The “First” Skyscaper, Concrete Trees: Louis Sullivan’s Wainwrights Building

by Fallon Ward

In the 19th century, American artists architects were trying to adapt a style that symbolize the nation’s identity. Among those architects was Louis Sullivan. Sullivan, Boston born, is considered to be one of the 3 major American architects to come out of the 19th century, next to his student, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his contemporary, H.H. Richardson. Wright pioneered his Prairie house style and Richardson’s work created the term “Richardson Romanesque” but Sullivan is associated with the creation of the skyscraper. His Wainwright building in St. Louis, Missouri from 1891 is often used as an example of the first skyscraper which earned him the moniker “The Father of Skyscrapers” (Bear 2013). Based from Sullivan’s writings of the Wainwright, the building’s height, style, and materials were perfection of modern American technology.


The Wainwright building, completed in 1891, was Sullivan’s attempt to create office buildings that emphasis verticality and introduce a fresh style of architecture into the American art vocabulary. From “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” published in Lippincott’s Magazine from 1896, Sullivan wrote about the artistic quality to skyscrapers and used Wainwright as a reference. He thought of skyscrapers to be the result of “evolution and integration of social conditions, […] that results in demand for the erection of tall office buildings.” (Sullivan 1896). To Sullivan, tall buildings were needed in American architecture to fit the demands of the market place and business and the increase of a capitalist market along with introduction of steel manufacturing were further influences for the Wainwright building. Sullivan mentions how the inventions of the time were also important factors towards to the creation of the skyscraper. “The invention and perfection of the high-speed elevators make vertical travel, that was once tedious and painful, now easy and comfortable; development of steel manufacture has shown the way to safe, rigid, comical construction rising to a great height; continued growth of population in the great cities, consequent congestion of centers, rise in value of ground” (Sullivan 1896) were all elements that lead to what he felt was a need of tall buildings.

At the base of the building is red Missouri granite and two stone floors before the columns of the building take over. The building façade is essentially large columns with horizontal bands steeped placed to let the vertical nature of the columns to be the predominate feature of the building. On the vertical bands have terracotta designs pressed in but there are so steeply placed that the windows visually become another set of vertical columns. At the very top of the columns were another set of ornamental designs. While Sullivan wanted to verticality of the building to be the most noticeable part of the building, the ornamentation with the tallness is said to “suggest a column/tree metaphor” (Cohen 1982) since Sullivan was inspired by Romanesque details from cathedrals. The decorative structure merged with designed vertical stripes turn the skyscraper to something that fit the current American business system but also acted like a stone reenactment of nature. Powerful, large, and forceful were what Sullivan believed to be key components to skyscrapers, analogous to large trees almost. In fact, Sullivan said that the architect that attempts to build something like the Wainwright must take inspiration from the grandeur of nature. “He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man” (Sullivan 1896).

The Wainwright Building was an invention of Sullivan’s that took all the beauty of the shape of nature and combined it with capitalist market of American economy. The use of materials and taking advantage of what he thought were the needs of the country, Sullivan created what most historians consider the first true skyscraper, making the skyscraper a 19th American innovation.

Works Cited

Bear, Rob. 2013. “Mapping PBS’s 10 Buildings That Changed America.” Curbed . May 10.

Cohen, Stuart. 1982. “The Skyscraper as Symbolic Form.” Design Quarterly 12-17.

Sullivan, Louis. 1896. “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Lippincott’s Magazine, March : 202-214.



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