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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Fashion! Full of Tension and Fear!

By Fallon Ward

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History is not without bias or revisions. Despite the expectation that history and its institutions dedicated to preserving it should be unwavering, persistent truths that can be painful to comprehend or shameful to some countries and its people, the past can be interpreted, reinterpreted, regurgitated then mislead. Artifacts, text, transcripts, photos, art and art objects can be manipulated in presentation to make viewers to hate, sympathize, identify, appreciate, or admire the subject and the content depending on display. Fashion and clothing objects, probably the most glamorous remnants of the past, tend to be used in museum and historical sites to show the use of textiles or techniques, characterize fictional or real people, or show themes in history. One of the institutions that specializes in this is the Metropolitan Museum of Art with their yearly Met Gala exhibits and with the reopening the basement gallery as the Anna Wintour Costume Center in 2014 and one of the first shows exhibited was Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire (displayed Oct 2014 to Feb 2015). The exhibit is an example of manipulating historical items and its context to make the viewers see the subjects differently than they should have.

Admittedly I did not see this exhibit, but I was very interested in the title and the exhibit summary that I saw on the Met’s website. Met said that Death Becomes Her was an exploration of “aesthetic development and cultural implications of mourning fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries”. As seen in the photos from the exhibit, 30 or so funeral and mourning ensembles were placed on white mannequins. The dresses came from 1830’s to the 1915 and were all contained in a black palette so the silhouettes that range from voluminous to pipelined and extraordinary details of textures were mostly featured. The Met wanted to show how women visually showed grief and mourning. However, I believe the selection of ensembles and the lack of historical attention is inappropriate and a clear example of revisionist history, particularly when it comes to the subject of the Civil War.

The ensembles that were on display were from the era of the Civil War, Victorian era, Edwardian periods, some were American while others were European. Some famous figures were also on display like Queen Victoria’s mourning dress for her husband Albert’s funeral as well as Marlene Dietrich’s dress for Edith Piaf’s funeral. But those non-famous people, the names of the owners to the clothes shown were not shown. Also, not shown, for the garments from Civil War America, which side of the war the dresses were associated with was also not given in the exhibit or from the Met’s website or other online reviews. It had failed to differentiate the visuals between the Union and the Confederacy women’s funerary and mourning wear if there were any and it pasted the two sides together in a sense which should never be allowed. According to some museum reviews, like Carolyn L.E. Benesh, the funeral dresses acted as some form of “self-reflection and identification” for the audience members  since the theme of death is universal.

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But I can’t help but think that something is wrong with this display. To equate the deaths of the people of who these sometimes-anonymous women are mourning seems wrong especially when the Met put a famous actress and a former Queen next to women who lost their brothers, sons, fathers in a brutal war to then somehow connect it to 21st century female audience member. Death and grief is a universal understanding but taking out all the important context is doing these women a disservice, especially since some of these women are not unknown. In Drew Faust’s The Republic of Suffering, she gives historical accounts from Civil War era women who expressed their grief in writings, like Abbie Brooks who said that the sufferings of losing a loved one had “purified and petrified me. I care very little for anybody or anything, am neither sorry nor glad, but passive” (160) and Kate Foster whose brother died in the war said that her heart had become “flint” and she was “almost afraid to love too dearly anyone now” (160). Hearing accounts of women who described learning about the death of someone they loved in the Civil War as something akin to your heart being ripped out or losing all will to live is heartbreaking and, to me, makes the dresses the Met showed far more valuable. To gloss over these women and their stories is a horrible presentation of history, particularly women’s history in war time. As Faust said, mourning was a work largely allocated with women and they used their black dresses as a way to find solace in outward visuals (164). They were not flippant expressions of fashion. The dresses tell stories as much as Union or Confederate uniforms or weapons, battle plans, army correspondence letters, medical instruments, etc do.

The Met revised the history of the dresses and their owners to fit some narrative that celebrated design of clothes in a very specific time period but did nothing to inform viewers about what the women lost and what had occurred to cause them to wear such outfits. While they are visually appealing and one can appreciate the details of the garments, the Met as a historical institution that seeks to educate must do better when dealing with war history and with women’s lives in war.

Works cited:

Benesh, Carolyn L. E. Death Becomes Her. A Century of Mourning Attire. Jan 2015.

Faust, Drew. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.

Online, Met. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire. 2014.

—. Metropolitan Museum to Designate Renovated Costume Institute the Anna Wintour Costume Center. 14 Jan 2014.

 

Uncertainty in “The Storm”

By Fallon Ward

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Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836. Oil on canvas, 51 ½ x 76 in. Referred to as The Oxbow, Cole paints a panoramic scene of the Connecticut River Valley as a thunderstorm approaches, or leaving, the land. On the left side, the painting is filled with gray, almost black, clouds and shattered clusters of trees and nature but as the clouds roll over into the right side of the composition, the right side of the painting shows cleared fields where a civilization resides with the open skies above. Cole’s work shows the grandeur of nature while showing it’s horrors. 

Published in 1969 in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, Chopin originally wrote “The Storm” in 1898. “The Storm” is broken into short chapters that follows the events that take place in one day during a storm in a Louisiana town. At the center of the storm is fear, romance, adultery, and betrayals. But while the storm can be as damaging as the lies, the passionate descriptions of such destructive nature makes the readers uncertain of how to read and understand her story.

In the first chapter, Bobinôt with his son, Bibi, are trapped inside a local store as a storm rages on outside. Chopin emphasis the power as well as the fear of nature by describing the storm within the first lines of the chapter.

“The leaves were so still that even Bibi thought it was going to rain. Bobinôt, who was accustomed to converse on terms of perfect equality with his little son, called the child’s attention to certain sombre clouds that were rolling with sinister intention from the west, accompanied by a sullen, threatening roar.” (Chopin 1)

While Bibi and his father wait in the store with the bags of shrimp purchased for his mother Calixta, Bibi mentions that he thinks his mother will be afraid since she is home alone in the storm. Allen Stein states by writing Bibi and Bobinôt running errands for Calixta and expressing concern for her safety, it’s an ideal family situation that makes the events in the story more shocking and confusing for a reader to comprehend. “[Chopin] might just as likely be suggesting the sheer sweetness of the man and implying in advance that any woman who would betray such a man is doing something reprehensible” (Stein 54). The moral ambiguity and the “kaleidoscopic” use of the storm, Stein says, in the story begins after this moment between father and son as Chopin then turns the story’s attention to Calixta.

In the second chapter, while Bobinôt and Bibi are stuck in the shop, Chopin turns to Calixta as she works diligently at home. The power of the fearsome storm seems to escape Calixta until a guest arrives at her home seeking refugee from the storm. The visitor is a former beau of hers, Alcée Laballière, who is also married. While the storm rages outside, Calixta and Alcée have intercourse in the house, both overwhelmed by each other in the chaotic, powerful rush of the storm, a description of sensuality that Emily Toth notes as “hardly typical of the genteel 1890’s” (Toth 658).

“They did not heed the crashing torrents, and the roar of the elements made her laugh as she lay in his arms. She was a revelation in that dim, mysterious chamber; as white as the couch she lay upon. Her firm, elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright, was like a creamy lily that the sun invites to contribute its breath and perfume to the undying life of the world” (Chopin 2).

While Bibi and Bobinôt are trapped in the storm, Calixta laughs at it while she engages in an affair. As Stein suggests, Chopin is writing about the dichotomies of storms. Storms can be frightening but also magnificent. “Is it (and is nature generally), merely indifferent to human well-being, a blind force, brute, and dangerous, or is it something akin to a lifeforce, potentially dangerous, of course, but beautiful and enriching, a power with which to align oneself, body and spirit, despite the carping of stifling convention?” (Stein 55). This dichotomy Chopin addresses is further underlined at the beginning of the third chapter after Calixta and Alcée have finished their sinful activities, the storm subsides and reveals a scenic landscape.

“The rain was over; and the sun was turning the glistening green world into a palace of gems. Calixta, on the gallery, watched Alcée ride away. He turned and smiled at her with a beaming face; and she lifted her pretty chin in the air and laughed aloud” (Chopin 3).

After committing adultery, Calixta is not struck down by lightening or caught by her husband and son but rather greeted with a ‘palace of gems’ as Alcée rides away on his horse. Chopin doesn’t punish the sinners and doesn’t allow for the caring husband to know of his wife’s treachery. The storm covers the town in a dark cloud but by the end of the story, it reveals sublime nature as Calixta and Alcée collide in a cataclysm. Violent storms like the one Chopin describes often leave a wake of destruction in its path much like the chaos that ensues when extramarital affairs occur but the conventional and traditional conceptions of affairs and sexuality as well as storms don’t apply in “The Storm” like Toth said before. Furthermore, the last line of the story leaves the consequences of Calixta unknown and the reader’s judgement of affairs unclear.

“So the storm passed and everyone was happy” (Chopin 5)

The moral ambiguity of Chopin’s story and use of natural disasters like storms that was unlike what her contemporaries were doing make “The Storm” a unique tale of contradictions and dichotomies but like mentioned before, the story was not known until a 1969 publication. Dana Gioia, when introducing “The Storm”, ponders that because of some of Chopin’s earlier work like her famous The Awakening and “The Story of an Hour” that explored the complex female characters similar to Calixta in 19th century setting, works like “The Storm” may have been censored. “She began to bring into American fiction some […] hard-eyed observations and passion for telling unpleasant truths. Determined, in defiance of her times, frankly to show sexual feelings of her characters, Chopin suffered from neglect and censorship. […] Many of her stories had to wait seven decades for a sympathetic audience” (Gioia 115). The unusual use of the storm as a tool of devastation and creation as well as the exploration of forbidden sexuality make “The Storm” a unique story in that it defies the standard notion of how nature and women were written around in the 1890’s but unfortunately was not appreciated upon its conception.

Bibliography

Chopin, Kate. “”The Storm”.” 1898. American Literature. Website.

Gioia, Dana. Literature: Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.

Stein, Allen. “The Kaleidoscope of Truth: A New Look at Chopin’s “The Storm”.” American Literary Realism (2003): 51-64. Print.

Toth, Emily. “The Independent Woman and “Free” Love.” The Massachusetts Review (1975): 647-664.

The Messengers of History

by Fallon Ward

History, or at least the concept of telling history, right now is in a strange paradoxical argument where different sides of the isle are splitting history into threads of truths, facts, fictions, realities, lies, and misconceptions all while being a part of history making. Who the story tellers are has also come into question. Whether those who pass on history are reliable or biased and what the nature of their connection to their history subject is valid enough for them to even discuss the matter.

Within the “Documenting the American South”, a digital archive sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the catalog attempts to make collections of narratives of slaves, autobiographical or biographical, known. In the collection is biographies of Harriet Tubman, the legendary escaped slave who saved slaves during the 19th century, all written by Sarah H. Bradford. Bradford, an American female author, spent a long time with Tubman, having a correspondence where Tubman told the author about her entire life. In Bradford’s 1886 book Harriet: The Moses of Her People, the second edition available on DocSouth’s archive, she spends majority of the preface expressing her personal admiration for Tubman.

“Her name deserves to be handed down to posterity, side by side with the names of Jeanne D’Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale, for not one of these women, noble and brave as they were, has shown more courage, and power of endurance, in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than this poor black woman, whose story I am endeavoring in a most imperfect way to give you.” (4)

Bradford tries to establish Tubman’s legitimacy in a lineage of famous female heroes like Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale. It shows true respect for her subject but also a bias. Bradford does state the Tubman is a “poor black woman” but despite the socio-economic downfalls of Tubman’s inheritance of being born into brutal slavery, her courageous actions in the face of danger surpass that of the white female heroines that Bradford compares Tubman too. In this passage, Bradford titters on a balance of historical reliability. Like aforementioned, she spent a long time with Tubman to properly document her life and story but in that close correspondence, a relationship develops.

“For the satisfaction of the incredulous (and there will naturally be many such, when so strange a tale is repeated to them), I will here state that so far as it has been possible, I have received corroboration of every incident related to me by my heroic friend. I did this for the satisfaction of others, not for my own. No one can hear Harriet talk, and not believe every word she says. As Mr. Sanborn says of her, “she is too real a person, not to be true.”” (pg. 5)

Again, another effort to legitimize Tubman’s life by providing that Bradford took all the information that’s in Harriet: The Moses of Her People from the direct source but it gets complicated because she refers to her subject as “my heroic friend”. Bradford is one of the primary sources on Harriet Tubman and her life but how true can her reporting be? Is Bradford’s friendship, a white woman, corrupting the reality of Tubman’s experiences, of a black slave woman, for a primarily white audience to read about in 1886? Is she possibly changing aspects of Tubman to make her appear presentable to a white reading? Also, still contained in the preface, Bradford includes a letter written to her by Oliver Johnson in which he praises Bradford for writing down Tubman’s story. Within that letter, Johnson mentioned that during the first publication of Harriet, the money Bradford received was given to Tubman.

“I [Johnson] regret to hear that she is poor and ill, and hope the sale of your book will give her the relief she so much needs and so well deserves.” (8)

The relationship between Bradford and Tubman is clearly a real friendship. But can a friend truly historically document you? Does Bradford portray facts or her reality? This not meant to be a criticism of Bradford. She gives Tubman the respect she deserves and history knows her story because of her biographies. But while searching through DocSouth’s archive, the question of authenticity comes up often. There’s biographies where slaves tell their story to white authors, former slaves write their own stories, fictionalized stories of black men and women that all have some propaganda laced within, language barriers, and many unidentified figures. Where does history draw the line between truths, realities, and facts and can a line even be drawn?