Friday, February 17, 2012

They All Fell Down

Dedicated To The Work and Memory Of Richard Nickle
" It was the spirit animating the mass and flowing from it.."
-Louis Sullivan

It is a rare individual who has the inner wherewithal to determine a course of action whose purpose is not only unappreciated but is for the greater public good. In particular, having a purpose driven life dedicated to values that have no popular, pragmatic rationale at the time. Further, an individual who faces what others would consider incredibly daunting odds in opposition to this purpose. Add to this an individual who gave his life in this quest and you will discover the narrative of Richard Nickle. The disposable consumerism of a market economy waits for no one in relation to evaluating what one's values represent, whether it is profligate waste, greed or simply bartering memory and  history for more is better. Richard dared to differ and this became his quest, which could be called the human scale of spirit amidst the transit of time, of which, he was a keen observer.The significance of the seemingly fleeting insignificance, a moment in transience posed in the continuum of past, present and future tenses.

 Richard Nickel had never given architecture any serious thought, or even heard of Louis Sullivan, before he enrolled in a photography class at the Institute of Design in Chicago in the early 1950s. There, photography teacher Aaron Siskind gave Nickel and his classmates a simple assignment: go out and photograph Sullivan's buildings. It was an assignment that would change Nickel's life as he became captivated by Sullivan's decorative details. As he continued to photograph the buildings, he began to devour Sullivan's writings. In Louis Sullivan, Richard Nickel had found a kindred spirit.

Nickel's brother Donald remembers that Richard was an outsider, even in his own family. "He read a lot. He'd be up all hours of the night playing Bach and Mozart, and of course, my folks didn't know Mozart from the man on the moon." By the time he was 25, Nickel had already been married and divorced, and had served time in the Army as a paratrooper and photographer. Now he was living in his parent's attic, which would remain his home until he died twenty years later.

Nickel began documenting every known Sullivan building. But the buildings began coming down almost as quickly as he could document them, and it soon became a race between Nickel and the wreckers. Then it dawned on him: it was not enough to simply take photographs. He must save as much of the actual buildings as he could. In 1958, Nickel met two young architecture students, John Vinci and David Norris, who shared his devotion to Sullivan and were eager to help him salvage pieces of other buildings. They recall, "He'd come with his Chevrolet with a bucket in it. . .and a crow bar, a couple of hammers and coal chisels." He enlisted his brother Donald's help as well. "I thought he was crazy," Donald says. "You know, I didn't know Sullivan from Mr. Magoo." Nickel stored the huge pieces of salvaged ornament outside his parents' home in Park Ridge, despite complaints from the neighbors about, as Nickel wrote, "the unsightly appearance of the yard."

By 1960, he was exhausted, discouraged, and ready to give up the cause and get a regular job. But then he learned of plans to demolish Sullivan's 17-story Garrick Theater building to make way for a parking garage. In all his years of saving ornament, Nickel had never attempted to stop the wrecking ball and save an entire building.

But the Garrick was one building he could not bear to see torn down. He fought hard, but in the end the building owners prevailed in court, and demolition was approved. Losing the Garrick took a great toll on Nickel; he was mentally and physically drained. They were all falling down. His striking photograph amidst the demolition of the Garrick Theater reminds me of the white bones of a great cranium exposed, the spirit having escaped the mass which animated it..

 But when he heard that Sullivan's Stock Exchange building was in jeopardy, he entered the fray one last time. Unable to stop the demolition, Vinci and Nickel were able to save a significant portion of the building's ornament, including the complete interior of the Trading Room, which was later recreated at the Art Institute. Even after the official salvage operation ended, Nickel kept returning to the site for more pieces. On April 13, 1972, he disappeared. A month later, after a protracted search, his body was found in the rubble of the building. He had been crushed when the Trading Room floor collapsed.
Today, walking into Chicago's Art Institute to see the reconstructed Stock Exchange Room and to realize Richard took each fragment each piece in the trunk of his old car beggars one's  belief that such a thing was possible..Yet, it is there.

One could say with no small amount of justification that we are all for the most part, self absorbed. You could say the same for Richard Nickle and his quest to preserve what he considered the beauty of Louis Sullivan's art. However, he left us a gift in his wake, the appreciation of craftsmanship and the sort of beauty that has nothing to do with cosmetic surgery or an automobile commercial, or attempting to be forever young. This is something I think is worth ruminating upon. There are those whose names we will never know who have a singular vision and are indeed visionaries and that is some solace to me. Perhaps to you in an era of disposable valuations in an imitation of life and what one person saw, where others saw the aim of endless rubble and aimless progress.Like Proust, like Thomas Wolfe, I am certain he knew you cannot go home again, but you can compare, you can valuate you can preserve comparison. If not this, then what?

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