My mentor Studs Terkel slyly mocked our country when he called it the United States of Amnesia. Listen to our radio ranters to prove that this criticism still prevails. And Architecture in America is an especially amnesiac swamp.
Americans can cite baseball hitter stats to the fourth decimal. Ditto football QB’s pass memorabilia. It’s not that our compatriots’ brains are absent. Their culture trains them to ignore Culture. They should take the time to view a new DVD on one of our country’s greatest architects, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), Mark Richard Smith’s “Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture” (Whitecap Films, 97 minutes, $25. Tel. 773-334-9077,831 W. Ainslie St., Chicago 60640.)
His life was full of disappointments. Reared on his grandparents farm North of Boston, at 16 he entered M.I.T., then a pioneering architecture school with a Beaux Arts faculty trained in Paris. He found the curriculum of copying Greek and Roman images a yawning bore, and dropped out after a year. But he hungered to see Paris directly. In six weeks he was fluent in French. And he was the only American (of 30) to gain admission. But the old BA ritual still turned off his curious muse.
Still Europe inflamed his imagination, especially Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. He vowed to do as well. Back in America, Chicago beckoned. A devastating fire in 1871 paradoxically freed the urban landscape for new architects to work.
In 1875 came the greatest marriage of architectural skills in our history, the acoustical moxie of engineer Dankmar Adler and the decorative skill of Sullivan. Their first triumph was the Auditorium on Chicago’s main drag, Michigan Avenue. The duo ran with the dream of philanthropist Ferdinand Peck who funded a 4,000 opera house “for the masses”, a 400 room hotel for the movers and shakers rebuilding Chicago, and a 17 story office building (A & S set up shop on the 16th, with an unbeatable view of the new metropolis abuilding.)
Sullivan then “invented” the skyscraper, first the Wainwright in St. Louis, and the Guaranty in Buffalo: transforming the classical Column into a base, upward thrust floors, and topped by a roof “capital”. That simple form succeeded throughout the Midwest.
And when the perfectionist Sullivan got behind on his sketches, he hired a Wisconsin dropout—the then unknown Frank Lloyd Wright, soon to become their chief draftsman. They invited President Benjamin Harrison to the Aud opening in 1892. He was so impressed that Congress soon gave Chicago the go-ahead on the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, a year late for the quadra-centenary because of a financial panic.
Alas their main competitors, Daniel Burnham and John Root, got the Columbian exhibition call to create their White City, a Beaux Arts revival to end all, an insult to Sullivan’s program to create a new architecture expressing this country’s unique values.
He did design the most-liked build at the fair, the Transportation Building. But millions of American that summer took the White City virus back to their hometowns, blocking for a generation, Sullivan’s dream. Adler was married with kids so when the financial panic killed their business, he took a $25,000 job from Crane Elevator and dissolved the firm. In 2000, 44 year old Louis married unhappily. And it was downward for the rest of his life: cheap hotels, loans from old friends, miserable isolation.
But (in my judgment) his greatest achievement—the small town banks his clients dubbed his “Jewel Boxes”-paralleled this painful alienation. During that brief turn of the century Progressive politics, small towns were full of idealism that responded to his dreams. Serendipitously, my son Michael left Philadelphia for college in Minnesota. There he introduced me to the greatest JB--in Owatonna (that is to say Nowhere) Minnesota.
I was soon in love with his JB’s. So I bought me a Greyhound Ameripass and proceeded to make a pious odyssey of my devotion. One night I pitstopped overnight in Dayton where my Newman Club chum, Sandy King, then taught American history at the U of Dayton. Up at the crack of dawn to take the First Dirty Dawg to Sidney, Ohio, I was the only guy on the bus.
As we pulled into Sidney, I asked the driver shyly for some extra time to take pictures. “Sure,” he smiled affably. “Two cigarettes worth!” (It was a wonder, the motto THRIFT scrawled sweetly across the main façade.) As I piled back on the bus, the driver exclaimed, "Damn but that’s a pretty building! I’ve driven by it a thousand times and never even noticed it. Thank you, mister for opening my eyes.” I smiled and ogled my Greyhound map. Next stop: Grinnell, Iowa.
Take it from my favorite Greyhound driver. You see Mark Richard Smith’s new Sullivan DVD and you’ll soon be roaming his Midwest, relishing on the spot Louis Sullivan’s JB’s.
Another version of this article appears at Broad Street Review.