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The Architecture of Adler & Sullivan

In a prolific 15-year period between 1880 and 1895, Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan teamed up to produce an architecture that was stridently American—one that drew from nature for its ornament while creating simple, modern forms on steel frame walls.

In 1952, a photography student named Richard Nickel began to document Adler & Sullivan's work within the context of aging neighborhoods, crude remodeling and outright demolition. Of the 256 buildings designed by Adler & Sullivan, both as a team and as individuals, only 30 still stand.  Most were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s, and of these, the majority were in Chicago, where their firm was based. Nickel mounted an exhibition of Sullivan’s work in 1954, and began planning a book to document the process. Nickel's work continued until his accidental death in the Sullivan-designed Chicago Stock Exchange building in 1972. Upon his passing, the Richard Nickel Committee was formed to continue the research begun in his book. In late 2010, the University of Chicago Press published The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan, a 12-inch square, 461-page book with 815 photographs, which includes most of Nickel’s photographs.

Architect Ward Miller is executive director of the committee that brought Nickel’s work to fruition. I talked to him recently about the significance and influence Adler and Sullivan's work, and why the documentary photography of Richard Nickel is something everyone ought to know about.

Glass window panel from the firm of Adler & Sullivan. Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive.
What was the relationship between Adler and Sullivan professionally during their 15 years of practicing together? Their roles? How did it affect their architecture?
Adler & Sullivan are most associated with being an innovative and progressive architectural practice, forwarding the idea of an American style and expressing this in a truly modern format. Their work was widely published and at the forefront of building construction. Their buildings and especially their multipurpose structures, like the Auditorium Building and Auditorium Theater in Chicago, were unequaled. Furthermore, the expression of a tall building, its structure with a definite base, middle section or shaft and top or cornice was a new approach for the high building design. These types of tall structures developed into a format. It’s most evident in expression in the Wainwright Building in St. Louis and later the Guaranty Building in Buffalo New York. Even today, the vertical expression of a building employs these design principals.
Glass window panel from the firm of Adler & Sullivan. Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive.
What was the relationship between Adler and Sullivan professionally during their 15 years of practicing together? Their roles? How did it affect their architecture?

Adler & Sullivan are most associated with being an innovative and progressive architectural practice, forwarding the idea of an American style and expressing this in a truly modern format. Their work was widely published and at the forefront of building construction. Their buildings and especially their multipurpose structures, like the Auditorium Building and Auditorium Theater in Chicago, were unequaled. Furthermore, the expression of a tall building, its structure with a definite base, middle section or shaft and top or cornice was a new approach for the high building design. These types of tall structures developed into a format. It’s most evident in expression in the Wainwright Building in St. Louis and later the Guaranty Building in Buffalo New York. Even today, the vertical expression of a building employs these design principals.
A portrait of Louis Sullivan. Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive.
Sullivan attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but his work is distinctly American. What were the influences that caused him to look inward toward America, rather than outward toward Europe, for his designs?

Louis Sullivan was very much influenced by the writings of Thoreau and Whitman and by his experiences and study of nature – the seed germ, the seed pod and its development and flowering – which he related to the expression of a building. This was an approach that was not evident prior in such a format and scale in architecture.
Describe the era in which they practiced, the place, and how both affected their designs.
The era in which they were practicing in the 1880s and 1890s was a time when buildings became taller and an expression of that building style was still a great problem for architects. Often architects would reach to a more conventional or historical style and continue to stack floors onto these buildings, making a three story building a six story building with the same type of expression. This produced some rather awkward examples found in cities across the nation.
Of the firm's hundreds of commissions, which were most significant and why?
The most significant early example would be the multipurpose Auditorium Building, combining a 4,500-seat theater/opera house, a hotel and office building with some retail. The mammoth scale, ambitious program and its implementation, along with its tremendous success and its sheer beauty established the firm on a national scale. The theater’s acoustics, sightlines, innovations and integration of functions made it the foremost of the firm’s work, and one of the most important buildings of its age. The Schiller/Garrick was also important because it incorporated a theater, office building and retail on a much smaller site, but also used advances in technology, steel-frame construction and foundation footings to achieve the 17-story solution – the tallest building in the firm’s portfolio. The Chicago Stock Exchange Building of 1894 was a beautiful expression of an office building, with its undulating façade, surface decoration and clarity of structure. Other great structures are the Wainwright Building in St. Louis for its soaring vertical expression, along with its sister building, the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York, and later the Bayard Building in New York City. The Schlesinger & Mayer store, later known as Carson Pirie Scott, with Sullivan on his own (the Bayard Building in New York is also Sullivan on his own) is the clearest expression of the steel frame and materials. The jewel box banks and commissions throughout the Midwest are also extremely important on a number of levels and are often viewed as works of art, as well as architecture.
Auditorium Building, Chicago, Illinois, built 1886-1890. Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive.

Of those that remain, which is most important, and why?
All of the remaining buildings by Adler & Sullivan, Adler alone and Sullivan alone are very important. With about 30 structures of the 256 commissions left, each represents a phase in the full body of work. Each tells a story and gives insight into the firm’s work. The commercial buildings are all very important. And residential buildings like the Charnley House, the Row Houses for Ann Halsted, and the small Krause Music Store all hold special qualities that make them landmark structures.
A portrait of Richard Nickel. Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive.
Who was Richard Nickel and why should we care?

Richard Nickel was an architectural photographer who became interested in the work of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, while studying at the Institute of Design, later Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. With John Vinci, Aaron Siskind, and others, he began documenting these structures and gave us views of the buildings of Adler & Sullivan and others, often focused on the details, the ornament and the soaring qualities of the structures. He looked beyond the soot and grime of the urban cities of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the alterations and remodeling of those buildings. He also began photo-documenting the buildings in great detail and changed the views of many citizens as to why these buildings, sometimes considered obsolete, were really important. The effort to save the Schiller Building/Garrick Building and theater was the beginning of the preservation movement in America, along with efforts in New York to save Pennsylvania Station.
Could you comment on his understanding of the architects' work?
Nickel was astonished by the beauty of the buildings, and in their destruction could see the concealed structure exposed. He was an artist and there was a great interpretation of Adler & Sullivan’s work as it was under demise. There was a certain clarity that was revealed while these buildings were being dissembled piece by piece, with Nickel removing the ornamental terra cotta cladding for preservation, along with the wrecking companies whittling down these seminal masterpieces – revealing works of art in their own right.
Besides photography, what else is he known for?
Nickel is well known for his efforts to bring about an awareness of the importance of the great buildings of the Commercial Style, sometimes referred to as the Chicago Commercial Style and also known as the “Chicago School” or the “Chicago School of Architecture.” He was one of several public figures that protested the planned destruction of important architectural landmarks, most notably the Schiller/Garrick Building, although that extended to structures by other notable firms as well. Nickel also lost his life in an accident, within the walls of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building as it was being demolished in 1972.
Detail of the Schlessinger and Meyer Department Store, Chicago, Illinois, built 1899-1904. The National Farmers' Bank, Owatonna, Minnesota, built 1907-1908. Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive.
Where are all the artifacts that he salvaged today?

Many of the architectural fragments salvaged by Richard Nickel are at Southern Illinois University’s campus and library in Edwardsville, Illinois. These are fragments from his own personal collection that he sold to the university as it was planning a new campus. Other fragments from the Garrick and the Chicago Stock Exchange are in both public and private collections around the world, including several major art museums from the Art Institute of Chicago, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
What is the intent of The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan?
The intent of the book was to show the full body of work of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan and to introduce many works which had been forgotten or demolished over time. This all came together with Richard Nickel’s research, and that of others, into a volume to give the viewer or reader an understanding of each of the commissions. This is the catalogue raisonne section. The introductory essays are to familiarize the reader with the office, its strides in architecture and the “architecture and business climate of the day.” Nickel’s photographs, along with those of Aaron Siskind, John Vinci and others, are beautifully focused views of the commissions and projects, and it’s our hope that these best convey the buildings and their context and environment. We are hopeful that these images are looked upon as conveying the design principals of the architects, but also as beautiful images in their own right. We are also hopeful that the book will further positively impact the preservation of other structures that are not yet recognized as landmarks.
How long has the project been underway?
The project began as a student documentation of the buildings of Louis Sullivan in 1952, with Richard Nickel, Aaron Siskind and Ben Raeburn all focused on a book publication in 1957-1958. It was thought that a book would be published in the late 1950s, with several mock-ups prepared by Richard Nickel and Aaron Siskind. Nickel continued to work on the book, and was overwhelmed by the amount of material, the undertaking of research into each of the projects and commissions as well as time constraints. He was also trying to make a living, document and salvage buildings as they were in peril or in demolition. After his demise, the Richard Nickel Committee was formed with its mission to continue the research and to complete the publication The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan. It’s also committed to care for the archives, raise funds for all these activities and to dispose properly of the archive, as a gift to a collection.

Copies of "The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan" can be obtained through the University of Chicago Press and the Richard Nickel Committee.

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