The Power of Design

As with the forces of nature that inspired him, architect Louis H. Sullivan's work is about all parts relating to the whole. This concept is eloquently demonstrated in this assemblage of the corridor elevator walls of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, a significant Adler & Sullivan skyscraper completed in 1894 and tragically demolished after a heated preservation battle in 1972.

Salvage of decorative elements of the building's elevators was erratic, with little consideration given to preserving entire assemblies to represent Sullivan's all-inclusive design concept. Individual elements, such as the delicate strap metal screens, the copper-plated ornamental iron lintels, and distinctive "T" medallions are typically offered for sale individually.

One of the most complete assemblages of the elevator surround from Adler and Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange to be offered at auction.

In themselves, these isolated elements have become highly sought-after icons of Louis H. Sullivan's contributions to architecture and the decorative arts. But in this instance, individual component parts are assembled to create a representation of the entire design concept, demonstrating how all relate the whole as an organically-unified composition. 

A framework of copper-plated ornamental cast iron creates a striking, yet harmonious contrast to the delicate openwork strap metal screens, finished in a dull grey-black finish. All work together as a symbolic abstraction. Modular geometry inherent in architecture mends with organic natural forms reflecting the powers of human creation—the essence of Sullivan's architectural philosophy.

Chicago Stock Exchange, c. 1894

The overall composition is Louis H. Sullivan at his best. Delicate strap metal grilles are unique among Sullivan's designs, representing what has been described as a mechanistic interpretation suggesting bursting buds of nature. Vibrant horizontal iron lintels are a fluid ornamental pattern that are integral with metal surface itself and inseparably mends geometric and natural forms.

From a technological standpoint, the assembly represents the infancy of skyscraper elevators during a past era when cabs and corridor walls were openwork metal rather than enclosed boxes. Sullivan intended for the elevator screens to not only be experienced when walking in the corridors on foot, but also to be seen in rapid succession while riding in a fast-moving openwork elevator cab. Rapid vertical movement was a new sensation in architectural spatial perception, and Sullivan made it a powerful experience with this design.

All elements were manufactured to Sullivan's custom designs by the Winslow Brothers Company in Chicago. Winslow Brothers was Sullivan's longtime preferred fabricator for his ornamental metalwork, based on their ability to create art-grade elements in the mass production necessary for large-scale architectural projects.

Curiously, the openwork metal screens of the Chicago Stock Exchange elevators have in recent times come to be referred to as the "Atomic" pattern. In reality, the 1894 design has nothing to do with atomic technology, which was still a half-century in the future. But the informal popular reference still speaks to the power of a design that can still spark human imagination and contemporary reinterpretation after nearly 125 years. 

The building's identity resides in the ornament.

Louis H. Sullivan

Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan

During their partnership, Dankmar Adler and Louis H. Sullivan created some of the ground breaking and influential buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Adler specialized in the engineering side of the business, which allowed Sullivan to work primarily as the designer on their projects. Together they completed many notable structures including the famous Wainwright Building (St. Louis, 1891), the Schiller Building (Chicago, 1891) and the James Charnley House (Chicago, 1891–1892). However, it was the Chicago Stock Exchange, built at the height of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, that was undoubtedly the magnum opus of their career. The interior of the building was decorated with lavish organic designs inspired by the flora and fauna of the prairie landscape exemplary of their uniquely Midwestern style of Art Nouveau. Although the partnership ended in 1895, Adler and Sullivan forever changed the architectural landscape of Chicago with more than 180 buildings designed during the 15 years they worked together.

Auction Results Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan