Biography of Louis Sullivan

America's First Modern Architect (1856-1924)

Black and white photo of bearded Louis Sullivan leaning on a tree
Architect Louis Sullivan. Photo from 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, although famous as an architect in Chicago, Illinois, Sullivan's most famous building is the Wainwright building (1891) in St. Louis, Missouri, one of America's most historic high-rise buildings.

  Instead of imitating historic styles, Sullivan created original forms and details. 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.

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's 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 (1867-1959), 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.

It was in St. Louis, Missouri, however, where the tall building gained its own exterior design. In the1891 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 reflect the "function" of what goes on inside a building. 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. This is 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, Châteauesque style Biltmore Estate Richard Morris Hunt was building at the time. Sullivan and Wright were inventing a new type of residence, a modern resident.

"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!"

Sullivan's designs often used masonry walls with terra cotta designs. Intertwining vines and leaves combined with crisp geometric shapes. This Sullivanesque style was imitated by other architects, and his later work formed the foundation for 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."

Most Famous Quote:

Louis Sullivan believed that the exterior of an office building should reflect its its interior functions. Ornament, where it was used, must be derived from Nature, instead of from classical architecture of the past. The work of Louis Sullivan is often associated with the Art Nouveau movement.

" 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 essay " The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered"

Learn More:

  • Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, written and directed by Mark Richard Smith, Whitecap Films DVD, 2010
    Buy This DVD on Amazon

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

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Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Louis Sullivan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 24, 2017, Craven, Jackie. (2017, April 24). Biography of Louis Sullivan. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Louis Sullivan." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2018).