September 3, 1856 – April 14, 1924; between these dates is locked the remarkable life of Louis Henry Sullivan. Why remarkable? Because, had it not been for his revolutionary for his time innovations in the sphere of high-rise building, we would never have had such pearls of modern architecture as Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai, and the magnificent Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
Louis Sullivan Facts
1. Louis Sullivan was a true genius of architecture
Born and bred in Boston, Sullivan graduated from high school a year before his classmates. Then, having entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of sixteen, he passed the exams from the curriculum for the first and second year in the course of just one semester.
After one more year at MIT, Louis Sullivan decided that he needed more hands-on experience and went to work under Frank Furness, a prominent architect in Philadelphia. In 1873, the state was hit by a severe depression. Sullivan decided to move to Chicago, where high-rise buildings were mushrooming following the Great Fire of 1871.
In the Windy City, Louis Sullivan worked under the great William LeBaron Jenney, the architect who designed Chicago’s first-ever building supported by a steel frame. Having spent less than a year in Chicago, Sullivan moved to Paris to study architecture and building design at the famous École des Beaux-Arts. Typically for him, he left the institution after just twelve months.
2. He is of mixed Swiss-Irish origin
Louis Sullivan was the son of a Swiss mother, Andrienne List, and an Irish father, Patrick Sullivan. From his mother, the great architect probably inherited his meticulous precision and his great attention to the detail, an interesting Louis Sullivan fact. From his father, Sullivan inherited his industriousness and his strong will to succeed in all of his projects. We can say that in Sullivan, the best personal qualities of the Irish and the Swiss make themselves present.
3. Steel was the secret to Louis Sullivan’s success in architecture
The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of rapid economic and industrial development in the United States. The development of steel production made for great changes in architectural design. Building designers and architects started developing lightweight steel skeletons of their structures, which allowed them to safely reach heights that had been unthinkable just fifty years before.
By assembling a flexible and strong framework of steel girders, they created tall and slender buildings, whose floors, ceilings, walls, and windows were suspended from the steel frame, which carried the structure’s weight.
An interesting fact about Louis Sullivan is that T=the first skyscrapers designed by him were not just tall. They also had bigger windows that let more light into the premises. The Interior walls were no longer made of bricks. Drywall panels were used instead. This new technique, also pioneered by Sullivan, created more rentable floor space.
4. Louis Sullivan had a fifteen-year partnership with Dankmar Adler
Dankmar Adler was a renowned American architect of German descent and civil engineer. During his fifteen-year partnership with Louis Sullivan, the two designed skyscrapers that were solid, useful, and beautiful. These include the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, the imposing Chicago Stock Exchange Building, and the massive Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York.
5. Schlesinger and Meyer Department Store was Sullivan’s swansong
Like most American architects, Sullivan and Adler’s business was severely hit by the Panic of 1893. In a desperate attempt to keep their officials on the payroll, Adler took out an emergency loan. However, at the beginning of 1894, the market stagnation tightened and their partnership began to crumble. It collapsed shortly after the completion of the Guaranty Building.
Following the breakup with Adler, Sullivan received few big commissions. He went into a period of long financial and emotional downfall that lasted for two decades. The chronic financial problems that he experienced made him take to drinking. Schlesinger and Meyer Department Store was the last big commercial building designed by Sullivan.
6. Louis Henry Sullivan was also a philosopher and a writer
Having realized that his career as an architect was near its end, he took to writing, an interesting fact about Sullivan. He has written a few philosophical essays, and even developed a few evolutionary theories of his own. Sullivan’s favorite author was Walt Whitman. His writings were also deeply influenced by Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy.
Sullivan wrote two important books in his lifetime. The first one was the autobiography Kindergarten Chats (1901-1902). His second book, The Autobiography of an Idea was published more than twenty years later. In both books, the protagonist is an architect with a poetic soul.
In 1905, Sullivan wrote Natural Thinking: A Study in Democracy, but this work was never published. Of Sullivan’s writing, great American historian Henry Steele Commager wrote that he was “the greatest philosopher among the American architects, who tried to make architecture a vehicle for democracy”
7. Sullivan’s personal life is shrouded in mystery
An interesting Louis Sullivan fact is that little is known of his personal life. For instance, various independent sources mention that he had an older brother, Albert, but the relationship between the two remains unclear. Louis Sullivan married Margaret Hattabough, also known as Mary Azona Hattabaugh, at some time in 1899. Their relationship was troubled from the onset, and by 1906 there had already been a court order of their separation. Louis and Mary’s divorce was finalized in 1917. They didn’t have any children.
Louis Henry Sullivan, the father of the modern skyscrapers, was found dead in a shabby hotel room downtown Chicago on April 14, 1924. A humble headstone marks this great man’s final resting place in the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Today, a monument is rising in Sullivan’s honor, a few feet from his tombstone.
As a major gesture of recognition of Louis Sullivan’s remarkable career, in 1844 he became only the second architect in the USA to receive the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects posthumously for his overall contribution to American architecture.
In the 1970s, there was a big campaign for the preservation of Sullivan’s architectural heritage. One of his most active supporters was Richard Nickel, who organized a series of protests against the demolition of Adler and Sullivan’s buildings.
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