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Louis Sullivan at 150 Years
Celebrating Louis Sullivan's 150th Anniversary

In 2006, the Chicago History Museum led a six-week series of public programs to mark the 150th anniversary of Louis Sullivan's birth. The culminating event was the Louis Sullivan at 150 International Symposium, held at the Museum. Click here to access audio recordings of the symposium presentations, including the keynote address by Jean-Louis Cohen.

This website serves as a record of the celebration and provides an extensive overview of Louis Sullivan's life and career. Click here to find out more about the programs held throughout Chicago to mark Sullivan's sesquicentennial.

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Louis Sullivan is perhaps best known for his talent with ornamentation. His designs are easily recognizable. While his style is definitely his own, it was influenced by his early years as an architect. For example, his time as a draftsman with John Edelman affected his style by exposing him to Edelman’s lush, organic designs. With this early influence and his talent for drawing, Sullivan developed a style of ornamentation that reflected nature through symmetrical use of stylized foliage and weaving geometric forms. He was also heavily influenced by Asian design traditions, which also focus on geometric abstraction and linear design.

Some typical features of his ornament are: bold geometric facades dotted with arched openings, walls with highlighted low-relief sculptural elements of terra cotta, flat rooflines and deep projecting eaves, buildings segregated into distinct zones and separated by vertical bands of decoration, vertical alignment of windows, highly decorated friezes, and extensive use of ornamental vines and foliage.

American and European architects alike are inspired by his intricate designs, which express the building’s structure and ornament as one idea. Sullivan believed that ornamentation was not just an afterthought, but was integral to the building’s overall design. Many a critic and scholar have weighed in on the importance of ornamentation in Sullivan’s work. Sherman Paul, author, Louis Sullivan: An Architect in American Thought, wrote, “Ornament and structure were integral; their subtle rhythm sustained a high emotional tension, yet produced a sense of serenity. But the building's identity resided in the ornament. It was the spirit animating the mass and flowing from it, and it expressed the individuality of the building…”

Some scholars and critics felt that Sullivan’s use of classical and Renaissance design was leading too much toward a revival of a Victorian ideals, which focus heavily on ornamentation. These criticisms did not deter Sullivan from pursuing his individual style and displaying ornament as a major element of his buildings. In fact, Sullivan’s ideas and designs are often credited with inspiring the Modern Architecture movement in Europe in the early 20th century.

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Schiller Building, c.1895-1905
R&B Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago

Merchants' National Bank, date unknown
R&B Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago

Gage Building, c.1945-1958
R&B Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago

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This site is supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.