Architect Robert Venturi famously learned from Las Vegas. My lot in life? Intuiting Louie. Say it out loud. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
The challenge I set for myself—to design in the style of Louis Sullivan a building type he had never engaged—has occupied me for seven years and shows no sign of abating. Type A personalities out there (you know who you are) would have approached this in an orderly methodological way: collecting analogous building types; subjecting them to forensic analysis; spread sheets. If only I worked that way. We B types depend on intuition over logic; we wallow and wade where the A‘s, scalpel in hand, make thoughtful strategic incisions.
My wallowing began more than fifty years ago, shopping for my grandmother at Carson Pirie Scott, Sullivan’s State Street masterpiece that began its life as Schlesinger & Meyer. His Auditorium was threatened then and I must have become aware of historic preservation in the context of efforts to save it. [Mission accomplished, by the way, since the Auditorium and its exquisite acoustics still serve their original purpose and the surrounding hotel and office building work marvelously as Roosevelt University.] The Loop was peppered in the late 50s and early 60s with many more buildings by Adler & Sullivan, Burnham & Root, Holabird & Roche and even Purcell & Elmslie. On weekends, the Loop was my playground. If only I had known then what I know now.
Sullivan’s houses are another matter altogether. I recall once traveling to Lake Park Avenue to find the house he’d designed for his brother Arthur, and being the only White person for several blocks; I recall a Black child about my age asking what I was doing there, even calling me “White boy”. Such was Chicago in the 1950s and such was my bumptious naivete. And that was perhaps the least impressive of my architectural exploits.
There was also the Henry Babson residence in fashionable Riverside—where I would have been the only poor kid for several blocks—but I never did go to see it and have regretted that error ever since. Of course I could never go into any of those homes and there were few books about Sullivan that I could have found at Kroch’s & Brentano’s, whose art and architecture section on the mezzanine was ably staffed by Mr Henry Tabor (who lives on, by the way, as an aspect of Agincourt journalist Howard Tabor, my avatar). I was a regular at K&B where Mr Tabor must have been curious about a high school student with such an interest in architectural history. I began giving them my custom at age fifteen. [Google Henry and you’ll find that he was an institution at K&B. Sorry I missed his funeral; he should have “lain in state” in that balcony. Like Henry, K&B is no more.]
All of this floods back tonight with The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan on my lap. My waders are on as I wallow in lush duo-tone images from the Richard Nickel archive of buildings long gone before even I set out to find the elusive Sullivan. If I had been just five years older, Nickel’s path and mine might have crossed and I would have another reason to mourn his death while photographing demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange—crushed by the very building he was recording.
So! Having laid the foundation of Agincourt’s public library seven years ago in the mist of intuition, I see now the connection between my first scheme and several of Sullivan’s lesser projects—some built, some not—and a couple of them unknown to me. I claim no clairvoyance here, but I am pleased with my understanding of Sullivan and the possibility, the very remote possibility, that I could actually understand him.