by Michael R. Allen
On Friday, January 25, the Architectural Museum at the City Museum opened its new exhibit Elmslie and Sullivan to a packed house. Architectural Museum founder Bruce Gerrie curated the exhibit. While featuring terra cotta ornament from the buildings of George Grant Elmslie, once Louis Sullivan’s chief draftsman, as well as those of Sullivan himself, most of the exhibit incorporated ornament from the Morton and Thomas Alva Edison public schools designed by Elmslie that were built in Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s. The Hammond school district demolished these schools in 1991, but recovered much of the terra cotta. Some of the terra cotta ended up in use in new school buildings, but most has ended up in storage under the city’s ownership. The last exhibition of the terra cotta in the region was in 1998 when University of Illinois professors Paul Kruty and Ronald Schmitt organized an exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The highlight of the evening may very well have been Tim Samuelson‘s rousing welcoming speech. Tim is the Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago and one of the leading scholars of Sullivan and the Prairie School. He also is a gifted orator with a compelling imagination. Tim Samuelson feels architecture, and he has that rare gift of being able to articulate that feeling. His talk began with a summary of the architectural theory of Louis Sullivan and led to a celebration of Elmslie, a quiet man who was the subject of somewhat disparaging remarks in Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography. Wright was Sullivan’s chief draftsman before Elmslie, and the two shared an office for years. Seems that Wright didn’t see much beneath Elmslie’s cool exterior. Fortunately, Tim does and shared with the crowd his understanding of Elmslie’s singular vision — a vision powerfully manifest in the Hammond schools and one on par with Wright’s.
Elmslie’s unique terra cotta designs show a mind engaging both Sullivan’s principles and the machine age architectural principles of the Art Deco style. And Elmslie’s buildings reveal the conscious effort of one designer to reconcile organic lines with geometric mass. Some of Elmslie’s work, like the Old Second National Bank (1924), almost heads off the rise of Art Deco by creating an American alternative firmly rooted in both the ideals of modernism and Midwestern regionalism.
In all, the opening demonstrates the strong continued interest in the work of Elmslie and the Prairie School as well as the large audience for architectural programming in St. Louis. While the exhibit opening was supposed to last until 9:00 p.m., people were still viewing it and conversing with each other until well past 11:00 p.m.
The exhibit will be on display through December 2008 to anyone purchasing a City Museum admission ($12). More information here.