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Where Credit Is Due

A Mississippi restoration project is raising old Chicago questions about the relationship between Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

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The Sullivan cottage before Hurricane Katrina


Frank Lloyd Wright in 1926

Charnley Cottage in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, represents the earliest surviving collaboration between Louis Sullivan, the “prophet” of modern architecture, and Frank Lloyd Wright, its relentless evangelist. For decades, the sprawling waterfront bungalow was one of the major architectural destinations in the South. Today, with the structure twisted in pieces off its foundation and floors collapsed, it’s a major case of irreparable damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

But now, almost three years after the storm, restoration has begun. And with it questions have arisen about the relationship between Sullivan and Wright, which began in 1887 when Wright walked into Sullivan’s office and asked for a job. Wright’s six years in Sullivan’s employ were charged with intense mutual respect and contentious battles. But the history of their relationship has also been obfuscated by Wright’s tendency to claim full credit for any design on which he happened to work. High on the list of such projects was this beachfront cottage for the Chicago lumber dealer James Charnley.

Louis Sullivan circa 1900

Was the cottage designed by Sullivan? Or Wright? Or both? Those questions have sent the restoration architect Cooper Norman digging through a rich repository of historical information, much of it coming from Chicago. The answer will determine how Norman will restore the nonrectilinear floor plan, as well as the ornamentation and details such as panels of “curly-grain” pine beadboard. “I have to know whose hand designed these things,” he says. “And when I fill in the blanks, I need it somewhere in my mind whose house I’m working on.”

The story of the cottage starts in 1890, when Sullivan and Charnley first traveled to Ocean Springs and both bought land there for vacation homes. Because Sullivan was busy with skyscrapers at the time, he put these jobs on the desk of the firm’s head draftsman, Wright. But how much direction did the master provide when putting the work in his talented employee’s hands? Also at this time, Wright was working on the design of Charnley’s Chicago home on Astor Street, now brilliantly restored and a masterpiece of free space, natural light, and ornament. Despite the property’s obvious Sullivanesque elements, Wright claimed that design as his own and later termed it “the first modern house in America.”

Photography: (Image 1) Robert M. Craig, (Image 3) Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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