At its September 3, 2009 meeting, and after almost two hours of impassioned testimony, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks overruled a staff recommendation and voted 7 to 3 to landmark the Richard Nickel House, located at 1810 W. Cortland.
This elegant 1899 Bucktown bakery building was once owned by Nickel, legendary architectural photographer and Chicago preservation pioneer. According to ‘They All Fall Down,’ Nickel loved the front elevation, simple floor plan and history of the building. Nickel referred to it as his ‘Polish palazzo.’
Until his death in 1972, it served as his base for photography and salvage operations, where he documented the work of the legendary architecture firm of Adler & Sullivan, whose legacy was rapidly being lost to demolition. Nickel had combined the two floors into a single unit with living spaces in the storefront. With the assistance of his friend, architect John Vinci, Nickel redesigned the rear wall to incorporate a series of tall, narrow doors. In November 1971, Nickel wrote of the project, “I’d pull out except I’m really happy with the struggle…” Six months later he was killed while salvaging ornament from inside Adler & Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building.
Ironically his home, a building that played an important role in Nickel’s efforts to raise public awareness of Adler & Sullivan’s work, had itself become threatened with demolition. After Nickel’s tragic death, the building was sold to sculptor Stanley R. Stan, and in 1982 became photographer Marc Hauser’s studio until it fell into foreclosure and disrepair.
Late in 2008, Preservation Chicago had been tipped off to its impending demolition and moved quickly to secure the support of 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack for a landmark designation. It was then identified as one of the Most Threatened buildings of 2009. Despite early resistance, the landmarking provided a positive outcome for all.
There is no question that the public hearing turned the tide in favor of preservation. Speakers included Richard Cahan, who wrote ‘They all Fall Down,’ the definitive biography on Richard Nickel. Also speaking was Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian and a former preservation activist and friend of Nickel’s. He recalled his days as a frequent guest at the house while he and Nickel salvaged ornament from various buildings then being demolished. Alderman Waguespack also spoke in favor of landmarking.
However, the final speaker was the owner of the property, who at one time had considered demolishing it to expand his rear yard. However, on that day, he expressed his newfound appreciation for his building and vowed to support the designation.