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Master of the Skyscraper

By David van Zanten | HUMANITIES, March/April 2002 | Volume 23, Number 2

A building constructed in St. Louis at the end of the nineteenth century made Louis Sullivan the master of skyscraper design.

It was a ten-story box, as all rental “skyscrapers” were at the time, but it showed its bones as no office building had before. Designed in collaboration with Dankmar Adler, it was named the Wainwright Building.

Sullivan’s tour de force was to make the exterior transparent of the interior functions. He wrote about this innovation in an 1896 article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” in which he gave modern architecture its famous dictum: “Form ever follows function.”

The Wainwright Building’s first floor was intended to house shops, which required wide openings on the street. The second floor would have public offices--ticket agencies, banks--with direct access to the first floor by stairs. Above the second floor would soar a stack of floors with identical windows. Sullivan called each office “a cell in a honeycomb . . . nothing more.” A closed floor screening the water tanks and the building’s machinery would crown the top.

Part of Sullivan’s accomplishment with the Wainwright Building is its extraordinary ornament. Underlining the pattern of openings, the Wainwright spandrels “read out” to emphasize the colonnade across the façade. The ornament shapes the supporting piers into columns by providing bases and capitals; it supplies an overscaled, terminating frieze across the top, and it identifies the door among the shop fronts on the first floor. The terra-cotta cornice is overscaled and incised to read from the street ten stories below and is visible in the shadow of Sullivan’s abrupt box-lid cornice.

And finally, the Wainwright Building is supported by a thin steel skeleton--called “Chicago” or “skyscraper” construction--whose even grid pattern is evident in the equally spaced piers marking the broad window fields of the exterior. The column-like piers stretch vertically, closely spaced to draw the eye upward. This communicates what Sullivan considered the final distinguishing characteristic of a building: its verticality. He once declared, “It must be in every inch a proud and soaring thing.”

The path Sullivan took to architecture was peripatetic. He was a product of Boston’s secondary schools, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied for a year in the atelier of Emile Vaudremer. Afterward he worked in Chicago, where his parents had moved, with another young draftsman, John Edelmann. It was Edelmann who put him in touch with an up-and-coming engineer named Dankmar Adler.

The two formed the firm of Adler & Sullivan in 1883. Within three years, they had won the commission to build the ten-story Auditorium Building in Chicago. It brought the firm fame and professional success; the boom was on, with skyscrapers emerging from the flat Midwest landscape and the World’s Columbian Exposition blossoming along the Chicago lakefront.

Sullivan was one of the great success stories of the moment. He had work, recognition, and--with the Auditorium interiors and the Wainwright Building--a signature style of his own. The firm established its office on the top floor of the sixteen-story Auditorium tower in a panoramic command post over what many thought would soon be the capital of the world. The firm’s chief draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, was the most brilliant designer in the city.

A few short years later, however, architectural work had evaporated with an economic depression. Wright and Sullivan parted ways; the partnership with Adler dissolved.

A few large commissions came Sullivan’s way--the Bayard Building in New York, the Gage Building façade on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and the Carson Pirie Scott Store in Chicago--but this work proved his swan song. No important commissions followed the Carson Pirie Scott Store. When the department store decided to enlarge the building in 1906, it hired one of Sullivan’s competitors, Daniel H. Burnham, to design it.

His work was now made up of smaller projects in less traveled places: the Henry Babson House in Riverside, Illinois, the National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, the John D. Van Allen & Son Store in Clinton, Iowa. They were handsome projects, but not the Loop skyscrapers he had been accustomed to.

Sullivan became a strange, great, solitary figure alone in his spreading office at the top of the Auditorium tower, the subject of distant admiration and recrimination, but not of employment. He would receive visitors, talk, and read them parts of his lengthy ruminations, Democracy: A Man Search. In 1913 a room in the annual Chicago Architectural Club exhibition at the Art Institute was given over to a retrospective of his work as if, at fifty-seven, he were already a figure from the past.

About the Author

Funding Information

This article is adapted from Sullivan's City © 2000 by David Van Zanten, with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Van Zanten received an NEH fellowship for his book.