In April 1960, photographer Richard Nickel launched one of the most publicized preservation campaigns in American history to save Adler Sullivan’s 1891 Garrick (formerly Schiller) Theater. Nickel’s appeals to the mayor’s office and local newspapers sparked a veritable media event that included an elite roster of scholars, architects, and curators from around the world. At stake was an important early skyscraper by the architect who first developed a self-conscious aesthetic for tall commercial buildings. The Garrick’s 14 floors of uninterrupted vertical extension, from the arcaded theater entrance to the distinctive cornice, heralded a new age of construction and perfectly illustrated Louis Sullivan’s ideal, with “every inch a proud and soaring thing.”
Initially constructed as a lavish opera house with club rooms and offices for the German Opera Company, the Garrick had changed hands many times by 1960, when its owners announced plans to demolish the building. Despite a lengthy court battle and an outpouring of support for its preservation, the Garrick was demolished in early 1961 and replaced with a parking garage. Although Nickel’s passionate efforts did not save the Garrick, they provided an important impetus for the creation of local and national preservation laws and brought attention to the vulnerable status of extant Sullivan buildings.
After demolition permits were issued for the Garrick, Nickel shifted his efforts to the recuperation of hundreds of terracotta and plaster ornaments from the interior and facade of the building and documented the process with his camera. In addition to photographs and fragments, he amassed a vast body of research on Sullivan with the intention of publishing a complete catalogue of his work. The Sullivan Project was unfinished at the time of the photographer’s death in 1972, but his archive remains a testament to his passion for Sullivan and an important contribution to our collective cultural history.
Richard Nickel. Untitled (Garrick Theatre, proscenium and stage), c. 1950/6. Photography Department Exhibition funds. Courtesy the Richard Nickel Committee and Archive, Chicago.