A late-career gem by Louis Sullivan.
Let's just all agree- we can't really have modern architecture in the United States without Louis Sullivan. He gave us the tall office building and "form (ever) follows function," so after dying penniless and alone in a Chicago hotel room on April 14, 1924, we architecture lovers, well, kind of owe him. A prodigy, a philosopher, and a prophet, the "father of the skyscraper" went years without the respect he so greatly deserved, often more recognized for the architects he influenced (ahem, Frank Lloyd Wright) than his own radical expression. But Sullivan, a provocative, complex, and sometimes misunderstood giant, laid the foundation for the coming modernist revolution and forever changed the course of American architecture.
Admittedly not one of his most well-received designs, the Van Allen Building (1912-1914) is still a Sullivanesque jewel, a rare example of the architect adapting the big city department store for a small Midwestern town. Situated among the more conventional Victorian-era commercial buildings of Clinton, Iowa, the four-story store stands at the town's crossroads, an elegant brick cube with clean lines, flat surfaces, and surprising detail. With a steel frame encased in concrete and sheathed in long, narrow brick, the building's commercial use is easily legible. At its base, large display windows framed in terra cotta define the building as a dry goods store, its language of economy clearly evident to the passerby.
A functional box, Sullivan's small town department store is, perhaps, most extraordinary in its theatrical application of terra cotta ornament. Characterized by a textural contrast of flat brick surfaces and projecting sculptural details, the building is a product of opposing forces, its organic forms disrupting the structural grid. On the front facade, three slender terra cotta columns emerge from the brick, their stems growing from the leafy mullion medallions of the second floor before bursting into stylized flowers just below the cornice line. It is the same lush, inventive ornament that came to define Sullivan's late work (see his jewel box banks), the kind of vigorous decoration that feels like one last romantic gesture to a legendary but ultimately frustrating career.
Commissioned by John D. Van Allen, Sullivan's department store design was somewhat unusual for the time, not for its bold decoration but for its function-driven planning. Working closely with Van Allen, Sullivan developed the interior of the commercial structure first, carefully laying out floor plans, displays, and showcases before creating the building plan itself. Like the Carson, Pirie, Scott Store in Chicago, the open, transparent space of the selling floor directed the building's overall appearance, its large storefront windows and accessible iconography a democratization of the commercial form.
After a period of architectural austerity, Sullivan returned to ornament in the late years of his career, designing the Van Allen Building with his usual lyrical mastery. Though the design has been derided for its "superficial" decorative outbursts, the Van Allen Department Store is still (at least for me) the architect at his most impactful. No one did ornament like Sullivan, and the pure inventiveness of the building’s terra cotta forms (not to mention the structure's significance as a small city department store) secures its place within architectural history. Argue with me if you must, but this building dares you to take a closer look, to feel something, and to admire its audacity.
Completed just a decade before Sullivan’s death, the Van Allen Building represents the best of the architect’s late career, a period where his innovative brand of ornament regained a prominent place within his design ethos. And with Sullivan, ornament is never a crime.
The Van Allen Building is a National Historic Landmark. It is located at 200 5th Avenue S. in Clinton, Iowa.
Image at top:
Van Allen, John D., & Son Store. Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson & Burnham Archives.
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