Legacies of Architect Louis Sullivan, Photographer Richard Nickel Take Center Stage at Driehaus Museum

A tale of two stories is taking center stage at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

A new exhibition, “Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw,” explores the work of architect Louis Sullivan and a photographer on a literal life’s mission to capture his impact.

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“We’re moving both narratives forward throughout the whole exhibition,” said guest curator David Hanks. “It’s like an opera. The music goes forward, and then the drama. So we have two stories we’re trying to tell.”

It’s a story of an architect and photographer. Two artists connected through their work, but never in life. Born four years after Sullivan’s death, Nickel was committed to documenting Sullivan’s architecture, as both a photographer and preservationist. It was a decision he made when learning about the architect while a student at the IIT Institute of Design.

“Richard Nickel was trying to record the buildings, one through taking photographs of them, and then second by salvaging architecture ornament. The ornament was important to Sullivan’s idea of adding beauty and aesthetic dimension to his houses,” Hanks said. “So the exhibition is not only photographs that Nickel took, but also the artifacts that he salvaged.”

Chicago buildings created by Sullivan, and his partner David Adler, were being destroyed in the 1960’s and 70’s. A preservationist, Nickel saw it his duty to document everything from behind the lens.

“He was a documentary photographer, and told it as it was, warts and all,” Hanks said. “He showed the building in a documentary fashion, not to make them the most beautiful but to document to show the buildings.”

Nickel was a determined photographer who would climb up buildings to find the perfect view.

“He had no fear of heights. He was a paratrooper during the Korean War and was not afraid of heights, and would jump onto buildings for great shots,” Hanks said. “His goal was to publish a book. He was gathering photographs, had discovered buildings that were unknown by Adler and Sullivan. He was doing research.”

Nickel’s research has been broken up into four themes — two on Sullivan’s residential and commercial buildings, and the other two on the Chicago Stock Exchange building.

That building is also the location of Richard Nickel’s death. He died in 1972 while attempting to salvage pieces of the building when it collapsed on him.

While his commitment to preservation ended there, his life’s mission lives on in more ways than one.

“After Richard Nickel died, John Vinci created the Richard Nickel Committee, which had his all of his archives, negatives and documentation. A decade later, they gave it to the Chicago Art Institute. It’s now in the Ryerson and Burnham Library at the Art Institute,” Hanks said. “It’s time for a new generation to hear the story, how Nickel gave his life to save buildings. That was a mission that can inspire us for today to save the buildings that are threatened today.”

“Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw” runs through Feb. 19, 2023 at Richard H. Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St.

More information about Nickel’s life can be found by watching the WTTW Chicago Stories special “The Richard Nickel Story.”

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Note: This story will be updated with video.

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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