In the Summer of 2006 I was watching CSI reruns. During a commercial break Chicago architect Louis Sullivan came to mind. (I’m an architectural historian, so that’s not such a far-fetched idea.) But not about pre-1900 LHS, the designer who practically invented the skyscraper. I was thinking about Late Louis–the substance-abusive designer of small-town banks throughout the American Midwest, at places like Owatonna, Minnesota, Sidney, Ohio, and Grinnell, Iowa. Sullivan called this series of eight small banks his “jewel boxes,” and he lavished on them some of his most effusive ornament. These banks interest me enormously, but that night in August 2006 I had a different thought.
These banks were products of a different financial perspective. Home-grown, family-owned, they were institutions of pride for their respective communities. While they were hardly “too big to fail,” there was little danger of that happening. What interested me in 2006 was the likelihood that these same communities (in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota) were also contemplating the building of a Carnegie era library–one of the 1800 or so small public libraries funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie or the hundreds of others that they influenced. As leaders in their communities, bank presidents were also likely to be on library boards. So here’s the question du jour: Why didn’t Louis Sullivan ever have the opportunity to design a Carnegie-era public library? He was working in communities where the public library movement was strong, and he was working with clients who moved and shook the places where they lived and worked. Here’s the more intriguing follow-up question: What would a Carnegie library look like if Louis Sullivan had designed one?
Before the CSI rerun was over, I had set myself this problem: Design a Carnegie-era public library circa 1914 in the style of architect Louis Sullivan. Four years later, I’m still struggling with that personal challenge. What I couldn’t have known at the time was that Agincourt, Iowa would become the vehicle.
[For a brief introduction to Sullivan, there is an exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago.]