A Not-So-Brief History of a Chicago Landmark: The Sullivan Center

  Sullivan Center

In the late 1890s, Louis H. Sullivan received a commission that would prove to be the culmination of all he had done, the last large commission of his life, and a building like none other he had created. Passing by today’s bright CityTarget store (1 South State Street), all that this building is and was and its significance is not immediately obvious. Sullivan succeeded in creating a dramatically animated structure that merged beauty and function in a way never seen before.

The Schlesinger & Mayer retail team was thinking big when in 1881 they moved from the fading retail district on Lake Street to the marvelous new shopping thoroughfare on State Street. Along with Potter Palmer and Marshall Field, they took up their spot along the post-fire miracle street. And Schlesinger & Mayer found prime real estate for their store: the 1873 Bowen building at the busy corner of State and Madison – where all the major city streetcar lines intersected.

Expecting to take their rank among the soon-to-be eight giant department stores along a six block stretch of State Street, they called upon the architectural firm of Adler & Sullivan initially to remodel and expand existing structures. When this proved inadequate, they decided to start from the ground up and gave the commission to Sullivan (whose partnership with Adler had ended in 1895).

Schlesinger & Mayer clearly wanted something bold when they commissioned Louis Sullivan. In the years following the 1893 World’s Fair and the sensation of the White City architecture, all of America, it seemed, was crazy for neoclassical design. The architectural firms who were delivering those goods – D.H. Burnham and Co., McKim, Mead & White – found their firms flooded with work for years to come. Yet, here was renegade Sullivan – fresh from his non-white, non-classical, non-Court-of-Honor Transportation Building at the Fair – rejecting all things historicist – ready to design a large department store in a most significant spot in Chicago. They must have known that they were going to get an original American take on the department store –rather than a design looking to Europe for inspiration (as had competitor Marshall Field).

Sullivan was known to have labored over this design for a good three years. He worked alongside his associate of two decades, George Elmslie, who was the chief draftsman and ornament designer, to detail the ornament for this building. Sullivan came up with a three-part construction plan. The first section would be built in 1899 along Madison Street: it was three bays wide and nine stories tall. The large corner section was built between 1903-1904 and rose twelve stories. Sullivan never saw the implementation of his third section, because by the time it came to be, D.H. Burnham had been put on the job – five additional bays on State Street – which followed Sullivan’s plans.

The Schlesinger & Mayer store opened in October of 1903. But the company was struggling under mounting debt and in 1904 Mayer chose to retire. They sold their building and merchandise to Henry Selfridge (a key player in Marshall Field’s success), who in turn sold it to the Carson Pirie Scott retail firm, who had lost their lease on a building across the street from Marshall Field’s.

Carson’s was not interested in bringing the famously difficult Sullivan back, so they hired the amenable Daniel Burnham instead to complete the last addition in 1906.

1909 was a year of planning and foresight for Chicago: the street numbering system was revised, landing the baselines for the entire city at Carson Pirie Scott’s front door. It was also the year of Daniel Burnham’s famous plan for the city, calling for Chicago to become a more classical, European-inspired city, while playing down the recent architectural innovations of the Chicago School and the non-classical work of Louis Sullivan. Sullivan had seen this wave of history-smitten design coming since the World’s Fair, and now it spelled the certain demise of his career.

The Carson Pirie Scott store occupied Sullivan’s building from 1904 to 2007 and during that century, the vagaries of style and taste took their toll on it. In 1948, the cornice of the building was removed, streamlining the building for midcentury eyes. Much of Sullivan’s elaborate interior and exterior ornamental details were removed over the years, as well.  In the mid-1950s, Carson’s seriously contemplated abandoning what they now considered a very old-fashioned building, moving in to a brand-new modern store in the Loop.

But they stuck with their Sullivan-designed building and in 1960 brought in Holabird & Root in 1960 to extend the building south by three bays. It was a sign of hope during an era of wanton destruction of many architectural masterpieces, including Adler & Sullivan’s Board of Trade building. But the preservation movement was dawning and the Carson Pirie Scott building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Carson’s realized the treasure they had in Sullivan’s design and they hired the Office of John Vinci to restore Sullivan’s facades and the main entrance (1978-80).

The twenty-first century brought some big changes to the old building. Carson’s commissioned Gunny Harboe to restore the cornice of the building (2002-2006). Harboe and a team of restoration specialists studied photos and drawings and painstakingly recreated not only Sullivan’s floating cornice, but the building’s entire twelfth floor. Terra cotta was repaired and windows sanded and painted.

But Carson Pirie Scott had come to the realization that maintenance of their flagship store was cost-prohibitive and in 2007 they sold to Joseph Freed & Associates and vacated State Street.

For the next five years, Freed & Associates continued work on the building – now renamed The Sullivan Center – converting upper floors to office space and preparing the lower two floors for a large retail tenant. Even as Sullivan’s cast iron ornament was fully restored in 2009-2010, the retail space lay discouragingly empty.

The upper floors are occupied by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago architecture program and State of Illinois offices, but it wasn’t until CityTarget filled the two floors of retail space in July 2012 that the building seemed reinvigorated and connected to the city once more.

The Target Corporation worked with city, state, and federal preservation officials to sensitively adapt the historic space to their needs. And by most accounts, they have succeeded. Fitting their new CityTarget concept of a smaller, urban store into the two irregular floors entailed complex planning and design. They installed elevators and escalators and left floor space largely open. They returned the columns to their original white and added bold, yet unobtrusive splashes of the Target trademark red. They fully succeeded in utilizing one of the building’s main assets: its large plate glass windows. They eliminated closed block window displays and have, through both floors of large windows, allowed unobstructed views deep into the store. The glowing red bulls-eye is respectfully placed in the second story corner window, behind Sullivan’s still prominent cast iron ornament.

Louis Sullivan’s design for the Schlesinger & Mayer store was, in many ways, unlike anything he had ever created. As his last major commission, he seemed to go out on a note of unabashed virtuosity.

Sullivan employed solutions for this department store design that he had used in his tall office buildings. This was one of the first large stores fully built with steel-frame construction. And the three-part organization of the skyscraper is found here, as well: base, mid-section, cornice.

Yet, this building is no proud, soaring skyscraper: Sullivan powerfully emphasizes the horizontal dimension in his use of unbroken string courses, uniting the long grid of Chicago windows. The store declares itself firmly planted on State Street.

The urban department store in the late nineteenth century was a new building type with its own particular needs – and those needs were best met with large, versatile floors stacked atop one another. Retail space was all about good light, open space for display of a vast array of merchandise, easy flow of movement for shoppers, and accessibility of goods. The wide open expanses that steel-frame construction made possible and the greater illumination thanks to plate glass made the modern American department store a completely new and thrilling experience.

For all its assertive horizontality, Sullivan accomplished something here that architects admit is difficult: an equilibrium of the horizontal and the vertical. His corner pavilion and tower, which unite the two horizontal facades like a giant hinge, actually produce the soaring skyscraper effect. This dynamic play of horizontal and vertical planes has been compared to the Nike of Samothrace, where a similar relationship exists between the body and the wings. The interaction of vertical and horizontal elements meets at the magnificent towered corner, not only bringing both planes together and uniting State and Madison streets, but bearing both the profusion of ornament and the streamlined banding.

Sullivan’s design for the third through twelfth floors was quite modern at the turn of the last century. Revealing the grid of steel beneath the facade had been done for years by Chicago School architects, but Sullivan pulls it off with unadorned, clean, white glazed terra cotta and the uniform use of the Chicago window. These top floors are very modular, almost mechanical in feel.

But Sullivan pulls out all the stops with his exuberant ornament surrounding the large display windows of the lower two floors. Originally designed to be cast in costly bronze, Sullivan’s foliate ornament is instead cast iron (a red undercoat, painted green, lightly burnished). This organic, floral, flowing extravaganza in iron was designed to attract customers, most of whom were women. An architecture critic in 1904 argued that Sullivan’s skyscrapers were essentially masculine, while the Schlesinger & Mayer store was essentially feminine, full of feeling and “delicately pleasing.”

But Sullivan was up to more than enticing ladies to shop. He clearly wanted to display his virtuosity up close for all to see. He proudly included his initials in the design at the corner entrance (LHS).

And Sullivan’s ornament wasn’t just applied prettiness: a lot of philosophical ideas had gone into it. Sullivan’s ornament was steeped in ideas of the forces of the universe, nature and man, “a garment of poetic imagery,” as he put it, that was intended to lift the spirit, using nature to offset commercialism. And the ornament was to be an integral part of the structure, as Frank Lloyd Wright later described it, “of-the-thing-not-on-it.”

At the Carson Pirie Scott store, many have recognized a metaphor for the natural landscape. Walking alongside the base of the building is akin to walking in a forest, the green of the flowing iron forms meant to evoke foliage dappled by sunlight. Entering the corner doorway, the shopper is met with large ‘trees’ of mahogany in the vestibule, leading to rows of columns within the store, all topped with foliate capitals.

Yet much more has been made of the juxtaposition of the top and bottom of this building. The sharp contrast between base and superstructure, between ornamental and plain surface, was unprecedented in Sullivan’s work. Some have observed the apparent male/female relationship in this building as a reflection of nature: the inspirational, emotional design process – the female part – which gives birth to the orderly, logical working out of mass and detail – the male part of the process. The masculine was equated with the rational and intellectual (top stories) and feminine was equated with the organic and lyrical (lower stories). Whether that was what Sullivan had in mind or not, it nevertheless demonstrates the complexity and sophistication of Sullivan’s ideas: to bring apparently opposing dynamics into a coherent whole.

Sullivan’s lavish ornament has often been misunderstood, but never so much as in the early twentieth century. Sullivan’s designs were clearly not those of nineteenth-century historicism, but his work was often lumped in with the old-fashioned and fell out of favor. European modernists who thrilled at the crisp, clean, cellular part of the building were often baffled and dismayed by the cast-iron profusion below. In many of the commentaries of the first half of the century, ornament was discounted as irrelevant and a regrettable remnant of the nineteenth century. Modernist critics focused on the upper stories of the Carson Pirie Scott store and dismissed Sullivan’s ornament altogether.

Sigfried Giedion, in his enormously influential Space, Time and Architecture (1941) ignored what seemed to him the unfortunate base of the building to praise its upper stories as though they were the entirety of the building. Giedion actually cropped a photograph of the building so as to omit both cornice and ground level, showing only the crisp skeletal cage of its middle stories. Many readers, convinced that Sullivan was a Bauhaus follower, were shocked in the course of a visit to Chicago by the sight of the writhing ornament at its entrance.

Yet, Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store influenced European modernists for many years. German architect Erich Mendolsohn’s work – with its rounded corners and horizontal, banded modeling – clearly demonstrates his familiarity with it. Sullivan’s first biographer Hugh Morrison in 1936 said that Sullivan’s work presaged the new European architecture. And, later, it was widely accepted that Sullivan was the inspiration and progenitor for the midcentury steel and glass modernism of Mies van der Rohe.

Although Sullivan’s work fell out of favor for part of the twentieth century, he and his architecture are held in highest regard today. The Carson Pirie Scott store, once largely ignored by architectural historians, has taken its rightful place as an original masterpiece, a bold and culminating statement from the inimitable Louis Sullivan.

 

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Wendy Bright

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting post, Wendy. I may be missing something, but isn’t it a little funny that Sullivan’s design had such large windows on the bottom floor? I was just reading about how dirty and noisy downtown Chicago was in the 19th century. I would think he would have wanted to protect the interior rather than expose it?

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    • Editor

      I can’t speak for Wendy, but large windows on the bottom floor make sense. It’s a retail store, and back then display windows were even more important than they are now for attracting customers.

      People like to talk about “Sullivan’s design” as if he could do whatever he wanted. He still had to produce a functional building for the people paying him.

      And it’s not like smoke and dirt magically move through windows because they’re large, even back then.

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  2. Wendy Bright

    Thanks for your comment, Andrey. Those large windows were a great innovation for retail establishments – they enabled the creation of exciting displays to entice shoppers. They also added much-needed light into the interior of the building. So, even though Chicago was a dirty, noisy place, windows in new buildings continued getting larger and larger, as technology allowed. At the end of the 19th century, the glassier a building was, the more modern it was.

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