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The Rise Of The Skyscraper And The Fall Of Louis Sullivan

June 2024
23min read

He showed the way to the future and then was stranded there, at odds even with his own aesthetic sensibility

If a single building type can—and should—be identified with twentieth-century American architecture, it is the skyscraper. Tall buildings were the stuff of the stories told by the legions of European immigrants whose first glimpse of America was the southern tip of Manhattan Island, bristling with its towers. They remain a symbol of American corporate power. They are the way Americans describe how high Superman can leap in a single bound.


If a single building type can—and should—be identified with twentieth-century American architecture, it is the skyscraper. Tall buildings were the stuff of the stories told by the legions of European immigrants whose first glimpse of America was the southern tip of Manhattan Island, bristling with its towers. They remain a symbol of American corporate power. They are the way Americans describe how high Superman can leap in a single bound.

In an article for Lippincott’s Magazine written in 1896, entitled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Louis Sullivan, the most influential architect of his day, issued a challenge that would resonate through architectural history from that moment on. The tall office building, Sullivan declared, “must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line—that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.”


Like so many great architects before and after him, Sullivan was an energetic—if not always grammatical or especially coherent—writer, and he rejoiced in his own verbiage. But in this passage he seized with remarkable accuracy on not only the central architectural fact of his time but also its spirit. The emergence of the tall building as an architectural type was an unprecedented opportunity, yet it was also somewhat frightening. Indeed, it was to sweep before it the very definition of the word architecture and establish the unchallenged power of American design for at least a century. It would also leave Sullivan—a massively talented but no less troubled artist—a broken and dispirited man.

Of course, height had been an obsession with architects long before Sullivan’s time. But only with the coming of iron and steel as strucktural materials in the early nineteenth century were designers able to escape the inherent limitations of masonry and brick. As a rule of thumb for the architects of those days, a one-story masonry building required a twelve-inch-thick wall, and the thickness at the base had to increase by four inches for each additional floor. Thus a stone building of twenty stories would have to start out with walls more than seven feet thick.

Thanks to the pursuit of metal technology—especially by bridge builders like John and Washington Roebling—the impulse to go ever higher could be indulged almost without limit, at least in theory. Metal beams could span great distances and could support increased loads with a minimum of bulk. Metal members could free the building’s skin from its support role, permitting much larger windows as well as much greater and more flexible interior spaces to meet the growing demand for offices and factories.


In fact, however, a serious obstacle remained to the exploitation of metal technology in building. Generally speaking, five flights of stairs were all most people could be expected to climb. That changed with the introduction of the passenger elevator. In 1857 the first practical one was installed in the Haughwout store on lower Broadway in New York. At a stroke the tall building was flung open to those who were not alpinists. The first office building to employ the new device—the 1870 Equitable Life Assurance Building, also in Manhattan—remained at the traditional limit of five stories, but driven by rising real estate prices, architects and engineers soon began to investigate the larger potential of the elevator. Prominent among those architects was Richard Morris Hunt, who had already ministered with great vigor and skill to the residential fantasies of the rich and proved no less willing to embrace an office tower. His Tribune Building (1875), facing New York’s City Hall Park, rose to a dizzying nine stories, and George Post’s nearby Western Union Building (also 1875) outdid that at an even ten.

The prospect of greater height was something of an artistic threat, and architects made these increasingly tall structures look like amplified short ones.

Thrilling as the prospect of increased height was to many architects, it was at the same time something of an artistic threat. Though dazzlingly tall, the New York buildings designed by Post, Hunt, and their contemporaries were essentially smaller buildings living beyond their aesthetic means. The standard approach to the architecture of these increasingly tall structures was to make them look like amplified short ones. The Tribune Building culminated in a corbeled clock tower reminiscent of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, while the Western Union—which also included a clock tower—sprouted dormers and decoration worthy of a luscious country mansion. The result was a family of misshapen buildings whose ornament might have been appropriate to a Newport “cottage” but was monstrously out of place at a greatly increased scale.


This dichotomy was natural enough, given the training of the architects. After all, many of them had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where they had been steeped in neoclassical monuments. They were used to looking for architectural precedents, and, in their case, precedents meant Europe. There had certainly been nothing in American architectural history to provide a competing set of forms.

Mindful of the conflict between height and the European models on which they had been nurtured, many American architects dealt with the problem by embracing the organizing principle of the classical column, with its threepart division into base, shaft, and capital. Thus a building’s bottom few stories would be embellished with arches or multistory windows topped by heavy cornices, the intermediate floors would be virtually identical to one another, and the upper portion would be given a flamboyant hat of some vaguely Gothic or Renaissance sort.

The form persisted for years, and while the height of buildings increased, this aesthetic treatment remained. Although the results included some impressive objects—among them Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building (1903), which employed the base-shaft-capital formula with powerful effect on a triangular New York City site—they more often verged on the silly. New York’s Singer Building, finished in 1908 to the design of Ernest Flagg, sported a bulbous mansard top capped by a classical lantern, looking like a buxom dowager at a Paris ball, while the Metropolitan Life Tower (1909), by Napoleon LeBrun & Sons, gave passersby a taste of a Venetian campanile in such overscaled measure that it was bound to cause architectural indigestion.


One should not be too harsh on the early New York skyscrapers. At their best they were wonderfully romantic and entertaining, and at least one, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, achieved truly aesthetic, as well as physical, heights. This 1913 landmark, which was the tallest building in the world and was instantly dubbed the “cathedral of commerce” for its Gothic cladding, succeeded not just in its theatrical impact but in the skill with which its architect handled its massing and proportions.

The Woolworth marked the highest expression of what might be called the early picturesque skyscraper, and for that reason it has remained a classic of its kind. But its brilliance hardly put an end to efforts to outdo it in opulence and ornamental complexity. What was missing from it and virtually all its spiritual contemporaries before and after, however, was any underlying sense that height and the technology that made it possible created an opportunity for a fundamentally new form of expression, one that acknowledged the difference in kind between tall metalframed buildings and short ones held up by stone or brick. Indeed, the Woolworth in this sense is no nobler than its lesser rivals, which made every effort to conceal what they were made of and how they were supported.

Although New York was late to grasp the fact, this aesthetic impasse had long since been broken by the fire that devastated Chicago in 1871. The disaster focused attention on the one remaining problem confronting the use of metal as a structural material: fireproofing. Exposed to concentrated heat in a fire, unprotected iron would, as numerous Chicago buildings had demonstrated, buckle and eventually collapse. In the early 1870s, however, engineers successfully experimented with a number of fireproofing techniques, including the use of hollow tile for subflooring and partitions and the direct application of masonry and tile to exposed iron columns and beams.

The Chicago fire created a tremendous opportunity for the city. Most of the buildings that were destroyed had been made of wood. As soon as builders came up with new techniques to use fireproofed iron and steel in place of wood and masonry in a building’s structure, owners and architects alike turned to new materials with more than simply technical enthusiasm.

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.

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.

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.

He meant the “function” that “form ever follows” to include the eye’s demand for uplifting diversion and the heart’s for inspiration.

The site for the Auditorium, which was begun in 1886 and completed in 1889, covered a half-block on Michigan Avenue, an area roughly the size of Richardson’s site for the Marshall Field Wholesale Store. From the start it was to include, as the name proclaimed, an auditorium, but also space for offices, a hotel, and a restaurant. The early schemes included a tower with a mansard roof and a frosting of the sort of Queen Anne and Romanesque ornament the firm had used before. But as Sullivan came to appreciate the underlying simplicity of Richardson’s form—and as the client pushed for economies—he gradually peeled away the trimmings, leaving a sturdy tenstory block from which sprang a seven-story tower. The organization of the facade elements owed much to Richardson: The bottom floor was pierced by squat arches trimmed in rusticated stone, the middle stories were linked by four-story pilasters culminating in arches, and the top three stories were articulated by smaller windows grouped in pairs and threes. The tower loomed above them in neoRenaissance fashion, providing spectacular views of the city. It also contained new offices for the firm of Adler & Sullivan.

At first glance the Auditorium might be taken merely as a work of compositional homage to Richardson, but the overall effect is entirely different. Sullivan’s treatment had little of Richardson’s boldness, relying more on surface embellishment than mass to convey its impact. The building’s comparatively lighter facade—a mere surface over a metal frame—betrayed a desire to break free and rise higher.

With the availability of the steel frame—to which Jenney, Burnham, and others were already devoting much attention—Sullivan could make good on the challenge Richardson had chosen to avoid. And with the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, completed in 1891, he launched American architecture on a course toward aesthetic and technological dominance for decades to come. In the Wainwright, Sullivan (who later declared that the basic scheme for the building had been worked out “literally in three minutes”) dispensed with the neoclassical details (although not the baseshaft-capital organization) on which he had relied so heavily in the Auditorium and instead allowed the new building’s structure to express itself unconcealed on the facade.


Or almost unconcealed. In his 1896 essay Sullivan declared that the frame must be “the true basis of the artistic development of the exterior,” but in fact the vertical elements that gave the Wainwright its feeling of skyward thrust were only partially expressions of the underlying steel cage. There were twice as many piers as there were structural columns behind them, leading some later critics to attack the architect for “faking” his facade. In this they renewed an argument that had raged with peculiarly American intensity through the Greek and Gothic Revival periods: What was “honest” architecture? Of course, had Sullivan been more literal-minded in his use of piers, his building would have lost much of its visual impact, and in that sense the architect was certainly striving for effect over fact. On the other hand, the essential quality of the overall design is the expression of the vertical properties of the frame, and by embracing that fact, Sullivan could be seen as being absolutely true to function.


The argument bears on the question of what building deserves the title of the first true skyscraper. If the inclusion of a passenger elevator is considered the sole criterion, then Hunt’s Tribune Building probably takes the prize. If the standard is the use of a fireproofed metal-cage structure, the winner must be Jenney for his Home Insurance Building. But what has come to be known as the skyscraper has always had more to do with the sense of height than with the facts of construction, and if the spirit of the building is the issue, then the Wainwright is the clear champion. Whether or not it was a “pure” expression of structural form, it was a summation of all the other requirements; most important, in it the architect marshaled all these devices to convey the feeling of height.

Sullivan refined that feeling in his guaranty (later Prudential) Building in Buffalo, completed in 1895. Here, over a clearly articulated base, he attenuated the piers (but still used twice as many as were necessary to express the vertical steel members), finished them neatly at the top with arches, and provided a sort of architectural “full stop” above each with a small circular window. The midsection, which has a lean Renaissance lightness, was topped by a heavy cornice that restrains the building’s dramatic upward thrust from appearing to go on indefinitely. Bold achievement that it was, the Guaranty also documented one of the major unresolved issues facing contemporary architects of tall buildings. Sullivan could not devise an effective transition between the base and the midsection. He left the one to sit on the other in almost disembodied fashion.

Nonetheless, in virtually every other way, Sullivan had, with the Wainwright and the Guaranty, loosed the bonds inherited from Richardson. He had faced the potential of steel-frame construction and mastered it. He had rejected the stylistic conventions of the past—whether those of the École, Frank Furness, or even Richardson—and he had triumphed where such Chicago colleagues as Jenney and Burnham had hesitated, in giving full artistic expression to a revolutionary technology. It is that achievement that seems to be embodied in the deathless declaration about form following function.

Those few words have caused tremendous problems for many of Sullivan’s chroniclers, particularly those of a doctrinaire modernist persuasion, who have never been quite able to deal with his enduring devotion to ornament. It was the one area in which Sullivan appeared tied to tradition. Although most of the overtly classical details had vanished from his work shortly after the Auditorium, Sullivan maintained the fascination with decoration that he had conceived in Furness’s office. In the Wainwright he filled the panels separating the vertical piers with a richly varied series of floral patterns. In the Guaranty he extended the ornament to the surfaces of the piers themselves. In his 1904 Schlesinger & Mayer department store (later the Carson Pirie Scott) in Chicago, he turned his concern for structural clarity from the vertical to the horizontal, creating a building so spare in its organization that it seemed a preview of modernist developments forty years later (although the site and size of the building seem stronger motives for the shape than any avant-garde aesthetic). But at the entrance he produced a thicket of metal ornament so intricate and delicate that it seemed almost to shudder in the gusts of Chicago’s famous winds. Scholars who have seen a protomodernist in Sullivan have always preferred photographs of the building that emphasize its horizontality and obscure the ornament that the architect felt was so important.

Unlike some of his later critics, Sullivan saw no conflict between his search for structural truth and his devotion to ornament. On the contrary, he believed them inextricable, and said so many times. In fact, his definition of the “function” that “form ever follows” included the demand of the eye for uplifting diversion and of the heart for inspiration. Architecture must serve emotion as fully as the need for shelter and mechanical efficiency. Nor was his system of ornament in any qualitative way inferior to his overall spatial and compositional sense. At its best it was sublimely beautiful. Nevertheless, Sullivan’s ornament seemed increasingly irrelevant to the industrially based architecture that was developing in his own hands. Despite his commitment to nature, the sculptural forms of the buildings themselves were beginning to take over the most powerful visual role, leaving the ornament in an increasingly subservient position.

The dichotomy became clearer as Sullivan was forced to husband his architectural resources. Worsening economic times and growing family demands persuaded Dankmar Adler to leave the partnership in 1895 for work as an executive at an elevator company. His sortie in search of more money failed, but when he decided to return to architecture, Sullivan would not have him. Evidently angered by Adler’s departure, Sullivan thereafter went out of his way to minimize his former partner’s contributions to their work together. The absence of Adler’s sturdy talents became steadily more apparent, and in a poor business climate it contributed to a dramatic falloff in Sullivan’s production. Between 1880 and 1895 the two men had produced more than a hundred buildings together. In his remaining thirty years Sullivan would produce a mere twenty.

Prominent among them was the Bayard Building on New York’s Bleecker Street, completed in 1898. It was Sullivan’s first major commission after Adler’s departure, and despite his renown, it was to be the only building he ever designed for New York City. Crowded by a host of banal commercial buildings, the Bayard —or Condict, as it became known after a later owner—can be hard to appreciate. But even from the cramped perspective of a narrow New York street, its facade’s lightness and elegance are immediately evident to the determined observer. Departing from the rhythm he established in the Wainwright and Guaranty buildings by using piers of equal width, Sullivan in the Condict alternated the major piers with thin ones, linking them at the cornice with arches and oculus windows topped by reliefs of winged maidens. For those who would describe Sullivan as a proto-functionalist, this building is especially hard to accommodate. But coming in the wake of his leaner and better-known office buildings, it can only be seen as a more mature work. And it would seem to indicate that ornament—no matter how much it seemed to conflict with functionality —was becoming more than ever an integral part of his design vocabulary.

It was as if the Puritan suspicion of beauty and the conflicting lure of the romantic had taken up residence in the same soul, with disastrous effect.

That direction was confirmed by a series of small banks Sullivan designed for Midwestern cities in the first years of the new century. To be sure, these were not the commissions of his choice. The combination of an ailing economy, the loss of Adler’s business and engineering skills, and an almost selfdestructive insistence on getting his own way despite his clients’ wishes had reduced the great man to accepting almost any work that came along.

The banks could not have been simpler in form. All were essentially squat rectangular boxes. But their exterior embellishment took Sullivan’s fascination with ornament to new heights. Indeed, the decoration in some cases threatened to overwhelm the underlying architecture, particularly in the banks in Grinnell, Iowa, and Sidney, Ohio, where the eruptions of terra-cotta foliage and pure geometry might as well have been freestanding panels. (They evoke simultaneously the “false fronts” of Western frontier towns and the sort of signage that the architect Robert Venturi would describe decades later in his discussions of the “decorated shed.”)

But these late works, for all their jewel-like intensity, had limited influence beyond the shrinking circle of Sullivan’s loyalists. The World’s Columbian Exposition had left many of its visitors with visions of a new American architecture not of structurally authoritative office buildings and banks that looked like “strong-boxes,” as Sullivan described his own buildings, but of neo-Gothic office towers and banks that looked like Roman temples. The “White City” so dazzled the audience for architecture that those practitioners willing to embrace its message—Charles McKim, Cass Gilbert, and the changeable Daniel Burnham—became arbiters of taste for nearly half a century.

Sullivan, of course, would have none of it. Although the innovative Transportation Building he and Adler designed for the fair attracted international attention, the American public was clearly more interested in the instant “authenticity” of backward-looking architectural fantasies, and Sullivan grew increasingly embittered by the eagerness of his colleagues to provide them. He mocked the most powerful practitioners of the day—McKim, George Post, and Burnham—and they, not surprisingly, shut him out of the New York commissions.

Sullivan railed at the architectural establishment as it expressed itself through the American Institute of Architects and grew ever more vitriolic in his criticism of what he saw as aesthetic backsliding. In a speech to young architects at the Chicago Architectural Club on May 30, 1899, he declared, “You will realize, in due time … that a fraudulent and surreptitious use of historical documents, however clearly plagiarized, however neatly re-packed, however shrewdly intrigued, will constitute and will be held to be a betrayal of trust.” And in June 1900 he described the current architecture of steel frames hidden under classical cloaks to a meeting of the Architectural League of America as “the offspring of an illegitimate commerce with the mongrel types of the past.”


Although Sullivan concentrated his attacks on the architectural establishment, he might almost be seen as trying to sublimate a frustration with his own artistic being. While his skyscrapers pointed directly toward an aesthetic defined by materials and technology, his poetic side could not abandon the pull toward nature and its expression in ornament. It is as if the original suspicion of beauty harbored by the Puritan founders and the conflicting lure of the romantic had taken up residence in the same soul—with an almost inevitably disastrous effect. Without dipping deeply into psychology, one might characterize Sullivan’s dualistic impulses as a sort of artistic schizophrenia. The almost evangelical fervor with which he condemned his colleagues might be seen also as an expression of the frustration he evidently felt at his inability to resolve the conflicting demands of the elemental and the decorative.


As his personal fortunes diminished, Sullivan became steadily more reclusive, moving to humble quarters in a Chicago hotel. His marriage, in 1899 at the age of fortytwo, had never taken hold and ended officially in 1916, when his wife, from whom he had been separated for years, formally divorced him. A brief resurgence of the old energy brought some young architects into his office, but the work did not sustain them, and they were forced to move on, leaving Sullivan—always quick to take a departure as a betrayal—even more embittered. Before long he was reduced to having his meals at his club paid for by friends; his once-extensive library of architectural works had shrunk to a few volumes, which he stored in his bathroom. A special indignity was visited upon him when the owners of the Carson Pirie Scott store decided to add to the building and hired Daniel Burnham to do the job. Sullivan could take cold comfort in the fact that Burnham decided to leash his enthusiasm for the classical and virtually copy the original (extending it by several bays and thus, ironically, amplifying the building’s later appeal to modernists).

In 1920 Sullivan was evicted from the two-room office in the Auditorium to which he had already been forced to retreat from his once-grand quarters on the top floor of the tower. His health declined with his fortunes, and on April 14, 1924, at the age of sixty-seven, he died of kidney and heart problems.

Widespread recognition of Sullivan’s contributions to architecture would have to wait until the arrival of modernism in the 1930s and 1940s, when it became increasingly clear that Sullivan, as no other architect—European or American—had been the first to bring art and technology into something approaching a union.

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