by Michael R. Allen
Thirty-four years ago day, Chicago photographer, historian and salvager Richard Nickel was killed when several thousand pounds of the steel and concrete guts of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building fell on him. Nickel was inside of the building — designed by Louis Sullivan — on the first floor, having come to the building to rescue a stair stringer and a few other items after repeated warnings from wreckers to stay away. Nickel stepped forward a few years too far ahead of the preservation game to have had things easy. He saw destruction around him, especially of the works of the now-lauded Sullivan, and set out to at least document condemned buildings through photographs. Then he made the fatal discovery that he could recover parts of these buildings that would otherwise never be seen again. Motivated only by a love for preserving knowledge, and often privately very bitter, Nickel took over 11,000 photographs and saved countless pieces of architectural ornament, most of which now belongs to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Nickel rarely made a dime from his efforts, and never held a steady job except for the one that he assigned himself. He was somehat reclusive and shunned public attention, instead exerting influence through relationships with writers, architects and historians whom he thought were sympathetic to his lonely cause.
Nickel’s work demonstrated that systematic efforts for photographic documentation and architectural ornament recovery were as important to architectural history as theory and research. While his amateur salvage efforts pale in comparison to those of St. Louis’ own Larry Giles, at the time Nickel started saving parts of Sullivan buildings in the 1950s scholarly interest in architectural salvage was non-existent. Nickel blazed his own path, and influenced architectural historians and preservationists that have come since his departure. Without Nickel, so much that I hold as certain may not even exist at all — buildings and ideas both.