Art Institute to receive archives of famed architectural photographer Richard Nickel

November 16, 2010

The Art Institute of Chicago will announce today that it has been donated the archives of Richard Nickel, the acclaimed architectural photographer who documented mid-century Chicago--most notably the callous destruction of the city's Adler & Sullivan buildings, but also the new modern architecture that arose concurrently.

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin reports 15,000 negatives, photographs, contact sheets and other items have been donated to the museum from the non--profit Richard Nickel Committee which has held the archive for years. The museum's Ryerson & Burnham Libraries will be the repository of the work.

Nickel began photographing the Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan masterpieces in the 1950s and was also a preservationist who championed for the buildings' preservation. He also salvaged and displayed ornament from the structures once they were condemned.  He climbed inside buildings, taking photographs that provided a poignant valedictory from the doomed structures that are nothing short of art, as the case with the above 1961 photo of downtown's Garrick Theater clinging to life while being lain open by wreckers. Nickel was killed in April 1972 when, while attempting to salvage ornament from Adler & Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange Building at 30 N. LaSalle, the building collapsed on him.

Look at this Historic American Building Survey photo Nickel made of the First Regiment Armory going down at 15th and State:

Or this crisp Frank Lloyd Wright interior:

Nickel has been the subject of much recent interest, particularly Chicago writer/photographer Richard Cahan's masterful book, They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save American Architecture (which was turned into a play at the Lookingglass Theater Company in 2001) and Cahan's follow-up, Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, with collaborator Michael Williams.

More of Nickel's work is here on the Richard Nickel Committee website.The one of Lake Point Tower, with the glass skin almost up--but not note quite--is sheer beauty. The one of the Robie House--which I will guess, due to the length of the house, is actually two photos joined as one--is genius.