Meet Emmett Schumacher

Chicago Junior High Student Creates Nationally Recognized Documentary on Richard Nickel

(This article originally appeared in LI’s print newsletter, The Arch, in November 2017)

Thirteen-year-old Emmett Schumacher, a student at Skinner West in Chicago, participated in the 2017 Chicago Metro History Fair as a seventh grader, creating a documentary focusing on historic preservationist Richard Nickel’s efforts in Chicago to save Adler & Sullivan-designed buildings. Emmett’s impressive, 10-minute documentary titled “Richard Nickel: Architectural Preservationist,” was one of two documentaries made by Illinois students to advance to National History Day, held at the University of Maryland in June. Now an eighth grader, Emmett recently talked with Landmarks Illinois about his documentary.

Landmarks Illinois: Tell us more about your documentary for the history fair. How did you decide to focus on Richard Nickel?

Emmett Schumacher:The theme for the 2017 Chicago Metro History Fair was “Taking a Stand in History.” I became interested in architecture after my history class visited Taliesin, and then I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House on my own. When researching Chicago architecture as a history fair topic, I learned about Richard Nickel’s story and thought it fit the theme perfectly and was really interesting. I chose the documentary project category because I thought it would be the best way to show pictures of all the great architecture, while telling the story.

LI: How did Richard Nickel “take a stand in history,” and how does your documentary tell his story?

ES: My documentary showed how Richard Nickel took a stand against the careless demolition – under the guise of urban renewal – of the important architecture of Adler and Sullivan. Richard Nickel took a stand through protests, photography and excavation. He attempted to save buildings such as the Garrick Theater and the Chicago Stock Exchange. Although he wasn’t able to save the buildings, he photographed and saved parts of these buildings before all traces of this architecture was demolished. Richard Nickel died tragically in 1972 inside the Old Chicago Stock Exchange Building when part of the building collapsed on him while he was photographing it. Richard Nickel’s life and death put a spotlight on architectural preservation in Chicago. Thanks to Richard Nickel, much of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s work was preserved, and Chicago began to see the importance of the architectural preservation movement.

LI: What personally inspired you about Richard Nickel and his work?

ES: I was personally inspired to write about Richard Nickel when I saw some of the beautiful buildings Nickel planned to save, such as the Rookery. I was shocked anyone would attempt to destroy such amazing buildings and replace them with meaningless structures. I was touched by the fact Nickel cared about these buildings at a time when very few people did.

LI: What was your experience like at the National History Day in Maryland?

ES: There were students from all over the country presenting their project, and Ken Burns was the opening ceremony guest speaker. At each history fair, including the national one, I would present my documentary to a team of judges and then answer questions about my project. All the judges I presented to were really interested in Richard Nickel’s story and many of them told me how much they appreciated Chicago architecture.

Watch the documentary

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