Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 276

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 276


This is the grave of Louis Sullivan.

Born in 1856 in Boston to Swiss and Irish immigrants, Sullivan went to MIT for one year, figured he didn’t need school, and went straight into architecture. He worked for Frank Furness for a couple of years in Philadelphia. When the Panic of 1873 dried up the work for architects, Furness had to lay off Sullivan. So he went to Chicago to help rebuild that city after the Great Fire. He stayed there for about a year, went to Paris to study for awhile at the √ącole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then returned to Chicago. By 1880, this still very young man was already reaching the heights of his profession. Adler and Sullivan (his partner was Dankmar Adler) started by building theaters across the nation, which was a centerpiece of any town’s architecture in the Gilded Age. By 1890, it was starting to move into office buildings, building many of the nation’s early skyscrapers.

Sullivan popularized the term “form follows function” and helped create the world of modernist architecture. He helped construct the famous White City for Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

But Sullivan was also a very difficult person and he was an alcoholic. He was a genius, but as it turned out, not really one who could operate on his own. He really needed Adler. Sullivan and Daniel Burnham really hated each other, and while Sullivan was a lot more influential internationally, Burnham was more in touch with the styles popular in the United States. The Panic of 1893 destroyed the architecture market again. In 1894, Adler and Sullivan dissolved their partnership. And Sullivan never worked significantly again. Adler was who brought in the clients and handled the finances. Sullivan was not really up to that. He wasn’t even 40 years old when his career cratered. He grew poor, alone, and drunk. He got some commissions to build small-town banks, but that’s really about it. He wrote a bit of architectural criticism, usually starkly negative. It also seems that Ayn Rand based the character of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead on Sullivan, so that’s sure as hell not going in his favor, although I guess it’s not his fault. Anyway, let’s look at some of Sullivan’s buildings:

Prudential Building, also known as the Guaranty Building, Buffalo, New York, 1894

Wainwright Tomb, St. Louis

A portion of the western elevation of National Farmer’s Bank, Owatonna, Minnesota, 1908

Entrance from the 1893 Chicago Stock Exchange building, today at the Art Institute of Chicago

Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1890

I’m no architectural genius or anything, as I’ve stated before. But personally, I like Sullivan’s buildings as a combination of Gilded Age design with a new sense of usefulness and grace that transcended the rococo work so typical of that era.

Sullivan died in 1924 in a Chicago hotel room. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to feature more architects, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Lloyd Wright is at Tallesin West outside of Phoenix while Henry Hobson Richardson is in Brookline, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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