Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Adler & Sullivan: The End of the Partnership and Its Aftermath

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Adler & Sullivan: The End of the Partnership and Its Aftermath

Article excerpt

The firm of Adler & Sullivan, combining the talents of Dankmar Adler (1844-1900) and Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), is well known in the history of nineteenth century American architecture. Most scholarly accounts of the firm emphasize Adler's engineering and acoustical skill; and praise-and illustrate-Sullivan's great talents as a designer. Adler is also regarded as the businessman while Sullivan is always depicted as the artist. The partners themselves acknowledged their mutual strengths, as Adler wrote in his autobiography, which is in his archive at the Newberry Library in Chicago:

Of late years, owing to the preeminence in the artistic field of my partner Mr. Sullivan, I have devoted my efforts to the study and solution of the engineering problems which are so important an incident in the design of modern building.1

That they joined their abilities and flourished in the early 1880s through the early 1890s and dissolved their association in 1895 is indisputable. So are the facts that both Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan continued their careers alone, with much less success than during their years as partners. The historical record supports this accepted wisdom, and it provides evidence that the economic conditions in the 1890s strained firms in both Chicago, where Adler & Sullivan did almost all of their work, and in New York, where they built their last building together.

The story of the firm of Adler & Sullivan begins with promise and ends in tragedy. Two men, born a decade apart, from very different backgrounds, and with distinctive abilities, lives, and temperaments, joined forces to produce some of the most memorable buildings in this country's history. One was trained by apprenticeship, the other had some formal education. Adler needed a partner in the boom decade of the 1880s, when the city's leaders were determined to become the equal of New York; and their answer to the Metropolitan Opera House was the Auditorium. With its superb sound and beautiful ornament, it was the first of Adler & Sullivan's many commissions in and outside of Chicago that expanded the firm's size and reputation.

Adler & Sullivan joined the ranks of noteworthy Chicago architectural firms, building skyscrapers, concert halls, warehouses, and factories. In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition focused the eyes of the world on Chicago, with its impressive lakefront site, and a burgeoning downtown. The visitors wrote home about the Fair, particularly the pristine classicism of its Court of Honor. Two innovations also attracted attention-Adler & Sullivan's distinctive polychromatic Transportation Building and George Ferris's enormous wheel.2

Economic depression followed in the wake of the fair, and the only building on their drawing board in 1894 was the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York, which came to Adler & Sullivan as a result of the Auditorium's fame. It was their final commission; and Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan parted company. Adler briefly left the practice of architecture, but when he returned, there was no reconciliation.

Adler's practice in the early 1880s had consisted largely of small factories and office buildings (many for the entrepreneur and real estate developer Martin Ryerson) and houses for successful German Jewish merchants. All the designs were competently done and a few commercial buildings showed Sullivan's early spiky ornament. And the buildings came in within budget, which was very important to Adler who oversaw the business side of the firm. As jobs increased in size, cost, and complexity, the roles of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan diverged, with Adler taking on the engineering tasks and Sullivan producing gorgeous ornament. Adler was responsible for Louis Sullivan's making the transition from decorator to architect; Sullivan made Adler & Sullivan's architecture unique.

At its height, Adler & Sullivan was one of the most creative, productive, and influential of Chicago's architectural firms-busy and exceptionally prosperous. …

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