Louis Sullivan - Table of Contents

The Guaranty Office Building
The Carson Pirie Scott Department Store

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Carson Pirie Scott

Guaranty: Sullivan followed the principal divisions of a classical column with a base, a shaft, and a capital. The first two floors, which contain public spaces, constitute the base; the office areas, the shaft; and the elaborate cornice and row of round windows on the street sides make up the capital. Using the narrow piers to give an upward thrust to the building, Sullivan created the archetype of the modern skyscraper, a column holding up or "scraping" the sky. Then, to give the building its final exuberance, Sullivan sheathed it in lively, reddish-brown terra cotta that is ornamented with elaborate designs. It follows Sullivan's dictum, "Form follows function." Carson: By 1890, steel was being mass produced. and it permitted a strong, slender skeleton that could support itself, the weight of many floors, and a thin, light curtain wall for weatherproofing. The remaining challenge was to make the end result aesthetically pleasing. Because the exterior walls of a skeleton-framed structure do not have to bear tremendous weights, they can have large areas of glass, terra cotta or other non supporting materials. Carson has two floors of display windows. The upper floors used the "Chicago window" composed of a large fixed central pane flanked by two double-sash windows that provided ventilation.

The cylindrical, corner-entry pavilion is typical of larger turn-of-the-century buildings.

Guaranty: The decorative ornamentation devised by Sullivan and used on some of his office buildings is based on floral motifs derived from American nature forms and perhaps from the Celtic Book of Kells. Carson: The rich ornament of the first and second floors demonstrates Sullivan's idea that the display windows were like pictures and deserved rich frames.

Guaranty: entrance detail. Sullivan buildings can easily be identified by their distinctive low-relief ornament of intricately interwoven foliate designs. The arch above the lintel is a signature Sullivan arch. Carson: Rotunda entrance detail. The glass panels on the outside and inside admit natural light to the store. The first two stories are adorned with cast iron, molded into a lavish pattern of leaves, berries, flowers, vines and geometric forms.

Guaranty: The main motif is a kind of oval pod or seed shape, which Sullivan used to suggest man's potential for spiritual and creative growth. The pod is sometimes superimposed on a rectangle and connected to it with stem-like filaments. Carson: The cast iron ornament has been returned to its original reddish-green color after years of being painted gray. Sullivan intended the ornament to resemble oxidized bronze, an effect achieved by applying a coat of brownish-red paint and then applying a layer of deep green paint in such a way that the undercoat of red shows through in places.

Guaranty: The decorative ornamentation devised by Sullivan is based on floral motifs but organized in a manner closely resembling the Irish interlace of the early Middle Ages. Carson: Interior column with simplified column. Sullivan's father was an Irish dancing master. The designs seem to be derived from American nature forms and perhaps from the Celtic Book of Kells.

Two buildings by Louis Sullivan, the Guaranty office building in Buffalo and the Carson Pirie Scott department store building in Chicago, at first glance seem very different, yet a comparison adds to the enjoyment of each.

There is an interesting Chicago connection with the Buffalo Guaranty Building. It was intended to be named after Hascal L. Taylor, the Buffalonian who commissioned Adler and Sullivan -- a Chicago firm -- to build what he wanted to be "the largest and best office building in the city." Unfortunately, he died in November of 1894 just before construction plans were to be publicly announced.

The Guaranty Construction Company -- of Chicago -- which was to construct the building for Taylor, bought the property and completed the project in 1896. It was renamed the Prudential Building about two years after it was completed at the time of refinancing though the Prudential Insurance Company.

Chicago is the site associated with development of the tall commercial building. Although Chicago commercial architecture built on advances made elsewhere, most notably in Philadelphia and New York City, it was in that midwestem city in the last quarter of the l9th century that new technology and materials were exploited by innovative architects and engineers to produce the skeleton-framed skyscraper that would transform cities around the world.

The tall office building was made possible by three advances in the building trade. Of primary importance was the invention of the elevator, for without it there is a physical limit to the number of stories a person can climb. A sturdy method of construction was also necessary to allow for upward building. Masonry load-bearing walls could only support a limited number of floors but the Bessemer converter process used in steel production made high quality steel commercially available and revolutionized building practice by allowing steel frames to carry heavy loads to unprecedented heights. Lightweight materials, predominantly terra cotta, were used to sheath these frames. The final requirement for a skyscraper was that it be fireproof. Terra cotta and brick were frequently employed for encasing steel building members to ensure protection, thus replacing highly flammable timber framing.

A commercial building in the Chicago School style was tall in comparison to its predecessors–usually more than 6 stories but fewer than 20. It was rectangular with a flat roof and terminating cornice. Ornamentation was usually minimal and subordinated to the functional expression of the internal skeleton.

The architect who developed the best-known and most distinctive architectural treatment for tall commercial buildings was Louis Sullivan. His buildings, like a classical column, had a base consisting of the lower two stories, a main shaft in which verticality was emphasized by piers between the windows (occasionally joined by arcading at the top) and–the crowning glory–an elaborate and boldly projecting terra-cotta cornice. (Unfortunately, the Carson cornice was replaced with a bald cornice.)

Besides this basic organization, Sullivan's buildings can easily be identified by their distinctive low-relief ornament composed of lushly intertwining vines and leaves combined with sharp-edged geometric figures.

- Principal source: John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers, Jr., What Style Is It: A Guide to American Architecture, p. 101  (online Feb. 2016)


Year Completed


Building materials


See also:

Color photos and their arrangement 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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