When financier Ellis Wainwright asked Louis Sullivan to design a new, tall office building in St. Louis, it wasn’t the very first skyscraper ever built. That distinction had already been achieved just a few years earlier in New York and Chicago, as new skeleton frame building methods had made taller buildings possible.
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But before the Wainwright Building, no one had yet designed a tall building that embraced its tallness. The tall building was a new phenomenon – and before the Wainwright, architects were designing structures with disparate segments stacked one on top of the other, as on a tiered wedding cake.
With the Wainwright Building, Louis Sullivan is widely credited with figuring out what tall buildings could look like. In his simple, elegant design, he visually organized the building by reinterpreting the elements of a classical column: a strong base, a soaring vertical shaft, and a decorative (and functional) capital.
While the Wainwright Building was under construction, the young wife of Sullivan's client died, creating an unexpected commission for Louis Sullivan. Geoffrey Baer speaks with Bellefontaine Cemetery's Richard Lay to learn more. Watch the story.
Writing in 1896, Sullivan explained the revelation that led him to his groundbreaking design: “What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect … It must be tall, every inch of it tall … 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...”
With his design for the Wainwright, Sullivan created a new visual vocabulary for tall buildings. Its aesthetic influence can be seen not only in the buildings that immediately followed it, but also in sleek, soaring modernist skyscrapers that came decades later.
705 Olive (Union Trust) Building
In addition to the Wainwright, Louis Sullivan designed two other buildings in St. Louis, one of which still remains. To see it, walk two blocks north of the Wainwright Building to the 705 Olive Street Building (formerly known as the Union Trust Building), which was completed in 1893, two years after the Wainwright.
In the 1920s, the first two floors of the street façade were greatly altered from Louis Sullivan’s original design, which included a much larger arched entrance. If you walk into the west alley, you can see a rounded window that complemented the more ornamented round windows that were removed from the building’s front. Be sure to check out the terra cotta lions on the building’s cornice. For more info on the 705 Olive Building.
Just a few blocks away, another building by Sullivan, the St. Nicholas Hotel (also completed in 1893), sat at 9th and Locust Streets. It was demolished in 1974. For more info on that building.