Louis Sullivan

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Known as the father of the skyscraper, Sullivan was a pioneer in the artful design of the tall building and in the development of distinctly American architecture.

Early Life

Louis Henry Sullivan was born September 3, 1856, in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother, né Adrienne List, was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to a Swiss mother and a German father. Her family emigrated to Boston in 1851, where she met the man who was to become Louis’ father, an Irish immigrant dancing master named Patrick Sullivan. During his infancy, Louis and his parents shared a house with his mother’s family, in part from financial necessity. Louis formed a strong attachment to his grandparents, particularly to his grandfather, a former teacher.

When the two families separated in 1861, the Sullivans took up residence briefly at the seaside in Folly Cove, Massachusetts. There, Sullivan developed a great love of the sea that would remain with him into maturity. Louis was reluctant to leave the life of rambling on the rocky coast to start school in Boston in 1862, and there is some evidence that it was his strong rebellion against first grade at the Brimmer School which prompted his parents to send him to live again with his grandparents, who had since moved to the country themselves. There, Louis continued to find classroom learning tedious but enjoyed wandering the countryside and learning from his grandfather, who was tolerant of his questions and of absenteeism from school.

Rebelliousness toward formal education, faith in his own interests and instincts, and a conviction that learning was better accomplished through observation of nature and close interaction with a master would characterize the rest of Sullivan’s educational career. By the age of twelve, he was already so fixed in his ambition to become an architect that he chose not to accompany his parents when they moved to Chicago, but rather to live with his grandparents near Boston, where he believed he could get a superior education. Without completing high school, he gained admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at sixteen, but within the year became disillusioned with the rigidity and classicism of the architecture program there and sought more practical training, working for the Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. Sullivan’s later work showed the influence of both Furness, who was noted for his ability to subsume detail into an overall composition, and the Philadelphia Functionalists, architects of commercial buildings who emphasized structure and height; nevertheless, Sullivan moved on quickly to Chicago, where he worked in the office of another prominent architectural master of the day, William Le Baron Jenney.

In 1874, Sullivan made another, characteristically brief, attempt to gain academic training in architecture. Against stiff competition, he won admission to the prestigious École des Beaux Arts in Paris, only to remain enrolled for less than a year. Despite its brevity, this experience shaped his method of working throughout his life; it was at the École des Beaux Arts that Sullivan learned the “esquisse,” or sketch, method of design, whereby the architect, after carefully considering a problem, prepares a rapid drawing which becomes the fixed basis for all future work on the project. Sullivan used this technique throughout his career, on one occasion completing the initial sketch for one of his most famous works, the Wainwright Building, in less than three minutes.

Life’s Work

The period of Sullivan’s most important contributions to American architecture began in 1883 when he formed a partnership with the German-born Dankmar Adler, a structural engineer. Sullivan had begun collaborating with Adler on a free-lance basis after his return to Chicago in 1875. Only four years earlier, Chicago had been devastated by the great fire, so there was much architectural work to be had. The partners concurred in their preference for designing public buildings, and as the men gained fame, these became an ever-increasing proportion of their commissions, ultimately adding up to at least two-thirds of their completed works.

Adler, who had both technical genius and the ability to work with clients, was the perfect complement to the artistic and sometimes temperamental Sullivan. The most illustrious product of their collaboration was the massive Auditorium Building, erected between 1886 and 1890 at a cost of three million dollars to house the Chicago Opera Festival. The building took up an entire city block and rose to seventeen stories in a massive tower. When the...

(The entire section is 1907 words.)