10.21. “LET THERE BE LIGHT (AND COLOR)”- SULLIVAN’S INTERIOR FOR MCVICKER’S THEATER

Adler & Sullivan, McVicker’s Theater (remodeling), Chicago, 1885. (Gregersen, Adler)

On the morning of June 14, 1885, some six weeks after the new Board of Trade’s Grand Opening, everyone in Chicago was talking about Sullivan.  Sullivan’s name was in every local newspaper and on the lips of every man who “was a man.”  In fact, Sullivan had been the talk of the town for the entire first half of June, as Chicago prepared to witness the great contest between the “Boston Strong Boy,” America’s champion heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan, and Jack “Irish Lad” Burke scheduled for the night of June 13, 1885, at Chicago’s Driving Park.  Over 12,000 spectators turned out that night to watch Sullivan overwhelm the middleweight in only five rounds.  Two weeks later on July 1, just under 2,000 people attended the grand reopening performance in McVicker’s newly remodeled theater whose interior design by Louis H. Sullivan received rave reviews.   The reviews notwithstanding, or, for that matter, his own recollections some forty years later in his Autobiography of an Idea, twenty-nine year-old Louis Sullivan was not yet a “household name” by the middle of 1885, as he had not yet developed into a first-rate architect.  To give him credit where it is deserved, we can say that his ability to design interior ornament was quickly maturing with every new commission during this period of his early career.

Adler & Sullivan, McVicker’s Theater (remodeling). Drawing by Sullivan for the design of Private Boxes, dated Jan. 9, 1883 (this was part of their 1883 design, not the final late 1884 design.) (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

We have seen that in early 1883, following the Chicago debut of Adelina Patti, McVicker had first approached D. Adler & Co., Chicago’s premiere theater designers at the time (Sullivan would not advance to full partnership until later in May of that year), with a proposal to remodel his famous theater anticipating that the Patti concerts would continue the following year, but then had postponed the remodeling until the fall of 1884.  Although Adler had vastly improved the sightlines, acoustics, ventilation in the remodeled structure, as well as having added 12 boxes, two tiers of three boxes to each side of the new proscenium, it had been Sullivan’s design of the interior that was the focus of the media’s attention: “Nothing like it, or anything approaching it, has ever before been seen in this country.”  Although no pictures of the interior are known to exist, contemporary reports stated that the “style” of Sullivan’s ornament were “after the Moresque pattern, and everything conforms, with slightly varying degrees in different parts of the house, to this general idea.” 

Adler & Sullivan, McVicker’s Theater (remodeling), Chicago, 1885. Entrance. (Gregersen, Adler)

A drawing of the new vestibule of the theater shows the influence of Owen Jones in the patterns that Sullivan had designed in which he had employed Jones’ recommendations of geometry and organic shapes.  As he had been working on both McVicker’s and the 1885 Opera Festival installation during late 1884 and the winter of 1885, Sullivan’s curves on the sidewalls and the ceiling echo those he had employed in the Exposition Center, and once again beg the question of the lack of mention by historians of Sullivan’s early development of Art Nouveau motifs.

One also wonders why historians have puzzled over Sullivan’s employment of Moorish details as the point of departure for much of his ornament, because his inspiration and his design process for his ornament came straight out of Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament, that not only contained a vast collection of Islamic patterns, but also was influenced by Jones’ earlier 1842 published study of the Alhambra, in which he had documented the tradition of polychromatic ornament in Islamic buildings.  

As Sullivan later summarized his design, “The architectural treatment of the interior of McVicker’s Theater is based upon a single consistent scheme or plan which is differentiated into form, color and illumination.”  Owen Jones could not have said it better. 

And it was Sullivan’s illumination that got people’s attention!  (The Biblical quote in the title of this section came from Siry’s quoting Real Estate and Building Journal of July 18, 1885.) Although Thomas Edison had been granted his first patent for an incandescent electric light bulb in 1880, the technology was slow to catch on as it had taken time for building owners to accept the new technology and for designers to appreciate its aesthetic potential.  Adler & Sullivan made the bold decision not only to incorporate this new technology for the first time in a theater, but Sullivan was also one of the first to take advantage of the bulb’s ornamental potential with his design of McVicker’s.  This he did not only from a detail perspective, but also at a conceptual level.  What was most revealing about Sullivan’s artistic talent in this early employment of the incandescent bulb was that he did not just place the 1,235 bulbs on the surfaces of the walls and sounding board but had the aesthetic imagination to actually incorporate the bulbs within his overall ornamental concept and details.  The bulbs were placed within perforated plaster rosettes and bosses that Sullivan had designed with his own personal style of geometricized ornament that hid the exposed bulb from sight (and glare) but still allowed its indirect glow to highlight the surrounding surface’s color and texture.

“Handsomely moulded bosses and rosettes are profusely distributed over the walls, and are found in consecutive circles on the ceiling, and these being perforated are made the medium of admitting the softened light which permeates the house without the source of the combustion (of gas jests) being seen, not a bulb, not a jet, not a wick of any kind is visible, and yet so lavishly are the lights provided that the sounding board alone has 105 lamps concealed by its elaborate ornamentation.

It could be said that Sullivan’s design was one of the earliest examples of the concept of indirect lighting.  How I want you to envision how first-time viewers experienced this space is to project yourself back to that time, never having seen an electric light or the quality of light that it produces.  It would be the equivalent of a “high-tech” interior of today. You were be experiencing “the future!”

The architects also realized that the traditional immense chandelier hanging from the ceiling would no longer be needed.  As The Tribune’s reporter who covered the new construction noted: “one can say good-by to the cumbrous ornament without a pang, for people… in the house never looked up at it without thinking of the sword of Damocles.”

Inherently appreciating the new warmth of color rendition that resulted from the light produced by the incandescent bulb, Sullivan, in collaboration with Chicago’s leading decorative designers George L. Healy and Louis J. Millet (see next section), had conceived of an interior environment of graded colors.  The Tribune reporter interpreted the interior colors as:

“…the keynote of the entrance will be dark mahogany leading into peacock blue.  Then all the lower part of the theater proper, as it now appears, is done in reddish yellow, gradually growing lighter and lighter as the eye wanders upward until the in carved work of the ceiling and proscenium arch it is lost in a creamy whiteness. The effect can hardly be judged until the whole is illuminated by electric lights…”

Meanwhile, an Inter-Ocean reporter described its opening night: 

“…it presents rich reds and metal effects; as you pass to the foyer it changes to blue and gold, and presently from the blue and gold there bursts on the eye a pale red brown, which floats up in mellowing metamorphosis – like the sun from the filmy veil of dawn – to cream color in the ceiling.  In this beautiful transformation act in pigments not fewer than twenty-seven different shades blend into each other and so imperceptibly that the boundary lines are indefinable.  The effect produced by this method of lighting cannot be described.  The whole interior of the theater seems bathed in a luminosity which, while intensely penetrative, is so softened and refined that no glare can possibly hurt the vision or interfere with the fullest appreciation of the most delicate tints and the most subtle gradations.”

Once again, I am reminded of reviews of Owen Jones’ buildings, especially the “bloom” of daylight he was famous for recreating in St. James’s Hall. Sullivan, Healy, and Millet had accomplished in McVicker’s interior what Root had been trying to experiment with on the exterior of a building (since 1883 with the Rialto), a gradation of color from the base of a building to its cornice.  Root was attempting use “applied” polychromy to transcend Victorian “structural” polychromy, that is achieving color in a building’s façade using “truthful” real materials, quoting Ruskin’s idea that color in nature is independent of form.  (Root’s canvas during this period was the building’s exterior because his commissions were for large buildings that contained no space large enough for such gradations, while Sullivan, who had no tall buildings through this period, had many tall spaces in the interior of the vast theaters he was given to design.)  Root had published this concept only three months (Inland Architect, April 1885) before McVicker’s opened to the public in his article, “Architectural Ornamentation:”

“In large buildings the use of several colors should be less violent, so that while the general tone may be deep and full as we can make it, the variations of color are subtle and are obtained through gradations instead of contrasts… Probably no higher art exists than this: to produce in a great building that wonderful bloom obtained by mosaics of pure color.”

In his earlier 1883 article, “The Art of Pure Color,” Root cited the paintings by “proto-Impressionists” Turner and Whistler for their “emotional” use of color, 

“… in painting, form appeals directly to the mind, color to the emotions, just as in an oratorio or opera the mind is directly interested in the words, while the emotions are more moved by the music… [Whistler] was able to translate into pigments effects which were in their nature too vague to be drawn… When Turner first flung upon canvas the full chaotic strength of his wonderful palette, all the art world thought the graceful water-colorist had gone mad… Even after Turner had worked his miracles on them, they were not yet whole, seeing “men only as trees walking,” but they had been led toward sight, and could at least see enough to know that all sky was not blue, nor all grass green.”

Surely, Root would have understood the gradations of “pure color” employed by Sullivan, Healy, and Millet as the logical evolution of the efforts of these avant-garde painters…

Speaking of papers, Sullivan made his debut as an architectural theorist six months later in October 1885 at the second W.A.A. Convention in St. Louis, where he presented his first written piece, “Characteristics and Tendencies of American Architecture.” Verbally articulating his artistic intensions toward evolving an American modern style of architecture that were self-evident in his prior theater designs, he centered his thesis, as he would continue throughout his career, on the inspiration gained from a thoughtful study of and the resulting use of metaphor for nature:

“Many who have commented upon the practice of architecture in this country have regarded the absence of a style, distinctively American, as both strange and deplorable… These theories have been for the greater part suggested by the feelings awakened in contemplating the matured beauty of Old World Art, and imply a grafting or transplanting process… their advocates have ignored the complex fact, that, like a new species of any class, a national style must be a growth, that slow and gradual assimilation of nutriment and a struggle against obstacles are necessary adjuncts to the purblind process of growth… We surely have in us the germ of artistic greatness…but architects as a professional class have held it more expedient to maintain the traditions of their culture than to promulgate vitalizing thought.  Here then we are weak…

“If the conclusions set forth in this paper be accepted as correct, it becomes evident, however, that the formative beginnings of this national style, now in progress, are of the utmost immediate interest to us…”

10.22. INTERIOR DESIGNERS PAR EXCELLENCE: HEALY & MILLET

Healy and Millet’s Studio, Chicago, 223-5 S. Wabash, c. 1885. (Darling, Chicago Ceramics)

George Louis Healy (1856-?) was the son of Chicago’s famous portraitist, George Peter Alexander Healy (the two are often confused with each other) who was brought to Chicago by William Ogden in 1855 (see Vol. One, Chap. 8). (I have to insert this here: the long shadow of William Ogden as Chicago’s father grows ever larger…) While George L. was born in Chicago, his father had moved to Paris in 1869, where the son attended the École des Beaux-Arts in the second half of the 1870s.  Here he befriended Louis J. Millet (1856-1923), born in New York and nephew of Parisian sculptor Aimé Millet, whose monumental statue of Vercingétorix we have already reviewed in Vol. 2, Sec. 5.6. As Viollet-le-Duc had consulted with his uncle on the statue, it is quite conceivable that the nephew Millet had been introduced by his uncle to the great French architect. It is generally thought that the two art students had befriended Louis Sullivan during his one semester stay at the École during the fall of 1874. 

The two art students had been able to experience firsthand the emergence of Impressionism as they were in Paris during the first exhibition in April 1874 of the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers (that adopted the name ‘Impressionism’ in 1877). In fact, they were able to view the second (1876) and the third (1877) exhibitions as well. As such, as far as I have been able to determine, they were the only designers in Chicago during the first half of the 1880s that had personally seen the products of Impressionist painters and, therefore, were able to bring to Chicago and apply the ideas of color and light of these paintings in their own work in Chicago. I include two paintings from each of the three exhibitions to give you a sample of what they had seen in Paris.

FIRST EXHIBITION: April 15-May 15, 1874:

SECOND EXHIBITION: April 1876:

Left: Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1875-6; Berthe Morisot, Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry, 1875. (Online)

THIRD EXHIBITION: April 1877:

This also may mean that Healy could easily have been the first Chicagoan to set eyes on what would eventually become one of the Art Institute’s beloved masterpieces. The two art students had quickly became friends, and it would seem that Healy had convinced Millet to return to his home town and form a partnership in 1880. Millet would begin teaching design classes at the Art Institute in January 1886, where he taught an evening class where he stressed that decorative design was “the conventionalization of natural forms” and how to derive “designs from nature and historical ornament.”  He founded its Department of Decorative Design and was its leader through 1918.  The partners dissolved the firm in 1899, with Millet continuing to design many of the Midwest’s important buildings (many with Sullivan) into the early 1920s. 

FURTHER READING:

Darling, Sharon S. Chicago Ceramics and Glass. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1979. 

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.

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: The Public Papers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

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

Weingarden, Lauren S., “The Colors of Nature: Louis Sullivan’s Architectural Polychromy and Nineteenth Century Color Theory,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 243-260.

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

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