A man who’s considered the father of modern American architecture is being honored in Grinnell this week on what would have been his 150th birthday. Some of the world’s leading experts on Louis Sullivan will deliver lectures to accompany documentaries about the nation’s top architect of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Bill Menner, executive director of Poweshiek Iowa Development, says Sullivan developed the concept of the American skyscraper. Menner says Sullivan was among the first to use a steel frame which allowed skyscrapers to go much higher than they had been going, as most builders at the time were only stacking masonry blocks and maxed out at 11 or 12 stories.
Sullivan was born September 3, 1856, and Sunday marks the sesquicentennial of his birth. While being known for his own legendary architectural work, Sullivan is also known for the work of one of his employees. Menner says during the late 1880s, Sullivan hired a young draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright who worked for Sullivan for six or seven years, learning at his side. Wright went on to design many great buildings across the nation and always referred to Sullivan as his mentor.
Sullivan designed four buildings that still stand in Iowa, including a two banks, one of which is in Grinnell. Menner says the Merchants National Bank is almost like a cathedral. It’s a simple brick box, for the most part, but Menner says there’s “this explosion of clay, called terra cotta ornament, around this fabulous stained glass window on the front of the building so on one part you have this simple box but then you have this incredibly ornate entry way and people from all over the world stop to take pictures of the bank.” It’s now Grinnell’s Chamber of Commerce.
Sullivan also designed a bank and a church in Cedar Rapids and a department store in Clinton that’s now an apartment building. For more information on this week’s events, call (641) 236-1626.