- Historic Sites
The Rise Of The Skyscraper And The Fall Of Louis Sullivan
He showed the way to the future and then was stranded there, at odds even with his own aesthetic sensibility
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
Economics, too, fueled the transition. Modern business was demanding increasingly larger work spaces for the armies of accountants, secretaries, and executives it was spawning, and that meant new and more flexible working environments. In Chicago that need intersected with the urgent necessity to rebuild on a massive scale; together those forces concentrated attention on the center of the city’s downtown business district, known as the Loop for the elevated railway tracks that encircled it.
For all the pressures to move beyond the architectural traditions of the past, the leap probably could not have been made with such vigor anywhere in the United States except Chicago—with or without a fire. Retaining much of its frontier spirit (Chicago was originally named Fort Dearborn), the city was especially attractive to entrepreneurs, adventurers, outcasts, and industrial buccaneers. Many of the men who made it in Chicago—the Armours and the Swifts among them—were industrialists who literally made things, and did so with a combination of brute force and ail-American optimism. When the actress Sarah Bernhardt visited Chicago at the turn of the century, she declared that in it beat “the pulse of America.”
For all its wealth and energy, however, Chicago could not escape a feeling of cultural inferiority to New York, and it manifested an almost compensatory determination to surpass its Eastern rival. In the realms of drama, music, and the plastic arts, there was considerable substance to the Easterners’ disdain, but in architecture New York’s cultural precedence actually proved a fatal disadvantage in the competition for leadership. So wedded were most of the leading Eastern architects to the traditions of Europe that they simply could not see beyond the models on which they had been raised. And many of those who chose not to play by the traditional rules defected. In fact, virtually all the architects who eventually became associated with the Chicago school were Eastern refugees, most of them from New York or Boston, and they helped create a community that took a uniquely chauvinistic pride in the architecture that defined the city’s reconstruction.
One of the most influential of the first-generation Chicago architects was Daniel Burnham. The man who was to become the chief of construction for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was born in western New York State, the grandson of a Congregational minister and the son of a wholesale druggist who moved to Chicago to overcome a record of business failures. Young Burnham hoped to make his way as a merchant and briefly tried mining before turning to architecture in 1872 at the age of twenty-six, joining the local firm of Carter, Drake & Wight. There he met John Wellborn Root, who had been trained in part by James Renwick, the architect of Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Burnham and Root went into business together in 1873. Despite Root’s talent for design and Burnham’s drive, the firm got off to a shaky start, but it eventually flourished, as did Burnham’s ambition. The portly and rather pompous Burnham (who was widely known as Uncle Dan) is quoted as having declared to Louis Sullivan at one point, “My idea is to work up a big business, to handle big things, deal with big businessmen, and to build up a big organization, for you can’t handle big things unless you have an organization.”
The most memorable of the firm’s early works was the Monadnock Building. Completed in 1891, it rose sixteen stories on the southwest corner of Jackson and Dearborn, and with its slope-sided base and unembellished facade it presented a crisply sober—almost ominous—face to the city around it. The most distinguishing aspect of this building was not its external form, which looks remarkably modern in retrospect, but the fact that it was built in conventional masonry fashion. The reason the building’s walls were so thick at the base—seventy-two inches—was that otherwise it could not have stood. Although their colleagues were already experimenting with metal, Burnham and Root remained tied to stone, and these two architects pushed masonry just about as far as it could go in a tall building. The Monadnock remains the tallest building ever constructed with brick walls. From that point onward height would have to be achieved with the new materials.
The man who did so with the earliest and greatest hingenudity was William Le Baron Jenny (1832–1907), who has traditionally been considered the founder of the Chicago school of architecture. Also an Easterner (he was a native of Airwave, Massachusetts), Jenny had been educated as an engineer at the Eco Central des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, where he became familiar with innovative French research in metal-framed and fireproofed commercial and exhibition buildings. During the Civil War Jenny served as a major in Gen. William T. Sherman’s corps of engineers and studied the mechanics of bridge building and the struckUral properties of iron. A proud man who could easerate those who worked for him, Jenny insisted after his daischarge on being addressed by his military rank.