10.10. UPGRADING CHICAGO’S THEATERS: ADLER AND SULLIVAN

Louis H. Sullivan, Central Music Hall, Organ Screen, Chicago, 1879. (Siry, Auditorium)

In the Introduction, I identified two design aspects of a Chicago School building: first, the building’s exterior expressed the building’s structural system, be it a bearing wall or an iron skeleton frame; second, its exterior ornament (as well as its interior ornament) was not an imitation of an historical style, but was derived by its designer free from direct historical quotes, i.e., it was ahistorical, and as it was derived by Americans, could be construed as a modern, American system of architectural ornamentation.  The architect we associate with this aspect of the Chicago School is, of course, Louis Sullivan, and we have now arrived at his emergence in Chicago as its leading ornamentalist.  I consider him to be the J.S. Bach of Chicago architecture as he continued to evolve his systems of ornament over the course of his professional career.  One of his chroniclers, David Van Zanten, described it, I think, best: 

“Why did Sullivan’s ornament get better, more subtle, and more powerful as he got older, in spite of the evaporation of his practice?.. Historicism in architecture, like period imitation in ornament, worked by the modification of a predictable model… [while] Sullivan’s elaboration of a principle produced a solution predictable only from the problem engendering it.  Such solutions could thus surprise and their production could be an imaginative performance in itself, a display of artistic virtù… Design, for Sullivan, was a process, a performance, something that he did carefully and progressively to display and enjoy his virtù.  As such, Sullivan found [arenas] for its performance in successively different contexts… finally in pure, functionless ornamental fantasy when real building of any sort was denied him [towards the end of his career].”

As one looks back on this period, Louis Sullivan has the more important reputation, but if it wasn’t for Dankmar Adler’s expertise in acoustics and theater house design, Sullivan would never have had either the opportunity to design or to publicly showcase his maturing superiority in the design of architectural ornamentation.  We have reviewed Sullivan’s early interior decoration commissions of 1875 in Sec. 1.8.: together with his friend, John Edelmann the interior design for Moody’s Tabernacle, the interior of Adler’s Sinai Synagogue as well as the organ screen for Adler’s Central Music Hall.  

The reviews of Sullivan’s first two interiors had been mixed, as one might have expected, given the “newness” of his design theory and process.  The Chicago Tribune had published the most detailed description of Sullivan’s design of the interior of Moody’s Tabernacle:

“The severe simplicity, coupled with the absence of perspective, [abstracting, not copying] 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.”

But some of Rev. 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.”   A few days later, Rev. Moody tried to end 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.”

Dankmar Adler (with Louis Sullivan), Remodeled Grand Opera House, Chicago, 119 N. Clark, 1880. (Gregersen, Adler)

Unfortunately, no pictures or even detailed descriptions of either design have survived, so all we can do is to assign the term “controversial” to Sullivan’s early designs.  Following the completion of the Central Music Hall Adler hired the 24-year old Sullivan on May 1, 1880, to be his head draftsman. At this same time, Adler had been commissioned by William Borden, (owner together with his father John, of the Borden Block) to enlarge the Grand Opera House on the former site of Bryan Hall, destroyed in the 1871 fire, on the east side of N. Clark St., between Randolph and Washington, across the street from the under-construction new City-County Building.  

While Adler reconfigured the entire house to improve sightlines and acoustics, it is the interior ornamental program that is most important for this study, as this was Sullivan’s first commission as a full-time employee.   Now that Sullivan was no longer a part-time contractor, but a full-time employee, he seems to have been self-encouraged to explore the full range of the expression of his ideas as he employed in the refurbished interior, what one critic described as “a multitude of garish colors that ranged from green and maroon to blue and black.”

In June 1881 Adler was commissioned to design a new Opera House from the ground up in Kalamazoo, MI.  He placed a three-story office slab along the street behind which he placed the auditorium, that Charles Gregersen compared to S.S. Beman’s design the year before for the theater in the Pullman Arcade.  New York set-designer Hughson Hawley was commissioned to design the interior of the Pullman theater, in which he incorporated Islamic and Persian motifs. I mention Beman here because I believe Beman’s detailing in the Pullman Building will also have an influence on Sullivan in the future.  For the Kalamazoo theater, Sullivan was, once again, responsible for the design of the ornamentation on the proscenium and the private boxes.

Following the 1882 Chicago May Festival in the Expo Center, Adler was then hired by the owner of Hooley’s Theater, just around the corner from the Grand Opera House at 124 W. Randolph, to rework the proscenium and to add a number of box seats that was completed by August 1882.  Adler placed three tiers of box seats that were constructed of ornamented cast iron frames to both sides of the reworked proscenium.  

Dankmar Adler (with Louis Sullivan), Remodeling of Hooley’s Theater, 1882. (Siry, Auditorium)

Sullivan had designed the ornamental patterns that were cast in the iron spandrels that were bronzed in such a manner that a critic remarked that “it seems incredible that the parts are castings.”  When Sullivan was interviewed by the Inter-Ocean about his design, the writer tried to force him to categorize his work in terms of traditional ornamental styles. Sullivan revealed the influence that Frank Furness had had on him during his brief stint in Philadelphia: 

“I have no terms to characterize what you see.. I have not given study to the nomenclature of the peculiar art forms developed in these boxes or carried out in that proscenium crown.  These are unclassified forms, and stock terms will convey no adequate idea of the successful treatment under a formula that is a new phase in the art view of architecture… I prefer that you speak of it as the successful solution to a problem.” 

The reporter may have had the last word, however, for he summarized Sullivan as a “pleasant gentleman, but somewhat troubled with large ideas tending to metaphysics.”  I’m quite sure that this writer had no idea just how prescient his evaluation of Sullivan’s inner nature was… 

Nevertheless, this was the first recorded statement by Sullivan I have found that declared he had joined the ranks of Chicagoans Peter B. Wight, William Le Baron Jenney , and John Wellborn Root  in the open pursuit of developing a new style of architecture, free from copying the styles of the past.

FURTHER READING:

Gregersen, Charles E.  Dankmar Adler: His Theaters and Auditoriums. Athens, Ohio University, 1990.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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

Van Zanten, David.  Sullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan. New York: Norton, 2000.

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

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