Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Fallen Giant

Algona's jewel box
Louis Sullivan was one of the greatest architects of the modern world, but like many giants in his field, he fell and he fell hard.

Nothing brings that home more than the recently completed restoration of this little box in Algona, Iowa, one of the last buildings that Mr. Sullivan designed before he died penniless.

The father of the skyscraper was reduced to designing tiny buildings in remote Iowa towns, so far had he fallen from public favor and acclaim. The exquisite ornamentation for which he was famous had passed out of style, perhaps helped along by the Prairie School designs of former Sullivan pupil Frank Lloyd Wright.
Chicago's Auditorium Building

In 1913, when the loan and realty office was erected in Algona, the public wanted simplicity and Louis Sullivan gave them what they wanted, using simpler decorations and stained glass windows to create a structure that was suited to its purpose but a feast for the eyes. Not many people would have seen the building when it was first opened. Algona was a remote little town, far from the glory of a big city like Chicago.

Iowa has its share of other late Sullivan buildings which are called "jewel boxes" for their small size and beauty. By the time Louis Sullivan was drawing out the plans for these gems, he was lost in an alocholic haze.

Did he fall because he was addicted to booze or did he become addicted to booze as a way to numb the pain of rejection as he fell?

Imagine a man with such talent and insight, with a strong vision of how buildings should look. He believed in a certain relationship between the people served by his buildings and the appearance of the facades. Ornament was part of that relationship, but the general public turned its back on his form of ornamentation.

When the 1893 World's Fair was in its planning stages, Louis Sullivan had strong opinions on what the place should look like, a showcase of American architecture of which he was, at the time, a leader. Instead, the world was given Greek Revival and buildings meant to look like ancient temples. The architect's frustration must have been immense, but was that because he was already turning to liquor and so his bitterness exploded?

Louis Sullivan was a complex man, at once a genius and troubled. He would make a perfect character for an historical novel set in Chicago, a man at the top of his game but not aware that he is about to fall off a cliff of his own, or perhaps his rivals', making.

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