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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 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

 

The remains of the Charney Cottage prior to the restoration

The cottages for Sullivan and Charnley were built directly next door to one another in a similar Shingle style. Sullivan later lost his place after putting it up for a loan. But the structure stood until 2005, when Katrina destroyed it. Its owner, the personal injury attorney Paul Miner, says he plans to restore it, but his efforts have been delayed by a term in a federal penitentiary, where he is now serving time for bribing a judge.

The Charnley place burned down, allegedly at the hands of unruly servants, in 1897; Sullivan, who had fired Wright by this time, rebuilt it in the same character, suggesting that Sullivan regarded the original design as his own. Although the State of Mississippi expressed early interest in restoring it, the wheels have turned slowly. The elderly couple who owned it died after the hurricane, and their daughter applied for a demolition permit. Desperate calls came from Ocean Springs, many to Sullivan aficionados in Chicago, to find a buyer to reerect the structure (plus a guesthouse that is separately owned). When none appeared, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History agreed that it would do what it takes, which involves spending more than $1 million, and signed contracts with the daughter to that effect.

Norman, the architect, hopes that he can do more than fix up a great house; he aims to shed some historical light on the evolution of modern architecture. He says, convincingly, that the cottage presages Wright’s fascination with open space and uniquely geometric floor plans. But did Sullivan provide substantive initial drawings and guidance?

The partisans are fixing their positions, though it’s fair to say that the Wright side is laying a more aggressive claim. A leading scholar on Wright, William J. Storrer, who lives in Michigan, has seen and studied the Ocean Springs house and says there’s no question. “Artistically, it is very much what Wright was doing,” he said. “It is Wright’s.”

Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s cultural historian, insists that the symmetry of Charnley Cottage is Sullivanesque, as are the wide verandas. Its remarkable flow from room to room, which the verandas partly facilitate, could be attributed to either Sullivan or Wright, or both. More than anything, it seems, the Ocean Springs houses show how much Sullivan trusted Wright. “Wright became the perfect medium for realizing the fine details of Sullivan’s buildings,” insists Samuelson. Perhaps one day, the newly restored Gulf Coast cottage will help answer old Chicago questions. Or maybe it’s better that a beautifully revived icon, as this one figures to be, will heighten the mystery of ties that connected two of the greatest artists that Chicago ever called its own.

Photography: David Preziosi

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