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.'
Louis Henry Sullivan was born to a Swiss-born mother, née Andrienne List (who had emigrated to Boston from Geneva with her parents and two siblings, Jenny, b. 1836, and Jules, b. 1841) and an Irish-born Father, Patrick Sullivan, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in the late 1840s. He learned that he could both graduate from high school a year early and bypass the first two years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by passing a series of examinations. Entering MIT at the age of sixteen, he studied architecture there briefly. After one year of study, he moved to Philadelphia and took a job with Architect Frank Furness.
The Depression of 1873 dried up much of Furness's work, and he was forced to let Sullivan go. Sullivan moved to Chicago in 1873 to take part in the building boom following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He worked for william LeBaron Jenney, the Architect often credited with erecting the first steel frame building. After less than a year with Jenney, Sullivan moved to Paris and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts for a year. He returned to Chicago and began work for the firm of Joseph S. Johnston & John Edelman as a draftsman. Johnston & Edleman were commissioned for the design of the Moody Tabernacle, with the interior decorative "fresco secco" stencils (stencil technique applied on dry plaster) designed by Sullivan. In 1879 Dankmar Adler hired Sullivan. A year later, Sullivan became a partner in the firm. This marked the beginning of Sullivan's most productive years.
The development of cheap, versatile steel in the second half of the nineteenth century changed those rules. America was in the midst of rapid social and economic growth that made for great opportunities in architectural design. A much more urbanized society was forming and the society called out for new, larger buildings. The mass production of steel was the main driving force behind the ability to build skyscrapers during the mid-1880s. By assembling a framework of steel girders, Architects and builders suddenly could create tall, slender buildings with a strong and relatively lightweight steel skeleton. The rest of the building elements—walls, floors, ceilings, and windows—were suspended from the skeleton, which carried the weight. This new way of constructing buildings, so-called "column-frame" construction, pushed them up rather than out. The steel weight-bearing frame allowed not just taller buildings, but permitted much larger windows, which meant more daylight reaching interior spaces. Interior walls became thinner, which created more usable floor space.
Buildings 1887–1922 by Louis Sullivan: (256 total commissions and projects)
Adler and Sullivan initially achieved fame as theater Architects. While most of their theaters were in Chicago, their fame won commissions as far west as Pueblo, Colorado, and Seattle, Washington (unbuilt). The culminating project of this phase of the firm's history was the 1889 Auditorium Building (1886–90, opened in stages) in Chicago, an extraordinary mixed-use building that included not only a 4,200-seat theater, but also a hotel and an office building with a 17-story tower with commercial storefronts at the ground level of the building, fronting Congress and Wabash Avenues. After 1889 the firm became known for their office buildings, particularly the 1891 Wainwright Building in St. Louis and the Schiller (later Garrick) Building and theater (1890) in Chicago. Other buildings often noted include the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (1894), the Guaranty Building (also known as the Prudential Building) of 1895–96 in Buffalo, New York, and the 1899–1904 Carson Pirie Scott Department Store by Sullivan on State Street in Chicago.
In 1890 Sullivan was one of the ten U.S. Architects, five from the east and five from the west, chosen to build a major structure for the "White City", the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. Sullivan's massive Transportation Building and huge arched "Golden Door" stood out as the only building not of the current style, Beaux-Arts, and the only multicolored facade in the entire White City. Sullivan and fair Director Daniel Burnham were vocal about their displeasure with each other. Sullivan later claimed (1922) that the fair set the course of American architecture back "for half a century from its date, if not longer." His was the only building to receive extensive recognition outside America, receiving three medals from the Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs the following year.
Chicago's Monadnock Building (not designed by Sullivan) straddles this remarkable moment of transition: the northern half of the building, finished in 1891, is of load-bearing construction, while the southern half, finished only two years later, is of column-frame construction. While experiments in this new Technology were taking place in many cities, Chicago was the crucial laboratory. Industrial capital and civic pride drove a surge of new construction throughout the city's downtown in the wake of the 1871 fire.
Like all American Architects, Adler and Sullivan saw a precipitous decline in their practice with the onset of the Panic of 1893. According to Charles Bebb, who was working in the office at that time, Adler borrowed money to try to keep employees on the payroll. By 1894, however, in the face of continuing financial distress with no relief in sight, Adler and Sullivan dissolved their partnership. The Guaranty Building was considered the last major project of the firm.
All of these elements are found in Sullivan's widely admired Guaranty Building, which he designed while partnered with Adler. Completed in 1895, this office building in Buffalo, New York is in the Palazzo style, visibly divided into three "zones" of design: a plain, wide-windowed base for the ground-level shops; the main office block, with vertical ribbons of masonry rising unimpeded across nine upper floors to emphasize the building's height; and an ornamented cornice perforated by round windows at the roof level, where the building's mechanical units (such as the elevator motors) were housed. The cornice is covered by Sullivan's trademark Art Nouveau vines and each ground-floor entrance is topped by a semi-circular arch.
Another champion of Sullivan's legacy was the Architect Crombie Taylor (1907–1991), of Crombie Taylor Associates, who, with single-minded determination, led the effort to save the Van Allen Building in Clinton, Iowa from demolition. Taylor, acting as an aesthetic consultant, had worked on the renovation of the Auditorium Building (now Roosevelt University) in Chicago. When he read an article about the planned demolition, he uprooted his family from their home in southern California (long after he had left Chicago, after heading the famous "Institute of Design", later known as the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), in the 1950s and early 1960s) and moved them to Clinton. With the vision of a destination neighborhood comparable to Oak Park, Illinois, he set about creating a nonprofit to save the building, and was successful in doing so. Another advocate both of Sullivan buildings and of Wright structures was Jack Randall, who led an effort to save the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri at a very critical time and then relocated his family to Buffalo, New York to save Sullivan's Guaranty Building and Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House from possible demolition. His efforts were successful in both St. Louis and Buffalo.
The major difference between novel and real life was in the chronology of Cameron's relation with his protégé Howard Roark, the novel's hero, who eventually goes on to redeem his vision. That Roark's uncompromising individualism and his innovative organic style in architecture were drawn from the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright is clear from Rand's journal notes, her correspondence and various contemporary accounts. In the novel, however, the 23-year-old Roark, a generation younger than the real-life Wright, becomes Cameron's protégé in the early 1920s, when Sullivan was long in decline.
More recent study of Rand's posthumously published journal notes as well as a close comparison of the respective careers of the real and fictional Architects by Heynick has explored this connection in some detail. Although Rand's journal notes contain in toto only some 50 lines directly referring to Sullivan, it is clear from her mention of Sullivan's Autobiography of an Idea (1924) in her 25th anniversary introduction to her earlier novel We the Living (first published in 1936, and unrelated to architecture) that she was intimately familiar with his life and career. Indeed, the term "the Fountainhead," which appears nowhere in Rand's novel proper, is found twice (as "the fountainhead" and later as "the fountain head") in Sullivan's autobiography, both times used metaphorically.
That the fictional character of Henry Cameron in Ayn Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead was similar to the real-life Sullivan was noted, if only in passing, by at least one Journalist contemporary to the book.
During the postwar era of urban renewal, Sullivan's works fell into disfavor, and many were demolished. In the 1970s growing public concern for these buildings finally resulted in many being saved. The most vocal voice was Richard Nickel, who organized protests against the demolition of architecturally-significant buildings. Nickel and others sometimes rescued decorative elements from condemned buildings, sneaking in during demolition. This practice led to Nickel's death inside Sullivan's Stock Exchange building, when a floor above him collapsed. Nickel had compiled extensive research on Adler and Sullivan and their many architectural commissions, which he intended to publish in book form. Nickel's death led to the creation in 1972 of the Richard Nickel Committee, which arranged the completion of Nickel's book and its publication in 2010. The book features all 256 commissions of Adler and Sullivan. The extensive archive of photographs and research that underpinned the book was donated to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago. More than 1,300 photographs may be viewed on their website and more than 15,000 photographs are part of the collection at The Art Institute of Chicago. As finally published, the book, The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan, was authored by Richard Nickel, Aaron Siskind, John Vinci, and Ward Miller.
The fictional Cameron is, like Sullivan – whose physical description he matches – a great innovative skyscraper pioneer late in the nineteenth century who dies impoverished and embittered in the mid-1920s. Cameron's rapid decline is explicitly attributed to the wave of classical Greco-Roman revivalism in architecture in the wake of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, just as Sullivan in his autobiography attributed his own downfall to the same event.
Another signature element of Sullivan's work is the massive, semi-circular arch. Sullivan employed such arches throughout his career—in shaping entrances, in framing windows, or as interior design.
The Guaranty Building Interpretive Center, on the first floor of the building now owned and occupied by the law firm Hodgson Russ, LLP, opened in 2017. The exhibit space was financed by Hodgson Russ, LLP, and co-designed by Flynn Battaglia Architects and Hadley Exhibits. It features a scale model of the building by David J. Carli, Professor of Engineering at the State University of New York at Alfred. The Center's exhibits were donated to Preservation Buffalo Niagara. The Center, the only museum dedicated to Sullivan, is open to the public.