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Sullivan Lives in Masterful Biography

September 28, 1986|DAVID M. KINCHEN | Times Staff Writer

The man Frank Lloyd Wright called his "lieber meister" was probably the greatest reluctant architect this nation has produced.

Not that Boston-born Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924) was reluctant to be an architect; it was more that he refused to be limited by the job description. He believed that he was a poet and artist who just happened to work in stone, brick and mortar.

The portrait that emerges from Robert Twombly's "Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work (Viking, $29.95, 530 pages) is that of a Gen. George Patton of architects: A man who was anything but diplomatic (his attack on the American Institute of Architects around the turn of the century certainly cost him work when he most needed it five or 10 years later), who had an ego as big as his adopted city of Chicago, who rarely forgave those who broke his rules and who was as original a thinker as his profession has produced.

Consider Chicago's Auditorium Building, designed by Sullivan and his all-too-often overlooked partner Dankmar Adler--the diplomat in the partnership--in the late 1880s (it opened in 1889-90).

The gigantic building on Michigan Avenue combined a 400-room hotel, a restaurant, shops, offices and a 4,200-seat theater with perhaps the best acoustics in the world.

It was one of the first mixed-use developments in the nation--the ancestor of the Broadway Plazas and Rockefeller Centers--and Twombly devotes an entire chapter (Chapter VII) to the development of the Auditorium Building.

The complex is currently occupied by Roosevelt University and is one of the many reasons why Chicago is to architects and lovers of the building arts what Scotland's St. Andrews is to golfers.

Wright left Adler & Sullivan in 1893 after a dispute with Sullivan over moonlighting (Wright was beginning his 72-year career by designing homes in Oak Park, where he lived.) They later reconciled and Wright even helped Sullivan out financially during the darkest days of the older man's life.

Twombly's masterful biography demonstrates how difficult it was--and still is--to make a living as an architect.

In his later years, from about 1910 on, Sullivan eked out a living designing banks and small buildings in places like Sidney, Ohio; Columbus, Wis.; Owatonna, Minn., and Clinton, Iowa. The commissions kept him alive--barely--but his art never flagged.

Sullivan is well known for the elaborate decoration that graced the entrances to his buildings. When the International Style became popular, this form of decoration fell out of favor. Today, in what can be called a post-modern era, a little tasteful decoration is often used to make buildings look like something other than gigantic upended milk cases.

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