Searching for Louis Sullivan

Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building in Chicago

Attendees of the American Institute of Architects convention last week in Miami were lucky enough to have a chance to see a new documentary on architect Louis Sullivan. The film, in the works since 2007, is called “Louis Sullivan: the Struggle for American Architecture.” The film seeks to present Sullivan as “an artist who never felt completely comfortable in either the vanishing world of 19th-century romanticism or the unsentimental and mechanized one of the twentieth century.”

Auditorium Building, now Roosevelt University, Chicago

Watching the trailer makes one realize the power of film and sound versus pen and paper, camera and keyboard when documenting, reporting on or critiquing architecture. The sweeping camera angles lovingly caress both Sullivan’s remaining and demolished work. Set to a piece by Philip Glass from the movie, “The Hours,” the trailer alone may bring you to tears, even just watching on YouTube, as you realize how much of his work has been destroyed. It looks like an incredibly moving film and I hope it makes its way to San Francisco.

Director Mark Richard Smith became interested in Sullivan’s work when he moved to Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in history at Loyola University. The Chicago Tribune wrote that the film relies heavily on the photographs of Richard Nickel, the photographer and preservationist who died while getting ornament and artifacts from the Chicago Stock Exchange during its demolition. The building collapsed beneath Nickel, as he was trying to record it for posterity.  Ultimately, the final version didn’t use Nickel’s photos, but the filmmaker did film most of his extant buildings in the Midwest and the East Coast.

Auditorium, interior, Chicago

On a trip last year to Chicago, I had the privilege to speak about architect Timothy Pflueger to the Chicago Art Deco Society in the Auditorium Building, the work that propelled the firm of Adler & Sullivan to notoriety. While visiting, I realized the travesty of how little of Sullivan’s work survives in his adopted home. The Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, now restored and called Sullivan Center and the Auditorium, and the Charnley House were the more notable structures I found. There are several homes and other lesser-known buildings, a list of which can be found here at the Chicago Art Institute, the current home of the reconstructed trading room from the Chicago Stock Exchange. It’s about time that Sullivan — who ranks with Frank Lloyd Wright as one of America’s greatest architects — got more attention. As the Tribune wrote, “Louis Sullivan gets his due.”

Smith has submitted his film to the Mill Valley Film Festival, so hopefully the documentary will come here later this year.

Sullivan never worked in the Bay Area, but even so, it is possible to find both his influence, and that of the other architects of the vibrant Chicago School, all of whom were influenced early on by Henry Hobson Richardson and his interpretation of the Romanesque. The Auditorium Building in Chicago is an example of the heavy masonry and arches depicted in Richardson’s Romanesque style, also found in two San Francisco buildings of the era. The Auditorium also includes examples of organic ornament and craftsmanship espoused by Sullivan, a concept he also engrained into the firm’s chief draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright. Its construction was also a tribute to the engineering ingenuity of Dankmar Adler, who designed a massive floating foundation to support the heavy structure in soft Chicago soil.

Mills Building, column detail

One local example of the Chicago School with flashes of Sullivan, is the Mills Building at 220 Montgomery. The original 10-story office building was one of two local projects designed by partners Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. The other is the De Young Building, the first iron and steel-frame skyscraper in San Francisco, on Market and Kearny, its sandstone restored after being hidden for decades by ugly metal cladding. It is now the Ritz-Carlton Residences.

Mills Building, San Francisco, Library of Congress, Print and Photographs Collection

Mills Building, layered arches, detailed view

It’s easy to see the influence of both Richardson and Sullivan in the building designed for financier Darius Mills, which took two years to build and was completed in 1893. The multi-layered marble arch that dominates the entrance evokes the sweeping, layered arches in the interior of the 1889 Auditorium Theatre, which also predicted the “Golden Door” arch in Adler & Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. But as Sullivan wrote, the stunning Beaux Arts beauty of that historic fair may have enthralled Americans, yet it also set back the progress of modern American architecture.

Sullivan’s style seems to loom large in the organic swirling terracotta swans above the column capitals in the Mills Building. The arches are both Richardsonian and could be inspired by the layered arches in the Auditorium’s interior (see above). The current owners were having the Mills Building cleaned, hence, the above view in black and white is from the American Historical Building Survey. (The closeups are my attempts to avoid the scaffolding.)

Mills Building wrought iron grille

Sullivanesque ornament, row of flats, 85-93 Sanchez St, 1908

Another Sullivan inspired work is a row of flats on Sanchez St. Architectural historian extraordinaire Gary Goss points out the arches and circular ornament on this row of flats, designed by Henry Geilfuss & Son.

Sullivan and the architects of the Chicago School were the first to embrace the steel frame. Even today, Sullivan’s writings on the soaring skyscraper are often quoted. Adler & Sullivan’s Wainwright Building of 1891 in St. Louis was the first skyscraper designed to emphasize its height, a concept that became muddled after the Beaux-Arts craze swept the country following the 1893 World’s Fair. In San Francisco, like the rest of the country, architects trained in the Beaux-Arts style became the leaders. As Hugh Morrison noted in his 1935 biography of Sullivan, “The Fair had aimed a death blow at the new style which had been evident in the work of the Chicago School before 1893; Richardson and John Root were dead, Sullivan as far as the public was concerned was moribund, and Wright had yet to make his mark.”

Wainwright Building, cornice detail, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection

Sullivan himself was vitriolic about the influence of Chicago’s White City, as the fair buildings were called. “The virus of the World’s Fair, after a period of incubation in the architectural profession and in the population at large, especially the influential, began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion,” he wrote, as quoted by Morrison. “There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.”

In San Francisco’s case, the ordered Beaux-Arts buildings constructed after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and some ideas from Burnham’s “City Beautiful” plan incorporated into the new Civic Center, brought a semblance of dignity that had been missing in the overwrought Victorian and neo-Gothic chaos, some of which had been characterized by outspoken architect Willis Polk as “architectural monstrosities.” It would not be until after World War I that local architects like Timothy Pflueger would eventually seek to flee the historicism  Sullivan fought so hard to escape.

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4 Responses to “Searching for Louis Sullivan”

  1. Sal Says:

    Neat blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it
    from somewhere? A theme like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my
    blog jump out. Please let me know where you got your design.
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  2. Gregg in SF Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I am a San Franciscan who was just in Chicago on a Sullivan pilgrimage, and I was pleased to find this post and the threads between Sullivan and these local buildings. To me Sullivan towers over Wright and all others who followed. He was certainly America’s most romantic architect, and his contradictions and sad fate make his life and work all the more fascinating.

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