Louis Sullivan is often recognized as the father of modern architecture and the originator of the Prairie School of architecture. One of the first designers to embrace steel framework, Sullivan designed some of the first of the modern skyscrapers and was known for his intricate ironwork and decorative stone and Terra Cotta work, integrated into his designs.
Sullivan came into his own as an architect about the time that design and building was changing. Prior to about 1870, buildings were limited in size and height by the fact that the outside walls bore all the weight of the structure. This required thick first floor walls, limiting height, widow openings, and useful space. With the advent of steel column and beam frame construction, buildings could grow taller and thinner. Since the steel frame bore all the weight of the building's components, the exterior walls could be thinner and offered wide open designs. Steel frames also meant that windows could be larger and allow more light, as well as allowing more useful floor space. Louis Sullivan came into his own designing steel frame structures.
Sullivan was born September 3, 1856 in Boston. He was raised by his grandparents, living on a farm about 20 miles outside of town. Sullivan commuted to a South Boston school. Much of his inspiration came from wandering the streets of Boston, studying the architecture. He decided he wanted to be a structural engineer and architect, and learned that by passing exams, he could graduate high school a year early as well as enter college, skipping the first two years. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after enrolling at the age of 16. After only one year, he quit school and went to Philadelphia, where he lived with his grandparents again. He secured a job with Frank Furness, a well-known architect in Philadelphia.
Furness suffered from the Depression of 1873 and had to let Sullivan go. He went to Chicago to visit his parents who had relocated there. Most firms were very busy rebuilding from the great fire of 1871 and Sullivan worked for a firm owned by William LeBaron Jenney, who is credited with building the first steel frame building.
Restless, Sullivan moved to Paris after less than a year with Jenney. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts for a year where Renaissance art influenced his ideas of design. He returned to Chicago, wishing to emulate Michelangelo's creations, and landed a position with Johnston & Edleman as a draftsman. In 1879, he was hired by Dankmar Adler and within a year, Sullivan became a partner in the firm.
Adler and Sullivan achieved wide fame, first as theater designers. They designed theaters mostly in Chicago, including the stunning Auditorium Theater, but they also designed the Pueblo, Colorado Opera House and a theater for Seattle that was never constructed. Sullivan earned great notoriety for the 1899 Carson Pririe Scott & Co. department store on State Street in Chicago. The ornate steel gridwork over the main entrance is a detail that makes the store stand out in Chicago's Loop.
Sullivan coined the phrase, "Form always follows function" which later entered the American lexicon as "Form follows function." While at Adler and Sullivan, he was also a strong influence on a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright. The Prairie Style of design was launched at Adler and Sullivan, Wright would make it famous.
Many took "Form follows function" to mean that buildings should be designed as pragmatic, devoid of decor or ornamentation that seemed superfluous to the design. Sullivan did not feel that way at all, and freely used steel and Terra Cotta ornamentation as an exclamation point to his designs, often used to draw the eye upwards. He also used cornice ornamentation as punctuation to his designs. Such ornamentation became his signature.
Sullivan designed the Transportation Building for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as "The White City" or the Chicago World's Fair. The golden arch entry and brightly colored façade of the huge Transportation Building was the only such building at the World's Fair. Both Daniel Burnham, the director of the exposition and Sullivan had little good to say about each other.
In 1922, Sullivan opined that the White City set back American architecture for at least a half a century.
Another financial downturn in 1893 spelled doom for the firm of Adler and Sullivan, Adler left the firm and once again, Louis Sullivan was alone. This time, though, he would not bounce back so well. Adler was the personality that landed the commissions, and on his own Sullivan did not do well. The Carson Pririe Scott & Co. department store was his last large commission. He designed eight banks around the Midwest, along with several small office buildings and a department store in Clinton, Iowa.
Louis Sullivan died on April 16, 1924 of kidney and heart disease, in a Chicago hotel room, alone, and essentially penniless. He left a wife and four children behind. He had patched up his relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright in time for Wright to fund his former mentor's funeral. He is buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery, with a small marker that is in sad contrast to the nearby ornate memorials of Ryerson and Getty that were designed by Sullivan himself. Later, a memorial was placed near his grave, which has a simple stone marker. Louis Sullivan's grave at Find a Grave.
Louis Sullivan left a legacy of the modernist architectural movement, the Prairie School of Architecture, and a vast collection of wonderful structures in Chicago and around the country. Sadly, many of his iconic Chicago structures no longer exist.
In the frenetic period of American urban renewal in the 1960s, many of Louis Sullivan's buildings were determined to be out of vogue and were demolished. Outrage over the demolitions created movements to save his remaining designs.
The most prominent advocate of preserving Louis Sullivan's work was noted photographer Richard Nickel, who documented much of Sullivan's work on film over the decades. He often went into buildings while they were being demolished, in order to save architectural details. He died in the Stock Exchange Building, trying to save features, when the unstable floor of the Trading Room collapsed on top of him. In a letter, Nickel once said, "Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men."
Just the same, many of Sullivan's outstanding designs still exist, in use, for all to utilize and enjoy.
"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."