Louis Sullivan Page
The links on this site were updated during the fall of 2000

The Life of Louis Sullivan

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Louis Henri Sullivan was born in Boston on September 3, 1856. He started his architectural schooling at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology. After this, he worked under the architects Frank Furness (in Philadelphia) and William LeBaron Jenney (in Chicago). He then concluded his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Upon returning, he formed the firm Alder and Sullivan in Chicago in 1881. Louis Sullivan was the design partner, while Dankmar Adler was the engineer. Sullivan was in the right place at the right time: the booming metropolis of Chicago needed rebuilding after the Chicago Fire of 1871. The buildings produced by Alder and Sullivan were at the leading edge of American architecture and skyscraper design, and were known for their gorgeous and tasteful ornamentation. Some of the notable buildings produced during this period include the Auditorium Building (1886-89) in Chicago (currently home of the popular Auditorium Theatre performing arts venue, and Roosevelt College). The tower on this building housed the offices of Adler and Sullivan; the Wainwright Building (1890-91) in St. Louis; the Stock Exchange Building (1893-94) in Chicago, and the Guaranty (now Prudential) Building (1894-95) in Buffalo, N.Y.

Sullivan designed with the principles of reconciling the world of nature with science and technology. Form ever follows function was his famous dictum (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe later said "form IS function"). His buildings were detailed with lush, yet tastefully subdued organic ornamentation. His attempt to balance ornamentation into the whole of building design inspired a generation of American and European architects; the idea that ornamentation be integral to the building itself, rather than merely applied..

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) joined the firm in 1888, after working for a brief period for J. Lyman Silsbee, also in Chicago. Sullivan provided a loan in 1889 so Wright could start building what is now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. Wright worked for Sullivan for several years, becoming the "pencil in Sullivan's hand" (as Wright put it). He became chief draftsman for Sullivan, and eventually was responsible for all of the firm's residential contracts (including the Charnley house completed in 1892). Louis Sullivan even asked Wright to design his own (Sullivan's) house. Wright was forced to leave in 1893 after moonlighting houses under his own name while working for Adler and Sullivan; a betrayal of trust (the Harlan house, built in 1892, was the one that caused the rift). "This bad end to a glorious relationship," Wright reflected, "has been a dark shadow to stay with me the days of my life.". While Wright was remorseful of these circumstances, and was usually very positive and enthusiastic about Sullivan and the role Sullivan had in shaping him as an architect, he was to have no contact with Sullivan for 20 years. The 6 years at starting out at Alder and Sullivan provided Frank Lloyd Wright an excellent foundation for his own advancement of architecture.

After Wright was fired, George Grant Elmslie (1869-1952) became the chief draftsman at Adler and Sullivan. He stayed in this position until 1909, when the declining fortunes of the firm caused him to leave to start his own partnership with William Gray Purcell. Elmslie had a major role in many of the Sullivan designs produced during this period.

The tide of architecture turned against Sullivan around the time of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, during which the leading edge Chicago School-style design was rejected for a traditional neoclassical style. Sullivan's contribution, the Transportation Building, appears to defy the design requirements for the exposition nonetheless (compared to more typical buildings at the exposition, which included the building that now houses the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry). Sullivan predicted that the Exposition would set architecture back 50 years. This return to neoclassicism had liittle place for the design principles of Sullivan, and Sullivan himself was unwilling to follow this trend.

Louis Sullivan ended his partnership with Dankmar Alder in 1895, and his practice turned from skyscrapers (such as his last Chicago design, the Carson, Pirie, Scott store in Chicago in 1899) and very large buildings in the big midwestern cities to small buildings in small towns. Notable works in this phase of his career are the stunning Merchants' National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa (1914) and National Farmer's Bank (1908) in Owatanna, Minnesota.

Also in this later phase of his career, Sullivan wrote books on what came to be called organic architecture. Sullivan insisted that architecture had to embody the human connection with nature and to democracy, while still accepting the most modern functional needs and materials. He railed against the prevailing architectural practitioners for failing to take these principles into account. The book titles were Kindergarten Chats and Autobiography of an Idea

Although Frank Lloyd Wright had reconciled with Sullivan at the end of Sullivan's life, Sullivan died in obscurity and poverty in a hotel room in Chicago in 1924. . "Sullivan was elated with the evolution of Wright's work and saw him as a natural successor, the keeper of the sacred flame of architecture" (Donald Hoppen, The Seven Ages of Frank Lloyd Wright)

Louis Sullivan Building Guide

The following is an index of some of web pages, images, and other information on Sullivan buildings, grouped by building.

Auditorium Building, Chicago, Illinois, 1886-89

Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1890-1891

Transportation Building (a temporary structure, part of the Columbian Exposition), Chicago, Illinois, 1893

Stock Exchange Building, Chicago, Illinois, 1893.
This building has been demolished, but a Sullivan-designed elevator enclosure grille is on display at the
Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University. The logo on the web site is from the grille.

Schiller Building

Farmers and Merchants Union Bank, Columbus, Wisconsin.

Guaranty Building, Buffalo, New York, 1894-1985

Carson, Pirie, Scott, Chicago, Illinois, 1899

National Farmers' Bank Owatonna, Minnesota, 1908

Purdue State Bank, Lafayette, Indiana, 1914

Merchants' Bank, Grinnell, Iowa, 1914

"Louis Sullivan Fraternity House", Madison, Wisconsin

Other Louis Sullivan Pages

The following are other general-interest Sullivan pages (in addition to the building-specific links shown above)

Expired Links

The following links are to Sullivan-related sites that are no longer available. They are presented here in case they become available again.

General-Interest Louis Sullivan Books

Building-specific books are listed with the buildings.

The Fine Print

This page is part of the Broadacre All-Wright Site, a site dedicated to the life and works of Frank Lloyd Wright

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