People & Events: Louis Sullivan (1856-1924)
Louis Henry Sullivan was born in Boston in 1856. His parents moved to Chicago in 1872 but Sullivan stayed behind to study for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architectural program -- the first in the nation. Dropping out to practice architecture, Sullivan worked in Philadelphia with Frank Furness and then with William Le Baron Jenney in Chicago. Feeling he needed more classroom time, Sullivan spent another year at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1874. In Rome, Renaissance art sent Sullivan's imagination soaring, and the young traveler decided he should emulate Michelangelo's spirit of creation rather than imitate the styles of earlier periods.
Back in Chicago, Sullivan studied engineering and worked freelance jobs. He joined Dankmar Adler's firm in 1879 and two years later became a full partner in Adler and Sullivan, with Adler focusing on the engineering and Sullivan on the design of buildings. Following the Great Fire of 1871 and a subsequent recession, building had been booming. Adler's contacts in the Jewish community supplied the partnership with regular work. During this time, Sullivan conceived of "an architecture that fitted its functions" not saddled with "architectural... tradition, or superstition, or habit." His credo was "form should follow function."
In 1886, Adler and Sullivan won the contract to design the Auditorium, a performance venue that was intended to rival or even outshine New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Adler's reputation for acoustics was the basis for the commission, but Sullivan made his own reputation on the design and decoration of the Auditorium.
To pay for itself, the 4,300-seat theater was incorporated into a building that housed a 400-room luxury hotel as well as 136 offices. Sullivan designed a heavy and simple exterior, influenced by H. H. Richardson's Marshall Field Warehouse in the same neighborhood, with a setback tower rising over the theater. The interior was lavishly decorated with marble mosaics, tinted glass windows, fine woods, terracotta and bricks, with vegetal motifs that suggested the Art Nouveau style to come. The multitude of drawings for the interior of the Auditorium were the responsibility of Adler and Sullivan's new young draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, who described himself as his mentor's "pencil." Sullivan's theater featured moving panels that could change the size of the stage and the number of seats in the audience, and Adler included hydraulic systems for the stage sets.
When completed in 1889, the Auditorium was the most expensive and tallest building in Chicago. Adler described it as a demonstration of "how the versatile Western American can combine sentiment with thrift, and... how he can endeavor to cultivate the service of Mammon simultaneously with an effort the attain his higher artistic ideals." Adler and Sullivan moved their offices into the commanding tower of the building as soon as it could be occupied.
As architects like Sullivan's old boss William Jenney learned to make iron and steel skeletons to take the weight off formerly load-bearing walls, skyscrapers began sprouting up in Chicago. Relieved of the responsibility of holding up the building, walls could be much lighter -- glass front windows could be used for first floor displays. The style was clumsy, however; early skyscrapers often looked like two- or three-story buildings stacked one on top of the other until they reached a dozen stories in height.
Sullivan was the first to realize that the new function of the walls required a new form. Instead of repeating a pattern known from earlier buildings, he emphasized the vertical and allowed facades to soar from street level to cornice. Louis Sullivan's most important skyscrapers outside of Chicago, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1890) and the Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894), both express the new verticality, as does Chicago's Carson, Pirie & Scott Store (1899-1904).
Sullivan feared that his new architecture, which would eventually be known as the "Chicago School," was set back fifty years with the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Rather than celebrate a unique American architectural style, one that the public was itself just getting used to, the elite team of architects that designed the fair mostly built white plaster copies of European designs. Sullivan's contribution to the fair, the Transportation Building, was a multicolored wonder with a welcoming arched doorway that sprung up from the ground.
Sullivan was not a sociable man and Frank Lloyd Wright was one of his few friends; Wright even designed Sullivan's house. The teacher fired his student, however, when Wright was caught doing his own work while ostensibly an Adler-Sullivan employee. The two did not speak for twenty years. The partnership with Adler disbanded in 1895, and in his later years Sullivan built smaller buildings in smaller cities. Sullivan wrote two books extolling the idea of an organic architecture, architecture that would not forsake modern technologies, but could be considered democratic and human-scaled.
Sullivan died alone in a Chicago hotel room in 1924. Before his death, he had reconciled with Wright and considered him a worthy successor.
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