Seventy-five years ago, my father, Robert Olmsted, finished a book – a labor of love, really, on the influential architect Louis Sullivan and Sullivan’s writings not on architecture, but democracy. Today, I'm publishing for the first time the opening of that book (here.) Let's hear it for the World Wide Web!
A bit of background is in order. My father was 47 when I was born in 1952, and he died at 66 in 1971 (just two years older than I turned Friday -- too young). I missed a good deal of his life, with divorce and distance a further complication. I only knew second-hand, especially from my sister Rosie, that before I was born he spent long hours up in the garret (yes, a real garret) of their house in Danville, Illinois, creating this work. He would have been in his 30s.
It was never published, and everyone believed the manuscript was lost.
It was not lost, only spectacularly mislaid. After my mother's sister died, her children were going through the attic and found a manila envelope with –-behold! --the loose-leaf, typewritten pages of the "Louis Sullivan book." My cousin Trevett handed it to me, and I must say that for some while, I thumbed the pages but didn’t really read it. I had no idea what I would find. What if it was awful or misguided or as dated as the typewriter it was written on, at least by my lights? Well, it wasn't.
The mammoth Auditorium building in Chicago may have been demolished by the time these words are in print. If the Auditorium is razed, one of the monumental proofs of Louis Sullivan's genius will have submitted to the hand of Time. But Sullivan's legacy to the world is more lasting than stone or steel.
That opening still feels fresh and powerful, at least to me. A lot was at stake -- an architectural masterpiece might bite the dust. The building's description -- "mammoth" for size, "monumental" for significance -- was a nice variation, especially since "monumental" worked in both senses.The introduction unfolded in the same way, a brief, well-crafted intellectual biography of Sullivan -- and therefore of my father as well.
Seventeen years after Louis Sullivan's death he is still primarily known as an architect. Yet those persons who were close to Sullivan during his lifetime all attest that to know him as an architect, as a giant creator-builder -- to use Sheldon Cheney's phrase -- is to know only half the man. Great as was his contribution to architecture, Louis Sullivan, the poet-philosopher, the artist-writer, the teacher, the prophet of democracy, the personality, stands far above the buildings or the theories of architecture he left to the world. If there remains any doubt about this evaluation this book is offered as conclusive evidence.
Yet this was not hagiography. Sullivan's career cascaded into darkness; he ended up alone. He suffered the fate of someone far ahead of the times. But my father was passionate about the point he wanted to make: Sullivan’s philosophy shaped his buildings. Ideas mattered most. And so did the individual. Form followed function -- a term Sullivan coined.
Sullivan's faith was in the democratic idea, a belief in the soundness and kindness of the common, the normal man -- the multitudes. Here was a faith on which to build a genuine optimism; here was a substantial support reaching down to bedrock. America pointed to her steel production; Sullivan looked at the spiritual vitality of the nation as an index of national well-being.
I just love that. I'd call it prairie progressivism, a Midwestern, land-of-Lincoln fanfare for the common man. It's in my bones as well, as readers who care about such things will know. It was an affirmation of, an appeal to, our better angels, as Lincoln had it.
After the Introduction, the book continued with selected writings by Sullivan on democracy. I've included some of those as well. The whole thing is not long, and I hope you might find time to read it, but most of all I’m glad to get it out of the attic and online before it gets misplaced for another three quarters of a century.
As my father explains, he got interested in Sullivan while a student at the Art Institute of Chicago (where he was acquainted with Walt Disney). What became of the book? No one is really sure. The University of Chicago Press was said to be interested. When I opened the manuscript, there was a letter I’ve since mislaid (we seem to be prone to that!). It was from Harper’s or the Atlantic; it expressed admiration for the material, but I can’t remember if the interest felt genuine or merely polite. Just as well.
The Introduction is dated September 23, 1941. The war that engulfed the world six weeks later didn't help, I'm sure. In Danville, where my father's family had lived since 1838, he owned a small bookstore and a progressive weekly newspaper (my mother wrote the parenting column, and my aunt was the copy editor). These efforts were perhaps a bit quixotic, but in those pre-war small-town years it didn't appear to matter terribly; there was a wider margin to be yourself, it seems to me. After the war, our family moved to Oak Park, a Chicago suburb where I was born. The world sped up. My father took a proper job with United Airlines that I suspect made him existentially miserable, writing the occasional speech for its president but not returning, as far as I know, to Sullivan or to any sustained writing. (I do know that he got up an hour early every day to read; books and ideas never stopped mattering.)
My sister once said that I am having the kind of career my father would have loved; it has its ups and downs, but at least I get to write and read and observe and report full time. There's a poignancy to that, isn't there? He wanted it. I got it. But don't we all want our descendants, however we define them, to find their calling and follow it passionately? And aren't there bonus points involved if it happens to be one we care about, too? After reading the book, I appreciate that idea. In both senses.
Oh, and the Auditorium building my father feared would be "demolished by the time these words are in print"? Well, 75 years later, the words are in print -- and the building is standing! I'll consider that a monumental Father's Day present.
(From Wikipedia: The Auditorium Building in Chicago is one of the best-known designs of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Completed in 1889, the building is located at the northwest corner of South Michigan Avenue and Congress Street (now Congress Parkway). The building, which when constructed was the largest in the United States and the tallest in Chicago, was designed to be a multi-use complex, including offices, a theater and a hotel. As a young apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright worked on some of the interior design.)