Soaring upward, Louis Sullivan and the invention of the skyscraper

A miracle on Bleecker Street, ornament, invention, and one of the great early skyscrapers.

Louis Sullivan, Bayard-Condict Building, 1897–99 (65 Bleecker Street, NYC), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Matthew A. Postal and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re at the intersection of Bleecker and Crosby in Manhattan, looking at one of Louis Sullivan’s early skyscrapers, the Bayard building, sometimes known as the Bayard-Condict building. It’s a little surprising to think about a 12-story building as a skyscraper, but at the end of the 19th century, it was.

Dr. Matthew A. Postal: [0:23] A 12-story building might be small today, but in the 1890s the issue of how to decorate the façade of a building of this size was a great challenge.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] Before the passenger elevator, buildings were limited to about six stories.

Dr. Postal: [0:36] As high as you could walk comfortably.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] There was an imperative to begin to build higher as real estate prices began to increase, especially in places like Lower Manhattan. It’s no surprise that early tall buildings tend to be commercial structures.

Dr. Postal: [0:50] In fact, I think the definition of a skyscraper for most of its first century is that of a commercial building; typically offices but also light industry.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] When we think about the early history of the skyscraper, there’s an interesting competition between New York and Chicago, and it’s important that Louis Sullivan, the architect responsible for this building, was from Chicago.

Dr. Postal: [1:12] Historians who were based in Chicago thought it was born there, but in recent years, people have begun to position New York as the place that the skyscraper was born.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] Sullivan is this Chicago-based artist, and this is his first independent building, and his only building in New York City.

Dr. Postal: [1:28] This is the first building that he designed after parting with Dankmar Adler.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] It’s usually considered part of a group of three buildings, the other two being the Guaranty Building in Buffalo and the Wainwright in St. Louis.

Dr. Postal: [1:41] They are textbook illustrations of his design, of what a skyscraper should be, and the much-quoted phrase is that a skyscraper should be a “proud and soaring thing.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:52] The idea is that a skyscraper is not something that grows out of economic necessity, but it is something that can be designed thoughtfully. Sullivan is probably the great exponent of thinking through the possibilities of the early skyscraper.

Dr. Postal: [2:05] He’s particularly interested in visual coherence — that you shouldn’t just add floors, that the top and the bottom and the middle should all fuse together into one beautiful facade.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] Look at this building, it’s gorgeous. This façade is terracotta.

Dr. Postal: [2:21] Terracotta, baked clay.

Dr. Zucker: [2:22] What Sullivan did is he had molds carved and then poured liquid terracotta into them. Although it looks hand-carved, it is actually mass-produced.

Dr. Postal: [2:32] It’s an incredibly durable material.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] Often when we think about terracotta, we think of a glazed surface, we think of something that might be brightly colored.

Dr. Postal: [2:38] Or we might think of reddish-brown clay.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] Here, this building has got a kind of ivory color. It’s creamy white.

Dr. Postal: [2:45] The key issue about the ornament on this building is it is not derived from the past. It is not ornament that is classical or medieval. It’s Louis Sullivan’s ornament.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] We often think about ornament and modernism as oppositional. In fact, so much of the ethos of early 20th-century modernism was to strip away the non-essential. But here, we see a kind of indulging in what is possible with ornament, [with] all of the beauty of the decorative surfaces.

Dr. Postal: [3:14] In so many different places.

Dr. Zucker: [3:15] We see it in these wonderful bulbous capitals.

Dr. Postal: [3:18] In the panels just above those capitals, and the reliefs around the windows, and the double-wide spandrel panels below the windows. It keeps changing as you move up the façade.

Dr. Zucker: [3:30] Until you get to the cornice, where you see this explosion of the decorative, and these monumental angelic figures with wings outstretched that seem almost to be supporting the cornice itself, almost like ancient Greek caryatids.

Dr. Postal: [3:45] It is a motif that I don’t believe appears on any other work by Sullivan.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] They’re so elegant.

Dr. Postal: [3:50] Some people feel that they’re inappropriate to the building.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] That’s because they’re the only figurative forms.

Dr. Postal: [3:57] Absolutely. He moved away from figurative forms as a form of decoration, and here they are. Because of that, some people have suggested that it was the client who insisted that they be the grand termination of the façade. We’ll never really know.

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] There is this way that Sullivan is bringing our eye slowly but forcefully upward, emphasizing the vertical with those delicate colonnettes and then the wider piers between the window bays. All of it is emphasizing the horizontal, but there’s so much to look at as we move upward that my eye is slowed as I enjoy what’s being offered.

Dr. Postal: [4:33] Your eye is meant to rise. These vertical piers that alternate with the colonnettes only have one destination, and that is those angelic figures at the top. Or the cornice that stops your eye so that you are forced to look down and examine the incredible concentration of ornament that surrounds the angelic figures.

Dr. Zucker: [4:56] Unlike earlier skyscrapers that were in some ways trying to hide their height, this is a building that seems to be comfortable with its height, that seems to be celebrating its height.

[5:06] All of the decoration that we’ve been talking about is to please the eye. None of it is structural. None of it is doing any of the work of holding up the building.

Dr. Postal: [5:15] It’s a curtain wall. The steel frame is inside, it’s not meant to be seen, and the curtain wall is simply to give us pleasure.

Dr. Zucker: [5:23] Now, the curtain wall was a relatively recent invention, and this called for a steel or iron frame upon which the building would be set.

Dr. Postal: [5:31] Traditionally, a structure was held up by its walls. In a curtain wall building, a structure is held up by its metal frame that is not visible from the street.

Dr. Zucker: [5:40] We can see where that frame is if we peer into the lower story of the building and we look at some of the large columns within.

Dr. Postal: [5:47] That’s right. It’s like a parade of columns marching deep into the building.

Dr. Zucker: [5:51] We can imagine within those columns steel that rise[s] up the full height of the building.

Dr. Postal: [5:56] Those girders are echoed on the façade by the thick piers that mark the five bays.

Dr. Zucker: [6:02] Sullivan would have an enormous impact on early 20th-century modern architecture, especially on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, for example.

Dr. Postal: [6:10] It’s interesting how, despite all of the ornament, that there’s a certain simplicity and clarity to the façade. Many people consider Louis Sullivan to be the father of the skyscraper. The techniques that are critical to its development were developed by others, but he gave it great thought, and he was one of the few architects during this period to write about how he felt it should go forward.

[6:34] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Bayard,”]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Matthew A. Postal and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Soaring upward, Louis Sullivan and the invention of the skyscraper," in Smarthistory, February 14, 2021, accessed July 19, 2024,