Thursday, April 7, 2011

Chicago Cultural Center and Louis Sullivan

I went to the Chicago Cultural Center to see Vivian Maier, but I came away with even more.

Incredible stained glass rotunda ceiling
The building, which used to be the main library, is spectacular. I hear there are architectural tours; on the next visit I will plan to go on one.

Wooden sign with the word Silence in gold blackletter type
A funny sign referenced the building's bookish past. Across the room is another sign, in the same style, that says License.

In addition to the Maier show, the Cultural Center was hosting an exhibit about the architect Louis Sullivan. I knew a bit about him and his work (I've seen his bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, and the Auditorium Building in Chicago), but little about his career. I won't go into detail, but the thing that struck me most was that he wasn't as successful as I had thought, often scraping by. In fact, his move into designing small-town banks in his later career was a big come-down, although it kept him in business.

Square silver board with decorative pattern kind of like an ornate parcheesi board
But it wasn't as big a come-down as what followed. According to the exhibit card that accompanied this ornate bit of work: "His last commercial job was to create ornamental drawings for inexpensive lithographed metal plates to be placed beneath stoves and space heaters to protect the floor. He reportedly received only $200, and his delicate drawings were clumsily re-rendered by the manufacturer prior to production." (I think my grandparents had one of these.)

The exhibit concludes with the two letters below, the one at left by Sullivan from August 1920 when he was 64, the one at right from his former assistant Frank Lloyd Wright, early December 1922. I wonder if there were letters in the intervening time, or if it took Wright that long to write back.

Two handwritten letters side by side
Sullivan wrote to Wright:

If you have any money to spare, now is the urgent time to let me have some.... I am in a very serious situation indeed it is now a sheer matter of food and shelter.... the immediate problem is to keep on earth.
Wright wrote to Sullivan:
I am going to tell you a secret which I hope you will keep: I am extremely hard up — and not a job in sight in the world.... I am anxious about you.... If things get desperately bad and you are in serious want you must know that I would share my last crust with you and I hope you will always let me know when ever that time threatens.

I enclose something of what I have left to insure you something of Christmas...
Sullivan died alone in a Chicago hotel room in 1924. He was 68.

1 comment:

Unemployed Dragon said...

Chicago is such a great town for architecture! There are tours of the Loop and the Louis Sullivan buildings in that area. There is one too that is taken on a boat in the Chicago River, looking at the skyline.

As a kid, I lived in River Forest, the town where Frank Lloyd Wright built a large number of houses, and is the home of his studio. He also designed the Unitarian Church in Oak Park. Of course being all of about 10-12 when we lived there , I didn't appreciate all of this at the time. One of these days I'll take a trip to Chicago and do these tours (and visit my old neighborhood!).