In 'Nickel's Chicago,' a Lost City's Lost Champion Architect Louis Sullivan's buildings defined the city of Chicago at the turn of the last century, but by the 1950s, many of those buildings were being torn down. Photographer Richard Nickel raced against time to preserve them on film, but it was a race he lost — Nickel was killed when one of the buildings he was shooting collapsed on top of him.
NPR logo

In 'Nickel's Chicago,' a Lost City's Lost Champion

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In 'Nickel's Chicago,' a Lost City's Lost Champion

In 'Nickel's Chicago,' a Lost City's Lost Champion

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Historic preservationists are often passionate in their zeal to keep the wrecking ball from beloved buildings. One man even died in the process.

Richard Nickel spent years with his camera, documenting and arguing against the demolition of buildings in Chicago. Thirty-five years ago, Nickel died trying to preserve in pictures, a building by architect Louis Sullivan. A new book of his black-and-white photographs has just been published.

From Chicago, Edward Lifson tells us about Nickel's life.

EDWARD LIFSON: In the 1960s and early '70s, architecture photographer Richard Nickel watched the demolition of so many buildings by Louis Sullivan and other master turn-of-the-century architects that he wrote, I look forward to the day when I never have to enter a wet, charred, smoky building again. A few of Louis Sullivan's buildings still stand here, such as the State Street Department Store with its windows framed by swirling metal ornament, celebrating the growth of seeds and leaves and trees.

And the Celestial Auditorium Theater still presents music and dance. But after World War II, such buildings fell like leaves in autumn to make space for a new way of life. And that's when the young photographer, Richard Nickel, started trying to preserve on film what he felt society was losing. The new book of black-and-whites was co-edited by Michael Williams and Richard Cahan, who says the chronology of the book tells a story.

Mr. RICHARD CAHAN (Co-editor, Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City): It's like watching a train, as a long train goes by you - when you see the cars and you get - the rhythm of the train, you stop looking, and then when the caboose comes by, all of a sudden you take a close look, because that's the last moment you'll see the train. And part of the, the beauty of his pictures is that these buildings are about to go under, you'll never see them again.

LIFSON: While in Chicago, photographer Joel Meyerowitz picked up a copy.

Mr. JOEL MEYEROWITZ (Photographer): I'm astonished and pleased. This guy is a really good photographer.

LIFSON: Meyerowitz also has photographed lost buildings, and people, and culture at Ground Zero in New York.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: His pictures are eloquent, beyond words, they show us the - the greed, the corporate greed that infects our cities and has made them less livable in terms of how they blot out the lights and reshape our urban experience. And he didn't use any tricks, this guy. He let his heart guide him.

LIFSON: And his fury, says the Nickel book's co-author, Richard Cahen.

Mr. CAHEN: I think he saw that something was wrong and he wanted to change it but he knew that the forces were way too great to change it.

LIFSON: By day, Richard Nickel would picket in front of buildings slated for demolition. He'd write angry letters that night, and he would sneak in to the buildings when the wreckers had gone home. Architect and preservationist John Vinci would often join him to photograph and salvage Louis Sullivan's unique, organic ornamentation.

Mr. JOHN VINCI (Architect and Preservationist): We never thought about it as dangerous. We had other close calls but nothing like what happened.

LIFSON: On a gray April morning in 1972, Richard Nickel, 43 years old, went by himself into Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange. He did not return home that night. John Vinci and other friends spent a couple of days looking for Nickel in the Stock Exchange rubble.

Mr. VINCI: And it was raining and damp, and we were, you know, walking around, saying Richard, Richard, and no Richard. Then we found his camera and hat, I think, and his suitcase.

LIFSON: Part of the building had collapsed on him. It took four weeks to find his body. Richard Nickel never completed the photographic catalog he'd wanted to compile of all of Louis Sullivan's buildings. And they continued to be torn down. But Sullivan himself said - form ever follows function. That's true of cities too. And if their goal is to look forward and foster commerce, then you could argue who needs an old Louis Sullivan building. So John Vinci was asked what is the lesson of Richard Nickel's life.

Mr. VINCI: Oh, gosh, the lesson of Richard Nickel's life. Uhm, maybe careful when you go into a building that's being torn down.

LIFSON: And he saved his friend's negatives, more than 11,000 of them. And he started the Richard Nickel Committee and Archive. It displays fragments of Louis Sullivan buildings and original photographic prints. The archive is in the basement of an old Victorian Greystone, on a nice North Side street, one on which they're tearing down old buildings to build condos.

For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson in Chicago.

(Soundbite of music)


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.