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Louis H. Sullivan

Black and white photograph of architect Louis Sullivan wearing a suit, pictured from the shoulders up.
Portrait of Louis H. Sullivan, 1900. Sullivaniana Collection, 1780–2018, Ryerson and Burnham Archives.
Also known as
Louis Henri Sullivan
Date of birth
Date of death

Known for his groundbreaking tall buildings and theories of architectural ornament, Louis Sullivan was part of a wave of architects who flocked to Chicago following the Great Fire of 1871. Working with architect Dankmar Adler, Sullivan rose to prominence with large commercial projects—like the 1889 Auditorium Theater and 1899 Schlesinger & Mayer Store—that married bold volumes in stone and terracotta with his original, botanically inspired ornament. Many of his buildings from this period, such as the Schiller Building in Chicago and Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York, were part of the first generation of skyscrapers that used new technology—steel frames and elevators—to achieve unprecedented heights. Unlike his contemporaries, Sulllivan believed that these tall buildings required a new aesthetic that expressed, rather than hid, the underlying structure, an idea that was embraced by subsequent generations of modern architects around the world. 

At a time when many architects practiced in neoclassical styles inherited from Europe, Sullivan advocated for uniquely American forms of architecture. This independent perspective, espoused through writings and lectures—including A System of Architectural Ornament, an essay and series of drawings commissioned by the Art Institute in 1922—made him a hero to the next generation of progressive architects in Chicago, including Frank Lloyd Wright and other designers associated with the Prairie School. Sullivan’s work in his later career was confined to small, yet notable projects, such as a group of highly ornamented banks constructed in the Midwest. 

The Art Institute’s extensive collection of Sullivan drawings and fragments includes a monumental arch and the reconstructed trading room from his 1894 Chicago Stock Exchange Building. The Ryerson and Burnham Archives holds material relating to the history of Sullivan buildings as well as scholarship, including photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel’s work and papers, which were featured in the 2010 exhibition Looking after Louis Sullivan

Watch a video about Sullivan’s buildings and drawings here.

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