While Root, the polymath was exhibiting signs of “burnout” in mid-1888, the prodigy, Louis Sullivan was finding his stride as an architect. We left Sullivan in July 1888, in charge of dismantling the temporary construction needed to stage the Republican Convention within the construction site of the Auditorium (whose exterior construction had reached the third story). Adler, meanwhile, had joined Ferdinand Peck on a two-month long tour of Europe’s great Opera Houses, researching the latest stage/scenery equipment. He had returned in September 1888 to be greeted with another set of design revisions: first, to add one more floor to the tower for a total of seventeen (and an additional 1200 tons to its already overloaded foundation) ostensibly to make it taller (240′) than the recently announced Owings Building as well as its Minneapolis competitor, Mix’s 220′ tall Northwestern Guaranty Building, so that they could still claim it was tallest building (the 303’ Board of Trade was a mere spire) in the West. (I say in the West because this issue of tallest building vs. tower vs. spire gets all the more blurred when taking into account structures in New York. However, at this moment, Chicago’s Board of Trade tower still held the record in the U.S.) Eventually a two-story wooden belvedere used as an observatory and by the U.S. Signal Corps was added to the Auditorium’s tower that increased its overall height to 275.’
It is with Sullivan’s final design of the tower that I want to pick up with the design of the Auditorium. In Sec. 2.9. I recorded that Peck and Sullivan had travelled to New York in February 1887 to confer with William Ware over the final detailing of the building’s exterior. Judging from the differences Sullivan’s two earlier “unresolved” designs and this much more refined, mature design, I believe I am correct in giving Ware, and not Sullivan the bulk of the credit for having arrived at this design. I believe this will be borne out after I present the “unfortunate” revisions that Sullivan made to this design in the tower’s final appearance. This design was represented in Paul Lautrup’s third perspective dated April 1887. I have stated that Ware had posited to Sullivan George Post’s Produce Exchange as a model for the project and had suggested the use of some of its details.
One such example was the telescoping arches in its main arcade. A second was in how Post had detailed its tower. In this third iteration, Ware had not only had pushed the tower in front of the 10-story body, but had also interrupted the body’s top cornice line, allowing the tower to extend from the ground to beyond, uninterrupted by the cornice, hence allowing the tower to read as its “own” mass: an unbroken, vertical 16-story element counter-balancing the long, 10-story horizontal body. This was reinforced in Ware’s design by not allowing the sillcourse at the tenth floor or the body’s cornice to run past the four piers of the tower: therefore, the piers of the tower extended unbroken for six stories, making the tower dominate the similar language of the body.
Meanwhile, for whatever reason, and historians have offered a number of explanations, Sullivan revised the final design of the tower so that both the tenth-floor sillcourse and the cornice ran unbroken past the tower, confusing the clarity of the expression of the tower vis-à-vis the body. He then further blurred the building’s architectonics by placing a second, corbelled cornice at the base of the tower, one story above the building’s cornice. This one story acts as a base upon which the remaining six-stories of the tower are placed.
One author has surmised that Sullivan had expressed his organic idea by detailing this six-story tower to have burst out of the 10-story base, (as a flower rising out of its pot) leaving this one-storied corbelled base as evidence. A good story, but it can’t hide the fact that Sullivan was “still maturing” as an architectural designer: is it a 17-story tower in front of a 10-story base, or is it a 10-story base with a seven-story tower placed on top? And it doesn’t get any easier to discern which it is when looking at the lower, unresolved ten stories of the tower.
Could Sullivan have deferred to the Renaissance precedent of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence? However, there is no question that the Palazzo’s tower has been placed upon the body below because the elevational language of the body is not interrupted by any detail carried down from the tower above. Sullivan’s final design, however, tried to have it both ways: while the tower’s three-story granite base appears to have sprouted out of the ground and displaced the base’s third story into the fourth. the language of the body’s elevation continue across the upper portions of the tower’s three bays. This completely changed the reading of the tower from Ware’s continuous, 16-story vertically dominant mass that projected out from the body, to Sullivan’s six-story block that was added to the top of the ten-story horizontal body.
(Sullivan may have eventually perceived his mistake and in response, may have coined his famous dictum about a skyscraper, “It must be tall, every inch tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud, soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from the bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line…” so that he would never repeat this mistake. Whether or not the Auditorium’s tower was the source for his famous quote, there is no doubt that this description did not describe the Auditorium’s tower. Sullivan did not repeat the mistake when he faced a similar design problem some three years later in the Schiller Theater.)
Discounting these flaws in the final design of the tower, I must also note that Sullivan was quickly maturing as a designer during the process of designing this building (both on the exterior as well as in the interior, as historian David Van Zanten has thoroughly documented). Sullivan was obviously carefully studying the elevation of Richardson’s Field Whole Store. In his final constructed elevation of the body Sullivan eliminated à la Richardson, Ware’s superfluous continuation not only of the spandrel of the fifth floor onto the corner pier (see arrow) but also the impost block at the seventh floor. I think he also improved the overall composition of the elevation by joining the eighth and ninth floors into a two-story arcade by recessing the ninth-floor spandrel, imparting the same 4:2:1 floor progression that Richardson had detailed in the Field design.
Van Zanten in his study of Sullivan identified this change in Sullivan’s designs:
“Between 1886 and 1890 Sullivan passed through a sudden phase of imitating the severe Romanesque style of H.H. Richardson. This commenced abruptly with the design of the Auditorium Building in late 1886 and ended equally abruptly with that of the Walker Warehouse of 1888-89. At least by the time of the Walker project this had become a cathartic experience for him… In 1886, he simplified by retreating from his own Furnessic ornamental fantasizing and accepted the tutelage of another master, Richardson.”
I would make two additions to Van Zanten’s explanation of Sullivan’s epiphany: first, as I have argued in Vol. Three, Sec. 11.20., Richardson did not attempt formal simplification in his massing as his Field Store for which he is justly known, until he was commissioned to design a building across the street from Root’s Burlington building, i.e., Richardson’s first box was a response to Chicago’s boxes; and second, the missing link between Furness and Richardson in Van Zanten’s argument is the intervention of William Ware in the design of the Auditorium. Ware had taken Sullivan, the disciple of Furness, and by introducing Sullivan to the simplicity of George Post’s Produce Exchange, had turned Sullivan’s eyes and mind to studying Richardson’s design ideas as constructed in the Field Wholesale Store. As Richardson had been influenced by Root, so had been Sullivan’s catharsis: Ware was brought to Chicago because of Root’s supporters demanding a competition.
Sullivan revealed the lessons he had learned from Ware and Richardson in a talk he gave in April 1887, within six weeks of having returned from Ware’s office in New York, at the Illinois State Association of Architects:
“ ‘What is the Just Subordination. In Architectural Design, of Details to Mass?’… The more I ponder this title-question, the more I am at a loss for a precise answer; the possibilities, when within the limitations of climate, are so manifold, and so native. But for the moment it suits me to favor a very simple outline, particularly at the roof, which is the part most vulnerable to the elements…
Within this simple outline, then, I prefer such subdivision of the masses into detail as is strictly called for by the utilitarian requirements of the building; and that they should comport with its size, location and purpose. That the materials of construction should largely determine the special form of details, and all, that there shall effuse from the completed structure a single sentiment which shall be the spiritual result of a prior and perfect understanding and assimilation of all the data.”
“But for the moment it suits me to favor a very simple outline, particularly at the roof…” Sullivan had, indeed, come a long way from his first design of the Auditorium (drawn a mere six months earlier). This would be evident in his next three designs.
de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.
Historic American Buildings Survey-The Auditorium: https://loc.gov/pictures/item/il0091/
Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Van Zanten, David. Sullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan. New York: Norton, 2000.
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