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Louie’s Houses


babson house.jpg

I thought that Louis H. Sullivan had designed three houses during his post-1900 career—the years following dissolution of his partnership with Dankmar Adler; the period when his chemical dependency had interrupted an otherwise brilliant and uniquely American design process—two of which were built; another was merely projected. It turns out there were six other projects worth looking at during the same years. As evidence for an imaginary library in the style of Sullivan, they form an important part of the analytic matrix.

Harold and Josephine Crane Bradley house (scheme #1), Madison, WI (unbuilt); Louis Sullivan architect, assisted by G.G. Elmslie.

The house for Harold and Josephine Crane Bradley was the product of interesting circumstances. Harold C. Bradley was a professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin. And one would think this plan would have been far beyond a professor’s salary. Mrs Bradley, however, was the former Mary Josephine Crane, daughter of Chicago industrialist Charles Crane. It is likely that Sullivan received the commission as one of several for Crane and his business interests. Another factor was the fact that Mrs Bradley was deaf, requiring an open design so that she could supervise their child. This cruciform plan proved either too large or inadequate for the family’s needs, so a second smaller design was crafted by Sullivan with the help of George Elmslie, his chief draughtsman for many years and someone fully capable of producing ornament in Sullivan’s florid style. [One wonders how much of Sullivan’s late ornament was actually drawn by Elmslie.]

Harold and Josephine Crane Bradley house (scheme #2), Madison, WI; Louis Sullivan, architect

Design and construction of Scheme #2 extended from 1909 to about 1913. But the Bradleys lived in the house for only a few years, moving to another house designed by Elmslie alone.

The second of the influential built designs was roughly contemporary with the Madison project. It was a comparably-sized house in Riverside, a leafy western suburb of Chicago, for Henry Babson, a far more likely client for Sullivan. Babson is called “an American entrepreneur, investor in phonograph technology, and notable breeder of Arabian horses” in one biography, placing him in a better financial position for the expense of a custom-designed house by LHS.

Like the executed Bradley scheme, the Babson house is a long ship-like form, a linear sequence of rooms pulsing along a single extended axis. The balcony extension at the center of the street elevation gave it a steamboat quality that might have made it the brunt of neighborhood humor. It was demolished in 1960 and the property subdivided for multiple mid-century homes or no particular character whatsoever. I have vague recollection of walking past the site when I was a teenager.

The third house from this period, another unbuilt design, was a similarly-scaled house for Carl K. Bennett, president of the National Farmers Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, perhaps one of Sullivan’s most famous late designs. Linear and boxy, it somehow avoided the ship metaphor and appeared simply as a clubhouse or other semi-public building, rather than a single-family home. The Bennetts are reported to have sketched the sequence of main floor rooms and to have approved the overall design, but delayed construction until costs had risen beyond their budget. [I’ll append some illustrations of the Bennett house as soon as they’re scanned.]

All three of these design have some common characteristics: long rectilinear masses, two stories in height;  secondary cross-axial extensions, often with polygonal pinwheel elements at their extremities; and an extended axial arrangement of main floor social spaces. Given that the three designs date from the period 1908-1912, we’re given substantial insight to Sullivan’s mind, at least regarding the detached single-family home, at this late point in his career.

babson house windows

Set of four Elmslie-designed windows from the Henry Babson residence, Riverside, IL / 1909


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