Summer’s Lease Hath All Too Short a Date

Waking up at 5:30 a.m. is not particularly fun. A long day of travel and a late hotel check-in the night before exacerbated the situation. Fortunately, I was in the central time zone, and my biological clock blunted the edge of the early hour. This was to be another long day, but one that I was eagerly anticipating. This was the last day of The Summer of Sullivan.

In early June, I declared this The Summer of Sullivan. In addition to re-reading his excellent books, I embarked on a quest to visit each of his eight “Jewel Boxes”. These were small but exquisite banks that he designed late in his career. These jewels are not easy to come by, however, as they are scattered about in tiny towns in the Midwest. Prior to this day, I had visited seven of them: Cedar Rapids, Grinnell, Algona, Owatonna, West Lafayette, Sidney and Newark.  My journey would be complete with a trip to Columbus, WI.

The drive from Madison to Columbus was easy, and Farmers and Merchants Union Bank did not disappoint. It was very much a variation on the theme, and is definitely cut from the same cloth as the others. It will forever have the distinction of being the last Jewel Box I got to see for the first time. I felt no small sense of accomplishment as I drove away.

Was this the end of The Summer of Sullivan? Not by a long shot. If one drives 3 hours south and east from Columbus, they might find themselves in…

Chicago! Chicago was Louis’ home for most of his career, and home of his most renowned work. To do The Summer justice, I had to go. The drive to ORD was fun and uneventful (less the morning rush as I approached Chicago). I dropped the rental off at the airport, hopped on the Blue Line and rolled in to Monroe Station. From there, a number of Louis’ great works were within walking distance.

The Auditorium Building was the thunderbolt of a project that thrust Louis onto the world architectural scene. The building was commissioned by a wealthy Chicagoan with the premise that a grand auditorium, open and accessible to all, would be just the thing to calm tensions created by the growing wealth disparity that characterized the city in the late nineteenth century. Whether the building was successful in that regard is debatable. What is not debatable is the fact that Dankmar Adler designed an acoustically perfect space, and that his young associate Mr. Sullivan gave the building life and beauty. I arrived at the building in-between tours, and did not have time to wait for the next one. I did the next best thing- I saw the space “Chicago-Style”. I slipped the docent a few bills and moments later found myself on an unofficial, self-guided tour of the building. It was a remarkable space, but obviously not designed for the single visitor. I suspect that it really comes into its own during a performance, and maybe some day I’ll catch one. I paid my respects and hit Michigan Ave.

Frank Lloyd Wright described this as "The greatest room
for music and opera in the world- bar none."

A few blocks north of the Auditorium on Michigan Avenue is the Gage building. It is tall and handsome, and the detail most definitely of Mr. Sullivan. The architects of record were actually Holabird and Roche, but Sullivan did the façade. I snapped a few photos, turned around, gawked at the Millennium Park fountains, and was on my way.

A couple of blocks to the north and west is a mature Sullivan building. The Carson Pirie Scott Building (now occupied by Target of all things) is the last big really big commission that Sullivan got before his life went south. The building represents a quantum leap in American architecture and in Modernism. He is clearly exploiting the structural qualities of the steel in order to open the wall to windows. The building somehow accentuates the vertical and horizontal simultaneously.  What most people notice, however, is the remarkable cast iron detail of the corner and ground floor. Evoking the bounty of harvest, the ornament is a celebration of commerce and the consumer. It is around this time that Henry Desmond wrote for Architectural Record that “Mr. Sullivan occupies today something of the usually isolated position of the prophet, the forerunner, the intensely personal force . . . For let it be understood, Mr. Sullivan is really our only Modernist . . . He has his precedents no doubt, but his mature work . . . is not to be dated from elsewhere either as to time or place. Mr. Sullivan himself is the center of it. He is his own inspiration, and in this sense may be saluted as the first American architect.” After a borderline indecent fondling of the cast-iron, I was off to Jackson Station and the Red Line- destination Clark/Division Station.

I want to hate on the target logo, but can't. From the beginning
this building was about commerce and consumerism.


A fifteen-minute train ride and a half-mile walk landed me on the doorstep of the Charnley House. The house is notable as a leap forward in modern residential architecture. The building is also notable because while Sullivan is the architect of record, an apprentice of his was responsible for much of the design. Young Frank Lloyd Wright would go on to do pretty well for himself. Unfortunately, the building was not open to the public this day, owing to a recent freak flood. Please consider chipping in a few bucks for the effort. I paid my respects, snapped a few pictures, and walked the half-mile back to the station.

I could live here.

From Clark/Division, I continued on the red line, past Wrigley Field, and arrived at Sheridan Station. I had another mile to walk, but stopped to fortify myself at Byron’s. I could go on for days about culinary philosophy as it relates to the hot dog, but in the interest of time I will simply state that Chicago-style hot dogs are the highest form of the art (sorry NY dirty water dogs).

The highest form of the art.

After polishing off a couple of Byron’s finest, I proceeded west along Irving Park Road. Shortly thereafter I arrived at the gates of Graceland Cemetery. I could think of no more fitting end to The Summer than to pay my respects to the man. Before that moment arrived, however, he had a couple of final treats for me.

It’s another half-mile walk from the entry gates to the northeast corner of the cemetery. The long walk past the thousand of souls laid to rest put me in another frame of mind. The grave markers and mausoleums are large and largely well designed. It is Sullivan who designed two of the most impressive. The first I encountered was the Getty Tomb. This is probably to most significant piece of architecture in the cemetery. It is a study in scale, proportion and originality. Completed in 1890, relatively early in his career, this is an indication of what he aspired to do with his life’s work. This is a glimpse of an American architectural future that never was.

A few dozen yards away is the Ryerson Tomb. I’m still trying to figure out how to file this one in my catalog of Sullivan. It has very clear Egyptian allusions (wholly appropriate given their architectural fixation on death and the afterlife) but reinterpreted for this place. It is powerful and striking- unlike anything else in the cemetery. The polished black granite reflects the surrounding landscape, giving it a richness of literal and figurative depth.

The last step in my journey was to find Louis. I knew he was near, but I didn’t have a map. So I started walking. Plot after plot, grave after grave, soul after soul. And there it was.  A large stone block, inscribed with a moving tribute. I knew, however, that this was not his grave but a memorial erected five years after his death. I looked down, and at my feet was a simple headstone, largely obscured by the grass: Louis Henri Sullivan 1858-1924. I cleared back the overgrown grass and dirt, and made a rubbing of his headstone. I told him about my journey, thanked him for his work, and left him my prismacolors. He died broke and alone as his modest grave attests. It was only some years later that the larger monument to the man was created. I returned my attention to the monument and walked around to the side opposite the inscription. On this face of the stone is a bronze plaque of Sullivanesque detail and a bust in profile. It is tradition for visitors to wedge pennies in the plaque in remembrance of the man who died penniless. I added my penny to the others and took one last pause. Yes, I shed a few tears. Not necessarily mourning for Mr. Sullivan (who died almost fifty years before I was born), but for myself. I experienced the same melancholy that one encounters after finishing a great book. My life is richer for The Summer of Sullivan, but I know that I will never again be able to experience these things for the first time.

I have worked hard on my writing skills over the past four years, and I’m getting better. My attempts to adequately describe Mr. Sullivan and this wonderful summer, however, ended in failure. I find that there are no more appropriate words to close this chapter than those inscribed on his monument:

By his buildings great in influence and power; his drawings unsurpassed in originality and beauty; his writings rich in poetry and prophesy; his teachings persuasive and eloquent; his philosophy wherein "form follows function", he summed up all truth in art. Sullivan has earned his place as one of the greatest architectural forces in America. In testimony of this, his professional and other friends have built this monument.

And with that the Summer of Sullivan ended. I turned and went home to Chattanooga.

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