- 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
The major arrived in Chicago in 1868 and set up an architectural office the next year. His first significant work was the Leiter Building, a five-story structure completed in 1879 and expanded by two stories in 1888. It was nothing to speak of as a work of high design, but in his skillful combination of wooden floor beams and castiron columns, Jenney was beginning to probe the possibilities of an all-metal frame. It was his nine-story Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885, that brought to Chicago the most fundamental element of skyscraper construction: an entirely metal structure from which the external cladding could be hung in “curtain” fashion. The Home Insurance Building was no more alluring to look at than the Leiter, but it set a new standard for structure. Clearly there was no longer any reason to use masonry as anything more than a skin.
The training Jenney provided for his younger employees gave those with a taste for the artistry of design a firm grounding in the practicalities. Among the alumni of his office was Burnham, who had spent 1867 and 1868 training under Jenney but by 1891 was working on his own following the premature death of his partner. Burnham quickly recognized his former employer s technical achievements and in adopting them was able to add a measure of aesthetic sensibility. His fourteen-story Reliance Building, completed in 1895, showed that he was not at all trapped by the masonry tradition that he and John Root had brought to such noble heights in the Monadnock Building only four years earlier. Making full use of metal framing, Burnham created a minimalist cage whose openings he filled with an elegant version of what came to be known as the Chicago window, a wide fixed pane of glass flanked by two narrower ones that could be opened for ventilation. (More than two-thirds of the surface of the street facade was glass.) Even today the Reliance stands out as a graceful and knowledgeable expression of the building’s structural realities and the artistic uses to which they could be put.
Chicago could not escape a feeling of cultural” inferiority to New York and came to take a chauvinistic pride in its new architecture.
But after the Reliance, Burnham let slip the thread of innovation he had been holding. Having immersed himself in the planning for the World’s Columbian Exposition, he chose to spend his later days pursuing the monumental opportunities it had thrown open to him, creating in 1909 the vast Plan of Chicago, a neobaroque scheme for the city that compared favorably with Baron Haussmann’s plan for Paris and leaving to others the challenge of integrating art and the new technology. The man who accomplished that with nothing less than historic impact was another former Jenney employee, Louis Sullivan.
Sullivan had been born in 1856 in Boston, where his father taught dancing, and at the age of sixteen enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study architecture. The architecture program—the first in the nation—had only recently been established, by William Ware in 1868, and its curriculum was based closely on that of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Even as a boy Sullivan had shown little patience with traditional schooling, and dismissing MIT as “but a pale reflection of the Beaux-Arts,” he left at the end of his first year. Evidently believing that he needed some hands-on experience before tackling the real thing, he spent that summer in Philadelphia, where, on the advice of Richard Morris Hunt (to whom he may have had an introduction from William Ware), he soon found himself working for the redoubtable architect Frank Furness.
Furness was at the height of his powers, and Sullivan was suitably impressed, not just by the energetic creativity coming out of the Furness office (its Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was then under construction) but also by his employer’s single-minded stylistic irreverence and his skill as a draftsman.
That skill was especially apparent in Furness’s treatment of ornament, for which he had derived a highly personal and ornate system based on contemporary French and English designs. Judging from the spectacularly inventive ornament Sullivan himself was to develop as a mature architect, one can only assume that the example set by Furness had an especially strong effect.