Louis Henry Sullivan : architect biography

famous architect : Louis Henry Sullivan [page1] [page2] [page3]

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Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan

Louis Henry Sullivan

The remainder of Louis Henry Sullivan 's career was a long, sad story of decline, not in design ability or intellectual power, but in his ability to get clients. From 1895 until his last architectural job in 1922, Louis Henry Sullivan received some 56 commissions-2 per year on average-of which only 31 were executed. Only 3 were major works: the 1897-1898 Bayard-Condict Building in New York City, a 12-story loft structure, and 2 for the Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store (1898, 1902) in Chicago. The rest were mostly residences, small banks, factories, and shops. When the nation emerged from the depression in 1898 it seemed at first that Louis Henry Sullivan would also recover quite nicely, because between 1896 and 1899 Louis Henry Sullivan received 16 commissions, including 7 from Schlesinger & Mayer for alterations and new buildings. However, without that firm Louis Henry Sullivan would have had very little work. Never again after 1902 would Louis Henry Sullivan get more than 4 jobs in a single year or see to completion more than 2 a year. After 1899 Louis Henry Sullivan slowly sank into grinding poverty.

The many reasons for this are complexly interwoven. Although Louis Henry Sullivan was accomplished in structural and mechanical aspects of design-thanks to Adler's tutelage-Sullivan was perceived as an idealistic artist, unsuitable for unrarified jobs; but because Louis Henry Sullivan was nonetheless recognized as a commercial architect, few people approached him for houses. Louis Henry Sullivan was known for giving clients exactly what they wanted, that is, for providing eminently workable and practical programs, but Louis Henry Sullivan was also known for doing things only his way, in his style, no discussion allowed. Louis Henry Sullivan was a reasonably good businessman, but not in public relations. Unless Louis Henry Sullivan liked people, felt comfortable with them, and respected their cultural sophistication, Louis Henry Sullivan was abrupt and condescending, frightening potential customers away. Louis Henry Sullivan was also prone to fits of anger, to arrogance, and to conveying the impression of superiority. With very few exceptions, Louis Henry Sullivan preferred his own company to that of others. Louis Henry Sullivan had also alienated the architectural establishment, specifically the AIA, with a series of intemperate public statements around 1900 condemning not only the "mustiness" of the profession generally but also the "stupidity," indeed, the "criminality" of particular individuals and groups. When all these factors conspired to drive clients away, Louis Henry Sullivan turned to alcohol that, beginning as an effect, soon became a cause of client trepidation. Frustration at his declining status and with the conservatism of the profession combined to make Louis Henry Sullivan a very bitter man.

When Louis Henry Sullivan found work after 1900 and was willing to do it-he lost a number of commissions in his last years by provoking fights over totally irrelevant matters-he produced beautiful results. Best known after 1906 was his series of eight executed banks, including one remodeling, scattered across the Midwest in small cities and towns. The National Farmer's Bank (1906) in Owatonna, Minnesota, was a simple cube, 68 ft square by 40 ft high, in tapestry brick, punctuated by 38-ft-diameter semicircular stained-glass windows on two facades. The main banking room, with over 200 tints of color, was ringed by service and officers' areas, suggested on the exterior by small windows at eye level. Soft, diffused light saturated the building that conveyed two important images: a strongbox effect for the securing of valuables and an open, inviting feeling to reassure the agricultural clientele. The bank was such a huge success that the Architectural Record reported in 1912 that 25 strangers visited Owatonna each day just to see it.

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Louis Henry Sullivan - at vitruvio.ch

There followed smaller banks in Cedar Rapids and Grinnell, Iowa; Newark and Sidney, Ohio; Columbus, Wisconsin; Manistique, Michigan; and West Lafayette, Indiana, designed in 1914 for a mere $14,700, an indication of his much-reduced circumstances. All of the banks bore a strong family resemblance, but Louis Henry Sullivan never quite repeated the program, ornament, or form. Each was beautiful, workable, and highly acclaimed by critics; all but one are used today for their original purpose. Paying respect to the scale of the neighborhood, Louis Henry Sullivan nevertheless set new standards for community aesthetics; each one remains a "jewel box" in its prairie surroundings. The banks also addressed their social and philosophical milieu. Louis Henry Sullivan called them "democratic," examples of the indigenous U.S. architecture Louis Henry Sullivan had devoted his life to creating. Louis Henry Sullivan meant that they were literally and visually accessible to customers. Officers sat in the open, not hidden away in remote sanctuaries. The main entrance was as welcoming as the vault was available, directly in view when customers entered, reassuring them that their valuables were safe. The buildings suggested that farmer and banker might come together easily in business and neighborly dialogue, as their murals in several cases depicted. Sullivan 's banks were as important as his skyscrapers in his own work and in his contribution to the national architectural heritage.

In his last years, writing took up more of Sullivan 's time than ever. Specific subjects changed, but once Louis Henry Sullivan had solidified his thinking in the 1890s his essential message remained the same. Louis Henry Sullivan always returned to the importance of architects studying nature to learn the secrets of structure, form, and creativity. Louis Henry Sullivan insisted that architecture should be about social life and values in its time and place and not be based on historic styles. Buildings, Louis Henry Sullivan argued, were about specific ideas, not about the bare facts of structure alone. Louis Henry Sullivan believed that U.S. architecture should democratic in form and function, that is, it should endorse culturally agreed on customs, ideas, and feelings in familiar materials. Louis Henry Sullivan was probably the first U.S. architect to contend that architecture was fundamentally an expression of social life. His antihistoricism and his cultural interpretation of design were taken up by Frank Lloyd Wright among others of the next generation who gave them permanent place in the mainstream of U.S. design thinking.

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As his commissions dwindled away, Louis Henry Sullivan produced the three books for which Louis Henry Sullivan is remembered. Kindergarten Chats first appeared in 1901-1902 in an obscure Cleveland journal. Constructed as a dialogue between an architectural master and his naive student, the Chats comprise some of Sullivan 's most penetrating and accessible thinking on design and social issues. His memoirs, The Autobiography of an Idea, and his monograph, A System of Architectural Ornament, were published in 1924 at the time of his death. The Autobiography is an idiosyncratic example of its genre because it covered Sullivan 's life only to 1893. Its real purpose was to chronicle the evolution of his quite private architectural inspiration and emotional development. A System is a series of 19 ornament plates with commentary explaining how Louis Henry Sullivan derived his exquisite patterns through geometric manipulation of organic forms. (A fourth book, Democracy: A Man-Search, was published posthumously in 1961, as was Kindergarten Chats in book form, the first time in 1934.) The Autobiography and A System were Louis Sullivan 's last major works.

The few years before his death were painful ones indeed. Deeply in debt, by 1909 Louis Henry Sullivan auctioned off his household goods and most of his architectural library in December. His wife of 10 years, Mary Azona Hattabaugh, left him a few days later. In 1910 Louis Henry Sullivan sold the beloved vacation home Louis Henry Sullivan had built for himself in 1890 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Unable to meet his club and organizational dues, Louis Henry Sullivan was dropped from their rolls. By 1918 Louis Henry Sullivan could no longer pay his rent, and with his former staff of 50 reduced to 1 or 2 draftsmen, gave up his Auditorium Tower office for much smaller rooms on Chicago's far South Side. Sometimes Louis Henry Sullivan had no office at all. Many of his days were spent atop the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue where the Cliff Dwellers Club let him have a writing desk for free.

Louis Henry Sullivan survived his last years largely on the handouts of friends. Architects Sidney K. Adler (Dankmar's son). Max Dunning, George Nimmons, and Frank Lloyd Wright, plus associates at the American and Northwestern Terra Cotta companies, paid his bills, loaned him money, and often bought his meals. When Louis Henry Sullivan died on April 14, 1924, of kidney disease and inflammation of the cardiac muscles, they covered his funeral expenses and cleared up his financial obligations. The $189 in his bank account, which had also come from them, was almost all Louis Henry Sullivan owned.

Louis Henry Sullivan was buried on April 16, 1924, next to his father, Patrick, and his mother, Andrienne, in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery. In its obituary, The New York Times called him the "dean of American architects", and in short order the pages of the architectural magazines were filled with praise of his greatness. But Louis Henry Sullivan had died in poverty, in a cheap South Side hotel room, without an architectural job for his last two years.

Later on Louis Henry Sullivan would be remembered as the man who insisted that nature was the best design guide, who preached "progress before precedent," who argued that architecture was basically a social act, who first brought a coherent aesthetic system to the skyscraper, whose ornament was perhaps the finest ever produced in the United States, who built the first modern banks, who trained Frank Lloyd Wright, who influenced generations of progressive architects, and who was the first thoroughgoing innovator in U.S. architectural history.


1. The Daily Inter-Ocean, 13 (August 12, 1882).
2. The American Architect and Building News 22, 299-300 (Dec. 24, 1887).
3. The Real Estate and Building Journal 27, 348 (July 18,1885).
4. Ibid., p. 348.
5. The American Architect and Building News 26, 299 (Dec. 28, 1889).
6. M. Schuyler, "Architecture in Chicago," The Architectural Record Great American Architects Series (2), 48 (Dec. 1895) (Special Issue).
7. Frank Lloyd Wright, "Louis Henry Sullivan-His Work," The Architectural Record 56, 29 (July 1924).
8. The Architectural Record 57, 290 (April 1925).
9. Louis Henry Sullivan, 'The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," Lippincotfs 57, 403-409 (March 1896).
10. Louis Henry Sullivan, "What is the Just Subordination, in Architectural Design, of Detail to Mass?" The Inland Architect and News Record 9, 52 (April 1887).
11. Louis Henry Sullivan, 'The High Building Question," The Graphic 5, 405 (Dec. 19, 1891).
12. Ref. 6, p. 24.
13. Louis Henry Sullivan, "Kindergarten Chats," Interstate Architect and Builder 1-2, (Feb. 1901-Feb. 1902).
14. Louis Henry Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea. ALA Press, New York, 1924.
15. Louis Henry Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament, AIA Press, New York, 1924.
16. Louis Henry Sullivan, Democracy: A Man-Search, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Mich., 1961.
17. Louis Henry Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, Scarab Fraternity Press, Lawrence, Kansas, 1934.
18. "Louis Henry Sullivan," The New York Times, 23 (April 16, 1924).

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