Born and bred in Boston, architect Louis Sullivan was to transform another city, the city of Chicago, with skyscrapers that were primary illustrations of Sullivan’s famous pronouncement, “Form ever follows function.” Only 17 when he moved to Chicago with his parents in 1873, Sullivan would become known as the father of the American skyscraper, the one architect of the Chicago School of architects who led the way to modernism, integrating new construction technologies into striking new high-rise buildings.
The Chicago fire of 1871, which destroyed some four square miles of its downtown, was the catalyst for a new kind of architecture using steel frame construction. That and the invention of the elevator gave rise, literally, to the skyscraper, which could be built many floors higher than buildings constructed of load-bearing stone and concrete. As architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable has commented,
The skyscraper and the twentieth century are synonymous; the tall building is the landmark of our age. As a structural marvel that breaks the traditional limits on mankind’s persistent ambition to build to the heavens, the sky-scraper is this century’s most stunning architectural phenomenon.... From the Tower of Babel onward, the fantasies of builders have been vertical rather than horizontal.
As an architect, Sullivan was a visionary and the poet, given credit for establishing the pattern for the skyscraper. He based it on the structure of the column, with base, shaft, and pediment dividing the building into zones. This would include a public zone of banks and shops at ground level, a private zone of offices in the middle, and an architectural zone for the building’s “mechanical etcetera” to be housed at the top. Sullivan explained all this in an 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” setting forth his theory of the skyscraper. He seemed to envision it as an indigenous form that expressed the United States and its democracy.
“Form,” he famously said, “must ever follow function,” which is “the pervading law of all things.” The skyscraper is “an art that will live because it will be of the people, for the people, and by the people,” Sullivan, borrowing a phrase from another American, wrote. “What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building?” he asked. “It is lofty.... It must be tall, every inch of it tall.... It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing... it is the new, the unexpected.”
Sullivan and his partner, Chicago architect Dankmar Adler, were first known for the theaters they built, then for office towers. Their first major Chicago building was the Auditorium Building on South Michigan Avenue, completed in 1889. At 10 stories high with a 17-story tower, it was the tallest building in the city at the time and said to be spectacular, with room to seat more than 4,000 people for opera, theater, and Chicago symphony events, plus a hotel and office complex where Sullivan maintained his own offices for 29 years on the tower’s 17th floor. The distinguishing feature of the Auditorium Building was its innovative “raft” foundation of steel and concrete, designed to support heavy stone walls and counteract the soft clay soil of the lakefront location. Arches, a signature of Sullivan’s style, were another notable feature of the concert hall. Some of the building’s interior had been designed by the firm’s new employee, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was hired as a draughtsman in 1887. Sullivan became his mentor. Wright called him “Leiber Meister,” “Dear Master.”
President Grover Cleveland laid the cornerstone for the Auditorium Building in 1887, and in 1888, the Republican National Convention, nominating Benjamin Harrison as presidential candidate, was held in it before it was finished. In 1911, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his famous Bull Moose speech in the building. By 1975, the building was declared a National Landmark and is now occupied by Roosevelt University.
In all, the Adler and Sullivan architectural firm designed and built more than 180 structures in Chicago and elsewhere, many considered benchmarks of American architecture, including offices, residences, and even a few burial vaults, including a famous one for members of the Getty family. Of these, some 60 or one-third of the total were single or multiple residences; 33 (18%) were commercial buildings (mostly offices and stores); 27 (15%) were for manufacturing; 17 (9%) were theaters, music halls, and auditoriums; and 11 (6%) were warehouses. The remaining 31 (17%) included things like stables, mausoleums, railroad stations, and libraries.
All were distinguished by an overall simplicity, though Sullivan always applied ornament at crucial points. He was criticized for this by those who espoused modernism, saying he spoiled the purity of the austere modern style with ornamentation. But his designs were another signature of Sullivan’s style. He used Art Nouveau–influenced designs on ornamental panels to cover up the horizontals of steel beams on the facades of his buildings and on cornices at the top. Sullivan was just as concerned with visual interest in the interior, embellishing walls and floors with his organic designs of vines and ivy and Celtic Revival decorations (architect Philip Johnson would later scoff that Sullivan was a decorator, not an architect). But for Sullivan, form could still follow function as such ornamentation was meant to emphasize the shape of his buildings, which remained sharply defined. Sullivan said he wanted beauty instead of the “sterile pile” of an office building, which should instead have “the graciousness of... higher forms of sensibility and culture” and reflect “a higher life.”
Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan were well suited to each other as partners, despite an eight-year difference in age. Adler was older and more conservative, an engineer who understood construction and who was well connected in the city. Sullivan was creative, interested in innovative solutions to architectural problems, and something of a loner. During an economic depression, Adler dissolved their partnership in 1895 and Sullivan was suddenly on his own. He was not able to generate the same level of commissions and his architectural business gradually declined. Together however, they had designed and built some memorable structures, including the Chicago Stock Exchange building in 1893 (since demolished, though the Trading Floor was preserved and moved to the Art Institute of Chicago). Sullivan designed the firm’s Transportation Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893–1894 as an example of what modern architecture could look like and received international accolades. With its arched “Golden Door,” it spoke volumes to the more conventional classical designs of the other exhibition buildings, those “quoting from other lands and other times,” as Sullivan put it.
The development of steel construction in the 19th century had completely changed the engineering and architectural structure of commercial buildings. They no longer had to depend on load-bearing walls but could ascend higher vertically and more gracefully. A building’s ceilings, floors, and walls could be suspended from a steel frame, reducing the thickness of walls and allowing larger windows and more floor space. The facade could be completed from any point, rather than built slowly up from the bottom to support the walls. Steel had been discovered as long ago as the 11th century AD in China when iron, heated and hardened with carbon, then rapidly chilled, was transformed into an alloy of much harder metal that could still be molded and shaped. By 1855, an Englishman, Henry Bessemer, had invented and patented a process to mass-produce steel from molten pig iron. Steel mills sprang up in the United States, most notably those of Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, to mass-produce the steel that became essential to the United States on the move as a major economic power in the world.
The strength and lighter weight of steel made it an important component of building. The first tall building to be constructed with a steel frame was in Chicago, designed by engineer William LeBaron Jenney, who, not incidentally, had given Louis Sullivan his first job. The building was the Home Insurance Building of 1884–1885, a stolid-looking 10-story Romanesque structure that mimicked load-bearing facades but was actually supported by a skeleton of steel columns, weighing only a third of what heavy stone construction would weigh. It borrowed some of its exterior features and shape from another building, the Marshall Field Wholesale Warehouse, designed in 1887 by renowned Chicago architect H. H. Richardson.
Perhaps Chicago was destined to be the birthplace of space-saving skyscrapers. The narrow confines of its downtown area, next to Lake Michigan, made vertical construction a necessity, and Chicago’s own sense of itself as a pioneering American city of the frontier gave inspiration to architects to build ever more innovatively. Initially, however, some of Sullivan’s most distinctive buildings were constructed elsewhere, including the Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894) and the Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1890). The Guaranty Building was the first example of what would become Sullivan’s characteristic architecture. Simple in form, the building speaks of its function as an office building, straightforward and solid with nine floors of windows and a red terracotta surface expressing its skeleton of steel and the cellular design of its interior. The entrance to the building was crowned with an arch.
The Wainwright Building, built for a St. Louis brewer, was a 10-story-high steel frame structure that Frank Lloyd Wright, in his 1931 essay, “The Tyranny of the Skyscraper,” called “the very first human expression of a tall steel office-building as Architecture.” The building had the three-part structure Sullivan espoused and again was surfaced in terracotta with strong vertical lines of brick on the facade emphasizing its tallness. Ornamented horizontal spandrels were inserted to separate out the floors. Thus Sullivan followed the verticals and horizontals of the interior steel frame to knit together the facade of the building. At the top, an imposing frieze of Sullivan’s geometric and organic designs is punctuated with bull’s-eye windows.
Sullivan cited the Wainwright Building in his 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” which he included in his 1918 book, Kindergarten Chats. He would go on to do similar buildings in Chicago including most famously the Carson Pirie Scott department store building at number 1 State Street. It was built in 1899 and is considered a classic example of Sullivan’s skyscraper style, with its ground-level “sidewalk showcase” of windows, its elaborate ornamentation, 12 floors of steel frame, and, this time, a white terracotta facade. Sullivan’s “Chicago windows,” which allowed plentiful light into his buildings increased their desirability, as did the expansive ground floor show windows in the Carson building, which gave pedestrians such full views of the merchandise within.
Surrounding the sidewalk windows were elaborate cast-iron decorations, tendrils, and leaves designed by Sullivan’s main assistant, George Grant Elmslie, giving it a festive air. Sullivan’s own initials are over the entrance, surrounded with lavish design. As one biographer, Willard Connely, has said, “To cross such a threshold... confirmed not one’s interest in vulgar commerce, but one’s devotion to art.” The Carson Pirie Scott building was the last of Sullivan’s commercial skyscrapers. It was a department store for 108 years and, though now empty and under renovation, remains a major Chicago landmark. A similar building of white terracotta, the only one by Sullivan in New York City, the Bayard Building, can be seen on Bleecker Street. A 12-story office building, it displays his characteristic ornamentation and vertical and horizontal emphasis on the facade.
After the partnership with Adler dissolved, Sullivan continued to design buildings and to write about his architectural theories, but commissions were few and far between. He was married but separated from his wife, Mary Azona Hattabaugh. They had no children. Sullivan’s life and career were essentially in decline for the last 20 years of his existence, though his reputation as an innovative architect remained.
Louis Henry Sullivan had been born on September 3, 1856, in Boston, Massachusetts, the second son of newly immigrant parents, Patrick Sullivan, a native of Ireland, and his Swiss wife, Andrienne List. He grew up in an extended family with his parents, aunt, and uncle, and spent summers on his grandparents’ farm in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The natural world of the farm and the urban world of the city and its architecture were to be major influences on him.
He apparently had decided by the age of 11 to be an architect and, while a student at English High School in Boston, had the opportunity to enroll at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a special student. He left after a year and in 1873 briefly took a job with Philadelphia architect Frank Furness before following his parents to Chicago, the city where he would make his mark as an architect. He found work with architect William LeBaron Jenney, then spent several months in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Returning to Chicago, he worked for architects Johnston & Edelman, then for Dankmar Adler, who eventually made him a partner.
After his triumph with the Carson Pirie Scott building, Sullivan designed fewer and fewer buildings, though the series of eight banks he designed and built in Midwestern small towns are considered jewel boxes and are still standing. In later life, he turned to writing and published two books that set forth his theories of architecture, emphasizing that architects should study nature to learn the secrets of structure and form. His pupil Frank Lloyd Wright meanwhile was promoting his own idea of organic form and an indigenous style of American architecture. These ideas owed much to those of Sullivan and became the basis for what would later be called the Prairie School of architecture in the early 20th century.
But by the end of his life, Sullivan was broke and living alone in a Chicago hotel, supported with funds from Wright and other friends. He died of kidney failure and heart disease on April 14, 1924, his funeral paid for by Wright and others. He was buried next to his parents in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, where a simple gravestone marks the spot, not far from the grander monuments he had designed for rich clients long ago. Sullivan’s insistence on ornamenting his structurally modern buildings with elaborate design has clouded his legacy as a modernist, yet he remains undeniably the man who created the skyscraper style and who gave the modern architectural world its credo: “Form ever follows function.”
Connely, Willard. Louis Sullivan As He Lived. New York: Horizon Press, 1960.
Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.
Sullivan, Louis Henry. Architect biography. http://architect.architecture.sk/louis-henry-sullivan-architect/louis-henry-sullivan-architect.php
Sullivan, Louis H. The Autobiography of an Idea. New York: Dover, 2009.
Sullivan, Louis H. Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings. New York: Dover, 1918.
Sullivan, Louis H. “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Lippincott’s. March, 1896.