About Louis Sullivan, Architect

America's First Modern Architect (1856-1924)

Black and white photo of bearded Louis Sullivan, dressed in white pants, shirt, and hat, bow tie, standing and leaning on a tree
Architect Louis Sullivan. Bettmann Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Louis Henri Sullivan (born September 3, 1856) is widely considered America's first truly modern architect. Although born in Boston, Massachusetts, Sullivan is best known as a major player in what is known as the Chicago School and the birth of the modern skyscraper. He was an architect based in Chicago, Illinois, yet what many consider Sullivan's most famous building is located in St. Louis, Missouri — the 1891 Wainwright Building, one of America's most historic high-rise buildings. 

Fast Facts: Louis Sullivan

  • Born: September 3, 1856 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Died: April 14, 1924 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Occupation: Architect
  • Known for: Wainwright Building, 1891, in St. Louis, MO and his influential 1896 essay "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." Louis is associated with the Art Nouveau movement and the Chicago School; he partnered with Dankmar Adler to form Adler and Sullivan, and he had a major influence on the career of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
  • Famous Quote: "Form follows function."
  • Fun Fact: The tripartite design of skyscrapers is known as Sullivanesque Style

Instead of imitating historic styles, Sullivan created original forms and details. The ornamentation he designed for his big, boxy skyscrapers is often associated with the swirling, natural forms of the Art Nouveau movement. Older architectural styles were designed for buildings that were wide, but Sullivan was able to create aesthetic unity in buildings that were tall, concepts articulated in his most famous essay The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.

"Form Follows Function"

Louis Sullivan believed that the exterior of a tall office building should reflect its interior functions. Ornamentation, where it was used, must be derived from nature, instead of from the Classical Greek and Roman architectural forms. New architecture demanded new traditions, as he reasoned in his most famous essay:

" It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law." — 1896

The meaning of "form follows function" continues to be discussed and debated even today. Sullivanesque Style has come to be known as the tripartite design for tall buildings — three definitive exterior patterns for the three functions of a multiple-use skyscraper, with offices rising from commercial space and topped with the ventilating functions of attic space. A quick look at any tall building built during this time, from about 1890 to 1930, and you'll see Sullivan's influence on American architecture.

Early Years

The son of European immigrants, Sullivan grew up in an eventful time in American history. Although he was a very young child during the American Civil War, Sullivan was an impressionable 15-years-old when the Great Fire of 1871 burned down most of Chicago. At age 16 he began to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, near his home in Boston, but before completing his studies, he began his trek westward. He first got a job in 1873 Philadelphia with a decorated Civil War officer, the architect Frank Furness. Shortly thereafter, Sullivan was in Chicago, a draftsman for William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907), an architect who was devising new ways to construct fire-resistant, tall buildings framed with a new material called steel.

Still a teenager when working for Jenney, Louis Sullivan was encouraged to spend a year at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris before beginning to practice architecture. After a year in France, Sullivan returned to Chicago in 1879, still a very young man, and began his long relationship with his future business partner, Dankmar Adler. The firm of Adler and Sullivan is one of the most important partnerships in American architectural history.

Adler & Sullivan

Louis Sullivan partnered with engineer Dankmar Adler (1844-1900) from approximately 1881 until 1895. It is widely believed that Adler oversaw business and construction aspects of each project while Sullivan's focus was on architectural design. Along with a young draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright, the team realized many architecturally significant buildings. The firm's first real success was the 1889 Auditorium Building in Chicago, a massive multi-use opera house whose exterior design was influenced by the Romanesque Revival work of architect H. H. Richardson and whose interiors were largely the work of Sullivan's young draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright.

white stone multi-story box of a fortress building on the corner of an urban area
Auditorium Building, Chicago, Illinois, 1889. Angelo Hornak/Getty Images (cropped)

It was in St. Louis, Missouri, however, where the tall building gained its own exterior design, a style that became known as Sullivanesque. In the 1891 Wainwright Building, one of America's most historic skyscrapers, Sullivan extended the structural height with exterior visual demarcations using a three-part system of composition — the lower floors devoted to selling merchandise should look different from the offices on the middle floors, and the top attic floors should be set apart by their unique interior functions. This is to say that the "form" on the outside of a tall building should change as the "function" of what goes on inside a building changes. Professor Paul E. Sprague calls Sullivan "the first architect anywhere to give aesthetic unity to the tall building."

Building on the firm's successes, the Chicago Stock Exchange building in 1894 and the 1896 Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York soon followed.

After Wright went on his own in 1893 and after Adler's death in 1900, Sullivan was left to his own devices and is well-known today for a series of banks he designed in the midwest — the 1908 National Farmers' Bank (Sullivan's "Arch") in Owatonna, Minnesota; the 1914 Merchants' National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa; and the 1918 People's Federal Savings & Loan in Sidney, Ohio. Residential architecture like the 1910 Bradley House in Wisconsin blurs the design line between Sullivan and his protege Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright and Sullivan

Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Adler & Sullivan from about 1887 to 1893. After the firm's success with the Auditorium building, Wright played a larger role in the smaller, residential business. This is where Wright learned architecture. Adler & Sullivan was the firm where the famous Prairie Style house was developed. The best-known mingling of architectural minds can be found in the 1890 Charnley-Norwood House, a vacation cottage in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Built for Sullivan's friend, Chicago lumber entrepreneur James Charnley, it was designed by both Sullivan and Wright. With that success, Charnley asked the pair to design his Chicago residence, today known as the Charnley-Persky house. The 1892 James Charnley house in Chicago is a grand extension of what began in Mississippi — grand masonry subtly adorned, unlike the fancy French, Châteauesque style Biltmore Estate that Gilded Age architect Richard Morris Hunt was building at the time. Sullivan and Wright were inventing a new type of residence, the modern American home.

"Louis Sullivan gave America the skyscraper as an organic modern work of art," Wright has said. "While America's architects were stumbling at its height, piling one thing on top of another, foolishly denying it, Louis Sullivan seized its height as its characteristic feature and made it sing; a new thing under the sun!"

facade of grey stone low-rise building with faux columns
Van Allen Building, Designed by Louis H. Sullivan, 1913, Clinton, Iowa. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

Sullivan's designs often used masonry walls with terra cotta designs. Intertwining vines and leaves combined with crisp geometric shapes, as displayed in the terra cotta detailing of the Guaranty Building. This Sullivanesque style was imitated by other architects, and Sullivan's later work formed the foundation for many of the ideas of his student, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sullivan's personal life unraveled as he got older. As Wright's stardom ascended, Sullivan's notoriety declined, and he died virtually penniless and alone on April 14, 1924 in Chicago.

"One of the world's greatest architects," said Wright, "he gave us again the ideal of a great architecture that informed all the great architectures of the world."

Sources

  • "Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940)," Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 88
  • "Adler and Sullivan" by Paul E. Sprague, Master Builders, Diane Maddex, ed., Preservation Press, Wiley, 1985, p. 106
  • Additional Photo Credits: Terra Cotta Detail, Lonely Planet/Getty Images; Guaranty Building, Reading Tom on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0); Biltmore Estate, George Rose/Getty Images (cropped)