Everyone has heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. Possibly the most famous American architect, there are LEGO versions of his works available in miniature for the armchair architect. I’m willing to bet that many people can name at least one famous building he’s responsible for designing – Falling Water, the Guggenheim, the Imperial Hotel, Taliesin. All breathtakingly beautiful, innovative, and cultivated to exist in harmony with their environment and the people inhabiting them.
But while I appreciate Frank Lloyd Wright, and I love the Prairie School and the Arts and Crafts Movement, my favorite architect is actually Wright’s teacher. His contributions to St. Louis history anchor my hometown’s architectural heritage. They are, for me, two of the most emotionally evocative landmarks in the United States.
Few people know the name of Wright’s mentor, Louis Sullivan. Though he was the father of modernism in architecture and a man who has done more to touch the daily architectural life of Americans, his name is less well-known than that of his protegee. However, most people will recognize his principle statement and architectural guiding star, “Form follows function”.
Louis Sullivan is known as the father of skyscrapers, teasing architectural design toward fantastical heights. Sullivan made his mark in architecture during a sea change in design, technology, and economic growth. Faced with rapid urbanization, buildings needed to make more room with a smaller footprint – they needed to move upward rather than outward. Previous buildings had been limited by the load-bearing masonry of the ground floors but the technology introduced by the steel beam offered versatility, economy, and strength.
Much of the aesthetic of load-bearing masonry consisted of elements to disguise and work within the constraints of the structure itself. Without the need for the base, shaft, and cornice, architecture utilizing steel beams faced a stylistic identity crisis. It was a blank page.
Undaunted, Sullivan deftly ushered in the era of the modern skyscraper with an artist’s eye for precedent and a visionary’s embrace of the technological possibilities. Traditional architectural elements were toyed with, architecture was given grammar, and a new style of urban development and the era of steel-frame high rises began.
Sullivan’s designs were honest and playful. He wanted pedestrians to crane their necks and marvel at buildings that towered above the city skyline. But he also wanted people to really examine them and look harder. We were all Jack, looking up at a steel and brick beanstalk growing out of the ground to tickle the clouds with its concrete leaves. We were left wondering how high up it (and we) could go. Sullivan’s architecture, while born of modern technology, was emotionally resonant and human.
Louis Sullivan wrote in “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
Sullivan credited his observation to his study of the Roman architect, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who wrote De architectura. Vitruvius wrote about the ethos of architecture, declaring that the quality of a building was built on the social relevance more than the materials or end result. He wrote, “[t]he ideal building has three elements; it is sturdy, useful, and beautiful.” His concepts of proportion and emotional relevance influenced both art and architecture. Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” is a direct reflection of the three elements as applied to human anatomy.
THE WAINWRIGHT BUILDING
St. Louis is home to two of Sullivan’s masterpieces: The Wainwright Building and the Wainwright Tomb.
Found downtown at 709 Chestnut, the Wainwright Building is a 10-story brick office building that exemplifies Sullivan’s skyscraper ethos. Originally completed in 1891 to house the St. Louis Brewers Association, it was named for Ellis Wainwright, a local brewer and financier. Named a National Historic Landmark in 1968, it is currently home to Missouri state offices.
Sullivan wrote of his architectural vision, citing the Wainwright Building as illustration:
[The skyscraper] must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.
An art history or architecture student can appreciate the tripartite composition that lightly suggests Classical forms but never devolves into the foamy neoclassicism that Sullivan found contemptible. Dressing the steel beams in brick and terra cotta, Sullivan added warmth and organic textures. Distinctly modern, the Wainwright Building was, to Sullivan, “a proud and soaring thing” that relied on its vertical aesthetic.
In the Wainwright Building, Sullivan also established his symbolic architectural poetry, marrying geometric structural forms with organic detail and ornament. This “objective-tectonic” and “subjective-organic” juxtaposition came to fruition in the Wainwright Building. His signature elements amplified height through designs that led the eye up, up, up to the very top of the building in even, vertical lines. Once there, the natural forms of florals and leafy botanicals folded around honeycomb windows in intricate, intimate geometry, teasing the viewer on the street with patterns too detailed to be understood from the sidewalk.
Heralded now as one of the ten buildings that changed America, it was the first skyscraper that looked the part. Frank Lloyd Wright declared it was “the very first human expression of a tall steel office-building as Architecture.” Sullivan was able to take something impersonal and utilitarian, and elevate it into art.
Dwarfed now by taller skyscrapers downtown, the Wainwright Building stands out among its impersonal glass and metal neighbors because of its warmth and organic feel.
THE WAINWRIGHT TOMB
Placed regally under tall maple and sweet gum trees that feel as old as the city itself, the Wainwright Tomb perches on a sunny hill in North St. Louis City’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. This is my favorite place within the 314 acres of the park.
Tragedy visited the Wainwright family during completion of the downtown skyscraper. Charlotte Dickson Wainwright, the young, vibrant wife of Ellis Wainwright and lauded by local press as “the most beautiful woman in St. Louis”, died of an acute infection in 1890.
Devastated, Ellis commissioned Sullivan to design a monument to his wife where they could rest together forever when it was his time to join her. The mausoleum that resulted has become known as the Taj Mahal of St. Louis, both for Ellis’ grief and Sullivan’s graceful sensitivity of design.
From the outside, the Wainwright Tomb is severe in its simplicity: two classical geometric forms, a dome resting on top of a perfect cube. Devoid of the ornate iconography that ran rampant in late Victorian cemeteries, the Wainwright Tomb is quiet and stoic by comparison. It doesn’t even feature the family name.
A closer look at the external detailing begins to give Sullivan’s signature subjective-organic poetry a voice. Outlined in the limestone facade is a neat row of Sullivan’s botanical designs that never repeat exactly. The botanicals resemble stylized Parrot Tulips with ruffled petals and deep cups. Victorians held floriography in very high esteem – one could have an entire conversation in a bouquet of flowers and their meanings. The inclusion of tulips here, no matter how stylized, has to be read as intentional.
In the language of flowers, tulips were among the highest praise for the intended. Introduced from Persia with a stunningly tragic mythology, they represent the truest, passionate love. Unlike a rose, the classic symbol of love and passion, the tulip is without thorns and presents itself to the viewer in total vulnerability. And unlike nearly every other flower, tulips continue to grow after being cut. In cemetery engravings, flowers with bowed heads represented an untimely passing while still in the “bloom” of youth.
Added together, the infinite strip of inverted tulips around the Wainwright Tomb can be read as Ellis at his most vulnerable: his deepest grief at the death of his beloved wife and the confession that his love will continue to grow for her, even at their parting.
For the reserved Gilded Age, that was a gutpunch of a confession.
If you’re fortunate enough to know someone with the (equally ornate) key, stepping over the threshold of the mausoleum is like watching the passing of the design baton from Sullivan to Wright. Sullivan brought in his student to assist with the interior design so he could focus on the impending competition of the Wainwright building downtown.
Here, again, Sullivan’s observation of “form follows function” holds true. If the outside of the Wainwright Tomb spoke of grief, the interior speaks with the hope and joy of an eternal, loving union.
At the heart of the small structure are two burial slabs for Ellis and Charlotte, side by side, in literal conversation with each other. Lines from poets Tennyson and Barbauld are engraved in echoing sentiment for husband and wife, respectively. Charlotte’s reads “Say not good night. / But in some brighter clime / bid me good morning”. Inscribed on Ellis’ slab on his death is 1924, “O, for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still”.
In this soft, personal space, it’s easy to picture the couple lying side by side looking up at the sky together and whispering affections. That intimacy is evident in each detail of the interior. The floor and ceiling of space are covered with tiny mosaic tiles that twist in colorful vines around the space. Far from being somber, the color palette is almost joyful – bright reds and greens curling around bright white and yellow. Everything leads the eye upward, toward the bowl of the dome directly above Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright. From their resting place, they would have the perfect view of a twinkling heaven, tiled with gold mosaics and pastel cherubim that smile kindly back. This isn’t a mournful space, it is hopeful.
But all of this comfort and love is only viewed with the door of the mausoleum open, letting natural light in along with the external grief. It is a beautiful tribute to a young, beloved wife. More than any marble or limestone memorial in Bellefontaine, the Wainwright Tomb stands as an evocative meditation on the grieving process itself.
Sullivan’s designs are, at their core, emotional, honest, and very human. For a world sitting at the brink of massive technological and industrial overdrive, Sullivan’s design let the human element straddle the divide between past and future.
Sullivan believed that architecture must flow naturally within its physical environment, but also within the human environment. His designs draw the eye up, literally and metaphorically, demonstrating that we are more than our facades. In the Wainwright Building, we’re compelled to look up and consider the heights of man’s technological accomplishment. But in the Wainwright Tomb, we’re prompted to look heavenward and contemplate man’s emotional journey. In form and function, both views lead upward toward hope.
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Visit the park for yourself. Bellefontaine offers historical tours many days of the week and most weekends. For any history, architecture, or art and literature buff, there is a wealth of beauty to be appreciated.