank goodness the book exists!

Documentation LRA North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Place

New Blairmont Map Online

by Michael R. Allen

We have a new Google Earth map of north St. Louis properties owned by companies controlled by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. See the map here.

The map, created on March 13 and sent by a concerned resident of the St. Louis Place neighborhood, shows 637 properties owned by McKee’s companies.

For reference, this map includes pinpoints on adjacent properties owned by city-owned corporations like the Land Reutilization Authority, Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. Also included are properties owned by Pyramid Construction and the partnership between the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.