Fire Louis Sullivan

Sullivan-Designed Getty Tomb Destroyed by Fire

by Dan Kelly (Special to Ecology of Absence)

(Chicago) Early Monday morning, as firefighters played canasta nearby, the tomb of Carrie Eliza Getty burned to the ground in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. Investigators are perplexed as to how the solid limestone and bronze-gated mausoleum caught fire, but chose not to pursue an inquiry, suggesting that, perhaps, the corpse of Ms. Getty was operating a blowtorch. The fire also defied the laws of physics by leaping into the night sky and descending upon and consuming the Sullivan-designed Ryerson tomb several hundred yards away. Traces of fire damage and spots of urine were likewise found covering Sullivan’s tomb nearby.

“It’s a shame, really. I guess. I mean, I don’t especially care.” said local developer Vic Sharkbastard as he and a surveying crew measured the 20 foot area formerly occupied by the Getty Tomb for a future, 500-unit condo. “But, hey, these things happen.” Sharkbastard then cleaned the mud off his boots by scraping them against the gravestone of photographer Richard Nickel.

“Chicago has to go forward, it can’t go backward,” said Mayor Richard Daley. “If you’re going backward, you’re not going forward. People like the fires. They’re pretty. It’s nice to pack a lunch and watch the fire. It’s a tragic loss of some of the city’s history, but not really tragic, because, you know, you’re going forward with the fire and the lunch and not backward.” Mayor Daley then unwittingly on accident and without malice sat down on a dynamite plunger, the force of his ass starting a chain reaction of blasts, causing Carson Pirie Scott, the Auditorium, the Gage group, and the Krause Music Store facade to implode. “Oopsy. Heh heh heh,” said Daley.

Chicago Fire Louis Sullivan

Fire Strikes Adler & Sullivan’s Harvey House

by Michael R. Allen

Yet another Adler & Sullivan building burns in 2006, scarcely a week after the Wirt Dexter Building fire. This time it’s the George Harvey House, built in 1888 and the last remaining frame structure designed with either Louis Sullivan or Dankmar Adler involved. The house is a total loss.

The owner of the home, Natalie Frank, had discussed demolition earlier this year, meeting with opposition from preservationists. She eventually announced plans to renovate the much-altered house using the full original blueprints Richard Nickel rescued from a previous owner.

The Chicago Sun-Times has the bad news here.

Lynn Becker has commentary here.

Chicago Demolition Louis Sullivan

Demolition Started on Chicago’s Wirt Dexter Building

by Michael R. Allen

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that emergency demolition of the Wirt Dexter Building began today. The building, designed by Adler & Sullivan and built in 1887, burned in a huge fire on Tuesday.

Try to stanch the pain of tragedy by reading Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper.” The poem invokes the golden age of American tall buildings, started by rapid architectural innovation in which the Wirt Dexter Building was an integral part. The roots of the American skyscraper pass back through what is now a blackened wreck and what will next week be nothing but rubble. Although the building is falling, it was one of many that — through narrow piers, wide windows, pronounced height and embrace of the metal frame — proclaimed to Chicago and the world that a new soaring architectural form was being born in America. That legacy remains vibrant, even as the Wirt Dexter building dies a senseless death.

Chicago Fire Louis Sullivan

Another Fire Hits a Sullivan Building

by Michael R. Allen

Tragedy strikes Chicago with yet another devastating fire at a building designed by Louis Sullivan. This time, the damaged building is the 1887 Wirt-Dexter Building on Wabash Avenue in the Loop, a formative work by Adler & Sullivan. The Wirt-Dexter Building possesses a lightness of form with vertical emphasis that Sullivan would develop further with the Wainwright Building in 1891. The building also has a unique exposed system of iron piers on its rear elevation, long before the expressed forms of Mies Van Der Rohe’s buildings and almost a century ahead of the postmodern exposed structure fad.

There is no conclusive report on structural integrity after the fire. However, press quotes from Chicago Transit Authority head Frank Kruesi seem to indicate that the building, which abuts an El line, may be demolished soon.

Read more about the fire and the building in an incisive essay by Lynn Becker, Chicago’s leading architectural critic.

The Wirt-Dexter Building has been vacant for nearly twenty years, and there was little political will to find a new use for it. There may be Louis Sullivan key chains at the Chicago ArchiCenter gift shop, but that is no guarantee of the safety of any work designed by his hand. In today’s Chicago, time and time again we see that no pedigree guarantees protection of a historic building.

Chicago Events Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan at 150

by Michael R. Allen

Louis Sullivan was born in Boston on September 3, 1856. Admirers have launched Louis Sullivan at 150, a series of tours, lectures and other events that celebrate the Sullivan sesquicentennial. The festivities happen in Chicago, although there is no stopping folks in cities with other Sullivan buildings of some importance of coordinating celebrations.

Part of the Sullivan at 150 program is a three-day symposium October 13-15; a tour of the interior of the Charnley-Persky House led by John Vinci, who oversaw the home’s restoration; and, most impressive although mostly coincidental, the completion of the replication of the cornice on Sullivan’s 1899 Schlesinger & Meyer Department Store Building (now the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building).

Chicago Louis Sullivan

Chicago May Lose Another Adler & Sullivan Building

by Michael R. Allen

Just in case anyone thought that Chicago learned anything from the Chicago Stock Exchange debacle in 1972 (or the Pilgrim Baptist Church fire earlier this year), Lynn Becker brings us news of yet another threatened Adler & Sullivan building. In an article in the latest Reader (ah, if St. Louis could have a weekly so fine!), Becker writes that the owner of the George Harvey House — probably the sole surving frame building by the firm — wants to tear it down for a condominium building.

Architects Louis Sullivan

Considering Wright

by Michael R. Allen

In “A Case Against Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect”, Toby Weiss makes a brilliant entry into the ongoing debate on the historical importance of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The essay spends a lot of time investigating the reconstruction work needed to keep his landmark works watertight and structurally sound.

Toby’s points resonate with me to great extent. While I remain fascinated with the aesthetic dimension of architecture, I am most impressed with what buildings are and how they function. May favorite buildings balance technical proficiency with inspired design, and their architects never lost sight of the fundamental basis of architecture: containment of space for a purpose. Wright’s mentor and one of my favorite architects, Louis Sullivan, applied rigorous standards to the construction of his buildings because he believed that the appearance of the building should be the embodiment of the architectural form he was designing. While Sullivan is best remembered for his artistic achievements, part of his architectural program was structural innovation and his partnership with structural genius Dankmar Adler shows his desire to get every detail correct.

In contrast, Wright’s iconoclastic insistence on advancing design principles ahead of examination of what his buildings were seems sloppy and careless. However, Wright created wonderful works of architecture and a few, such as Chicago’s Robie House and Springfield’s Dana-Thomas House, that lack the structural pitfalls of his later work. There seems to be a point in his career at which he began to willfully avoid the pragmatics needed to make truly great buildings. While his earlier works show that he learned from Sullivan the importance of posing the building as a solution to a spatial problem, his later works are almost purely artistic creations that nonetheless make great, awe-inspiring spaces. That he would come to insist upon bizarre and faulty construction methods is troubling, but more suggestive of the consumption of Wright by his ego and “vision” than of his inadequacy as an architect. Wright could do better, and chose not to do so.

I would say such a choice is not the mark of an artist, but of an architect acting irresponsibly toward his buildings. If the architect has a duty to any one thing, it is to the buildings that he creates. If a lapse in duty is a failing, then Wright failed in the late part of his career. Oddly, he is much more revered than Sullivan, whose duty to architecture was so intense that he sacrificed his career rather than make bad buildings. (Both were, however, similarly arrogant toward clients and moody.) Sullivan could be a bully, but he did not lose clients because his roofs leaked and he denied the problem. He lost clients because his theory of architecture was supplanted by others, and his vision was too strong to be tolerable to most clients. He did not want to balance his views and those of his client. Neither did Wright, who also had long stretches without much work.

So why did Wright become an enduring popular legend and Sullivan largely forgotten until the scholars began reconstructing his legacy in the late 1950s? Mass media seemed to play a role; Wright’s sensational personal life and aptitude at developing quotable axioms made him great fodder for newspaper articles, radio news programs and, famously, television. To some degree, Wright was able to compromise his presentation with public expectations; Sullivan was far too verbose and serious to do so.

Wright’s legacy as an architect alone would not have solidified his fame; his ability to become the first American architectural media icon did so. As a showman, he excelled. He defined the public’s perception of the Architect in a way that Sullivan could not. Whether or not his buildings need expensive repairs based on his faulty structural calculations to most admirers seems but a footnote to his body of work as public figure and designer. Perhaps the trouble with Wright is that it’s nearly impossible to consider his work apart from his role as a public figure.

To me, each aspect is equally important. I admire Wright but find Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, Albert Kahn, George Elmslie and much lesser-known American architects to be far more studious designers committed to great, functional buildings before being committed to theoretical purity. Ironically, other architects achieved a consistency greater than Wright’s without making big promises. In some ways, the legacy of 20th century American architecture was enriched by Wright and defined by others.

Chicago Documentation Louis Sullivan People Salvage

Anniversary of Richard Nickel’s Death Passes

by Michael R. Allen

Thirty-four years ago day, Chicago photographer, historian and salvager Richard Nickel was killed when several thousand pounds of the steel and concrete guts of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building fell on him. Nickel was inside of the building — designed by Louis Sullivan — on the first floor, having come to the building to rescue a stair stringer and a few other items after repeated warnings from wreckers to stay away. Nickel stepped forward a few years too far ahead of the preservation game to have had things easy. He saw destruction around him, especially of the works of the now-lauded Sullivan, and set out to at least document condemned buildings through photographs. Then he made the fatal discovery that he could recover parts of these buildings that would otherwise never be seen again. Motivated only by a love for preserving knowledge, and often privately very bitter, Nickel took over 11,000 photographs and saved countless pieces of architectural ornament, most of which now belongs to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Nickel rarely made a dime from his efforts, and never held a steady job except for the one that he assigned himself. He was somehat reclusive and shunned public attention, instead exerting influence through relationships with writers, architects and historians whom he thought were sympathetic to his lonely cause.

Nickel’s work demonstrated that systematic efforts for photographic documentation and architectural ornament recovery were as important to architectural history as theory and research. While his amateur salvage efforts pale in comparison to those of St. Louis’ own Larry Giles, at the time Nickel started saving parts of Sullivan buildings in the 1950s scholarly interest in architectural salvage was non-existent. Nickel blazed his own path, and influenced architectural historians and preservationists that have come since his departure. Without Nickel, so much that I hold as certain may not even exist at all — buildings and ideas both.

Chicago Fire Louis Sullivan

Rebuilding Pilgrim Baptist Church

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Rob Powers.

Preservationists, politicians, church members and neighborhood residents are contemplating what to do with the burned Pilgrim Baptist Church (originally Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue), design by Louis Sullivan.

The options seem to be:

a.) A total rebuilding of the church according to Adler & Sullivan’s original plans. If the walls need to be rebuilt, this will cost tens of millions of dollars, and the results may be underwhelming. In 2006, we have lost some of the building techniques and materials that Adler and Sullivan had at their disposal in 1891. (This fact should make all of us pause to think about the viability of our society.) As the renowned architect Wilbert Hasbrouck says in the article, a full rebuilding would not recreate the building but instead leave the world with a replica in lesser materials.

Photograph by Rob Powers.

b.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church but creating a modern space inside.

c.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church and creating a somewhat “Sullivanesque” space inside that would not be a replica but would attempt to convey some sense of how the interior originally appeared.

d.) Stabilizing the ruins and leaving them stand as they have been left by the fire. This is what Gary, Indiana has contemplated doing with the City Methodist Church, a massive 1925 Gothic structure struck by a devastating 1997 fire. No one has mentioned this possibility in the press yet, but it bears consideration.

e.) Total demolition with salvage of some elements. I don’t think that anyone wants this to happen — even Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is interested in helping preserve the building, although the City of Chicago is taking a typically non-committal approach.

Whatever happens will be interesting to watch. While the fire is tragic, I share some of the optimism that architect John Vinci expresses in the article. This is likely the only chance most people will have to see an Adler and Sullivan building completely rebuilt in some manner. I wonder what Richard Nickel, that dogged and devoted purist, would think.

Chicago Demolition Fire Louis Sullivan

Sullivan Synagogue Gutted by Fire

by Michael R. Allen

In his lifetime, Louis Sullivan designed many buildings. Of his designs, 238 were built. As of Friday, only 50 still stood — and one of them, Kehilath Anshe Ma’ ariv Synagogue (Later Pilgrim Baptist Church burned on that same day.

The interior and unique roof was totally lost, and the limestone exterior walls are left unstable.

The historic synagogue was one of the most formative designs in the collaboration of Dankmar Adler and Sullivan, demonstrating Adler’s deft structural mind and the maturation of Sullivan’s patterns of ornament.

The Place Where We Live has more information: Adler & Sullivan Historic Church Destroyed by Fire

Hopefully, the walls can be stabilized even if the interior spaces and roof structure are lost forever. The city of Chicago and the world cannot afford to lose the last traces of a Louis Sullivan building. By now, the callous city that tore down so many before may realize just how valuable Sullivan’s work really is.

Or not.

Chicago continues to drain its heritage: CTA platform expansion has claimed both the 1929 Hays-Healy Gymnasium at DePaul University as well as the Co-Operative Temperance Society Building (lately housing the Bottom Lounge) at Wilton and Belmont; Marshall Field’s will become Macy’s in September; the landmark Berghoff restaurant will close February 28; yet another turreted corner building is threatened; and so forth.