Only 21 Louis Sullivan-designed structures still exist in Chicago — a tragedy for an architect who has been called the “father of modernism” and served as a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and others associated with the Prairie School. Luckily, historians continue to provide us with a look into the architect’s work. More than a decade after the close of an exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, a book of the same name — Louis Sullivan’s Idea, by its curators Tim Samuelson and Chris Ware — is being released by the University of Minnesota Press. 

The book also coincides with a new show on the architect’s work, “Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright,” at Wrightwood 659, and the release of another related book: Reconstructing the Garrick: Adler & Sullivan’s Lost Masterpiece by John Vinci.

Both Samuelson and Vinci knew and worked with architectural photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel, who tried to document and salvage as many Sullivan buildings as he could before he was killed inside the half-demolished Chicago Stock Exchange in 1972. The exhibit and books might never have come into existence without the combination of Nickel’s dedication, Samuelson’s passion (his interest in Sullivan began at the age of 7), and Vinci’s architectural expertise.   

The 2010 show brought Louis Sullivan’s architectural work to life. The two-story height of the Cultural Center was used to full effect with enormous photographs of his buildings towering over visitors. The images corresponded with the treasure trove of artifacts that ranged from ornamental pieces to architectural renderings. Not only was the exhibit a chronological retelling of his career, but it showed his evolution as a designer of simple, plant-like decorations in the 1870s to the mature and abstract forms of his later work. 

Although the 2010 display only lasted five months, it has been preserved in book form that is as visually compelling and informative as the exhibit. Cloth-bound like one of the books found in the architect’s own personal library — which was sold in its entirety in 1909 to pay off his debts — Louis Sullivan’s Idea is a valuable source of material for anyone who loves Chicago’s history and built environment.

Graphic artist Chris Ware succeeds as he did in the exhibit by creating a beautiful portrait of Sullivan’s life and work to correspond with Samuelson’s brief but gripping narrative. Many of the photos and drawings featured in the book have never been seen before, whether a rare contemporary image of a long-lost interior or the only surviving drawing done by the designer’s own hand (reproduced in its actual size as a foldout facsimile). 

The book contains biographical information about the architect that either expands upon what was presented at the exhibit or revealed for the first time, such as Sullivan’s relationships with his early mentor John H. Edelmann, wife Mary Hattabaugh, collaborators Kristian Schneider and Louis J. Millet, and employees George Elmslie and Frank Lloyd Wright. For example, we learn the real reason why Wright — who famously referred to Sullivan as “Lieber Meister” (German for “Beloved Master”) — was fired from Adler & Sullivan’s architectural firm. Wright always claimed he was let go because of the independent projects he took on while employed by Adler & Sullivan, which violated his contract, but the book suggests Sullivan used those off-hour projects as an excuse to fire Wright — when he was really just tired of dealing with Wright’s ego.

Louis Sullivan’s Idea offers readers a new appreciation for people like Schneider, a sculptor at the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company, who brought Sullivan’s ornament to “vibrant three-dimensional life.” When Sullivan’s “idea” was left in the hands of inferior contractors or poor architectural modelers — like what happened with Sullivan’s only New York City skyscraper — the results were not as successful, which was the case with Sullivan’s only New York City skyscraper. The Bayard-Condict Building was built by a local New York company that lacked the understanding of the fluidity and organic nature of Sullivan’s ornament. This is also true for the Sullivanesque knock-off stock pieces manufactured and sold by a Chicago company, going against Sullivan’s “idea” that ornament should be specifically created for individual buildings. 

Sullivan wasn’t appreciated in his own lifetime, and he spent his final years with few possessions, including a yellow-paged scrapbook of sketches and memorabilia. Parts of that keepsake fill the pages of this dynamic new book.  

As I examined page after page of his buildings with their wonderfully original terra cotta ornament, there was no doubt in my mind that Louis Sullivan was one of the best architects this country has ever produced. Because so much of Sullivan’s work was so carelessly demolished during the urban renewal era, the ornament, historic photos, drawings, and other documents found in Louis Sullivan’s Idea are some of the only reminders of what the city once had. 

Chicago loves to sell itself as an architecture city, but we continue to tear down buildings by world-famous architects. This book is not just a fitting tribute to Sullivan’s legacy, but it shows the power of our built environment and why we need to preserve what we have left.