SULLIVAN, Louis Henry
(b. 1856, Boston, d. 1924, Chicago)

Guaranty Building

1896
Photo
28 Church Street, Buffalo, New York

During the 1890s, Sullivan concentrated on producing a series of brilliant 'skyscraper' designs. Of the nineteen such designs conceived between 1890 and 1901, nine were executed. All designs follow the basic type of the Wainwright Building - base, colonnade, entablature - but with refinements and variations. The Schiller Building (1891-93) in Chicago was powerfully shaped, stepping back from the party walls at the ninth storey to become a free-standing tower. The Guaranty Building (1894-96) in Buffalo was the most sophisticated, with an unbroken surface of decorative terra-cotta and an interwoven, curving solution at the cornice. The Carson Pirie Scott Store (1898-1904) in Chicago is the most minimal, with the broad grid of its steel structure frankly exposed.

The Guaranty Building was built between 1895 and 1896 for the Guaranty Construction Company. In 1898, it was renamed the Prudential Building due to the refinancing that Prudential Insurance Company offered. Today both names can be seen above the entrances.

The Guaranty Building is an outstanding example of Sullivan's innovations. In the 1890s, the steel skeleton skyscraper was a new and uniquely American building type. Most early skyscrapers borrowed heavily from traditional European design and used strong horizontal lines to de-emphasize their verticality. Sullivan wanted a bold architectural style for the new building type that would express the confidence and prosperity of the United States at the end of the 19th century. He rejected traditional designs and celebrated the skyscraper's verticality.

While similar to his 1890 Wainwright Building, which combines masonry with terra-cotta for ornament, the Guaranty Building makes ornament the focus through the use of terra-cotta to cover exterior surfaces. The piers between the windows form strong vertical lines that draw the eye upward to the dominant cornice. Despite the technological advancements that made the skyscraper possible, including high-quality structural steel and electric elevators, Sullivan strove to connect the building with the natural world. His ornamentation for the Guaranty was inspired by flowers, seedpods, and, at the top of the building, the spreading branches of a tree.

The Guaranty represents the pinnacle of Sullivan's forward-thinking design and marks the beginning of the uniquely American style of architecture that influenced the young Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for Adler & Sullivan from 1888 to 1893. Even after leaving the firm, Wright continued to revere Sullivan, calling him "the Master." As Sullivan lay on his death bed, he gave Wright an extensive collection of his drawings. The drawings, along with other Wright memorabilia, now reside at the Avery Library at Columbia University.

After the Great Depression, the building deteriorated. A restoration project was completed in 1982.