Ten Design Details: The Sullivan Center And Its Famous Cast-Iron Façade

Adler & Sullivan expert historian Ward Miller.

Preservation Chicago executive director and Adler & Sullivan historian Ward Miller.

Most Target stores are boxy ho-hum affairs alongside similar boring suburban buildings. Not so the store at 1 South State Street in the Loop. This is a building with character, history and unique design elements. But then, you’d expect no less from a structure designed by Adler and Sullivan, and touch-ups by John Vinci.

During the Chicago Architecture Biennial opening weekend, Preservation Chicago offered a unique look at the former Carson Pirie Scott Store—now known as the Sullivan Center. It’s home to the aforementioned Target Store and architecture powerhouse Gensler. Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago and historian, led a tour of the building where he pointed out some of the key features. Miller is co-author of the book “The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan.” Miller offered the following background on the building.

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1. The Sullivan Center—long home to a variety of retail giants—is unique in its use of steel frame and cast iron. The building has undergone many renovations over the years, overseen by important architects, ranging from Louis Sullivan at the beginning to more recently, John Vinci and Gunny Harboe.

Carson Pirie Scott Building archival photo--Image courtesy Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Carson Pirie Scott Building archival photo–Image courtesy Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

2. In the 1890s, Adler and Sullivan added top two floors and remodeling the building. They added the familiar cast-iron façade, which at that time was undulated. Due to public right of way issues, Adler and Sullivan flattened it out.

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3. The façade was originally going to be bronze, but was later changed to cast iron, primarily to save money. The casting was hand-molded, and Sullivan took all the building materials to a new limit. He stretched the cast-iron—almost like plastic—nearly to the breaking point where they’re almost shearing.
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4. Look closely at the cast-iron façade, and you’ll see a repeated theme—the signature LHS (for Louis Henry Sullivan). Also present, but more difficult to spot, is S&M (for Schlesinger and Mayer, the original occupant).

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5. The façade was originally a vermillion color. To achieve this, workers painted the cast iron a bright red, then let it dry out. After three days, they applied a green-olive pigment to the cast-iron, then swiped it with newspaper to create a more antique look.

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6. That façade was restored in 1978 by a team led by John Vinci. Then, eight years ago, they recreated the cornice that had been missing, and Gunny Harboe led another restoration, replacing rusted pins. That’s when the cast-iron was painted a flatter, opaque green color.

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7. Sullivan designed the building with very large windows—an unprecedented size—with panels stretching to the outer limits to create light and air into the store. That’s because in 1899, when first section was constructed, electricity was in its infancy, and natural light was needed to illuminate the interior of the store.

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8. Even more light came in the windows on first and second floors thanks to Luxor Prisms, with tiny ridges. When light hit the ridges of the prisms, it was like a magnifying glass to increase the amount light inside the store.
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9. During the Vinci restoration in 1978, a layer of beechwood formica covering the lobby ceiling was removed, revealing mahogany underneath.

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10. As a visual homage to the interior of the Carson Pirie Scott interior, there’s an impressive chain mail curtain in the lobby of the Gensler entrance on Madison St. Back at the turn of the century, light would flow down from elevastor shafts and in through the windows, through the Luxor Prisms to accentuate the interior of the store so it was filled with light.

Location: 1 South State Street, The Loop


Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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