Dead Leaves
and the Dirty Ground


Louis Sullivan's mortal remains may rest peacefully in Graceland Cemetery, but fragments of the man are strewn about the city with somewhat less dignity. While several masterworks are granted landmark status and tacked with brass plates, a number of the man's lesser works survive in parts or crumbling wholes. They hide in the city's cracks or in plain sight, like coat buttons or misplaced keys—simple objects whose importance is only noted when they're missing.

Sullivan and Chicago had a long, contentious relationship. He spent decades rebuilding the city in the sooty wake of the great fire, creating icons of architectural grace and beauty alone and with his partner Dankmar Adler. After a productive period lasting roughly from 1881 to 1895, Sullivan's work gradually came to be considered unfashionable. It helped little too that he was an arrogant old cuss, insisting on satisfying his theories of architecture rather than his clients' wishes. Left to survive on dwindling commissions and the kindness of friends like his protege Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan died practically penniless in a Chicago hotel in 1924.

Postmortem decades sifted large grains of salt and rubble into Sullivan's wounds. Of the many structures he built in Chicago, only a handful remain after the city spent half of the last century knocking them down. Despite the efforts of preservationists like photographer Richard Nickel and current Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson, perfectly grand buildings such as the Garrick Theater and Chicago Stock Exchange were demolished in a drive for progress and parking garages. The good fight was fought repeatedly, but it usually ended in a pile of brick, mortar, glass, and steel. Tragically, Nickel died beneath just such a pile in the Stock Exchange while recovering Sullivan's richly detailed ornament during its demolition. Sometimes the preservationists won—sometimes. Given that most people wander by Adler and Sullivan's remaining downtown works without a glance, the cynical individual might wonder why the preservationists bothered.

Yet, Sullivan has his audience. No tourists are easier to spot in the Loop than the architecture buffs. Skittering about like tall millipedes in their tight little tour groups, they block sidewalk traffic, periodically stopping and gawping upwards at the big, pretty buildings. With the Adler and Sullivan edifices, it's nice to pretend there's something more than gawkery in their stares. Led by an astute guide, they learn not only about Sullivan's intricate ornamentation and misquoted (even on his tombstone) credo of "Form ever follows function," but also Adler's engineering skills, which kept Sullivan's symphonies in stone from toppling into the marshy Chicago soil. Above all, they learn that Sullivan's buildings are built not only of brick and steel, but ideas. Even an amateur can see something special in an Adler and Sullivan. As Sullivan put it himself, "The gist of it is, I take it, behind every form we see there is a vital something or other which we do not see, yet which makes itself visible to us in that very form. In other words, in a state of nature the form exists because of the function, and this something behind the form is neither more nor less than a manifestation of what you call the infinite creative spirit, and what I call God." It's easy to see God in sacred architectural monsters like the Auditorium (430 S. Michigan Ave.), Carson Pirie Scott (1 S. State St.), or, on a smaller scale, Graceland's own Getty Tomb. With these, viewing Sullivan's ornamentation alone puts a catch in the breath.

This piece, however, concerns itself with the lesser-known Adler and Sullivans in Chicago—the in-between, business-as-usual jobs forming the bulk of any firm's work. Adler and Sullivan weren't strictly into making masterpieces. In speaking with Samuelson, one is regaled not only with rhapsodic descriptions and histories of the "big ticket" buildings but also the firm's lesser commissions—the apartment buildings, the warehouses, and the factories—the bread and butter work of any firm. Not spectacular, yes, but these too have a "vital something or other" to offer.

"Each one of them is distinctive. It has a personality or a character," says Samuelson, "There's often not a lot that's unusual, that jumps out at you. I mean they're all of a type. But then to see when you have the hand of a master approach the same kind of program everyone else is doing—you can actually see the difference."

Little note is made of these buildings in the popular guides, unsurprisingly. For one thing, they're out of range for the Loop and Oak Park tours—probable pariahs for lack of proximity to eating, shopping, and espresso establishments. Secondly, with the soft cruelty of a mother who loves her children equally, but secretly the talented pretty ones just a little bit more, architectural historians tend to blip over these buildings, gently damning them with the label of being only of "historical interest." They're dim stars by which to chart the Master's progress, but little more. Sullivan biographer Hugh Morrison waves off most of the firm's work of this ilk as having "a dignified simplicity" though "it was doubtless a simplicity of necessity rather than of choice." Like many, he couldn't see past the looming skyscrapers for which Sullivan is famous, believing Sullivan's "taste for ornament was incapable of satisfaction in brick boxes costing less than six cents a square foot."

Samuelson demurs, refusing to dismiss the unter-buildings of Adler and Sullivan outright. "You can tell more about Sullivan in the purest form by looking at these buildings," he says. "You can focus on Sullivan's whole thought process, his philosophy, more concisely than looking at one with all the ornament and the big budget and the decoration. You can get distracted by all the ornamentalism."

Sullivan himself—he of the fractalling spandrels and friezes—called a timeout for ornamentation.

"If I answer the question in entire candor, I should say that it would be greatly for our aesthetic good if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude."

For the first example of nude comeliness, catch sight of the former Standard Elevator Company factory at 1515 15th Place. Built in 1891, only the western half of the building was designed by the partnership. Everything to the east, including the tall corner building was added in 1902 by Adler's sons, long after Sullivan broke with the firm. The starkness of this building is probably what prompts the critics to write it off, though to be fair it suffers from a common urban ailment—bricked-up windows. In years past, multiple large windows were needed to take advantage of natural light and ventilation. Technological advances in lighting eliminated dependence on sunlight, and since the old fancy mechanical windows were difficult to clean and repair, they were bricked up instead. Whatever its security and central air advantages, the defacement ruins the visual rhythm of the structure, leaving it as a long, impersonably blank wall.

In a better example of plain equalling pretty, Samuelson points out the Wolf, Sayer, and Heller Warehouse addition at the southwest corner of Peoria and Wayman. A wobbly drive over exposed cobblestone brings you to a back lot structure of deceptive elegance. It was constructed by Adler and Sullivan in 1893, though "sculpted" might be a more proper verb. In a tradition as yet unbroken, most industrial buildings of the 1890s were humdrumly utilitarian—simple brick boxes broken up only by undecorated arched windows. Unlike the Standard Elevator Factory, the addition seizes upon Sullivan's philosophy with, as Samuelson describes it, "a three-dimensional complexity that honestly reflects its function and structure."

Rather than a simple, flat wall, the Wayman Street side soars upwards in a staggered series of projecting vertical piers. This poetically presents and concentrates the wall's structural support, opening up space between the piers for windows allowing for maximum use of daylight in that pre-fluorescent tube era. The wall's weight is heaviest at bottom, but rising upwards, the piers visually decrease in size to express the diminishing structural load. The addition touches the softest spot of Samuelson's architectural heart.

"By Sullivan's architectural philosophy, the approach of what you put into that one is the same of what you'd put into any building." he declares. "It will be functional, and then it still will have a presence and a dignity, and sometimes even a very humble beauty. That one does."

While mostly intact, the addition's plain and tall prettiness is slightly marred. At one point, the top floor was demolished, and during a recent condo conversion the eastern windows were speculumed open to accommodate a future grill and bicycle-supporting balcony. As a postscript, it's likely Adler and Sullivan chief draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in this design. Isidore Heller later commissioned Wright to build his Hyde Park home at 5132 S. Woodlawn Ave.

Another semi-forgotten group stands at the southwest corner of Clinton and Fulton. Formerly the E.W. Blatchford & Company lead works, the factory and its accompanying shot tower belched smoke and dribbled lead rifle shot here starting in 1886. An 1889 fire ate away the original interior of the 208-14 N. Clinton Street building, and Adler and Sullivan were hired to rebuild it. You won't find a fingertip, never mind the whole hand of the master here—the building's standard loft-style guts were replaced with little Sullivan flair. Blatchford was impressed enough to later commission the firm to construct the five-story warehouse sitting on the intersection's southwest corner. Again, not much to tootle about in regards to ornamentation, but it remains a decent and proud example of a master artist working within limited parameters. Inevitably, condo conversion left its stamp. The shot tower is long since obliterated, and the buildings' faces, so smooth in their youth, are now stubbled with wrought-iron balconies manned by those omnipresent bikes and grills.

The above buildings are the brave, the happy few that survived, however altered, while their downtown brethren had their smithereens blasted to smithereens. Others were similarly beaten up by the forces of progress and nature, and while they managed to crawl away from those fights, they didn't escape unmarred.

Accurately, these literal fragments are likelier more the work of the firm than Sullivan himself, but they did come under his eye at some point. More interestingly, one is a fine example of Wright juvenilia. As chief draftsman, Wright was granted a freer hand than others in the office (though this didn't help when Sullivan later fired him for moonlighting house designs for outside clients). Depending upon the job, viewing an Adler and Sullivan by way of Wright—the Charnley House at 1365 N. Astor springs to mind—it's can be difficult to see whose hand was freer in its design.

Samuelson points to a west side fragment as an example of finding Wright in an Adler and Sullivan. Once part of the long-gone Loeb Apartments, the ornamental Bedford limestone entrance archway opening up at 157-63 N. Elizabeth Street now serves as the back stairwell entrance to a store at 1246 W. Randolph. A commission gained through the good ole boy network, Adolph and William Loeb were regular clients of Adler and Sullivan, and close friends of Adler in particular. Little about the apartment building would have piqued Sullivan's interest. It was an investment, with no frills requested or required. Built in 1891, Adler and Sullivan were in their peak years, working on glitzier skyscraper commissions in the Loop and elsewhere, so the job was likely entrusted to their chief draftsman. As Adler and Sullivan buildings go, it was atypical, which could account for its being lost for decades until Richard Nickel located it in the 1950s and confirmed its parentage during an interview with Wright. Flipping through Nickel's hundreds of photos, critiquing and insisting that he omit several from the complete Louis Sullivan book Nickel had made his life's work (sadly, it never materialized), Wright took hold of the Loeb Apartments photo and said to Nickel, "So. You found that one too, did you?" Nickel posited to Wright that it was erected around the time of the Charnley and Albert Sullivan houses (the latter erected for Sullivan's brother and mother in 1892 at 4575 Lake Park Ave., but long since demolished). "Well, I should know," confirmed Wright, "I designed all three of them."

Samuelson rates the Loeb apartments as "immature" Wright, but also as evidence of a future master finding his footing. Several features mark the archway as more Wright than Sullivan. The English-derived detailing of the entrance diverges from Sullivan's loathing for recycling the past, but it presages, as Samuelson puts it, Wright's habit of "eclectic derailing." The northern half of the Loeb Apartments was demolished during a 1923 project to widen Randolph Street. Later on the southern half was torn down after a 1974 fire and years of service as a whorehouse. Somewhat apropos of its previous usage, the archway now serves as the back door of a porn shop.

A particularly pathetic fragment is the single survivor of Adler and Sullivan's Hammond Library at 44 N. Ashland: a chimney partially projecting into the parking lot next door. Symbiotically attached to Carpenter Hall, this smokestack is the lone remnant of the Chicago Theological Seminary's former west side campus. Carpenter Hall is properly parentally older, having been built in the 1860s, while the Hammond Library was dedicated in 1882. Even in its time, the library was barely noticed. It had extremely basic decorations and design, and though it received a coattail mention in the first edition of Chicago's Famous Buildings in 1965, it wasn't a particularly appreciated piece of architecture. What decoration the chimney has—incised circles, an early Adler and Sullivan trademark, on each side—are muted. Its darker shade of red brick on top is the only mark distinguishing it from its parent building. Under direct observation, it gives a chameleonic impression, skittishly blending into the urban flora so as to avoid decimation.


In a pleasant turn, this article is not a lament for a lost Adler and Sullivan building, nor a call to action to prevent one from being destroyed. Yet, something can be lost without going anywhere at all. Pleading for attention for industrial buildings is perhaps ultimately doomed to failure. How can a factory wall break your heart? How many tears can you squeeze out for a smokestack without trying too hard? Still, it's worth asking people to stop and look at such backdrop buildings as well as the treasured ones.

We approach the everyday buildings too often as if they're natural formations, granting them permanence because of their perceived immovable impenetrability. Yet, when they disappear, it's as if a hill vanished or a lake dried up overnight. Recall the familiar phenomenon of walking through one's neighborhood, turning a corner, and facing an empty lot—stunning in its sudden airy brightness—and having no memory of whatever stood there before. Stopping short and looking over the lot, it may or may not be strewn with bricks and crumbling mortar, but is perceptibly and palpably absent a vital something or other. The minor disquieting feeling one feels is unlikely to be nostalgia or disgust, but it's bothersome not to remember what was there before. That, in a diluted form, is loss, however briefly it's felt. Even if one doesn't know the difference between a dentil and a spandrel, it is architectural appreciation at its most basic.

Thus, the most minor buildings that construct the city's neighborhoods are always "missed" when they're gone, most often because no one bothered to notice them when they were still here. It follows that preservation isn't just about landmark status or collecting museum-quality ornamental scraps; it's about noticing what builds a neighborhood into a neighborhood. The city's blandest buildings can possess rich histories.

Originally published in the Chicago Journal.
®2004 Dan Kelly
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