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Louis Sullivan Society




Sullivan, Louis Henri (1856-1924), American architect, whose brilliant early designs for steel-frame skyscraper construction led to the emergence of the skyscraper as the distinctive American building type. Through his own work, especially his commercial structures, and as the founder of what is now known as the Chicago School of architects, he exerted an enormous influence on 20th-century American architecture. His most famous pupil was the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who acknowledged Sullivan as his master.


The son of a dancing teacher, Sullivan was born in Boston on September 3, 1856. His parents moved to Chicago in 1872, but Sullivan stayed behind to study for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architectural program -- the first in the nation.


Following these studies, he spent a year in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts and in the office of a French architect. Visiting  Rome, Renaissance art sent Sullivan's imagination soaring, and the young traveler decided he should emulate Michelangelo's spirit of creation rather than imitate the styles of earlier periods


Considered to be one of America's most influential architects, Louis Henri Sullivan initially worked for renowned Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. He came to Chicago in 1873, where he worked briefly for William LeBaron Jenney, the so-called "father of the skyscraper."


In Chicago he also became a draftsman for John Edelman, whose luxuriant organic ornamental designs had a significant influence on Sullivan. In 1879, Sullivan joined the firm of Dankmar Adler (1844-1900), one of the city's most outstanding structural engineers.


Their 15-year architectural partnership produced some of the most important--and influential--structures in the history of American architecture. By boldly rejecting the accepted practice of buildings based on historic design precedents, Adler & Sullivan created original designs that evolved from the functional requirements of each project, as well as the materials and technologies of the time. In doing so, Sullivan created a distinctive style of ornament that embraced natural forms.


Initially, the firm's work was limited to residences and small commercial buildings, such as the Ryerson and Troescher (both demolished), Eliel House, Jewelers' Building, and Kaufmann Store and Flats. However, in the late-1880s and early-1890s, their work grew in scale, with such skyscrapers as the Stock Exchange and Schiller Theater (both demolished), the Auditorium, the Wainwright in St. Louis, Mo., and the Guaranty building in Buffalo, N.Y.


Though Adler and Sullivan’s projects were commercially driven, they succeeded in integrating function, commerce, architecture and ornamentation. The Auditorium Building, renowned for its ornamental interiors and Richardsonian immensity, was for a brief time the tallest and most expensive building in America. Its complex architectural scope included a 4,200 seat theater, a 400 room hotel, and 136 office and retail stores.


After the partners split in 1895, Sullivan designed the Carson Pirie Scott department store, the Gage Building, the Bayard Building in New York. Following the turn of the century, his work largely consisted of small banks, stores, and churches throughout the Midwest, including Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church and, his final design, the Krause Music Store both in Chicago.


Concerned with aesthetics as well as being a working architect, he expressed his ideas in lectures and writings, including the classic Autobiography of an Idea (1924, reprinted 1956). His famous axiom, “Form follows function,” became the touchstone for many in his profession. Sullivan, however, did not apply it literally. He meant that an architect should consider the purpose of the building as a starting point, not as a rigidly limiting stricture. He himself employed a rich vocabulary of ornament, even on his skyscrapers.


Louis Sullivan died in his sleep on April 14, 1924, in Chicago. Laid to rest in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago on April 16, 1924, his monument is located not far from the Ryerson and Getty tombs that he had designed over 30 years before.




Louis Henri Sullivan c. 1879

   Chicago Stock Exchange    

The Auditorium Building

Carson Pirie Scott

Guaranty Building

Bayard Building Detail


Louis Sullivan biography information from the City of Chicago's Commission on Chicago Landmarks website: www.CityofChicago.org, the Microsoft Encarta website: www.encarta.msn.com and PBS American Experience www.pbs.org.






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