SAM Buys Louis Sullivan's 1893 Chicago Stock Exchange Elevator Facade
by Jen Graves
on Fri, Mar 20, 2009 at 2:05 PM
On March 31, another gate of paradise will go on display at Seattle Art Museum—this one designed by the great Louis Sullivan.
Sullivan is the poet of early modern architecture, a skyscraperist still in love with the plants right here on the ground. His drawings are knockouts, his lines as full of life as anything by da Vinci. This facade, from one of his most famous buildings, is made of cast and wrought iron and bronze, and stands 9 1/2 by 13 3/4 by 1/2 feet. The round forms you see are Sullivan's representations of seeds, an homage to the fact that the Chicago Stock Exchange was the nation's largest agricultural stock exchange at the time.
A row of grain-like plants seems to sprout from the top of the façade. Abstract vegetal ornamentation in the top and side panels, as well as the bronze T-shaped element at the center, has been associated with interwoven Celtic designs, but it was another source that influenced Sullivan in this concept—the geometric and abstract flat-patterning derived from Islamic decoration and promoted by British design theorist Owen Jones (1809—1874).
“This acquisition ushers in the 20th century much as our Italian Room set the stage for art and design of the high Renaissance,” said Julie Emerson, the Ruth J. Nutt Curator of Decorative Arts at the Seattle Art Museum. “This stunning elevator façade will have an instant sculptural and ornamental dialogue with many of our signature American works from this era such as the sculptural relief Amor Caritas by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Herter Brothers cabinet, the stained glass window by John La Farge, and the silver Tiffany tankard produced the same year,” added Emerson.
Here is the design in situ at the exchange, before the building was demolished in 1972.
And the building.
This facade was not rescued intact. (The only other complete facade at a museum is at the Art Institute of Chicago, from the first floor of the exchange, according to SAM.) This one is a Frankenstein's monster, recently assembled from rescued parts from floors 3 through 13 and purchased by SAM at auction at Sotheby's. The museum declined to say how much it paid or who the seller was.
UPDATE: I found the sale, from December 18, 2008, on Sotheby's site here. (Great detail image!) According to this, the hammer price with buyer premium was $602,500. (I'm not sure if that's what the museum paid, because I don't know exactly what that means, but I'm working on finding out.) In addition, this is the most complete elevator assemblage from the Stock Exchange ever to appear at public auction. The seller is not listed; SAM says it doesn't know who the owner was.