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The Preservation of Richard Nickel

“The expression a great architect achieves has continuing value, just like any work of art. Because architecture is three-dimensional and functional it can be saved, logically, by saving the whole building.” –Richard Nickel

But saving a whole building’s a tall order once it’s deemed commercially obsolete. Unlike art high and low that we cannot imagine our lives without–the painting, the song, the book whose aphorisms are handed down to us as children–a building is easily eradicated. And there’s no unyielding moral barrier standing in the way.

Architecture–even in Chicago–has never emerged from an ethical penumbra. Landmark commissions and preservationist movements toil noisily because the case they argue remains so far from wide acceptance. Even mourners of lost buildings often grant developers the right to have done as they wished with the land they owned. In this view architecture is less than art. Like a grove or pond, it is what preceded painful but necessary progress.

The opposing view has many champions. It can claim one martyr. In 1972 photographer Richard Nickel, 43, was crushed to death by falling rubble as he rummaged for ornament in Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s old Stock Exchange Building on LaSalle Street, then being demolished. This month Richard Cahan, a Sun-Times photo editor, is publishing They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture, a biography of Nickel.

“He wanted to convince people,” says Cahan, “that tearing down a great building is like going into the Art Institute and spray painting the art. That was his goal, of taking beautiful pictures and telling people to wake up. The sad thing is, once these buildings come down, generations and generations are the losers.”

Before it killed him, Nickel watched the Stock Exchange go down as Adler and Sullivan’s Meyer Building had gone down in 1968 and their Garrick Theater seven years before that. Wreckers mocked him as he picked through these buildings’ debris, taking pictures and rescuing what he could of Sullivan’s grilles and medallions. “Marvelous being in a work of art under rape,” Nickel bitterly wrote a friend two months before he died. “How often do you experience the bones, veins, skin of a work of art, even if it be in dissection?”

Some of Nickel’s obsessiveness became Cahan’s. Twenty years ago he was a journalism student at the University of Illinois writing a story about a law professor, John J. Constonis, who’d taken part in the fight to save the Stock Exchange. “He showed me a picture of the Stock Exchange Building and told me how it had influenced his life. How the picture was taken at sunset–and he had gone by the building many times in his life, and he never had really looked at it. And by looking at this picture he saw the value of the building. He saw the beauty of the building.

“And he told me the man who had taken the picture had died in the building.”

Cahan recognized a great subject for a magazine piece. When he moved to Chicago in 1979 he set to work on it. A friend of Nickel’s, the architect John Vinci, showed Cahan an enormous collection of letters Nickel had written over the years. “He kept carbon copies of everything,” says Cahan, who emerged from Vinci’s basement six months later thinking of writing much more than an article.

Nickel had come out of the Korean war and enrolled at Chicago’s Institute of Design. “It’s funny,” says Cahan, “his whole life was determined by a college assignment.” The assignment was for Nickel’s class to photograph buildings created by Sullivan, the designer, and Adler, the engineer. It’s funny to Cahan because his own book began as a college project, an assignment that took over his life for 15 years.

What about Nickel hooked you? we asked him. “His idealism, his passion, and his talent.” He was more than a gadfly, Cahan said. He was gifted.

And his martyrdom? we said.

“Yeah. The martyrdom is fascinating. But it wouldn’t have lasted for me all these years if it was just the martyrdom. Even now I’m coming across more material, and I’m just fascinated with it. I can see what he was seeing through the photographs, and I can read what he was thinking. A real key to this was that he was a very ordinary person. He wasn’t a powerful person. And he wasn’t considered a great artist.”

After all, what was Nickel taking pictures of? Only buildings. And the pictures were about the buildings, not about themselves. But like Costonis, Cahan was riveted by Nickel’s photography: “There’s a somberness to it that I find really beautiful.” And like Costonis, through the photography he discovered Louis Sullivan. “It’s taken me many many years to start to understand Sullivan,” says Cahan. “But once you start to understand who he was you understand everything he did was original and everything he did was from a spark of genius. He didn’t buy a grating to put over a radiator in the Auditorium Building. He designed the radiator cover.”

Cahan observed that his book appears as Chicago wages one of the most critical preservation debates since the Stock Exchange went down. The John Buck Company proposes to tear down the building containing the Arts Club of Chicago and its Mies van der Rohe staircase.

“He was such a force, death barely matters,” Nickel wrote a friend when Mies died in 1969. But loss of the stairs would be a second death, and if Mies goes the way of Sullivan, in years to come there will be many others.

Union’s Revenge

OO7 was giggling. “I’m sorry,” he said by telephone. “But I’m giddy on this one.”

How moods change. In last week’s Hot Type OO7 was a despairing operative of the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians (NABET), whose negotiations with NBC over a new national contract were mired in futility. NABET had prepared radio spots telling its side and urging the public to switch to other networks. But all 16 Chicago stations NABET offered the spots to turned them down.

Enter George Larney.

You probably don’t know the name. Larney’s a professional arbitrator and mediator, and he’s running for Congress against Sidney Yates. Few of Yates’s opponents are ever high profile, and Larney’s been virtually over the horizon. Which is why he was open to a proposal offered by some members of NABET–acting individually as concerned citizens, they emphasize, not illegally as representatives of a union.

They’d put up money; they’d write him a spot. And he’d buy time on stations that had tossed NABET out on its ear. Because this was political advertising, by law they couldn’t reject his message or even edit it.

“He’s looking at it from the point of view he has nothing to lose,” said OO7. “It’s a win-win situation. And we get to run it at the best possible ad rates.”

“I believe in representation in the political and collective bargaining arena,” says Larney’s message. “As a challenger running against an entrenched incumbent, I know how difficult it is to get a message to the voters. I’m aware of a similar situation affecting the writers, technicians, and other union employees at NBC. They want you to know that NBC is proposing language that could convert 67 percent of its full-time workers into daily hires with no health or other benefits. That’s why they’re calling for a boycott of Channel Five . . . ”

Larney cut the 60-second spot last Monday and then visited WGN, WMAQ, WLS FM, and WBBM AM to buy time. He was accompanied on these rounds by Mike Cunningham, vice president of NABET local 41, whom Larney identified as his “media consultant.” The spot was to begin airing Thursday morning. “It really is the smile of the week,” said Cunningham.

Larney felt a need to stress to us that labor unrest at NBC is not truly central to his candidacy.

“The cornerstone of my campaign is congressional reform,” he declared. He described himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate who’s prochoice but supports the Hyde Amendment, has signed the Republican’s “contract with America,” and genuinely believes money spent on midnight basketball leagues is pork. “I don’t want my children out at midnight playing any kind of program,” he asserted. “If they’re on the streets I think it undermines parental authority.”

OO7 told us that if his forces can raise the money, they hope to tape TV ads with their new spokesman. “You can guess where they’re going to run,” said OO7, barely able to contain himself. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really happy about this.”

News Bites

From our notebook:

May she finally find peace. “Nice, wasn’t it,” Dennis Byrne observed in the Sun-Times, “how the death of Harriet Nelson became reason enough to take another rip at her TV series, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet?’ Not even in death is she immune from worn-out assaults for her grave sin of “idealizing’ the American family.”

We hadn’t noticed this last wave of rips, though we spotted Mary Schmich’s gentle reminiscence of the Nelsons’ silly TV show. But then we were always blind to the ceaseless battering Harriet Nelson apparently was taking. When she begged for help we must have refused to hear. Fortunately, nothing gets by Byrne.

Because people come and go and businesses open and close, a new telephone book starts becoming obsolete the day it’s published. The Chicago white pages you’re still using have been getting obsolete since August of ’93. Normally they’d have disappeared two months ago.

But without announcing the change, Ameritech shifted the white pages to the same cycle as the yellow pages. The current directory will be ours into December, but it’s a trifling 30 cents to Ameritech each time you dial 411.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.