After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, architects rushed to rebuild the city, blanketing downtown in that hideous Beaux-Arts style, egged on by the derrière garde World’s Fair aesthetic also known as The White City. (Fun fact: Louis Sullivan had a building in the Chicago World’s Fair—it was fabulous, brightly colored and original…and it pissed off the fair designers who thought we should be pretending we lived in ancient Greece and wore togas out here in the Midwest, surrounded by prairie.)
I’ve often read that Sullivan is the father of modernism and skyscrapers, but honestly I don’t think of his work that way. Whenever I do think of Sullivan—which is a lot these days—-I think of welcoming arches and increasingly virtuosic ornamentation.
For a while, Louis Sullivan worked in partnership with Dankmar Adler (aren’t you glad your mom didn’t name you Dankmar?) This is Adler & Sullivan’s Jeweler’s building from 1882. The ornamentation is charming and refreshingly free of faux Roman Temple.
Now let’s skip ahead to 1899, when Sullivan designed the superlative Carson, Pirie and Scott building. In 17 years his ornament went from fresh to GAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!
I mean, here were all these architect robots cranking out Doric columns and Sullivan was like “Let me lay this on you!”
Here’s a column from inside the Carson, Pirie and Scott building, which is now occupied by a Target (frequently visited by me for its convenient public restroom.)
Sullivan’s ornament is best viewed in combination with his signature arches. This is the the remaining entryway from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, built by Adler & Sullivan in 1893 (and destroyed by Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1972).
Sullivan had a philosophy behind his ornamentation. I read one of his books a long while back, and I recall something about seed pods as a kind of natural force (see an example of these pods above the Chicago text). He was trying to bring nature into the city, which somehow was meant to facilitate democracy. I like that idea, but you really don’t need to read his books to appreciate how lovely his work is.
Inside of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery is this cube of perfection: Sullivan’s Getty Tomb of 1890. The arch! The exquisite bronze door! The lace-fan of starbursts against a backdrop of octagon wheels!
This little tomb is Sullivan shoving us into the 20th century, away from the neoclassical butt-gazing style, towards an original style; the Chicago School and the Prairie Style of his mentee Frank Lloyd Wright.
Thank you so much Louis Sullivan. You don’t know how much I needed that.