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The Autobiography of an Idea

The Autobiography of an Idea

by Louis H. Sullivan

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The famous American architect's fascinating look at the early years of his pioneering work, which led to his being called the "father of the skyscraper." Far from an ordinary document of records and dates, Sullivan's passionate book crystallizes his insights and opinions into an organic theory of architecture. Includes a wealth of projects and evaluations, as well as


The famous American architect's fascinating look at the early years of his pioneering work, which led to his being called the "father of the skyscraper." Far from an ordinary document of records and dates, Sullivan's passionate book crystallizes his insights and opinions into an organic theory of architecture. Includes a wealth of projects and evaluations, as well as 34 full-page plates.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Architecture
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By Louis H. Sullivan

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1956 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14183-1


The Child

ONCE upon a time there was a village in New England called South Reading. Here lived a little boy of five years. That is to say he nested with his grandparents on a miniature farm of twenty-four acres, a mile or so removed from the center of gravity and activity which was called Main Street. It was a main street of the day and generation, and so was the farm proper to its time and place.

Eagerly the grandparents had for some time urged that the child come to them for a while; and after a light shower of mother tears—the father indifferent —consent was given and the child was taken on his way into the wilderness lying ten miles north of the city of Boston. The farm had been but recently acquired, and the child appeared, shortly thereafter, as a greedy parasite, to absorb that affection, that abundant warmth of heart which only Grandma and Grandpa have the intuitive folly to bestow. In short they loved him, and kept him bodily clean.

To the neighbors, he was merely another brat-nuisance to run about and laugh and scream and fight and bawl with the others—all bent on joy and destruction. The peculiar kink in this little man's brain, however, was this: he had no desire to destroy—except always his momentary mortal enemies. His bent was the other way.

Now lest it appear that this child had come suddenly out of nothing into being at the age of five, we must needs authenticate him by sketching his prior tumultuous life. He was born of woman in the usual way at 22 South Bennett Street, Boston, Mass., U. S. A., on the third day of September, 1856. And, for the benefit of the exigent and meticulous, it may be added, on the authority of the young mother, that the event occurred on the second floor: day Tuesday, hour 10 P. M., weight 10 pounds. The mother, at that date, had arrived at the age of 21 years, while the father would be 38 come Christmas.

The long interval of passing years has made it clear that this pink monstrosity came into the world possessed of a picture-memory. He remembers, even now, certain cradle indiscretions; and from that same cradle he recalls a dim vision of a ghostly lady in somber black, and veiled, entering through the open door and speaking in a voice strangely unlike the mellow tones of his nearby mother. He remembers that one night in mid-winter, he was lifted from his warm cozy refuge, bundled up and taken to the third floor. Grandpa was already there, scraping the heavy frost from one of the small square window panes; finally, after the ecstasies of Mama and the awed tones of Grandpa, the child was lifted up and held close to the pane to see what?—a long brilliant, cloud-like streak, which, he dimly fancied, must be unusual; but as it seemed to have no connection with the important concerns of his existence, he was glad to leave it to itself, whatever it was, and return to the warm spot from which he had been taken. This streak in the sky was Donati's comet of 1858.

Before going further into the doings of this two-year-old, it may be well to give an outline of his mongrel origin.

As to his father, Patrick Sullivan, no need for discussion—he was Irish. As to the mother, Andrienne List Sullivan, she seemed French, but was not wholly so. She had the typical eyelids, expressive hazel eyes, an oval face, features mobile. She was a medium stature, trimly built, highly emotional, and given to ecstasies of speech. But she also had parents: her father, Henri List, was straight German of the Hanoverian type—6 feet tall, well proportioned, erect carriage, and topped by a domical head, full, clean-shaven face, thick lips, small gray eyes, beetling brows and bottle-nose. He was of intellectual mold, and cynically amused at men, women, children and all else. Her mother, a miniature woman of great sweetness and gentle poise, was Swiss-French, born in Geneva—where also her three children were born. But her long Florentine nose suggested, unmistakably, an Italian strain. Her maiden name was Anna Mattheus. Like a true mère de famille, she ruled the roost, as was the custom in French society of the Middle Class. Her mind was methodic, her affection all-embracing.

Henri List was reticent as to his past, but the family gossip had it that as a young man he was educated for the Catholic priesthood, rebelled at the job and ran away from home.

The intervening years between this hegira and his arrival in Geneva, Switzerland, are a blank. There seems to have been some lack of clearness as to his vocation in Geneva; was he a Professor of Greek in the University, or did he coach rich young English gentlemen through their university course? In any event he was highly educated, and he prospered. It was further gossiped that, having met Anna Mattheus—considerably older than he—who kept a store filled with a sumptuous stock of choice linens and laces, he courted her. It was sneeringly said he married her for her money. At any rate, they were well to do, and lived in a marble house with large grounds called La Maison des Paquis. Here three children were born to them, in order of arrival: Andrienne, Jennie and Jules. The narrator has in his possession a small oval card with perforated edge, on the plain field of which is drawn with colored pencils, a park-like view, with house half-hidden among the trees. On the back, in the handwriting of her mother, is the notation "Terrace de la Maison des Paquis faites par Andrienne en 1849" —(that is at the age of 14). According also to family gossip, there seems to be no doubt that Henri List was tainted with cupidity. He speculated and finally lent ear to the wiles of a Jew. He ventured his all. The enterprise strangely and suddenly lost its credit, and the house of List tottered and collapsed in irretrievable ruin. Anna List borrowed money of her relatives to take the family to America, to forget the past and start anew in a strange land. Little wonder that Grandfather was reticent. It required a span of years for the narrator to pick up little by little the thread of the story.

As to Patrick Sullivan; he had no secrets, but his memory did not extend much back of his 12th year. He said his father was a landscape painter, a widower, and he an only child. That together they used to visit the county fairs in Ireland. That at one of these fairs he lost his father in the crowd and never saw him again. Thus at the age of twelve he was thrown upon the world to make his way. With a curious little fiddle, he wandered barefoot about the countryside, to fiddle here and there for those who wished to dance; and of dancing there was plenty. Thus traveling he saw nearly all of Ireland. This wandering life must have covered a number of years. The period that emerges from the wander-period seems obscure in transition, but his attention must have focused on dancing as an art. As to the grim determination of his character, his pride and his ambition, there can be no doubt; but what chain of influences took him to London is not known. Arrived there, he placed himself under the tutelage of the best—most fashionable—masters, and in due time set up an academy of his own. Not content with this advance, which was successful, he must needs reach the heights of his art, and in Paris, the center of fashion, took instruction of the leading masters. In those days dancing was a social art of grace, of deportment, and of personal carriage. It had many branches of development, from the simple polka to highly figurative formations, in social functions, upward to its highest and most poetic reach in the romantic classical ballet. It was an art of elegance that has passed with the days of elegance. Artificial it largely was, yet humanizing, and beneficent. In such wise must the social value of the dance, of the dancing master, and the academy of a day long since past be visualized, to be understood in this day.

This young Irishman had another grand passion. To him the art of dancing was a fine art of symmetry, of grace, of rhythm; but parallel to this ran a hunger for Nature's beauty. He must have been a pagan, this man, for in him Nature's beauty, particularly in its more grandiose moods, inspired an ecstasy, a sort of waking trance, a glorious mystic worship. In this romantic quest, he had, through a series of years, footed it over a considerable part of Switzerland.

It seems strange at first glance that these highly virile and sensitive powers should be embodied in one so unlovely in person. His medium size, his too-sloping shoulders, his excessive Irish face, his small repulsive eyes—the eyes of a pig—of nondescript color and no flash, sunk into his head under rough brows, all seemed unpromising enough in themselves until it is remembered that behind that same mask resided the grim will, the instinctive ambition that had brought him, alone and unaided, out of a childhood of poverty.

Naturally enough he had not found time to acquire an "education," as it was then called and is still called. He, however, wrote and spoke English in a polite way, and had acquired an excruciating French. Hence by the standards of his time in England he was no gentleman as that technical term went, but essentially a lackey, a flunkey or social parasite. Perhaps it was for this reason he revered book-learning and the learned. He knew no better.

It is probable that, about this time, the lure of America, goal of the adventurous spirit, the great hospitable, open-armed land of equality and opportunity, had been acting on his imagination. This is surmise. The fact, of which there is documentary evidence, is this: that on the 22nd day of July, 1847, he took passage at London for Boston in the good ship Unicorn of 550 tons register burthen. This, in the eleventh year of the reign of Victoria; Louis Philippe nearing his political end; with revolution ripening in Germany; and the United States kindly relieving Mexico of its too heavy burden. And this, also, while a small prosperous family in a small European city was awaiting, all unconscious, the call to join him in the same city of the same far away land; and that but eleven brief years lay between them all and the advent of a child to whose story we must now begin a return. For the finger of fate was tracing a line in the air that was to lead on and on until it reached a finger tracing a line now and here.

Patrick Sullivan reached Boston in 1847, set up an academy and was successful. He always was successful. His probity was such that he could always command desirable influence and respect. He was familiar with polite forms. Later on, probably in 1850, the Geneva family also reached Boston. Somehow they met. The young Irishman, keen through training in the hard school of experience and self discipline was always wide awake; and this is what happened; he met the young girl, Andrienne, in the conventional way, was attracted by her grace of manner, her interesting broken English, her skilled piano playing; paid his court to her, professed love for her; they became engaged, and on the 14th of August, 1852, they were married. What is more likely is this; that he heard her playing of Chopin, Beethoven, et al., with approval, for he was fond of music; that he asked her to substitute dance music; that after the first few bars he was electrized—he had found a jewel without price. Her sense of rhythm, of sweep, of accent, of the dance-cadence with its reinforcements and languishments, the tempo rubato—was genius itself. He lost no time in marrying her as a business asset. She was lovable and he may have loved her. It is possible but hardly probable; for there is nothing in the record to show that he loved others, or that he loved himself. He was merely self-centered—not even cold. He was moderate of habit; drank a little wine, smoked an occasional cigar, and was an enthusiast regarding hygiene. The stage-setting augured well for the coming child. The stock was sound. All the tribe were black-haired. So he came to pay his visit in due time, as recorded, believed by his mother to be an angel from Heaven, so great, so illusioning is the Mother-passion. But, as regarded from the view-point of the chronicler, he was not an angel from heaven. At the age of two he had developed temper, strong will, and obstinacy. He became at times a veritable howling dervish. He bawled, he shrieked, he blubbered, sobbed, whined and whimpered. He seemed to be obsessed by fixed ideas. Once in a while, as time passed, there came periods of relative calm within the pervading tempest, and now and then he was not wholly unlovable. A rising sun seemed to be dawning within him. He became interested in his bath, given daily in a movable tub. Grandma would allow none but herself to perform this rite, and as she sponged him down, he would sing to her something about Marlbrouck s'en va-t'en guerre, or tell what this giant did, or that fairy. Life was beginning to break in upon him from outside. A continuous breaking in from the outside and breaking out from the inside was to shape his destiny.

He loved to look out of the window ; to see people moving to and fro. But it was when first he saw the street-cleaners at work that there upsprung a life-fascination, —the sight, the drama of things being done. South Bennett Street ran from Washington Street to Harrison Avenue, a short block, but for him a large world. The street was paved with cobble stones; the sidewalks were of brick. He was there at the window when the work began. Came on the front rank; four men armed with huge watering cans painted red; these they swung in rhythm one-two, one-two. The thrill began, the child breathed hard. Then followed the second rank—four men with huge brooms made of switches; they also, two-fisted, swung one-two, one-two, shaping a windrow in the gutter. Then came the glory of it all, the romantic, the utterly thrilling and befitting climax—an enormous, a wonderful speckled gray Normandy horse, drawing a heavy tip cart, and followed as a retinue by two men, one sweeping the windrows into hillocks, the other with shovel and with mighty faith, moving these mountains into the great chariot. Thus appeared from Washington Street, thus passed in orderly action, thus disappeared into Harrison Avenue the Pageant of Labor, leaving the child, alone, thrilled with a sort of alarm of discovery, held by an utter infatuation. He had missed nothing; he had noted every detail. He had seen it whole and seen it steady. It is a close surmise that what actually passed in the child's mind, aside from the romance, was a budding sense of orderly power. Indeed, the rhythm of it all! And then, to the wondering child, there began the dawn of a wonder-world.

His mother often dandled him on her foot, holding his puny outstretched hands in hers, and in great glee and high spirits sang to him about Le bon roi Dagobert, Le grand St. Elois, and other heroes of the nursery. He felt these tales to be true, especially when the high points and low points of knee action were reached in a rushing climax. But one evening his mother took him for a visit; and on the return walk he tired and wailed. The mother raised him to her shoulder, and when the tears had dried he looked upward at the sky and beheld with delight the moon plowing its way through fleecy clouds. He called upon his mother to share in the joy. She too looked upward, yet told him that the moon was not plowing a path through the clouds, but that the clouds were driven by the wind across the face of the moon. This astounding statement he received as an affront to his common sense, and so stated. But the mother was adamant in her folly. He looked again skyward, to confirm himself. As by accident his eye fastened on the moon; the moon held steady and he was amazed to see the clouds go by. Then consciously he tried it on the clouds and the moon again plowed on. This process he reversed and reversed until he felt sure, and then it was he confided to his weary mother sagging under the intolerable burden of him, that he had made a discovery! He felt a sense of mastery and pride. He, HE, had discovered this thing. In a world rising larger, difficulties appeared, and this particular thing was not quite what it seemed at first to be. But he had mastered it. That his mother knew all about it, had told him all about it, instantly faded; the child sank into sleep. The mother, weary unto death, reached her destination; she entered with her sleeping son while the clouds and the moon in the stillness of early night went their serene way undisturbed by further mundane intervention.


Excerpted from THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN IDEA by Louis H. Sullivan. Copyright © 1956 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

In the 1870s, Louis H. Sullivan (1856–1924) participated in the rebuilding of Chicago after the great fire. An early influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, he was instrumental in the development of steel high-rise structures that evolved into modern skyscrapers.

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