- 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
In retrospect Sullivan seems to have had an unerring sense of just where to go for the most useful training in his art. After a year with Furness, who was hit hard by a financial panic, Sullivan went on to Chicago, where his parents and brother had moved, and took a job in the offices of William Le Baron Jenney. (Lore has it that the cocky Sullivan, in seeking a satisfactory office, roamed Chicago’s streets looking for a building that interested him. He singled out Jenney’s Portland Block and promptly offered the firm his services.) This, too, proved to be a brief interlude, but it can only have been an enlightening one. Having come from the aggressively artistic Furness office to Jenney’s hard-core engineeringbased environment, Sullivan was absorbing the most powerful work being done in the country at the time. But he evidently thought that what the United States had to offer—even at the feet of the likes of Furness and Jenney—was still not sufficient and that he needed to test architectural education at the source. In July 1874 he boarded a boat for Europe and that fall prepared to enter the École des BeauxArts to study with the best architectural faculty Europe had to offer.
To ready himself for the Ecole’s examinations, Sullivan engaged tutors in French and mathematics. The math tutor, a man named Clopet, made a profound and long-lasting impression by insisting on solutions that, as Sullivan recalled with appropriate typographical emphasis later in his autobiography, were “ so broad as to admit of NO EXCEPTION !!” Sullivan’s own biographers have, with reason, suggested that the appeal of this all-embracing declaration launched his later search for a comparably definitive pronouncement on architecture, culminating in his oft-quoted—and just as often misinterpreted—declaration in his 1896 essay on tall buildings that “form ever follows function, and this is the law.”
Despite the wisdom dispensed by Clopet and his colleagues, the École struck Sullivan as suffering from a “residuum of artificiality,” and it exercised no more hold over him than had Furness or Jenney. (However, he never lost the attraction he acquired in Paris for suits of the most elegant cut.) After spending the winter in Paris, he set out for Italy, where on a visit to the Sistine Chapel he was apparently overwhelmed by the power of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Persuaded that he should follow the example of the artist he called “the first mighty man of Courage … the first mighty craftsman,” Sullivan returned to Chicago. There he briefly found work with a friend he had met in Jenney’s office during his earlier Chicago days, John Edelmann. By then on his own designing a synagogue, Edelmann put Sullivan to work (perhaps on the strength of his description of the Sistine Chapel) designing the frescoes for it.
Edelmann eventually rejoined a firm for which he had worked some years before and introduced Sullivan to one of the partners, a German immigrant named Dankmar Adler (1844–1900), who was twelve years older than Sullivan and already an established architect and engineer known for respectable residential and commercial work. Adler took Sullivan on, giving him assignments that were at first those of an office helper and draftsman. His greater talents quickly became apparent, and within a year the relative newcomer was offered a one-third partnership in the firm; a year later he was elevated to full partner. Under the new arrangement Adler retained responsibility for the engineering and business sides of the operation; Sullivan took over design.
The work Adler and Sullivan produced during their first decade together was hardly extraordinary. It included conventionally eclectic residences for well-off Chicagoans eager to display their prosperity and a number of office and warehouse buildings of no particular distinction.
At the time the most progressive American architect was still Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–86), who had established his reputation primarily through his adaptation of the Romanesque style to contemporary designs for churches, libraries, and commercial buildings. Sullivan was intensely aware of the older man’s example, which example was made even more insistent with the opening, a year after Richardson’s death, of the Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago. Writing years later in a collection of essays entitled Kindergarten Chats , Sullivan described Richardson’s building in anthropomorphic terms: “Here is a man for you to look at. A man that walks on two legs instead of four … broad, vigorous and with a whelm of energy —an entire male.” Just how much the Richardson legacy meant to Sullivan became clear when he and Adler were in the midst of designing the Auditorium Building.