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Six-week party for architect Sullivan

With screenings and classes, Chicago will mark the 150th birthday of the man known for his tall office buildings.

September 22, 2006|Tara Burghart | Associated Press

CHICAGO — For a guy born 150 years ago, architect Louis Sullivan has been in the news a lot lately. Unfortunately, not much of it has been good news for buildings designed by the man sometimes called the "father of modernism."

His Pilgrim Baptist Church, on Chicago's South Side, was devastated by fire in January. His personal vacation bungalow on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina last year. And Carson Pirie Scott recently announced that it is leaving Sullivan's landmark State Street building, which has housed a department store since it was built more than 100 years ago.

Well, at least fans of Sullivan, who was born Sept. 3, 1856, in Boston, have a birthday to celebrate. And how many architects get a six-week birthday celebration like the one going on in Chicago?

The architect who made the phrase "form ever follows function" famous, whose students included Frank Lloyd Wright, is the subject of lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, classes and symposiums -- all serving as a reminder of the man who became famous for his mastery of designing tall office buildings.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to really look at Sullivan and his partner, Dankmar Adler, and their incredible career -- really get the opportunity to rediscover their architecture and look at what great strides were made in the late 19th and early 20th century by their firm, and then Sullivan on his own -- marvelous buildings, many of which still stand throughout the Midwest," said Ward Miller, director of the Richard Nickel Committee, one of the groups participating in the celebration.

Sullivan, who spent the bulk of his career in Chicago, played a vital role in making the city a hub for innovative American architecture in the late 19th century. He moved to Chicago while he was still a teenager, drawn by the demand for architects after the Great Chicago Fire.

He left for a year to study in Paris and travel through Europe. He returned to Chicago and in 1880 joined Adler's firm, and was named a full partner three years later.

Adler solved the engineering quandaries. Sullivan focused on the design -- embracing natural and organic forms for his ornamentation. Their collaboration produced approximately 180 works -- including the Auditorium Building in Chicago (renowned for its acoustics and once the city's tallest building) and the Chicago Stock Exchange.

With its open floor plan and rejection of typical Victorian architecture, the firm's James Charnley House on Chicago's North Side (now called the Charnley-Persky House) is considered a pivotal work of modern architecture.

It was designed by Sullivan along with his protege, Wright, who later called Sullivan the "lieber-meister" ("beloved master").

Sullivan and Adler had a falling out in 1895, and Adler left the firm, two years after Wright was fired for taking side jobs.

Sullivan's last great commission was received in 1899 for the Schlesinger and Meyer Department Store -- now home, at least until March, to Carson Pirie Scott. (The building, a National Landmark, is safe from demolition, although some preservationists worry about how future tenants might want to alter the building's interior or entrances for their own use.)

As Sullivan's commissions dwindled -- the architect insisted on forging a new type of American architecture at a time when neoclassical styles were in vogue -- his works became more modest.

His lasting contribution in the later years of his life was a series of small Midwestern banks -- often called his "Jewel Boxes."

He died impoverished, in a Chicago hotel room, in 1924. Wright and Sullivan had reconciled about 10 years earlier, and Wright wrote an obituary of Sullivan in Architectural Record magazine.

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