Soaring upward, Louis Sullivan and the invention of the skyscraper

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

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Louis Sullivan, Bayard-Condict Building

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Key points

  • The Bayard-Condict Building exemplifies the innovations in late 19th-century architecture that enabled for the growth of the skyscraper in cities across the United States. The building employs the latest advancements of the time in structural design and materials. It combines an interior steel frame with an exterior curtain wall, allowing for the building’s 12-story height. The non-load-bearing facade is decorated with mass-produced, molded pieces of terracotta that were inexpensive compared with hand-produced decorative features that adorned earlier buildings. 
  • Chicago-based architect Louis Sullivan lent his unique stylistic vision to the design of the Bayard-Condict, reflecting the significant thought he gave to the beauty of all his buildings. In particular, he explored how exterior decoration contributed to defining skyscrapers as such, celebrating and drawing attention to (rather than away from) their height. In the case of the Bayard-Condict, the visual coherence on the façade between the decorative motifs and the overall structural design slowly draws the viewer’s gaze upward. One can take pleasure in the discovery of the surface as their eye progresses higher and higher.

Go deeper

New York City Landmarks Preservation Report

Louis Sullivan, The tall office building artistically considered, 1896

Louis Sullivan papers, etc., Art Institute of Chicago

Learn more about architect Louis Sullivan at the Chicago Architecture Foundation

Compare the Bayard-Condict Building with the Reliance Building (1895), an early skyscraper in Chicago designed by the firm of Burnham and Root.

More to think about

Look closely at the details of the molded terracotta decoration shown in the video and visible in the zoomable images linked below. See if you can make an inventory of all the details you see. The video explains that Sullivan was not referencing classical or medieval precedents. Just by looking, what other sources do you think inspired his designs? What motifs do you recognize and from where? 

Louis Sullivan strove to celebrate the soaring height of his building design through the thoughtful application of ornamentation. How else can this be done? What other examples of historic or more contemporary architecture accentuate their height well, and how do these strategies compare with the Bayard-Condict Building?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”bayardcondict”]

More Smarthistory images…

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.