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


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