Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw

Richard Nickel (1928-1972) was a Polish-American architectural photographer and preservationist. Nickel first encountered the work of Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) as a student, when photographing the architect’s buildings for a project at the IIT Institute of Design. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of Sullivan’s buildings began to be demolished to make way for new development—part of the “urban renewal” movement of the period—and Nickel became an activist. He picketed buildings designated for demolition, organized protests, and wrote letters to news media and politicians in the hopes of saving them from destruction. Realizing that his efforts were futile, he embarked on a mission to meticulously document the buildings in various stages of destruction. 

Today, Sullivan is well-known as an influential architect of the Chicago School, the “father of modernism,” and as a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. The fact that we have a comprehensive overview of Sullivan’s Chicago architecture today is largely thanks to Nickel’s tireless efforts to document Sullivan’s design philosophy and to preserve the architect’s legacy. Focusing on Adler & Sullivan’s Chicago buildings of the 1880s and early 1890s, the exhibition will explore the firm’s architecture through the lens of Nickel’s photography, which provides a detailed record of these buildings and, in particular, Sullivan’s signature ornamentation. The exhibition will highlight the integral role Nickel played in preserving Sullivan’s legacy—the photographer’s work is all that remains of many of Adler & Sullivan’s major buildings—while ultimately losing his life in an effort to salvage artifacts during a demolition.

Featuring around forty photographs as well as a selection of over a dozen architectural fragments from The Richard H. Driehaus Collection and loans from other private collectors – many initially saved by Nickel himself – Capturing Louis Sullivan: What Richard Nickel Saw will be on view at the Driehaus Museum from August 26 through February 19, 2023. The exhibition is curated by David A. Hanks.

Richard Nickel, self-portrait, c. 1958. Benjamin Lindauer Residence, Chicago, IL, 1885. Adler and Sullivan, Richard Nickel, photographer. Richard Nickel Archive, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.