'Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright' revisits razed icons

STIR speaks with the curators of the exhibition at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, centered on two lost masterworks - Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building.

by Nitija Immanuel, Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Sep 16, 2021

Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright is a dual exhibition opening on September 24, 2021 at Wrightwood 659 - the Tadao Ando-designed exhibition space in Chicago. Under its two-fold programme, curated by John Vinci and Jonathan Katz, the show investigates the loss of a pair of masterpieces by two of the most celebrated American architects at the turn of the century - Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. The buildings in question - whose sullen fates form the exhibition’s core content, are Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre (formerly the Schiller Theatre) in Chicago, Illinois, along with Wright’s Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York.

Through a series of 3D models and digital renditions of the original edifices, as well as salvaged architectural ornaments and artifacts, original furniture, and historical documentation, the exhibition brings the essence of these two architectural titans to life, aiming to illuminate the enduring relevance and influence of their iconic designs. In addition to these offerings, the event also features archival photographs taken by noted preservationist and photographer, Richard Nickel, that complement drawings and other historical ephemera.

Interior of Garrick Theatre, date unknown | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
Interior of Garrick Theatre, date unknown Image: Richard Nickel, © Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago

Two distinct presentations constitute the exhibition programme, the first being Reconstructing the Garrick: Adler & Sullivan’s Lost Masterpiece. On its completion in 1892, the Garrick Theatre was one of Chicago’s tallest buildings, then revered for its trailblazing design. However, in the ensuing decades, the structure entered a steady decline, culminating in demolition in 1961. Revisiting this cautionary tale, this section is curated by a team based in Chicago, led by architect and preservationist John Vinci, with cultural historian emeritus Tim Samuelson, graphic artist Chris Ware, and Urban Remains founder, Eric Nordstrom. It examines Sullivan’s technical innovation in the design of the Garrick, piecing together a picture of its former glory from samples of ornamentation, surviving drawings, and other articles of documentation.

L to R:  Larkin administration building, Seneca Street oblique view; Seneca Street elevation 2016. CGI Rendering by David Romero | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
L to R: Larkin administration building, Seneca Street oblique view; Seneca Street elevation 2016. CGI Rendering by David Romero Image: © David Romero

On the other hand, the second segment, covering the ill-fated story of Wright’s Larkin Building, is titled Reimagining the Larkin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Modern Icon. Seen as a technological marvel at its opening, the Larkin was a testament of Wright’s utopian architectural ideals, with its grandiose red-brick exterior and progressive design features. Contrastingly, in 1950, the building’s demolition reflected the misfortunes of its primary occupants - the Larkin Company, which fell victim to a rapid demise in the late 1930s and early 40s. Jonathan Katz, an Associate Professor of Practice, History of Art, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is the curator of this segment. Original Wright-designed objects, along with historical documentation of the building’s life cycle, will be juxtaposed with original Larkin Company products at the exhibition, exploring “the marriage between Arts-and-Crafts ideologies and new technologies during a time of rapid industrialisation”.

Frank Lloyd Wright Larkin Drawing | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
Frank Lloyd Wright, Larkin Drawing Image: Wasmuth Portfolio, Courtesy of Wrightwood 659

In an interview with STIR, Tim Samuelson and Jonathan Katz reveal their thoughts on why the Garrick and Larkin hold important status in the American architectural canon, offering a case that elucidates why such iconic structures are nigh on irreplaceable.

Nitija Immanuel (NI): Where do you think lies the essence of Louis H Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright's hauntingly beautiful works? Would we be able to recreate it in the modern age? How are we preserving the sanctity of these two masterpieces?

Tim Samuelson (TS): Just as great works of music and poetry reflect the irreproducible individuality of their creators, so do the architectural works of Louis H Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Both shared rare cognitive gifts which set their work apart from other architects. By all accounts, both had what Sullivan called ‘photo memory’ - in which all that was seen and learned in life was indelibly retained and could be instantly recalled and prioritised to suit the architectural project at hand. Both had the rare gift to be able to conceptualise three-dimensional forms and space in their minds, and to move through them in human scale and motion before even setting pencil to paper. Factors such as colour and light were also integral components of conceptualising space in human scale and motion. 

These initial mental realisations were refined in detail to generate the finished architectural work. But just as importantly, the creative process was equally shaped by a highly developed sense of how architecture could trigger human responses and emotions, parallel to the way senses are engaged by beauty encountered in nature and natural settings. And just like entities in nature, beauty and living functionality are inseparably intertwined. 

The Schiller (later Garrick) Building in Chicago and the Larkin Building in Buffalo were irreplaceable demonstrations of this diverse melding of tangible and intangible aspects of architectural work, as realised through the rare cognitive and emotional gifts of their creators. This is what makes their loss so tragic. A person fundamentally needed to experience these buildings in their full three-dimensional physical and intangible presence to really know and understand them.   

The Schiller and the Larkin can never be recreated. Not enough evidence remains to duplicate all the component parts into a meaningful whole. But re-creation of a long-gone building is something that Louis H. Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright would never have wanted or desired.  Both were strong advocates for architects to develop their own cognitive and emotional senses to create vital new works reflecting their own time, needs, and technologies.  

Except for the rare living few who actually saw the Garrick and Larkin, visitors to our exhibition will never have a sense of what it was like to experience these buildings in person. We can only do our best by combining new digital technologies with historic images, drawings, and artifacts to provide the visitor with meaningful clues. The exhibition is intended to convey two lessons: the inspiration and power of the original buildings, and the subsequent tragedy of their abuse and removal. 

L to R: Garrick c. 1953, Nickel in midst of an interview with unidentified journalist, c. 1960 | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
L to R: Garrick c. 1953, Nickel in midst of an interview with unidentified journalist, c. 1960 Image: (Left) Richard Nickel, © Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago, (Right) © Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago

NI: What are a few examples of the expressive use of space, colour, light, and motion within The Garrick? 

TS: The Garrick had a powerful street identity which changed as people approached. It unhesitatingly expressed soaring vertical height, as well as the modular assembled geometry inherent in newly emerging skyscraper technology. Even when seen in the distance, the building had a distinctive presence in Chicago’s skyline.

Inside the theatre, visitors found themselves in an environment of emotion-stirring transitions in space, colour, and light, which varied and shifted as one moved through space. Balconies swept horizontally and hovered in space. In counterpart, arches vertically leaped across the auditorium - a receding funnel focusing attention on the stage while silently projecting sound. 

Garrick c. 1960 | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
Garrick c. 1960 Image: Richard Nickel, © Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago

NI: Reconstructing The Garrick: could you let the viewers in on a tour of the interiors - its design language, structures such as the terracotta busts of prominent German figures, and other distinctive elements?

TS: Many architectural historians are uncomfortable reconciling the Garrick's advancement of architectural modernism with the romanticism of its detailing. By intent, one aspect was integrally part of the other. Both were powerfully knitted together to stir human senses by warm compatibility rather than the option of cold architectural impersonality. 

The ornamental forms meld the geometry inherent in architecture inseparably with organic forms of nature and life itself. All create rhythmic energy that enhances and enlivens architectural form. The dynamic melding of architecture and natural form is particularly apparent in the design of the exterior street frontage. All is distinctly architectural, but overall it has undertones of a living plant or tree - visually anchoring to the ground, then rising up to metaphorically "blossom" against the sky. Sculptural reliefs and murals reinforced these themes in a manner that was appropriate for the building's original clients and planned usage of celebrating German arts and culture. 

Interior Garrick Theatre Stage during demolition | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
The interior of Garrick Theatre Stage during demolition Image: Richard Nickel, © Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago

NI: Please take us through the lifetime of the building and their unfortunate demolition. 

TS: This is a complicated story, which is covered in detail in the exhibition's accompanying catalogue/book. In summary, this exhibition is about the creation of a great work of architecture, imbued with emotion-stirring nuances, parallel to what is embodied in a great work of art. But as a building, it was vulnerable to compromises by changing ownerships and aesthetic tastes over time. Demolition was the ultimate end - despite the diligent preservation efforts of those who could see the potential of vibrant restoration and reversal of the layers of damage that compromised the structure over time. 

L to R: Garrick demolition, c. 1960, Garrick demolition, 1961 | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
L to R: Garrick demolition, c. 1960, Garrick demolition, 1961 Image: Richard Nickel, © Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago

NI: What stands out for you in this building in terms of its design and functions. Could you also shed light on the preservation movement? 

TS: One important aspect of the historic preservation story is that this was the first effort to save an urban skyscraper. Preservation was previously aimed at the conservation of historic houses and smaller scale buildings of value. This effort was also directed to a building that was about the emergence of modern architecture and technology. The building was 68-years-old at the time of the preservation fight. It didn't fit the conventional measure of 100+ years people often applied to deeming a property as worthy of preservation. 

Larkin Administration Building Central Court. 1906 | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
Larkin Administration Building Central Court. 1906 Image: Architectural Record

NI: Wright's Larkin Building has set the benchmark for many modern office buildings in American design, would you agree with this assumption? 

Jonathan Katz (JK): Absolutely! The Larkin Building progressively addressed the emergence of a workforce based on white-collar and clerical work on a large scale. The building was created as a pleasant and inspiring shared working environment, with many progressive features for meals, time away from duties, and sophisticated technological accommodations for HVAC and sanitation. 

NI: How did the merger between arts, technology and ideologies strengthen within the Larkin Headquarters building of 1906?

JK: The Larkin represents one of the most ideologically wrought buildings in early 20th century America. Wright found a soulmate in Darwin Martin, who effectively ran the Larkin company. Both shared a belief in the inspirational, even transcendental prospects of architecture, and thus, in essence, the Larkin resembles a cathedral to commerce. Its soaring light court, serried rows of desks, highly symmetrical and regular massing, all-metal furniture, and emphasis on natural light - not to mention the inspirational phrases that covered so many of its surfaces (including quotes from the Sermon on the Mount), underscore how the Larkin was built as a particularly early 20th century conflation of commerce, industrial machinery, and church. But it combined these didactic features with some of the most progressive elements ever developed in an office building at the time - including a branch of the public library, a YWCA, central heating and air-conditioning, and a large, graceful restaurant that served food at or below cost, not to mention a sixth-floor conservatory with giant water lily ponds, palms, and other tropical foliage. In summer, this led onto a roof garden and in winter, the heated air vented at the giant skylight - melting any accumulating snow. In place of stairs, concrete ramps allowed the smooth and easy distribution of mail orders across five floors of the building. The Larkin was also notable for effectively pioneering modular office furniture, as Wright designed the file cabinets to have a swing standard opening that nonetheless accommodated five different sizes and configurations of drawers.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Larkin Administration Light Court | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
Frank Lloyd Wright, Larkin Administration Light Court Image: Collection of the Buffalo County Museum

NI: Could you tell us about its tragic demolition, aftermath, preservation and revitalisation of the Larkin property.  

JK: Larkin Company - once so huge it employed one out of every nine people in Buffalo, NY, fell on hard times, as the automobile led to brick-and-mortar stores that soon replaced mail order. But a building that was so perfectly calibrated to the needs of the Larkin Corporation was difficult to repurpose, and it initially received little interest. One serious offer was made when it was put up for sale, but it was under the asking price. The offer was refused and the building further languished, until a developer bought it for a fraction of that first offer in order to take it down and erect a parking lot - one that still stands at the site. The destruction took place over the objection of preservationists, who noted that leading European architects called it “the most important and influential office building in the world” - leading to the rapid consolidation of the preservationist movement. Today, a museum stands across the street from the Larkin Administration Building in one of the old factory structures and the neighbourhood is becoming one of the hippest, most desirable parts of Buffalo.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Larkin Administration Building demolition, May 1950 | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
Frank Lloyd Wright, Larkin Administration Building demolition, May 1950 Image: Collection of the Buffalo County Museum

NI: What can viewers expect to see and experience at the exhibition?

TS: For the portion of the exhibition relating to the Garrick, Chris Ware has created an environment which is totally different from conventional methods of architecturally-oriented presentations. He has unusual gifts of synthesising three-dimensional space, triggering human emotions, and insightful storytelling. In many ways, it could be considered an exhibition-based realisation of the same principles embodied in Sullivan's creation of the building itself, accompanied by a tragic story of neglect, disrespect, failed attempts at rescue, and ultimately demolition.

Most of the Larkin Building was used for landfill in the erection of a public park, so precious little remains. This exhibition brings together literally every surviving element of the building - all of the interior furnishings, along with a full display on the Larkin Co, once the only rival to Sears. But the Larkin was different in that, unlike Sears, they manufactured everything they sold - from ground coffee, peanut butter and nutmeg to toothpaste, furniture, motor oil and furniture. The Larkin factories once covered over 30 acres, and 15 tracks led to the Administration building alone, dropping off nearly 7000 orders daily to a staff of nearly 1800 office workers. That such an enormous operation could vanish almost without a trace inside of Wright’s own lifetime, says something profound about America.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Demolition of the Larkin Company Administration Building, June 14, 1950 | Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright | STIRworld
Frank Lloyd Wright, Demolition of the Larkin Company Administration Building, June 14, 1950 Image: Collection of the Buffalo County Museum

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