Louis Sullivan’s ornament can be appreciated on both a large scale—think Chicago’s Carson Pirie Scott building—and a small one—this cast iron doorplate. Having been removed from its original location during the mid-twentieth century, this doorplate is from Adler & Sullivan’s last commission, the Guaranty Building (now called the Prudential Building). The building became a National Historic Landmark in 1975 after being threatened by demolition the year before because of a fire that destroyed its interior. Built in 1896, the Guaranty Building is located in downtown Buffalo, New York—a city that also has a Frank Lloyd Wright house and an H.H. Richardson building—the two other heavyweights of American architecture. In 1931, seven years after Sullivan’s death and before he would be recognized as the “father of the skyscraper,” notable historian and writer Lewis Mumford described him as the link between Richardson and Wright. In a chapter titled “Towards Modern Architecture,” Mumford wrote about Sullivan’s significance in his book Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865–1895. Mumford was unique for praising Sullivan shortly after his death, stating that his name alone “has become a symbol, and the symbol has been one to conjure with.”[1] Both Sullivan’s significance and his relationship to Richardson and Wright are undebatable today.[2] Although when he died in 1924, he was nearly penniless and received little recognition for his contribution to American architecture.

Sinuous lines and foliate forms are often found in Sullivan’s ornament. Both scholars and novices alike can appreciate the artistry of his designs. Stylistically, his ornament is difficult to describe. The influence of English design reform, Asian art, and Art Nouveau are all uniquely expressed—amongst many other styles and ideologies. The ornament on this doorplate combines naturalistic motifs, such as the ruffled leaf-like forms with geometric abstraction, such as the line and dot decoration. It’s also worth noting that the exterior of the Guaranty Building is entirely covered with surface ornament in salmon-colored terra-cotta, which reminds one that this doorplate is a sliver of Sullivan’s architectural vision and intricate ornamental vocabulary.

 

Catherine Acosta is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is a Fellow in the museum’s Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.

 

[1] Mumford, Lewis, “Towards Modern Architecture,” in The Brown Decades. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931),142.

[2] For an in-depth and more contemporary look at the relationship between all three architects see James F. O’Gorman’s Three American Architects: Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright, 1865-1915.

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