Louis Sullivan

Scarano Architect
4 min readApr 7, 2023
Louis Sullivan

Louis Henry Sullivan was an American architect and has been called the “Father of skyscrapers” and “Father of modernism.” He was an influential architect of the Chicago School, a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, and an inspiration to the Chicago group of architects who have come to be known as the Prairie School. Along with Wright and Henry Hobson Richardson, Sullivan is one of “the recognized trinity of American architecture.” The phrase “form follows function” is attributed to him, although the idea was theorized by Viollet le Duc who considered that structure and function in architecture should be the sole determinants of form. In 1944, Sullivan was the second architect to posthumously receive the AIA Gold Medal as a tribute to his “enduring contribution to the theory and practice of architecture.”

Louis Sullivan was born on September 3, 1856, in Boston, Massachusetts to parents Patrick Sullivan and Adrienne List. His parents had migrated to the United States from Ireland and Switzerland during the 1840s. Louis had an older brother, Albert Walter. Sullivan attended public schools in Boston, and in 1869, his parents relocated to Chicago while young Louis choose to remain with his grandparents on their farm in South Reading.

An interesting Louis Sullivan fact is that little is known about his personal life. Various independent sources mention he had an older brother, Albert, but the relationship between the two remains unclear. Louis Sullivan married Margaret Hattabaugh, also known as Mary Azona Hattabaugh, at some time in 1889. Their relationship was troubled from the onset, and by 1906 there had already been a court order for their separation. Louis and Mary’s divorce was finalized in 1917. They did not have any children.

Sullivan graduated from high school a year before his classmates. In 1872, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the age of sixteen. He passed the exams from the curriculum for the first and second year in the course in just one semester. He left MIT only after a year and began working for Furness and Hewitt, in Philadelphia. In 1873, he briefly worked for a notable architect, William Le Baron Jenney in Chicago. In 1874, Sullivan left for Paris and enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, however, due to his strong distaste for classrooms and closed institutions, he was very neglectful of his lectures. Soon, he began apprenticing for renowned architect Emile Vaudremer. Louis lived in Paris for a year.

In 1875, Sullivan returned to Chicago and signed up as a draftsman for Joseph S. Johnston & John Edelman. Soon, he began to garner fame and admiration for his design for the interior decorative “fresco secco” stencils of the Moody Tabernacle. In 1879, Sullivan began his lifelong and incredibly successful partnership with Dankmar Adler. He was a renowned American architect of German descent and a civil engineer. During his fifteen-year partnership with Louis Sullivan, the two designed skyscrapers that were solid, useful, and beautiful. Together, they came to be considered the leading gurus of theatre architecture. In 1889, they designed the Auditorium Building in Chicago, a huge complex furnished with 4,200 seats, an office building with a 17-story high tower, and a hotel and commercial outlets. In the 1890s, the famous duos were involved in the development of the Schiller Building, the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, the Guaranty, or Prudential Building, New York, and the Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, Chicago.

In 1892, Sullivan developed his magnum opus, the Wainwright Tomb, a monument dedicated to the memory of Charlotte Dickson Wainwright, in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis. This building is not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is also a St. Louis Landmark. In 1893, Sullivan began designing his iconic polychrome modern Transportation Building for the “White City,” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The iconic duo of partners broke up in 1893, due to the severe economic depression that took over America, and Sullivan began encountering serious financial difficulties which led him to give into alcoholism.

In 1905, Sullivan wrote Natural Thinking: A Study in Democracy, but this work was never published. Of Sullivan’s writing, great American historian Henry Steele Commager wrote that he was “the greatest philosopher among the American architects, who tried to make architecture a vehicle for democracy.”

Some of the famous projects undertaken by Sullivan in his later years include the National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota; the Merchant’s National Bank in Grinnell Iowa; and the Krause Music Store in Chicago. In 1924, his autobiography, titled “The Autobiography of an Idea,” was published.

In the 1970s, there was a big campaign for the preservation of Sullivan’s architectural heritage. One of his most active supporters was Richard Nickel, who organized a series of protests against the demolition of Alder and Sullivan’s buildings.

Louis Henry Sullivan, the father of modern skyscrapers, was found dead in a shabby hotel room in downtown Chicago on April 14, 1924. A humble headstone marks this great man’s final resting place in the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Today, a monument is rising in Sullivan’s honor, a few feet from his tombstone.

Louis Sullivan was a talented architect whose life did not end well. We can pay tribute to his memory by researching him and looking into the remarkable projects he built. A lot can be learned this way. We at Scarano Architect, PLLC, pay our respects to fellow architect Louis Sullivan and admire his contributions to society and the world. Please feel free to visit our website to check out our award-winning designs. We can help you with all of your architectural needs. Just give us a call.

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