Louis Sullivan saved Chicago

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.


  1. Some exquisite details here — thanks for sharing them with us. But that Stock Exchange archway in a bit of wasteground, how desolate, how Ozymandian is that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, imagine a modern colossus having access to Twitter:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mayor Richard J Daley was not only a preservationist’s nightmare, he enforced structural racism by doing things like building an expressway to segregate Black people from white neighborhoods Really, I look on what we’ve lost and despair…..

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There was, and still remains, a lot of philistinism around.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Seed pods! I thought those were dirigibles, flying over Chicago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have it on good authority that they are alien pods.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember the Carson Pirie Scott commercials: One voice would say “Carson Pirie Scott” and another would say “and company”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a funny memory! I recall going in there before it closed, thinking it was kind of a dead mall. There was still a Goldblatt’s too, near where HOB lived in Uptown.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. These are stunning…now I will go and see what more I can read about him and his work.
    Mayor Daley always seemed to be an all round bag egg…this – and the expressway – only confirms it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had two Mayor Richard Daleys: father J and son M, who carried on his father’s machine politics.

      The father J was discussed in the the news a lot this summer, while we had widespread social unrest, for his notorious “shoot to kill order” during the Democratic National Convention protests.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It was him I was thinking about…the son hadn’t registered with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this! Sullivan is my favorite architect and I am a tad obsessed with his work. As a tour guide in Chicago, I did my best to bring him in into everything. You put it so perfectly: “increasingly virtuosic ornamentation.” Yes! CPS is the epitome – and my most adored of all Chicago buildings. Thank you for sharing your always excellent observations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Wendy? What organization were you working for when you were a tour guide in Chicago? I wish I could have taken one of your tours!


  7. Richard Oliver McRae · · Reply

    Very Big THANK YOU For Sharing!!
    Making good images available encourages the next generations of designers to once again bring wondrous beauty into the public forum.
    Sullivan’s design plays a major inspirational role in the Disney movie John Carter (2012).
    Sadly architecture departments and professors still disdain him, and perpetuate in their students post modern stripped architecture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Richard. I didn’t know about that movie—I’ll keep an eye out for it! Fortunately Louis Sullivan is not distained here in Chicago. Lots of folks I know adore his work.


  8. Jack Liu · · Reply

    Hi, it’s a wonderful reading experience! Currently, I’m a student at SAIC and I’m planning to make an art project which is about the Chicago stock exchange building (the arch). Can I have your email so that I can talk a little bit more about it? And btw, I want to talk with you. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jack, that sounds like a cool project! My email address is picnicatthecathedral@gmail.com .


      1. Jack Liu · ·

        Got it. I sent an email to you via my personal email address 15501211711a@gmail.com

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Jack Liu · ·

        Got it. I sent you an email via my personal email address. 15501211711a@gmail.com


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