WHILE CHICAGO CELEBRATED THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY of Louis Sullivan's birth during the last half of 2006, the architect's built legacy dwindled as fires destroyed two of his remaining designs.
During the early morning hours of Nov. 4, the 1888 wood frame George Harvey House, which had been undergoing unspecified repairs, was consumed by fire. The home's owner had considered demolishing the building earlier in the year but apparently reconsidered after receiving heavy local press coverage. The fire—which at press time was being investigated as a possible case of arson—came less than two weeks after the destruction of the 1887 Wirt Dexter Building on Oct. 24. An official Chicago landmark, the relatively small, six-story structure was notable for its unadorned brick façade and an exposed-iron-frame rear elevation. That conflagration was sparked by a worker's acetylene torch being used to demolish a boiler in the basement.
On Jan. 6, Adler & Sullivan's 1889 Pilgrim Baptist Church (originally the Kehilath Anshe Ma'ariv Synagogue) was gutted by a fire accidentally set by roofers. Although demolition by developers was once the greatest threat to Sullivan's buildings, fire now seems the architect's most potent foe. This year's unusual coincidences echo those of 1989—when Sullivan's Brunswick-Balke-Collender Factory in Chicago and the suburban Aurora Watch Factory burned.
Sullivan designed approximately 125 buildings in Chicago during his 50-year career, according to City of Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson. With the loss of three buildings in the past year, the Art Institute of Chicago now lists 21 extant projects, although several of these structures bear few marks of the famed Liebermeister.
Chicago architect Ward Miller toured the Harvey House with two preservation advocates on July 24. The house had been considerably remodeled, but many of the alterations were almost a century old. “There were enough pieces that you could have gone back to the original Adler & Sullivan concept,” says Miller. Earlier this year, Chicago-based preservation architect Gunny Harboe restored Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott Store. He wonders what can be done to further protect the architect's legacy. “I don't know how much more vigilant the fire department can be,” Harboe says.
It's ironic that fire has recently taken such a toll on Sullivan's structures. As a young architect, Sullivan initially moved to Chicago in 1873, lured by the building opportunities that existed in the wake of the Great Fire of 1871.