Louis Henri Sullivan (1856-1924), American architect, was the link between Henry Hobson Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright in the development of modern American architecture.
Louis Sullivan was born in Boston on Sept. 3, 1856. Always impatient with classroom education, he spent only a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied with William Ware, the well-known High Victorian Gothic architect. At the end of 1873, Sullivan went to Philadelphia and spent a short time in the office of architect Frank Furness. He soon set out for Chicago, where his parents and brother were living. In Chicago he was employed by William Le Baron Jenney. In 1874 he went to Paris and was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. He stayed about 6 months, returning to Chicago in March 1875. His training had introduced him to High Victorian Gothic, an extension of which had been boldly and imaginatively expressed in American architecture by Furness.
Sullivan's early work in Chicago suggests a continuation of modified High Victorian Gothic developments, especially the Rothschild Store (1880-1881) and the Ryerson Building (1884). Many of Chicago's buildings of the 1870s reflected High Victorian Gothic, particularly after the completion of Richardson's impressive and trendsetting American Merchants' Union Express Company Building (1872). In 1881 Sullivan formed a partnership with Dankmar Adler, and the firm contributed to the sprawling, burgeoning city of Chicago some of its finest buildings.
Partnership with Adler, 1881-1895
Adler's earlier architectural contributions date from the mid-1860s, when he entered into partnership with Ashley Kinney. From 1871 to 1879 he associated with Edward Burling, and in 1879 he opened his own firm, D. Adler and Co. During these years Adler's designs developed from structures ornamented with classical or Italianate detailing to a more utilitarian style. Sullivan met Adler in 1879, joined Adler's firm in 1880, and became a partner the following year. In their collaboration Sullivan provided the designs while Adler provided the clients and solved the engineering and acoustical problems.
One of their most brilliant efforts was the Auditorium Building in Chicago (1886-1889). Sullivan's designs for this complex structure—which combined theater, hotel, and office building—passed through three stages: first, a block with pitched roof and squat towers; second, a raised tower with a pyramidal cap; and third, a massive, unornamented block with a tower rising seven stories above the larger structure. The third design was influenced by Richardson's Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago (1885-1887). The acoustical perfection of the theater, which Frank Lloyd Wright described as "the greatest room for music and opera in the world bar none, " was only part of Adler's contribution. Since the building was being constructed on a moving bed of mud, with basements 7 feet below the water level of Lake Michigan, Adler paid particular attention to the foundation design. By using artificial loading, he prevented uneven subsidence between the tower, which weighed 15, 000 tons, and the lighter and lower remainder of the block.
The Auditorium Building was the showplace of Chicago until the Great Depression, when it lay idle and only the exorbitant cost of demolition prevented it from being razed. Roosevelt University moved into the building in 1947, and an Auditorium Theater Council was established to restore the theater. On Oct. 31, 1967, after the theater had been closed for a quarter century, the New York City Ballet performed for an audience that was as enthusiastic about the architecture as they were about the ballet.
The Schiller Building in Chicago (1891-1892; demolished), a 17-story, towerlike structure with nine-story wings by Adler and Sullivan, also housed a theater. Because the theater was relatively narrow, cantilever construction was employed, providing a total space uninterrupted by intermediate columns.
Adler and Sullivan's practice expanded outside Chicago in the 1890s. Sullivan designed two of his most famous skyscrapers—the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Mo. (1890-1891), and the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, N. Y. (1894-1895). In these buildings, as on the Getty Tomb in Chicago (1890) and the Wainwright Tomb in St. Louis (1892), Sullivan's ornamentation, which had become an integral part of his designs, developed from the geometric to the naturalistic. So organic is the work on the Guaranty Building that the foliage appears to be sprouting from the terra-cotta facing. The most famous example of Sullivan's ornamentation was on the Transportation Building (1893) for the World's Columbian Exposition, held in 1893 in Chicago. Amid a series of classical structures, Sullivan's building stood for rational architecture, and its "Golden Door, " a brightly decorated, massive arch, was the exposition's most unique motif.
The Adler and Sullivan partnership dissolved in 1895, when Adler wanted to introduce his two sons into the firm. Sullivan rejected Adler's overtures to restablish their partnership the following year.
Sullivan's Architecture, 1895-1924
Sullivan's last big commercial building was the Schlesinger and Meyer Department Store (now the Carson Pirie Scott and Company Building) in Chicago (1899-1904). It has an abundance of cast-iron Art Nouveau decoration, especially around the entrances in the curved corner pavilion. His last years were mainly spent designing a series of small but architecturally outstanding banks for towns of the midwest.
Carl Bennett, vice president of the National Farmers' Bank at Owatonna, Minn., had been impressed by an article in a trade journal written by Sullivan in 1906 entitled "What is Architecture: A Study of the American People of Today." Bennett commissioned him to design new premises for his bank (1907-1908). In this bank Sullivan produced what has been considered one of his major works. Other similar commissions came from bankers at Newark, Ohio (1914), Algona and Grinnell, lowa (both 1914), Sidney, Ohio (1917), and Columbus, Wis. (1919).
Sullivan's last commission was for the Krause Music Store in Chicago (1922). He died on April 14, 1924, in Chicago.
Writings and Philosophy
Sullivan's writings incorporate philosophy, music, and biological evolutionary theories. Frank Lloyd Wright in his Autobiography says of Sullivan, "He adored [Walt] Whitman as I did, and explain it as you can was deep in Herbert Spencer. Spencer's Synthetic Philosophy he gave me to take home to read…." Sullivan's philosophy was expounded in the autobiographical Kindergarten Chats (1901-1902), reprinted from the Interstate Architect and Builder, and in his The Autobiography of an Idea (1926). In these two books Sullivan's hero is the architect with a "poetic imagination … broad sympathy, human character, common sense and a thoroughly disciplined mind … a perfect technique and… a gracious gift of expression." His unpublished manuscript of 1905, "Natural Thinking: A Study in Democracy, " upheld the meaning and dignity of the individual man. "It is my profound conviction that every infant born in what is generally called normal health, is gifted by Nature with normal receptivity … too much importance is attached to heredity and too little to environment…. In a human and democratic philosophy there is no room for such a thing as an unfit human being."
Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for Adler and Sullivan from 1887 to 1893, had called Sullivan lieber Meister. The historian Henry Steele Commager described Sullivan as "the most philosophical of American architects … a disciple of Walt Whitman … [who] sought to make architecture a vehicle for democracy as Whitman had made for poetry."
Further Reading on Louis Henri Sullivan
Although not definitive, Hugh Morrison, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture (1935), is the best and most comprehensive study. Sherman Paul, Louis Sullivan: An Architect in American Thought (1962), analyzes Sullivan's writings and philosophy and contains a complete Sullivan bibliography of 37 works. Other studies include Charles H. Caffin, Louis H. Sullivan: Artist among Architects (1899); Chicago Art Institute, Louis Sullivan: The Architecture of Free Enterprise, edited by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. (1956); John Szarkowski, The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956); Albert Bush-Brown, Louis Sullivan (1960); and Willard Connely, Louis Sullivan as He Lived (1960). See also Frank Lloyd Wright, Genius and the Mobocracy (1949), and Hugh D. Duncan, Culture and Democracy (1965).
Additional Biography Sources
Twombly, Robert C., Louis Sullivan: his life and work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, 1986.