chicago building fragments from john vinci's past

a new chapter has been opened that will allow me to expand the project of archiving historically important ornament from around chicago and filling in gaps of knowledge about salvage and preservation work. in this case, rather than directly salvaging a building under threat of demolition, i will be gathering information about other collectors’ objects.

note: all photographs coutresy of eric j. nordstrom. all rights reserved. 

john's first visit to bld. 51 was in the summer of 2015.

an idea began to form when john vinci visited me to exchange stories about objects housed in the bldg. 51 museum. naturally this led to a reciprocal visit to vinci's place, which for years housed the richard nickel committee. that is - vinci’s house was once a repository for all nickel’s negatives, papers, and important effects; once his publication the complete architecture of adler & sullivan was complete, he donated these materials to the art institute. i did not expect to see remains from this period, but as it turns out his basement is filled with artifacts he salvaged alongside nickel during the nascent preservation movement. some of the items were gifted to him from nickel’s estate, though the bulk of those are with tim samuelson.

vinci is a unique scholar and architect, having studied at the illinois institute of technology (iit) in the 1960’s, where he took to salvaging endangered ornament alongside richard nickel and his peers. they shared a common concern for the architecture of adler & sullivan, and gathered a great body of knowledge from being out in the field. in a 2002 interview archived by the art institute, vinci answers to his vision for collecting, and responds to the idea of salvaging for souvenirs: “...alfred caldwell wrote papers on sullivan and the ornament. he wrote a famous essay called 'the hex of harmony,' saying that the ornament was supernatural ... it was, in a sense, a diagram of nature juxtaposed to architecture. so we saw it as sacred material, never as souvenirs. we just thought you had to save it so then we became avid savers." he goes on to credit richard nickel's foresight, saying "...nickel of course was saving way ahead of us—he paid wreckers. he was broke, but he managed to get fifteen or twenty dollars and have things sawn and cut out of buildings. i was taking little things. i never took anything big.” together, vinci, nickel and samuelson were among the most important figures to do this pioneering work; all had collecting practices driven by a deep and urgent ambition to save history rather than to amass valuables.

salvaging louis sullivan’s buildings profoundly interlaced their lives. both john vinci and richard nickel mentored samuelson as a teenager, and he is now famously considered a “living landmark,” an embodiment of chicago’s architectural history and a remarkable advocate for preservation. in fact, 45 years ago, he came close to joining nickel in his fate, but arrived to the stock exchange just after the collapse that took nickel’s life (a month later, nickel’s body was found alongside two construction helmets - one of which had been for samuelson). luckily, their shared work lives on in the knowledge he continues to impart as chicago’s cultural historian.

photo of Tim Samuelson by Richard Nickel

i was so inspired by the fragments in john vinci’s basement he agreed to grant me extended access. i set up my camera equipment and studio gear and spent the entire weekend shooting ornament. it seemed a rare opportunity to document these pieces, which retain the sentiment and historical significance of almost anything donated to a larger institution. perhaps someday these will join the rest of the items at the art institute, but there is no telling what kind of exposure or accessibility they will have in their afterlife as part of a collection, private or public. to this effect, i was inspired to document the sullivan ornament in both john vinci and tim samuelson’s collections. alongside pieces from the bldg. 51 museum, i aim for my visual research to culminate in a reference book on salvaged sullivan ornament currently housed outside major collections. sullivan’s ornament remains at the heart of the expansive bldg. 51 museum, and i hope to draw connections to the material legacy of richard nickel and his colleagues, to excite a greater understanding of what has been painstakingly collected and what has been lost in decades past.

the following images represent a small fraction of artifacts and ephemera i've spent several hours painstakingly shooting and editing over the past few weeks. there are no grants, compensation (well, john makes great eggplant), or any other nonsense. i'm doing this so others, like myself, can fully appreciate the beauty, intrigue, and stories surrounding objects that are not available for public consumption. captions will be added when time permits. 


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