Chicago: Alphawood Exhibitions, 2021
384 pp. $45 (hardcover)
On the night the Chicago Auditorium was dedicated in 1889, none of the dignitaries who spoke to the overflow crowd—which included the president and vice president of the United States—mentioned its architect, thirty-three-year-old Louis H. Sullivan. The ornate theater was an astounding feat of technical ingenuity and innovative design that remains one of Chicago’s most celebrated landmarks. Yet Sullivan is said to have spent the evening in the building’s barroom by himself.
It’s a fitting image of a man who was one of America’s greatest builders but who, only a few years later, found himself forgotten, and whose refusal to compromise his designs helped drive him into poverty. Fortunately, Tim Samuelson and Chris Ware have produced this hefty monograph to help preserve his work and encourage a new generation’s interest in a man justly considered the father of the skyscraper. Illustrated with hundreds of archival photographs, paintings, and documents, Louis Sullivan’s Idea is less an introduction to Sullivan—it includes no modern color photos of his buildings, so readers unfamiliar with his work may want to examine those first—than an exhibition of this revolutionary’s accomplishments.
He was born in Massachusetts in 1856, the year Henry Bessemer patented a new process for removing impurities from iron, enabling the mass production of high-strength steel, and four years after Elisha Otis demonstrated the first mechanical elevator safe enough to carry human beings. Together, these inventions made possible an architectural revolution, pushing buildings higher into the sky than could be done with mere brick or stone.
Art, however, took a while to catch up with technology. Even Sullivan didn’t know what to do with skyscrapers at first. He fell in love with architecture at the age of eleven when he saw Merrill Wheelock’s Masonic Temple being built in Boston—an unremarkable example of mid-Victorian design that nevertheless captivated the boy and inspired him to build. After apprenticeships with architects in Philadelphia, and remarkably brief studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the École de Beaux Arts in Paris, he moved to Chicago and began working on the decoration of churches and synagogues. His reputation rose so swiftly that, by the age of twenty-five, he and German-born engineer Dankmar Adler had founded their own architectural firm, which would become legendary.
Their first tall buildings were ordinary affairs, except for Sullivan’s interiors. Like so many of their colleagues, they relied on European styles, which aimed to conceal or downplay a building’s height.
That began to change in 1885, after architect H. H. Richardson completed his Marshall Field Wholesale Store—a cubical stone structure with studiously minimal decoration. Stunned by its bold dignity, Sullivan found in it the beginning of what he later called “the idea,” an aesthetic concept he had difficulty putting into words but that emphasized integrity, authenticity, and the merging of the practical and ideal.
Perhaps his most famous expression of “the idea”—the slogan “form follows function”—is misleading, because it implies that architecture should be reduced to the purely utilitarian. That was certainly how it was interpreted by the “International Style” architects of the mid-20th century, who produced plain, square structures stripped of ornament, individuality, and beauty. But that was not what Sullivan meant. His decoration was sometimes astonishingly elaborate, with surfaces covered in geometric and foliate designs of dazzling complexity. Instead, as biographer Robert Twombly put it, Sullivan’s concept of modernism “was concerned with how to express—not reveal—structure through design.”1 By “form follows function,” Sullivan meant that buildings should have a kind of flow, arising from a basic design theme, and that each building’s theme should be distinctive, not a smorgasbord of ideas cobbled together from historically approved precedents.
Sullivan sometimes called his style “organic” architecture—a term later appropriated by his protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright—but more often he called it simply “poetry,” which he defined as “the highest form of intellectual scope and activity.”2 Poetry expresses, rather than simply revealing, as prose does, and that is what enables it to more colorfully convey a sense of life while communicating. Sullivan’s art likewise combined utility and idealism so as to create a spiritual atmosphere—and did so with a degree of integration that seems astonishing today.
He designed everything in his buildings, from light fixtures to mail slots to doorknobs, specimens of which Samuelson and Ware provide here in all their glory (although doorknobs are perhaps overrepresented). This ensured that the tiniest feature was touched with beauty and fit into a harmony far exceeding anything his contemporaries produced. Not many architects build staircases so lovely that they end up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the railings Sullivan made for the Chicago Stock Exchange in 1894 were so gorgeous that they were rescued when the building was demolished in 1972 and now reside in the same gallery as statues by Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. And the Golden Doorway of his Transportation Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition transfixed fairgoers, becoming one of the exposition’s most widely discussed features. It expressed his belief that America, with its “fervid democracy, its inventiveness, its resourcefulness, its unique daring, enterprise, and progress,” should devise a new, bold architectural style instead of copying Europe.3
In his 1922 memoir, however, Sullivan remembered the exposition as the moment when everything went wrong. Construction of the exposition’s buildings was supervised by his friendly rival, Daniel Burnham, who decreed that the edifices should be neoclassical, based on Greco-Roman, German, and French traditions. But Sullivan, who considered neoclassicism “snobbish and alien to the land,” flatly refused, designing his Transportation Building in long, horizontal lines that emphasized cubes and arches decorated in gorgeous reds and golds—entirely unlike the uniform white of the exposition’s other buildings.4 Its fantastically ornate Golden Doorway, like the building itself and all of the exposition’s structures, was temporary, and no original color photos are available, so the only images we now have of it are artists’ renderings, many included here. Viewers were mesmerized by the intricacy of its sculptural ornamentation, which celebrated technological progress and anticipated a glorious era of abundance. It’s no wonder it earned him worldwide acclaim.
Sullivan was throwing down the gauntlet to other architects, as he explained in a letter to Burnham, a facsimile of which appears in this book: “We have sought to demonstrate in our work that the word style really implies first a harmonious system of thinking,” he wrote, “second, an equally harmonious manner of expressing the thought. . . . A thought, to be expressed, should . . . be special for each building and peculiar to that building.”
The finest expressions of this “idea” were the skyscrapers Adler and Sullivan erected in the 1890s, which offered a new approach to the art of tall buildings. Shunning classical orders and European forms, they built with a simple, forthright look, particularly in the Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1891), and its twin, the Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894). These looked nothing like Gothic churches or French châteaux; they featured flat roofs, recessed horizontals, and tall piers that accentuated height rather than concealing it—as well as gorgeous foliate decoration on top that, as Samuelson and Ware write, “expressly reflects Sullivan’s romantic analogies parallel to a living entity in nature—rooted to the ground, growing upwards and blossoming as it meets the sky.”
Yet it soon became clear that other architects were declining the challenge he offered. In the years after the exposition, they swung decidedly in favor of Burnham’s neoclassicism, erecting banks and government buildings in styles that were not special for each building but copied from ancient temples and German palaces. The dominance of this approach, combined with a severe depression in 1893 and Adler’s retirement from the partnership two years later, slowly drove Sullivan into obscurity. He found fewer and fewer commissions, and his refusal to adopt the artistic fashions he despised kept away clients. By 1917, the man who had once been celebrated as the father of the skyscraper had been largely forgotten.
Reduced to building small banks and stores in out-of-the-way villages, Sullivan nevertheless clung to his artistic integrity. In 1917, when he was asked to design a bank in Sidney, Ohio—population 7,000—he “sat on a curbstone for the better part of two whole days, smoking innumerable cigarettes,” according to the bank’s president.
Then at the end of that time, he announced to the directors that the design was made—in his head. He proceeded to rapidly draw a sketch for them. . . . One of the directors was somewhat disturbed by the unfamiliarity of the style, and suggested that he rather fancied some classic columns and pilasters for the façade. Sullivan very brusquely rolled up his sketch and started to depart, saying that the directors could get a thousand architects to design a classic bank but only one to get this kind of bank, and that as far as he was concerned it was one or the other.5
Fortunately, the director changed his mind, and the result was the People’s Federal Savings and Loan building, one of nine small banks—often termed “the jewel boxes”—that are among Sullivan’s most captivating works. Composed in simple cubical forms of stone and brick, with gorgeous stone decorations in the inimitable Sullivan style, and illuminated by stained glass windows that cast gentle light on murals glorifying industry and agriculture, the jewel boxes were modest masterpieces honoring prosperity and advancement. It is regrettable that they are represented here almost exclusively in black-and-white photos, given that they are probably Sullivan’s finest use of color. (It is unfortunate, too, that Samuelson and Ware’s insightful captions are produced in type so small that readers may find a magnifying glass necessary.)
Although he did not specialize in residential architecture—designing fewer than ten houses—Sullivan’s home designs still had a profound influence, thanks to the efforts of his disciple, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright joined Adler and Sullivan as a draftsman in 1888 and was put to work on houses, including two for Sullivan himself. Together, he and the man he called “Lieber Meister” (“dear master”) experimented with the use of space in ways that forecast the design revolution Wright would later champion. Their Charnley House of 1890—a relatively simple rectangle on the outside, marked by an Italian Renaissance-style balcony—features an entranceway with arches suggestive of Sullivan’s Golden Doorway and spacing that foreshadows the “open plan” Wright would make famous in his “prairie-style” houses. In fact, Sullivan is sometimes classified as a prairie-style architect himself, for reasons obvious in his Harold Bradley House (1909), with its cantilevered sleeping porches, long horizontal lines, and bold use of brick. This book’s photos of the Bradley House are especially helpful in establishing Sullivan as a prairie-style builder.
By the time it was completed, however, Sullivan and Wright had parted ways: The older man fired his draftsman for taking home-building commissions on the side in violation of his employment contract. The two did not speak again for years. The break was painful for both, and they reconciled toward the end of Sullivan’s life, when the teacher was reduced to asking his former student for money. A heartbreaking exchange of letters, reproduced here in facsimile, reveals the depths to which Sullivan had sunk by 1920, when he told Wright, “If you have any money to spare, now is the urgent time to let me have some. . . . I am in a very serious situation; indeed, it is now a sheer matter of food and shelter.” In financial straits himself, Wright nevertheless replied, “I would share my last crust with you,” and found ways to send Sullivan funds.
Penniless and addicted to alcohol, Sullivan died in a Chicago hotel room in 1924. Wright paid for his funeral, and a quarter century later, published Genius and the Mobocracy, a book about his time with the father of the skyscraper. “With the master,” he wrote, “‘ornament’ was, like music, a matter of the soul—‘of’ the nature of man—inevitable to him: (natural) as leaves on trees or any fruit announced by the blossoms on the stems that carry both. It was this man that Louis H. Sullivan was and felt himself to be.”6
Tragic as Sullivan’s story is, the final note is one of triumph—if we can keep it. His buildings are the remaining monuments to a genius who gave voice, as no artist had ever done before, to the distinctive achievement of the modern age: the skyscraper. Alas, of the 125 buildings he erected in Chicago, only twenty-one remain, along with perhaps a dozen elsewhere, and even these are endangered; three were lost to fire in 2006 alone. Hopefully, books such as this will help ensure that this master builder is never forgotten.
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1. Robert Twombly, Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work (New York: Viking, 1986), 290.
2. Twombly, Louis Sullivan, 237.
3. Louis Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Dover, 1956), 325.
4. Sullivan, Autobiography, 325.
5. Twombly, Louis Sullivan, 425.
6. Bruce Brooks Pfieffer, ed., Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, vol. 4 (New York: Rizzoli, 1994), 379.