Louis Henry Sullivan – the ‘Father’ of the Skyscaper

Chicago Auditorium Building
by Sullivan and Adler

On September 3, 1856, American architect Louis Henry Sullivan was born. Sullivan is identified with the aesthetics and innovation of early skyscraper design. Called the “Father of Modernism”.

Sullivan studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology starting at the age of only 16. Already one year later, he moved to Philadelphia and was hired by architect Frank Furness. Sullivan continued his career in Chicago, where he took part in the building boom following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He became a partner of Dankmar Adler in 1879, which was probably a turning point in his career. At first, their reputation as theater architects increased nation wide. Especially the Auditorium Building in Chicago caused the partners quite some fame. It consisted of a large theater, a hotel, and an office building with a 17-story tower including commercial storefronts at the ground level of the building fronting Congress and Wabash Avenues. This period was probably one of Sullivan’s most productive. The business partners became widely known for their outstanding office buildings like the Wainwright Building in St. Louis and the Chicago Stock Exchange Building.

The limits of engineering considering tall buildings in the early 19th century depended on the strength of the walls, until cheap, versatile steel was developed. It became quickly possible to create tall, slender buildings with a strong and relatively lightweight steel skeleton. The new steel weight-bearing frame also enabled the architects to include larger windows causing more daylight to actually reach the interior spaces. With all these new options and new techniques, Sullivan was now able to create a whole new style of architecture. He decided to simplify the appearance of the building by breaking away from historical styles, using his own intricate floral designs, in vertical bands, to draw the eye upwards and emphasize the building’s vertical form. It was also important for him to relate the shape of the building to its specific purpose, which turned out successful. One of his trademarks became the terra cotta ornaments he installed in several buildings. Sullivan earned such a great reputation that he is often referred to as the father of skyscrapers, even though several other architects achieved this previously, especially John Wellborn Root is to mention, who created the Masonic Temple Tower which os often referred to as the originators of skyscrapers. For the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Sullivan built a massive Transportation Building and huge arched Golden Door, which stood out for its multicolored facade in the white city. This was one of the only buildings that caused Sullivan a great recognition outside the United States.

In 1894, due to financial difficulties, Adler and Sullivan dissolved their company and from there, Sullivan faced difficult times. He lacked of further contracts and it is assumed that he also faced a depression. Louis Henry Sullivan passed away on April 14, 1924 in Chicago.

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