Louis H. Sullivan

Louis Sullivan

Bayard Condict Building

Charnley House

Getty Tomb gate

Golden Door Transportation Building

Grinnell bank

Owatonna Bank exterior detail

Owatonna Bank teller’s wicket

Richardson Marshall Field warehouse

Stock Exchange Stair Stringer

Sullivan drawing

Transportation Building

Louis Sullivan


Now considered the “Father of the Skyscraper,” today Louis Sullivan ranks even higher as an architect than he did in his time. Born in Boston in 1856, after a short stint studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he began working in the Philadelphia office of architect Frank Furness. But soon Sullivan moved to Chicago, in 1873, still jacking itself up from the underlying quagmire and two years after its famous fire.

The young architect then worked for a short time for William LeBaron Jenney before setting off for Europe and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. But after seeing the work of Michelangelo firsthand in Rome, he was determined, as only a young man could be, to set Chicago artistically alight.

He had to settle for history.

In contrast to a European Japonisme and American East Coast version of the Aesthetic Movement, Chicago’s was much more architectonic. Working as a freelance decorator from 1876 for various city architects, the 20-year-old Sullivan “geometricized” nature, quickly climbing into an indispensable component for them and by 1881, becoming exclusive to one.

Adler & Sullivan

Sullivan began to see his decoration, especially for theaters, as “architecture” itself and by 1883, his employer, Dankmar Adler, also saw Sullivan’s remarkable décor as a fitting component to his own acoustical and engineering skills and made him a full name partner in his firm. Adler’s choice for himself may have foretold the separate “structural engineer” in an architectural firm today.

The commercial development of the light bulb made its appearance in their new gilded performance halls, permitting one reviewer to write, “Let there be light,” further defining an Adler & Sullivan theater design as leading to a more spectacular result. And in the autumn of 1886, a former client for one of the firm’s biggest opera houses again chose the firm for America’s most magnificent.

Auditorium Building

Foreshadowing today’s “mixed use” concept, in order to finance the huge auditorium at its center, the consortium of Chicago’s biggest tycoons would wrap it with a hotel fronting Michigan Avenue; an office building on Wabash and in a tower on Congress; and an arched Grand Opera House entrance beneath that. As the prevailing exterior design for non-commercial buildings was to be as fussy as their importance would suggest, Sullivan’s preliminary renderings pictured a huge “castellated” building of turrets, balconies, and peaks.

Auditorium Building
Auditorium Theater interior

Auditorium Hotel dining room

But also by 1886, Henry Hobson Richardson was finishing the monumental Marshall Field Warehouse on Adams and not only had his design changed American architecture fundamentally but so had its simplicity. So different was his new look, it was simply called “Richardson Romanesque” by later architectural theorists. It also changed Sullivan.


The Queen Anne style of various rooflines and elevations suddenly looked old-fashioned to educated “Design Reform” eyes. And Sullivan also saw that the bigger a building is, the simpler it should be.

Though its new look somewhat resembled the dark stone Field’s warehouse, to keep the larger Auditorium Building from looking somber and brooding, it would only use a rusticated Minnesota granite base for the first three floors and smooth Indiana limestone above that. The exterior load-bearing walls were set on running concrete foundations woven with a network of wooden beams and steel rails but the interior, cage-supported walls had separate, pyramidal footings on individual “floating” slabs.

While the interior of the 4,200-seat theater was astonishing in its perfect acoustics, it was nearly transcendent in its looks. Adler’s huge trusses above were covered by Sullivan’s decor of four gilt arches graduating in size from the relatively small crescent surrounding its large convertible stage opening to a larger arc of plaster encompassing one of the trusses. Aurally, its megaphonic form carried sound to the topmost gallery but visually, the arch was also used in repeating motifs throughout the exterior and interior of the entire building.

Auditorium Theatre cutaway
Auditorium Theater interior


The foundation imbalance led to today’s roller coaster effect from the sidewalk level through its “sunken” lobby to a somewhat raised foyer as the heavy ten–story walls and 17-story tower settled into the mud leaving its mosaic floor a ramp-like and colorful blanket underfoot.

The orchestra moved out in 1905 and, luckily, Sullivan’s own 1909 plans to replace the theater came to nothing. In 1929, the opera moved to their own Art Deco skyscraper but, ironically, the Auditorium Building’s massive size made it too costly to tear down after it fell on hard times.

Today, it and the restored theater at its heart glitter like new and have become too important once again to a city inspired by its past glories.

Wainwright Building

Perhaps the “avant-garde” aesthetic freedom of his St. Louis client, Ellis Wainwright, gave Sullivan artistic license. But both he and his assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright, recalled that the design came to him in a three-minute burst of inspiration.

Wainwright Building

Utilizing the new steel skeleton for support of the 1890 Wainwright Building, Sullivan decided to both express the structure and “interpret” its verticality. The resulting horizontal sandstone storefront base explodes into upward reaching false red brick piers alternating with those actually encasing the steel columns that lead to a fanciful attic of portholes surrounded with a frame of terra cotta natural forms.

Not unlike the recessed spandrels of the “Philadelphia Functionalist” buildings he’d seen during his Frank Furness year, each office floor was set off with a terra cotta panel of florid design in counterpoint to the relatively plain brick piers.

The very distinction that makes the skyscraper unique among building forms is its “tallness.” Though Sullivan didn’t invent this new steel cage, he saw that he could both unite its vertical “essence” in a psychological appreciation and express its structure for a scientific one.

Schiller Building

He returned with an 1891 Building for Chicago’s Randolph Street even more vertical looking than St. Louis’s Wainwright. In another mixed-use structure like the Auditorium but using the steel cage instead of load-bearing walls, the Schiller building contained an office portion wrapped over and in front of a 1,286-seat theater.

Schiller Building

However, its Randolph façade was simply the side end of a deep 17-story block whose apparent narrowness and height gave it a verticality even the Wainwright lacked. And its Garrick Theater demonstrated both Adler’s acoustical understanding and Sullivan’s ornamental prowess.

Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 1961 for an eventual parking garage. However, it was the earlier arguments of 1960 between the property owners and architectural preservationists that had been even more persuasive. They were heard by the City Council, the Appellate and Illinois Supreme Court and, most importantly of all, the public, beginning the historic preservation movement in the United States.

St. Louis

As the Adler & Sullivan firm was finding commissions in St. Louis, and they would have had to ally with a local architect with Missouri credentials, it placed a branch office there with promoter and engineer, Charles Ramsey. Their constructed and intended structures in that city may have inspired Sullivan to build perhaps his greatest skyscraper, the 1895 Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York.

The Golden Door

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was to be a grand world’s fair but whose Classical buildings at its heart crippled the Chicago School of Architecture.

The Director of Works was Chicago’s Daniel Burnham who by 1891 let the New York architects decide to work in their more academic comfort zone, designing the huge pavilions around its main “Court of Honor” in a salad of Neo-Renaissance forms coated in pure white plaster.

Sullivan was aghast.

Refusing to design the temporary Music Hall, Sullivan himself designed the Transportation Exhibit as a highly colorful stucco “basilica.” Though he kept to the uniform 65-foot cornice, nothing about the red walls and 166-foot observation cupola could be considered Classical.

Chicago Stock Exchange

The important 1894-95 financial center for LaSalle Street gave Louis Sullivan an opportunity to reuse the arched plaster entrance for his World’s Fair Transportation Building for a stone and terra cotta structure lasting longer than a single summer. But since the lofty Trading and Banking Rooms starting on the second floor meant he would extend his base to three levels. That larger base and his use of the traditional “Chicago Window” for the expanse of offices through the next ten stories would have presented the façade as too horizontal for a monumental and mainly vertical elevation.

Stock Exchange
Stock Exchange Elevators

So Sullivan emphasized its verticality by alternating continuous pleats of bay windows between the flat three-part Chicago Windows.

The reconstructed Trading Room and metal elevator gates have been restored and enshrined in the Art Institute of Chicago in an ironic memory of the structure’s greatness. The fact that a mediocre office tower replaced the building itself tells history how rare it is that architectural quality trumps money.

Guaranty Building

Like the Wainwright, the 1895 Guaranty in Buffalo was meant to be a similarly sized speculative office building but because client, Hascal Taylor’s, lot size was smaller, the steel framed structure had to be taller. However, unlike the Wainwright’s brick, it’s terra cotta piers are instead completely covered in “Sullivanian” ornament nearly breaking into a three-dimensional leaf design at the top.

Guaranty Building

Its attic of portholes isn’t a separate layer, like the Wainwright’s, but a vertical continuation of the terra cotta turning upward to the edge of the topmost cornice. And though the number of “false piers” within each structural steel bay was the same as the St. Louis tower, they provided extra interior space to subdivide the offices.


When his chief assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright, left under a cloud in 1893, it was only the first act of a three-act drama. Then in 1895, during an economic depression, Dankmar Adler left the partnership in financial desperation. And in 1896, Sullivan’s brother moved into the house on Lake Park Avenue with his new wife that Albert had financed for his mother, in effect kicking Louis out of the home he had designed.


His most famous “quote” became, “Form Follows Function.” In Lippincott’s Magazine of 1896, Sullivan actually wrote, “Form ever follows function, and this is the law.” in his essay, “The Tall Building Artistically Considered,” Sullivan saw that there was only one law. He assumed that as “natural” law dictated that no tree or plant was exactly the same, so too was the artist himself, though he preferred to call himself a “poet.” And as Nature suggests, he also saw that each architectural project was unique.

Architects were still clothing modern structures in Greco-Roman and Renaissance forms but Sullivan was well aware of the application of the “classic” from his Ecole des Beaux-Arts days, and he saw that the modern office building needed a totally new wrapping.

To be truly organic, a tall building should look like it’s growing out of the ground. Like Baroque sculpture transformed the static into the dynamic, Sullivan’s buildings are always “moving.” Though the underlying structure is apparent, the façades act like flesh and his exterior ornament seems to make architecture into a living thing.

Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store

Now called the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building, this has become a magnet for architectural tourists to Chicago. Sullivan understood that a structure’s beauty could literally frame the life within it. Starting in 1896, his unbuilt two bay Wabash façade and the constructed second floor bridge to the L platform and his 1899 Madison Street three bay portion signaled the new look.

Carson Pirie Scott Building

By the next year, the indecisive Schlesinger had nevertheless assembled parcels wrapping around the corner and down State Street. By 1902-03, a tall vertical hinge at the corner counterpointed the long Chicago-style windows in a horizontal sweep for the seven bays along State and the six along Madison.

Though this continuation used a steel skeleton to support the terra cotta floors, it was not an office building whose cells were defined by tall piers but a loft-like department store. Instead of a highly figured attic as in the office buildings, Sullivan recessed the top level behind columns similar to the 9-story Madison façade making the 12-story building’s termination under the projecting cornice an open loggia.

In a reversal of his office building configuration of foliation at the roofline, the sidewalk windows framed the goods on display in an explosion of bronze-like leaves and tendrils. And the corner entrance acted as a leafy stage set of revolving doors to the “paradise” inside. It was a merchant’s dream.

Art Nouveau

Though many see Sullivan’s ironwork “bronze” and terra cotta as resembling the contemporaneous French style, this was architectonic and symmetrical, not Art Nouveau’s naturalistic and asymmetrical framing. Though it can’t be an arm of the style, Sullivan’s version lent the architect’s later buildings an air of today’s “Expressionism.”


Not content to see his newfound fame bring him a platform for wealth and commissions, he chose instead to let his ego do the arguing. Sullivan seemed to pick a fight in 1900 with the American Institute of Architects. His contempt for Greco-Roman design also discussed in his yearlong Kindergarten Chats serialization for Cleveland’s weekly “Interstate Architect” had him blaming the architects but not the clients of the new buildings, who had hired them to provide the Beaux-Arts pastiche.

His career suffered because of his reputation for intransigence and the clients’ preference for the Neoclassical in a market seeing his work as too old-fashioned. So, with just two small buildings in Chicago, he didn’t work again until a 1906-07 bank building in Owatonna, Minnesota.

Jewel Boxes

Until 1919, relieved of his skyscrapers, eight small buildings not only constituted a separate period in Sullivan’s artistic oeuvre, they distilled all of his decorative language into little essays.

Though Chicago clients and builders, after 1900, were in love with the hated Neoclassical, it was still possible to build farther away in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio. Particularly the Owatonna, Minnesota and Grinnell, Iowa banks, all the small buildings ranging from only 1,500 to 4,500 square feet were thought of by many as “Jewel Boxes.”

Owatonna bank
Owatonna Bank interior

Krause Music Store

But the last of Sullivan’s architectural commissions didn’t even have the size of the small town banks. Being a mere façade of greenish/gray terra cotta from the Teco pottery, Chicago’s mid-block shop at 4611 North Lincoln Avenue was his swansong as an architect.

Krause Music Store

The little building had a theatrical row of light bulbs encircling the rectangular show window. With the swirls of terra cotta ornament, particularly in a giant key zipping down the front, it displays his design powers seemingly untouched by his precarious finances and has become nearly as potent as the great Carson’s building downtown.


Sullivan died penniless and ill on April 14, 1924, and despite a late marriage finally ending in divorce in 1916, quite alone. He had been forgotten by most of the architectural community and the clients who employ them, who preferred to design Neoclassical structures.

Though he didn’t invent the steel-framed cage or Chicago’s Commercial Style, he saw that the size of the large urban building was mainly a psychological problem rather than a structural one. And that any building had long passed its simple mechanics and transformed into a total work of art.

Sullivan also taught Frank Lloyd Wright that a building’s interior is inseparable from its exterior. Part of the “Organic Architecture” principle is this concept and all great architects understand it. Without Louis Sullivan, architecture today would be only about its technology instead of as very big sculpture.

There was a reason Frank Lloyd Wright later admired only one other architect besides himself. And the “art” of architecture was the most important lesson he learned from its “poet.”