Sullivanesque Revisited


Back in 2010, I wrote a short post about the Sullivanesque style as it commonly manifests around Chicago – in the form of small commercial buildings decorated with catalog terra cotta ornament designed in Louis Sullivan’s ornamental style. I think that I wrote with some trepidation, the unease that comes when writing seriously about something that the architectural “establishment” dismisses as unimportant (see also: the 4 Plus 1.)


I should know better! The whole point of this blog (and of many others like it around the country) is to delve into the obscure, to explore the “unimportant”. In fact I would hail that as a great accomplishment of the current generation of preservationists, architectural historians, writers and photographers – to elevate things like roadside architecture and vernacular styles and make a serious accounting of them; not to be bound and constrained by the standards of high style that generally get buildings into magazines and guide books.


This point was driven home to me recently by Ronald Schmitt’s excellent work, Sullivanesque (2001.) Schmitt writes not only about Sullivan and his serious contemporaries (Purcell & Elmslie, Henry John Klutho, Trost and Trost, and many others), but also explores the common buildings on Chicago’s commercial streets that were enlivened by the stock terra cotta designs inspired by Sullivan’s works, manufactured in bulk by Midland Terra Cotta Company and a couple of competitors. He points out that in many cases these were quite skillfully applied, and if they were not quite in keeping with Sullivan’s philosophy, they at least in line with some of his formal principles. Let’s take a look!


6634 Cermak Road, Berwyn – Vesecky’s Bakery. 1922. The ornament at the roofline builds to a peak, accentuating the building’s center line. Below, a corniceline suggests the limits of the 2nd floor and roof behind the parapet wall.


3261 N. Milwaukee Avenue – an annex to Kozy’s Cyclery. 1925, architect A.M. Ruttenburg. The roofline crest is heavily based on Midland Terra Cotta Company’s “Store Building Design No. 1.” From the roofline down, the importance of the central main entrance is emphasized. At the door, anomalous Beaux Arts details are used, making this building a bit of a hybrid. The vertical entry/pier assembly overlays horizontal bands that delineate the floors, parapet and roof.



3015 N. Milwaukee Avenue – originally M. Shooman Building; today, Polskie Centrum Medyczne. 1922, architect Rissman & Hirschfield, with stock terra cotta from the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company. Horizontal bands of small, repeating blocks with a relatively simple design delineate the floors and emphasize the long, horizontal nature of this two-story commercial building in Avondale. At the street corner, a concentration of medallions, vertical bands, and roofline capstones emphasize the importance of the entry.  Schmitt notes that the ornamental medallion on the long face of the building is derived from a Purcell & Elmslie bank in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.




6508-10 S. Halsted Street, Englewood – 1917, architct A.G. Lund. Two storefronts are neatly and clearly called out by the ornament along the roof parapet.



3752-58 W. Montrose at Hamlin – 1925, architect Maurice L. Bein. Medallions punctuate the roofline.



2129 W. Cermak, Little Village – Rubin Brothers Building. 1923, architect A.L. Himelblau.



The George Valhackis Building – 81st and Halsted. 1922, architect Charles J. Crotz. Stock terra cotta from Midland Terra Cotta Co.  Medallions demarcate the corner storefront, the various apartment stair entries, and the end of the building. Horizontal bands contain the row of 2nd-story windows.



3445-49 W. Irving Park Road. 1925, architect A.L. Himelblau. Midland Terra Cotta Co terra cotta. The central medallion was Midland catalog item #4508 and appears frequently across Chicago.



3508-12 W. 26th Street, Little Village. 1923, architect Charles Vedra. Medallion 4508 again!



3500 N. Cicero Avenue – originally the Charles Andrews Store. 1925, architect Jens J. Jensen. The roofline of this building is repeatedly punctuated by Midland medallion 4508. Other stock pieces surround it, arranged in configurations suggested by the terra cotta manufacturer themselves. This arrangement of the medallion and its surrounding accents, for example, is directly drawn from Store Buildings Design No. 1 on plate 47 of the Midland Terra Cotta catalog of the early 1920s.


Down by the Riverside!

Nearly due west of the loop, between Berwyn and Brookfield, you’ll find a grace note along the Metra line – the beautiful planned suburb of Riverside.




Riverside was laid out in 1869-71 by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux.  Its ample parkland, 100×200 foot house lots, and curving streets and paths were a world away from the crowded, industrialized inner city of the time. About 50 houses (of which only a handful remain today) went up before the Panic of 1872 brought things to a temporary halt. Additional houses went up in the following decades in a variety of styles.

As a National Register of Historic Places site, Riverside has been amply researched and documented; there’s not much I can add factually. But Riverside is exactly the kind of knock-your-socks-off place that got me started writing this blog, the kind of place that a casual tourist would be unlikely to find, the kind of place I’m hoping to stumble across when I wander out beyond the Loop. So I share it here in an act of pure, unabashed enthusiasm.

Riverside is home to several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, two historic water towers, a lovely city hall, several important commercial buildings, many beautiful turn-of-the-century homes from a highly pedigreed register of architects, and even a few Mid-Century buildings of note. It was also the home of Louis Sullivan’s Babson House, lost in 1960.

Hoffman Tower, 1908

This castellated tower stands alongside the Des Plaines River, on a stretch of road that is a sort of “back door” to Riverside. This route is how I’ve always approached the town, coming off of Ogden Avenue.

The adjacent dam was removed in 2012, and the river re-channelized.


Water Tower (1871) with adjacent pump house and well house (1890). Architect William LeBaron Jenney.

Major commercial and public buildings:
Riverside Improvement Company Building, 1871 – architect Frederick C. Withers. The development’s first commercial building.

The Driver Block, 1891 – architect Charles Hallam

Riverside Town Hall, 1895 – architect George Ashby

Riverside Public Library, 1930 – architects O’Conner, O’Conner & Martin

Central School, 1897 – architect Charles Whittlesey, with later addition

Riverside Presbyterian Church, 1879 – architect John C. Cochrane. Much of the stone in this church comes from an 1869 church on the same site, destroyed by fire.

A sampling of notable residences:
Schermerhorn Residence, 1869 – architect William LeBaron Jenney

Dore Cottage, 1869 – architects Olmsted, Vaux & Co.



Prairie Houses
Avery Coonley Residence, 1908 – architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This landmark Prairie Style house is the centerpiece of a whole estate, including the servants’ quarters and the stables & garage seen below.IMG_6120

Coonley Playhouse, 1913 – architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Originally a school for educating the Coonley children.

IMG_3037Thorncroft Residence, 1912 – architect William Drummond – as home for teachers in the Playhouse school, it was yet another part of the Coonley estate.

This short set of photos doesn’t even include all the highlights; an entire day could be spent exploring every corner of this fantastic architectural wonderland. There are buildings I haven’t even gotten to myself, including another major Frank Lloyd Wright house and a surviving Louis Sullivan house (a service building for the Babson estate which is significant in its own right – 277 Gatesby Road if you’re looking!) For any architecture fan in Chicago, a trip out to Riverside, IL is an absolute must.


  • Riverside Museum online tour
  • National Register of Historic Places nomination form
  • Elmwood Park’s Sullivanesque Bungalows

    In 1926, developer John Mills launched Westwood – an ambitious bungalow development in suburban Elmwood Park, due west of the Loop. Mills & Sons oversaw the construction of homes as well as the improvements to the entire holding, with streets, alleys and sidewalks all going in at the same time. In full swing by 1928, the Westwood development was one of the largest single developments the city had seen and would, when finished, include 1,332 homes and cover many blocks, with what is now known as Conti Parkway as its civic center.



    The bungalows are handsome and solid – they look terrific over 80 years after their construction – but nothing new or groundbreaking for their time. Mills & Sons’ work would be just a larger-than-average notch in the Bungalow Belt were it not for an unusual decorative decision: these are, perhaps, Chicago’s only Sullivanesque bungalows.






    The terra cotta trim was supplied by the Midland Terra Cotta Company (1), 105 W. Monroe in the Loop. Midland Terra Cotta made an entire line of Sullivan-inspired stock ornament. Their work wound up on quite a few of Chicago’s commercial buildings, though of course the Leiber-Miester was given no credit and, undoubtedly, no compensation. The intent was simply to make the buildings more “ornamental”, in the words of Midland’s own design drawings. Whereas Sullivan carefully integrated his ornament to enhance and reinforce the big idea of the building – developers just dropped it in because it looked nice.

    And, well, doesn’t it?



    Blocks of catalog ornament were used to accent window surrounds, the heads of arched basement windows, porch columns, and simple expanses of brick wall. The ornaments are a ubiquitous marker of John Mills’ Elmwood Park bungalows, clearly delineating the extent of his development.

    Mills & Sons took pride in their work, touting the “colorful terra cotta trim” and high-quality face brick in their advertisements. Pride could not save them from the onset of the Great Depression, however, and the company went into receivership in 1932, based on a motion filed by the Hydraulic Press Brick company. The company survived, however, and would go on to build wartime housing further west in the early 1940s.

    Note 1 – Chicago Tribune display ad, March 11, 1928 – Mills & Sons Westwood. The ad lists all the major suppliers of building components including brick, hardwood floors, fireplaces, door hardware and much more.

    Double Deco

    Pure coincidence let me find out about the fantastic Art Deco-facaded building at 6420-6424 N. Western Avenue: the Rogers Park Historical Society was headquartered there in the 1990s, and thus mention the building in their online history.

    It was designed by William C. Presto, an associate of Louis Sullivan – the same guy who called in Sullivan to do the Krause Music Store facade, the final work of Sullivan’s career. The Western Ave. building was home to Cutsler’s Cafe in 1931; beyond that, there’s not much about it in the Tribune archives, my usual research stop. It’s a beauty, though, with a design vocabulary that brings to mind vaguely Egyptian imagery but is a unique creation.



    Well, I thought it was unique, anyway… till I had occasion to venture through the small town of Dekalb, IL, where the exact same design style appears on a small commercial facade, the Wedberg Building. Presto must have figured nobody would notice if he recycled a design in a small town a hundred miles away!

    DeKalb main street

    Of course, the Internet isn’t very forthcoming about this one, either. Best guess is it was built for an Albert T. Wedberg (his 31-year-old wife’s name appears on the 1930 census), who may have been a photographer (he’s credited with a photograph of the town from the same time period).

    Sullivanesque ornament

    Louis Sullivan was a titanic force in American architecture, influencing an entire generation of designers directly and indirectly. Among his many accomplishments was an ornamental style so unique and distinctive that it spawned an entire genre of imitative mass-produced catalog ornament. These terra cotta pieces show up on buildings all across Chicagoland.

    Here’s one particularly common design:

    Kedzie & California

    Montrose Avenue


    Rogers Park

    But there were many others.

    Milwaukee Avenue


    S. Michigan Avenue


    Belmont Avenue

    Lincoln Avenue

    They appear again and again on Chicago commercial buildings, adding a distinctly local note to otherwise forgettable architecture. They rather contradict Sullivan’s own design philosophy, which considered building and ornament to be one unified, interrelated work of art, each custom-designed to fit the other and to serve the whole. These guys, by contrast, were just picking stuff out of a catalog. But hey, it’s impressive stuff!

    The term Sullivanesque comes from the book of the same name, which catalogs not only these shallow-but-pretty imitators, but also a whole school of design based directly on Sullivan’s design style.

    If you’re not convinced by the organic-unifed-work-of-art argument, there’s a place where you can compare a Sullivanesque building with an actual Sullivan design, in Lincoln Square. Right by the neighborhood’s central plaza stands a fairly impressive bit of Sullivanesque, one of the few to actually make some attempt at integrating ornament and design.



    But just a block south, the last built design of Sullivan’s life – the Krause Music Store facade – blows its imitators completely off the map. There’s simply no comparison.

    Krause Music Store

    Krause Music Store detail

    Krause Music Store detail

    Krause Music Store detail

    Baha’i House of Worship

    It is far and away the most grandiose building north of the city limits; even within Chicago, it has few peers. As Sheridan Road leaves Evanston, the Baha’i House of Worship stands like an alien spaceship by the Lake Michigan shore.

    Baha'i House of Worship

    This fantastic building was made to be a landmark. Construction took over thirty years, beginning in 1920 and not completed until 1953. Only 25 years after completion, it was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.

    Baha'i House of Worship

    Architect Louis Bourgeois worked on the design for eight years. Though he strove to create a timeless style that incorporated symbolism from the world’s major religions, you can take one look at his ornamental style and tell right away he was looking at the works of his contemporary, Louis Sullivan. Unsurprisingly, he worked in Sullivan’s office in the late 1880s.

    Baha'i House of Worship

    Baha'i House of Worship

    Gracefully overlapping curved forms evoke the idea of vegetation and geometry, all the while tautly bound within the confines of the building’s surface. The lamp, by contrast, reveals the building’s long period of assembly, spanning two architectural eras: it is pure MidCentury Modern.

    Baha'i House of Worship

    Likewise, columns on the periphery of the interior are utterly unadorned.

    And what of that interior? What payoff awaits within that grand dome? Oh, it’s worth it!

    Baha'i House of Worship

    Your gaze is drawn up… and up.

    Baha'i House of Worship

    The dome is beautiful by night…

    Baha'i House of Worship

    But by day it truly and literally shines, as flecks of daylight slip in between the curving openwork of the dome.

    Baha'i House of Worship

    Just how they constructed this magnificent trick remains a mystery to me.

    This building shines gloriously by day or night, in all weather. Even in the dead of night, it casts warm light onto its surroundings.

    Baha'i House of Worship

    The Bahá’í House of Worship is one of only seven such buildings currently in existence. They share with it several design concepts, such as the 9-sided circular design, a single open space within, a lack of any representational decoration, and a surrounding setting of gardens. The building is open daily, and if you arrive at the right time you might just have the whole magnificent space to yourself. It won’t last, though, as a steady trickle of visitors comes to see this unparalleled marvel.

    Louis Sullian bank threatened by flood control plan

    You might recall that the Louis Sullivan-designed bank in Cedar Rapids suffered flood damage over the summer. Though it survived the floods, it is now threatened with demolition, as part of a flood control program that will also claim numerous other historic buildings in Cedar Rapids. The Chicago Tribune’s Skyline blog has more details, as does Lynn Becker’s blog.


    The basic plan is: more walls. Build huge, expensive, land-devouring, building-obliterating levees, then hope and pray that they hold up as floods grow increasingly large and devastating, thanks primarily to these self-same levees which have hemmed in rivers from their natural flood plains.

    The first commenter on the Skyline blog has it right: it is farmland, not cities, which should be sacrificed when the waters rise. It would be far easier to compensate farmers for crop loss (and preemptively provide them with the means to ensure their livestock, equipment and homes can survive such floods) than to repeatedly rebuild hundreds of flooded buildings in urban areas. The way to “control” floods is to allow them onto their natural flood plains, not to attempt to contain them within ever-higher walls which just pass the problem on downstream.

    An online petition is collecting signatures from people opposed to the plan; you can view and sign it here.