• Credit: The Richard Nickel Committee, distributed by The University of Chicago Press

The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan (the Richard Nickel Committee, distributed by The University of Chicago Press, $95) would be a welcome arrival in the architecture world even if it had not been more than 50 years in the making. The great Chicago firm was one of the hinges on which American architecture pivoted from the 19th  century to the 20th century, and this substantial volume chronicles its work both comprehensively and in handsome detail. But the book was, in fact, conceived in the 1950s and scheduled for publication in 1957. The path it took from that first, missed deadline to its appearance today adds layers of pathos and inspiration to a work that easily would stand on its own merits.

The authors’ documentation of Adler & Sullivan buildings began in 1952, in a graduate-level photography course at Chicago’s Institute of Design (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). The instructor, the great photographer Aaron Siskind, and a student, Richard Nickel, stayed with the project after the course ended, with Nickel submitting “A Photographic Documentation of the Architecture of Adler & Sullivan” as his graduate thesis. The book they planned to produce on the subject proved too ambitious for its original deadline, but Nickel continued to research, photograph, and salvage fragments of Adler & Sullivan buildings through the 1960s and into the 1970s, a period during which significant examples fell to the wrecking ball. Nickel died in an accident in 1972, while pursuing his work inside Adler & Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building as it was being demolished. Following Nickel’s death, architect and colleague John Vinci, Siskind, and others founded the nonprofit Richard Nickel Committee, which then toiled for more than three decades to complete his work.

The result is a book that accomplishes its founding goal in brilliant fashion, cataloging and describing 256 Adler & Sullivan projects, many with historical photographs and plans. Vinci, a principal at Chicago-based Vinci Hamp Architects, contributes biographical and historical context with a series of essays that are both scholarly and readable. Hundreds of photographs—black and white images by Nickel, Siskind, and others from the Institute of Design project, supplemented with historical photos and contemporary color shots—illustrate the range, originality, and virtuosity of Adler & Sullivan’s work. The 1950s photographs, especially, are a treasure. Technically superb in themselves, they show their subjects in an era when these turn-of-the-century masterpieces had been overtaken by the rush of mid-20th century urban life.   

That obscurity—and the threat of destruction—would pass, in part because of the efforts by preservationists like Richard Nickel. The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan is a worthy tribute to its subjects. But it stands also as a tribute to Nickel and Siskind, who championed their work when it was perhaps least appreciated, and to those who picked up the torch after Nickel fell and carried his work to completion.