Events Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan Documentary at the Film Festival

The St. Louis International Film Festival includes the return of Mark Richard’s Smith’s Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, a lushly-filmed exposition on the architect’s work that first screened here this summer. The screening takes place Sunday, Nov 14th at 2:00 PM at the Hi-Pointe.

From Cinema St. Louis:

This compelling documentary examines the life and work of the great American architect Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), one of the original practitioners of the Prairie School of design and a key influence on Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan’s legacy is especially visible in his adopted home of Chicago, but his work is found throughout the U.S. and includes St. Louis’ Wainwright Building — one of the world’s first skyscrapers — and Union Trust Building. Playfully describing the film as “design porn,” the Kansas City Star says that “the genius of this movie lies in its almost sensual appreciation of Sullivan’s buildings, which formed an elegant yet utilitarian bridge between the solid formality of the late Victorian era and the lush ornamentation of art nouveau while planting the seeds for art deco. So you’ll learn about an important artist from this film, but you’ll also leave feeling a bit ravished.” With director Smith. Sponsored by Tjaden Interiors.

Tickets are $12 on the day of show. More ticketing information here.

Downtown Louis Sullivan

The Good Fortune of the Chemical Building

by Michael R. Allen

The Chemical Building in 2005.

Today’s news that the owners of the venerable Chemical Building at 8th and Olive streets have filed bankruptcy bring uncertainty to the future of their redevelopment plan. The welcome prospect that the name might not change to “Alexa” aside, the turn toward bankruptcy has some tongues wagging that downtown will have two big vacant buildings at the intersection for a long time. Diagonally across the intersection is the Arcade Building, now owned by a city agency after the Pyramid Companies declared bankruptcy and the building went to foreclosure auction.

Whether the molasses-slow market can absorb so much square footage of adaptively reused space is unknown. What is known is that taking a fully-occupied building like the Chemical and dumping all tenants before full financing is ready for rehabilitation is not a good idea (see also: Jefferson Arms). Had the developers waited, they might be waiting out the recession with a highly desirable low-rent refuge for small businesses.

The Union Trust Building today.

No matter — the Chemical Building has an architectural history trump card that guarantees all is not lost. See, the as-built Chemical Building design by Boston-born Henry Ives Cobb triumphed over one by Chicago wunderkind Louis Sullivan. St. Louis was a remarkably receptive place for Louis Sullivan’s art, and the 700 block of Olive Street could have had side-by-side Sullivan. The Union Trust Building at 705 Olive had been completed in 1893, and its stunning round windows, exposed light well, terra cotta lions and monochromatic buff brick and terra cotta shaft all proudly brought Sullivan’s revolution to town. (The Wainwright Building of 1891 was no small achievement, but the local press took greater notice of the Union Trust.)

Two plans for the Chemical Building by Louis Sullivan, exhibited at the Third Annual Exposition of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1895.

The Chemical National Bank planned a complementary, modern office building adjacent to the Union Trust. In 1894, the bank solicited the two proposals by Sullivan shown above. The difference between the two possible plans is primarily height; the gridded bodies are otherwise almost identical.  With wide double windows, large round windows at the attic and a large overhanging cornice, the proposed buildings would have been very striking for both the time and place.  However, their form certainly would have paled in comparison to the sheer genius of the Union Trust.  Sullivan may have wished to touch his masterpiece with a gentler neighbor.

Instead of a gentle lesser work by Sullivan, the Chemical National Bank directors chose a rather bold 17-story design by Cobb.  Cobb’s plan originally fronted only four bays on 8th Street, and was extended by five bays in 1903 from near-seamless plans by Mauran, Russell & Garden. Cobb’s building had a rather old-fashioned two-story cast iron base by Christopher & Simpson that was heavily ornamented in classically-derived foliated patterns.  However, the upper floors were built out in a monotone of brick and Winkle terra cotta.  The projecting trapezoidal bays, including a dramatic chamfered corner bay, emphasized the building’s height as much as the Union Trust’s piers.  Yet the horizontal band courses dampened the effect of the bays, and the fenestration between the projecting bays was far from expressive of the building’s structural grid.  The top two floors were clad in ornamented terra cotta.

Cobb tried to marry the Chicago School skyscraper with the nobility of traditional masonry ornament, and the result was panned in 1896 upon completion of the Chemical Building.  With Sullivan looming next door, comparison was inevitable — and unfavorable.  In 1896, an anonymous correspondent wrote in The Brickbuilder of the architect’s effort to express the Chemical Building: “He has left no quiet spot upon which we may rest the eye, and, although we may be awed by its great height, it lacks the simplicity and imposing grandeur of its neighbor, the Union Trust Building.”

The Chemical Building and the Union Trust Building, monochromatic neighbors from the 1890s.

Today, that assessment of the Chemical Building seems hasty. While Cobb’s work largely exhibits few progressive tendencies in an age of innovation — although it includes Chicago’s elegant Newberry Library (1893) — the Chemical Building is the architect’s strongest commercial design. The reference to Chicago’s long lost Tacoma Building by Holabird & Roche (1886-9) is obvious, but not the source of the Chemical Building’s design inspiration. Cobb could easily have mimicked Sullivan or other better-regarded luminaries of the Chicago School, but he chose instead to offer his own vision.

The Chemical Building’s red monotone is impressive and striking, and draws the eye toward itself with as much force as the Union trust or Wainwright. The Chemical Building is a fitting neighbor to the mighty Union Trust, and holds its own with a rather different statement about the tall building’s artistic potential. Together, the two buildings in their contrasting tones show us a full range of architectural imagination in the late 19th century. The Chemical Building’s horizons contrast effectively with the Union Trust’s swaggering vertical elements, reminding us that a tall office building is also a stack of floors where people work.

One without the other would be an incomplete range and, had the Chemical National Bank chose Sullivan to complete the block face to his measure, two of the same would not so powerfully urge the eye to fix on two powerful, beautiful masses. There is no doubt that the Chemical Building has good fortune on its side.

Architects Chicago Louis Sullivan

An Update on the Louis Sullivan Film

by Michael R. Allen

Two years ago, Mark Richard Smith began filming Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture. He visited St. Louis that year, shooting in the city at and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and I spent some time with him talking about the Union Trust Building.

Mark is a remarkably driven first-time filmmaker who spent twenty years as a graphic designer before switching paths. Wanting to make films that visualize history, Mark enrolled in the graduate history program at Loyola University Chicago. In Chicago, Mark saw the photographs of Richard Nickel and their poetic grace drew him to the subject matter of his first film.

Last year, Mark posted a trailer on YouTube.

Then, one month ago, an unfinished scene about the Trading Room of Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange.

Demolition Downtown Louis Sullivan

How Many Louis Sullivan Buildings Can You See from the Ballpark Village Site?

by Michael R. Allen

There were those who made the audacious claim that demolition of the San Luis Apartments for a parking lot would “open” up views of the Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard. Were there people who said that demolition of the old Busch Stadium would give the public better views of the tops of the works of Louis Sullivan? If so, they were right.

Historic Preservation Louis Sullivan North St. Louis

Virtual Tour of the Restored Wainwright Tomb

The St. Louis Beacon has produced a slide show on the restoration of the Wainwright Tomb in Bellefontaine Cemetery. The inimitable Robert Duffy narrates gorgeous images from Gary R. Tetley showing the interior and exterior of the revitalized mausoleum. The slideshow is available here.

Chicago Historic Preservation Louis Sullivan

Sullivan Discovery in Chicago Provides Consolation

by Michael R. Allen

There is great news from Chicago for admirers of the work of architect Louis Sullivan: a storefront recently uncovered on Wabash Avenue has been identified as Sullivan’s work. The indefatigable Tim Samuelson found proof that the one-story cast iron front unearthed during renovation of the block containing the former Carson Pirie Scott department store building (under renovation and being renamed the Sullivan Center) was the work of the prarie master, and not an imitation of his hand.

The elegant, if small, work’s discovery brings some consolation after tragic fires at three Sullivan-designed buildings in 2006, 150 anniversary of the architect’s birth: Pilgrim Baptist Church, left a stone shell, the Wirt Dexter Building, demolished and the Harvey House, also demolished. Sullivan’s vacation cottage in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, designed in collaboration with Frank Lloyd Wright, was severly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and his Peoples Savings Bank in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was underwater during this summer’s flooding.

The storefront discovery comes at the same time as another bit of good Sullivan news: the completion in October of a thorough restoration of the Wainwright Tomb in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, documented by Landmarks Association here.

Chicago Documentation Louis Sullivan People Salvage

Richard Nickel’s Chicago: A Review

by Michael R. Allen

This article first appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of the NewsLetter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Missouri Valley Chapter.

David Norris, friend of photographer, salvager and historian Richard Nickel, once said that “I think what Richard had to teach was that if you find some way to express your deepest convictions, you should exercise that talent to the very utmost of your ability. . .even if it leads somehow to your destruction.” Nickel died in 1972 while rescuing interior ornament from Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange building, then under demolition. The attitude toward life’s work that Norris summarizes is readily apparent in the vivid, arresting images in Richard Nickel’s Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, published at the end of 2006. The book amasses many of Nickel’s images of condemned Louis Sullivan buildings, as well as his glimpses into other long-gone parts of Chicago: Chicagoans enjoying the carnival at Riverview Park; a Loop landscape prior to the Congress Expressway; downtown offices with stenciled lettering on frosted glass doors; youth making a strong show of protest at Grant Park in 1968; other hallmarks of a vibrant urban culture in which the built environment is both backdrop for human action and a pivotal character.

Richard Nickel’s body of work is the result of chance. After serving in the Army immediately after World War II, Nickel was seeking a mission in life and use of the free tuition the GI Bill offered. Newly-divorced, the young man happened upon photography classes at the Institute of Design, founded and directed by Bauhaus transplant László Moholy-Nagy. There his primary instructors were noted photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Siskind taught a class in which he assigned his students to photograph the surviving buildings of Louis Sullivan. Because he was draft-exempt, Nickel was put in charge of the students’ efforts and an exhibition held at the Institute in 1954. No matter; the young photographer had enthusiastically taken up his assignment, and took steps that made the study of Sullivan’s architecture his life’s work. Under Siskind’s direction, Nickel embarked upon a still-incomplete book entitled The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan. After completing his courses, Nickel continued the book project but began to get sidetracked. Chicago seemed to be disappearing around him, and Nickel responded by documenting doomed buildings (Sullivan’s and others’) through drawing floor plans and taking photographs and then, when demolition was certain, salvaging ornament.

Most of the images in Richard Nickel’s Chicago were never printed in Nickel’s lifetime, making the book a remarkable document. Nickel took some 11,000 photographs in his life, but mostly made contact sheets unless a client was willing to pay for development. Even more remarkable than the book is the way in which Nickel was able to capture so carefully each scene without ever seeing a large print. Somehow Nickel was able to deftly find the drama in the still life of many architectural scenes, and carefully transmit the sorrowful scenes he witnessed directly. Those images are his best known, although most in the book are new to even his admirers. Less known are Nickel’s gentle shots of people at festivals, expressing the glee, anger or longing in what seem to be private moments between subject and photographer. Those images show a breadth to Nickel’s body of work previously unknown.

The architectural images convey both respect and resignation — a painful combination. The parade of lost masterpieces is staggering — Adler and Sullivan’s Schiller Theatre, Meyer Building, Rothschild Building, Babson Residence and Stock Exchange; Burnham and Root’s Church of the Covenant and First Infantry Armory; Holabird and Roche’s Republic and Cable building. Even the photographs of surviving landmarks like the Rookery and the Auditorium Building have a weary gaze, as if the photographer has doubts of their permanence at the hands of his society. Nickel conveys the glory of these buildings while making statements about Chicago’s arrogant disregard for them; he poses wry scenes that are statements of protest in which the beauty of the building makes the loudest statement.

Ever faithful to his subjects, Nickel avoids taking photographs that are easily digested or ignored. Nickel prefers wide views and the occasional vivid close-up to iconic images. At first glance, the photographs can seem carefully workmanlike. Then, a detail jumps out — the postures of men standing in the foreground of a demolition scene, words on a church wall next to a gaping hole made by wreckers, the appearance of a church steeple in a photograph of a roof. As one studies the photographs, the intentional nature of the details becomes apparent.

Nickel thought through his capturing of the details of every building he shot, just as the architects who designed them conceived of the intricate parts. Every foreground, background and shadow was chosen. The genius of Nickel emerges; he has taken photographs that reward a multitude of viewings and whose technique emulates the subjects’ complexity as much as any documentation can. Nickel’s photographs teach us the values of patience and observation, and of the power of making careful choices. These were the values that led Nickel to study and defend the works of Sullivan and other Chicago masters. These were the values that could have kept the buildings around as long as the photographs.

Cahan, Richard and Michael Williams, editors. Richard Nickel’s Chicago. Chicago: CityFiles Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-9785450-2-8.

Chicago Churches Fire Historic Preservation Illinois Louis Sullivan

Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago Awaits Reconstruction

by Michael R. Allen

Last month while I was visiting Chicago I stopped by the Pilgrim Baptist Church at Indiana Avenue and 33rd Street in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Built in 1891 as the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue, this Prairie School masterpiece was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. In January 2006, a devastating fire struck the building, leaving nothing intact save the limestone and brick walls. The photos below show steel bracing against the street-facing walls. The bracing was required by the Chicago city government to prevent collapse into the public right-of-way. Engineers have determined that collapse is unlikely since the walls remain sound.

Although the church has yet to be able to start reconstruction, they have made some progress with raising money and securing the structure. In 2006, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich pledged $1 million in state funds to the church school (since the state can’t directly fund the church) to rebuild. Earlier this month, after his administration gave the money to the wrong school, the governor pledged an additional $1 million on top of the previous pledge. Last year, Pilgrim Baptist chose architects Johnson & Lee of Chicago and Quinn Evans of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to design the reconstruction of the ornate Sullivan building. How much of the intricate interior gets rebuilt is undetermined, but the exterior should be brought back fully to original appearance.

Architecture Events Louis Sullivan Salvage

Elmslie and Sullivan Exhibit Opens With Talk by Tim Samuelson

by Michael R. Allen

Over 150 people attended the opening.

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.

Ever-animated Tim Samuelson speaks at the opening reception.

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.

Downtown Louis Sullivan

St. Nicholas Hotel Briefly Returns

by Michael R. Allen

In the past two weeks, construction of the Old Post Office Plaza downtown unearthed some fragments of a Louis Sullivan masterpiece lost twice, the St. Nicholas Hotel. The hotel stood at the northwest corner of Eighth and Locust streets downtown between its construction in 1893 and its demolition in 1974, surviving an unfortunate remodeling in 1903. Since 1974, its site has been paved and maintained as a parking lot. Salvagers picked the building of recognizable Sullivan ornament, but apparently other parts stayed on site.

When workers broke through the asphalt, they unearthed a mess of structural steel, brick and other parts of the old hotel. The city had an unusual and unanticipated archaeological site, offering potential clues on the elusive details of the St. Nicholas. Unfortunately, the potential opportunity came and went without any real investigation. Steel was loaded out to be scrapped, and more solid debris was either removed with other fill or left in the ground. The good news is that the excavation was fairly shallow, and surely more of the building survives beneath the plaza. Should the plaza ever be less than successful, and it future land use reconsidered, we may have another chance to mine the lot for traces of the prairie master’s hotel.

Photo courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

The eight-story St. Nicholas Hotel was defined by a dramatic side-gabled roof, large center arched entrance on Locust and projecting oriel bays on both street-facing elevations. Like the Wainwright and Union Trust buildings, the St. Nicholas featured a monochrome exterior palette accentuated by terra cotta featuring Sullivan’s imaginative geometric and organic motifs. The roof profile was somewhat unique among Sullivan’s designs. A supposed fire led to conversion of the building to office use in 1903, when the gabled roof and arched entrance were removed and four floors added according to plans by Eames & Young. Renamed the Victoria Building, the hotel survived in diminished form for another seventy years. (Read more about the St. Nicholas in Patty’s Ramey’s article Louis Sullivan and the St. Nicholas Hotel, St. Louis, MO.)