1.8. ADLER HIRES LOUIS SULLIVAN, THE INTERIOR ORNAMENTALIST

Adler had hired Louis H. Sullivan, the twenty-three year old free-lance designer, to design the Music Hall’s organ screen.   Adler had used Sullivan a couple of years earlier to design the interior fresco in his Sinai Synagogue at the corner of Indiana and 21st street.  In my introduction of Sullivan at the top of this chapter, I left off with Sullivan disillusioned with the curriculum at the École des Beaux-Arts during the spring of 1875.  Sullivan’s best friend in Jenney’s office, John Edelmann, had also left the office and had formed a practice with the promise of two commissions.  Both jobs, the interior decoration of the Sinai Synagogue designed by Adler and the entire design of the Moody Tabernacle, a new building for Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody at the corner of Chicago and La Salle, were religious buildings that called for interior frescoes.  Edelmann had contacted Sullivan in Paris and asked him to design the frescoes.  These commissions were the inspiration for him to travel to Rome in April to study Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, before he made a beeline to Chicago in May 1875 to work on both projects. 

Dankmar Adler, Sinai Temple, Chicago, 1875. Indiana Avenue and 21st Street. (Online)

The Sinai Synagogue was the first to open and Sullivan’s interior decoration was reviewed by the Tribune as “quite elegant, and is a departure from the ordinary.”  The following month, the Times reviewed both projects, once again complimenting Sullivan’s design as “well worth going to see for its rare beauty and the delightful harmony which characterizes its brilliant and unique ornament.”  The Tribune gave the most detailed description of Sullivan’s design of the interior of Moody’s Tabernacle:

“The severe simplicity, coupled with the absence of perspective, gives an ancient, or perhaps a cabalistic, cast to the whole, yet when the puzzle is solved it astonishes the beholder with the very lack of what at first seems most prominent… When you see it, it is alright, but until you do see it it don’t amount to much.”

“Radiating from the skylight 36 feet in diameter are a series of sprigs, executed in glass and cast-iron, in green, yellow, blue, and white.  Bounding this is an outer circle of rosettes of white glass with blue center.  Outside this circle is a wide band of maroon with gold beads.  If left here the result would be a perfect architectural design.  Then comes the cove, passing at the bottom into an octagonal lintel.  The problem then became the unity of the two features, solved by the introduction of huge plant forms starting from the columns, and throwing out from each two leaves, 16 feet long, crossing each other and extending to the skylight.  This formation leaves a triangular space between the edge of the maroon band and the point of intersection of the two leaves.  The triangles, eight in number, are filled each with an immense flower, 7 feet 6 inches across the top, resting on a gold background.  From the opening of the flower arise four stamen and one pistil. The calyx is blue and the corella white.  The flower springs from a rudimentary spathe of maroon.  The effect of the eight flowered triangles is an octagonal star, losing its corners in the crossing leaves.  The spaces between the large plants, which make the real field of the cove, is deep cobalt blue, and bear minor designs of large leaves, falling opposite, and giving birth to two lateral and one central flower…”

“The gallery front presents the most interesting study of all.  It is the harmonizing of two different plants, each bearing a flower, and each inverting the colors of the other.  The field is dark blue, the stalks are light blue, and the flowers pink and white.  The intermediate design is a pink stalk, and a green and white flower.”

“Unique,” however, cuts both ways, and some in Moody’s congregation did not appreciate Sullivan’s departure into the “new:” “This is the most disgraceful coloring that ever defaced the walls of a church.”  A Daily Inter-Ocean reporter interviewed Edelmann’s partner, Joseph S. Johnston on Sullivan’s “unique style,” to which he replied that Sullivan “did not spare his colors, and they harmonize perfectly.”   (I cannot help but think of the similar controversy that Owen Jones’ initial color palette for the Crystal Palace in 1851 had generated.)  A few days later, Rev. Moody ended the controversy: “It (Sullivan’s decoration) is peculiar but I don’t see anything out of the way in it.  If I had been directing it many would have objected to my style as do to this… This thing of working for and trying to please the public is an ungrateful task.”

Public response to Sullivan’s two frescoes had been on the balance, positive, and although he had found his niche, the design of ornamented interior surfaces, the lack of commissions during the depression had forced Sullivan to go it alone as a freelance artist as the depression had forced Edelmann to close up shop and try his luck elsewhere.  Three lean years had followed until, Adler, who was the architect of the Sinai Synagogue, had chosen to once again engage Sullivan to design at least the organ screen, if not the entire interior of the Central Music Hall, and would, in the immediate future, come to rely upon Sullivan with increasing frequency.

FURTHER READING:

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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