Creating Harmony Through Decoration

Louis Sullivan's Windows for the Auditorium Building

For his landmark Auditorium Building in Chicago, architect Louis Sullivan turned to longtime friend and associate Louis Millet of Healy & Millet to execute the stained glass windows that would adorn the vaulted ceilings of the grand theater. Adhering to his philosophy that ornamentation should be "organic, growing out of the mass rather than being applied to it," Sullivan designed the present motif, a Celtic knot in deep amber surrounding a verdant, pale green flower, to act as the central panels in the theater's skylight bays. Reflecting on this concept, Sullivan explained, "A single idea or principal is taken as a basis of the color scheme, that is to say, use is made of but one color in each instance, and that color is associated with gold...the stained glass, of which a moderate use is made, is carefully harmonized with the prevailing tone of color in the decoration".

The Auditorium Theater interior looking south illustrating a skylight bay, the central ornamental panel of which featured this design. Photograph by J.W. Taylor, Architecture Photograph Collection, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The building's identity resides in the ornament.

Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan 1856–1924

Louis H. Sullivan, born in 1856, became known as the “Father of Skyscrapers” for his contributions to the modern Chicago skyline. He began his architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and apprenticed as a draftsman for the Boston architect Frank Furness, but was soon drawn to Chicago’s building boom and moved to the city with his family in 1873.

After returning from study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Sullivan was hired by Chicago-based architect Dankmar Adler as a draftsman in 1879. Deeply impressed with the creative designs of Sullivan, Adler made him a full-time partner in 1881. It was this partnership that created some of the most pioneering and prolific buildings in Chicago including the Wainwright Building, the Schiller Building, the Auditorium Building, and the James Charnley House. However, it was the Chicago Stock Exchange, built at the height of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which was undoubtedly the magnum opus of the pair. The interior of the building was decorated with lavish organic designs inspired by the flora of the prairie landscape—later influencing apprentice and protégé Frank Lloyd Wright.

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