Lost treasures of the city

Jim Brasher
Weekend Edition

The story behind this week's video begins with a photograph. A friend showed me an image of an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana. I was struck by how beautiful the church still was, even in its derelict state. I had to know more.

I tracked down the photographer who made the image. Eric Holubow describes himself as an urban-exploration photographer. He told me that if you listen closely to a building you can hear its voice; when he's taking photographs he's always listening for the story of the building and what it has to say. So one rainy weekend, he took me to Gary, Indiana, so I could listen too.

The city of Gary was founded in 1906 by the U.S. Steel Corporation (and was thus named after the company's founding chairman -- Elbert H. Gary). The company built its new steel-production plant there. Other businesses followed: The Gary Screw and Bolt Company was founded in 1911; an ornate movie palace was completed in 1924; and in 1925 a local pastor laid the cornerstone for City Methodist Church.

The city thrived for decades, but in the 1960s, as competition for steel increased overseas, jobs disappeared and the city declined. The movie theater closed in 1972, the church closed in '75 and the factory in '86. There are many other buildings with similar stories in Gary. Photographer David Tribby published a book about Gary's forgotten buildings; you can also search Flickr for "urban decay" or "urban exploration."

And then there's the story of Richard Nickel. As a college student in Chicago during the 1950s, Nickel photographed famous Chicago buildings designed by the architecture firm of Adler & Sullivan, including some of the city's first skyscrapers. He continued this work through the 1960s, often risking his safety to take pictures inside buildings slated for demolition. In 1972, Nickel was killed while photographing the old Chicago Stock Exchange, but his passion for Chicago's architecture inspired the city's modern preservation movement.

For our story, I interviewed Ward Miller, director of the Richard Nickel Committee. He's one of four co-authors of  "The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan," a book that took more than 50 years to complete. It features many of Richard Nickel's iconic images and is the definitive source of information about a famous chapter in Chicago's architectural history. The Art Institute of Chicago also has an exhibit about Richard Nickel and Louis Sullivan that runs through this weekend (Dec. 12).

There are so many stories behind the buildings featured in our piece that I wish I could share them all. But I'll leave you with a final thought about Gary, Indiana. As grim as some of the buildings in this city appear, I want you to know that right across the street from the abandoned church there's a community center. On the weekend I visited Gary, it was filled with laughter and life. On the other side of the church there's a whole block full of brand-new homes. Each of these buildings has its own story, and those stories could lead Gary to a new chapter in its long history.

**Click here to view the Urban Decay Flickr Gallery featuring 12 international and U.S. photographers.

**Want to know more about the images in this piece? Click here.