Saturday, October 31, 2015


The Wainwright Building, by Adler & Sullivan (1891). The State of Missouri currently owns the Wainwright Building and houses state offices there. (All photos by me) 

Being a geeky architect, one of the things I had to do while I was in St. Louis during CONSTRUCT 2015 was visit the Wainwright Building. Most architectural history buffs can tell you it was Louis Sullivan (the architect who infamously proclaimed “form ever follows function”) who designed the Wainwright Building. Many regard it, along with the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, as the quintessential tall buildings in Sullivan’s portfolio, examples from when his influence upon the profession and the future of skyscraper design was at its zenith. 

Completed in 1891, the 10-story tall Wainwright Building holds an unquestionably prominent place in the canon of modern architecture as one of the first commercial skyscrapers in the world. Sullivan believed the new steel-framed, high-rise building type deserved its own form of expression. He said as much in an 1896 article he titled The Tall Building Artistically Considered, writing the skyscraper "must be tall, every inch of it 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 and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line." Critics lauded the Wainwright Building for its tectonic honesty and departure from the neo-classical vocabulary Sullivan’s contemporaries clumsily applied to similarly tall buildings. 

Notwithstanding the Wainwright Building’s significance as an early representative of a truly modern architecture, what I was most engrossed by was Sullivan’s use of unglazed terra cotta ornamentation to embellish the otherwise simple structure. Contrary to later modernists (particularly Adolf Loos, who declared “ornament is crime”) who would eschew the integration of decorative elements, Sullivan characteristically employed a lush and intricate weaving of stylized foliage in repeated patterns at the building’s frieze, cornice, spandrels, and door surrounds. Wholly unique in their conception, you can nevertheless see how Sullivan must have been inspired by the work of the Art Nouveau movement, Nordic popular art, Celtic interlacings, and the Gothic style. 

We know Sullivan also looked to the poet Walt Whitman, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and others to mine ideas about how the environment shapes our behavior. Sullivan believed a truly indigenous American architecture should not be about classic Greek forms coming from Europe but instead derived from organic American motifs. He was trying to create an original architectural vocabulary, one suitable for application to new and uniquely American building types like the skyscraper. His decorative embellishments were so original and unique they soon became known collectively as the “Sullivanesque” style. 

Door surround

I’ve always been amazed by the inventiveness of Sullivan’s architectural ornament, so it was a real treat to see the Wainwright Building in person. What I found surprising is how much of the building is actually quite plain, which only served to make the terra cotta ornamentation appear that much richer and complex. It’s difficult for me to fathom the spark of genius Sullivan possessed to create such elaborate and beautiful designs. I can only wish to come close to mastering his ability to balance and integrate art and architecture so successfully. 

While I was in St. Louis, the wildly eccentric and eclectic City Museum coincidentally featured an exhibit of some of the mass-produced Sullivanesque terra cotta pieces and other items. Manufacturers such as Chicago’s Midland Terra Cotta Company and the St. Louis Terra Cotta Company replicated designs by Sullivan, William Purcell, George Elmslie, and other Chicago School architects, distributing catalogs to publicize their availability. As a result, the use of Sullivanesque ornament on commercial buildings became widespread throughout the Midwestern states during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I found the City Museum's display of Sullivanesque ornament impressive in its scope and quality. 

Sullivanesque ornament display at the City Museum

Elevator panel, Guaranty Building, Buffalo 1894

I wonder why we don’t see architects today doing more to exploit the decorative potential of terra cotta ornament on their buildings. I’m sure there are reasons why but I don’t know what they are. Perhaps there is a dearth of large-scale manufacturers, victims of a market that disappeared when the banishment of ornament became a guiding tenet of modern architecture. Perhaps custom terra cotta designs are expensive, anathema in a time when the budget is always the thing. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame we can’t again capture the joyous spirit and richness inherent in the material’s decorative potential. Louis Sullivan embraced this potential and gave life in the process to an original American architecture truly expressive of its time. 


1 comment:

Specologist said...

Great article, Randy.

I'm a real Sullivan fan. Years ago I had a summer drafting job working for an engineer whose office was in Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building in Chicago. LaSalle Street side of the building, fourth floor, I think. I got to see Sullivan's ornament up close and it was glorious. The Stock Exchange was demolished a few years later and the building that replaced it is ordinary and undistinguished.

I'm glad the Wainwright Building has survived.