Louis Sullivan's Bradley House
In both the preliminary and the executed versions of the Bradley House Sullivan set a rectangular mass east-west along the south side of the site on a hillside sloping diagonally up from the street corner at Prospect and Van Hise to the lot's back, so that the main block flies out over the hilltop neighborhood.
(Frank Lloyd Wright in his nearby Gilmore House of 1908 treated this accidental bit of glacial topography even more dramatically, earning his house the name "the airplane house.")
Sullivan lifted the second story of his house onto piers holding it over the enfilade of the first floor and its high brick basement. It is the main enfilade squeezed between the basement and the cantilever that is the essence of the experience of the house, a sequence of spaces defined by layered walls-within-walls—compartmentalized walls that were implicit in the Babson House of two years earlier and explicit in the Bennett project of two years later.
These define spaces that are harmonious and identical in their geometry yet functionally adapted in their secondary incidents. In Sullivan's initial Bradley House project, a narrow entrance entwined with the staircase opens first into a large entrance hall embedded within thick, pocketed walls, then leads beyond into an expansive living room that thrusts its space across a window wall out to a half-octagonal porch commanding a view downhill.
A cross-axis at the entrance hall opens to the left onto an elaborately shaped dining room—a square with intersecting hemicycles and a half-octagon—and to the right onto a "den" with a half-octagonal porch beyond.
As in the Charnley and Goodrich designs, the entrance ball is the heart and key of the composition: suddenly encountered from the door, windowless, thick- walled, but offering three very distinct vistas out to light and to porch views.
The Bradley preliminary design is the one surviving set of drawings in which Sullivan's construction of his plan can be followed. First he laid out the axis and cross-axis, then he marked points along them from which the space of the different rooms was generated by centrifugal diagonals.
After this he erected secondary cross-axes that strike the room perimeters to determine the centers for semicircular or octagonal outward extensions on these rooms' exterior faces. We have encountered this Beaux Arts quadraxial method before. What is significant here is seeing Sullivan applying it to the elaboration of a complex plan.
Examination of Sullivan's two sheets reveals that the centers of the principal rooms are fixed by two concentric squares erected around the intersection of the major and minor axes and whose lines are picked up in the semicircular formal garden borders Sullivan indicates in front of the house. This is an appropriation of a Beaux-Arts plan construction in which the garden indicated around a building plan is made to reflect the geometric construction underlying the interior spaces.
The objective was to achieve unity of parts and of effect. Lawrence Harvey, an astute English student at the Ecole writing in 1870 (four years before Sullivan's arrival there) explained:
"The history of France is the history of centralization...Given an object of thought, and a French thinker there and then casts about for some dominant feature whereon to hang bright hints and ingenious speculations...
"Now, architecture, which might be defined as the art of arranging parts, is, of all arts, the most likely to be swayed by the French spirit of centralization; so it occurs that a French building is, as a rule, the organic outgrowth of one idea. Every portion, every ornament of the building,—ay the very ground it stands on and the gardens which surround it,—subserve that idea or purpose."
It was Sullivan's selective understanding of the Beaux-Arts system that he would seem to have been referring to when he wrote to Claude Bragdon in 1904, "I believe I absorbed the real principles that the school envelops, so to speak—my work has constantly shown this."
Unity of graphic construction in Sullivan's house plans was matched by the panoptic spread of interior space that resulted. Standing at the door of the Bradley House project (or at the top of the entrance stair of the Bennett House design), one would indeed have had a response to Ecole Professor Gromort's admonition, "One need never ask one's way in a properly designed building."
Caution—either aesthetic or financial (this was a wedding present from a wealthy father-in-law, Richard T. Crane)—reduced the cross-axis in the executed Bradley House to an entrance gallery and "den" projecting downhill through a window bay and drew the principal spaces of the structure into a two-room enfilade.
This is joined by a compartmented cross-wall and culminates at each end in porches below second-story cantilevers. In the house in three dimensions, however, we can experience how such an axially generated design feels, and we find that the result is the processional experience of space first manifested in the Charnley House and foreign to Wright's compartmentalizing pinwheel plans of his Prairie Style.
The entrance-study cross-volume that increasingly appears in Sullivan's plans, especially in the Bradley and Bennett designs, might seem an adoption of Wright's spreading layouts, but I have tried here to show that there is a consistent elaboration of a processional construction in Sullivan's interiors that makes them the opposite of Wright's schemes, which are cut into compartments by a central chimney stack.
This quality in Sullivan's interior planning hints at how we should read his exteriors: not as a balanced pinwheel but divided into a dominant block—one as solid as the Wainwright Building of 1890-91—penetrated by a smaller subordinate block at right angles to it.
That subordinate cross-volume contains the path of movement and point of prospect: on one side of the major block the entrance and stairway, on the other side the study with its panoramic windows. The subordinate block is complexly shaped and active, the major block cubic and passive—the subordinate block is a disruption of the monumental stasis of the major one.
In Sullivan's house designs this active/passive balance of the circulations and the functional mass is what had already in 1891 created the most riveting external mark of the Charnley House, the balcony with its heavy Doric columns illogically founded on a bracketed overhang.
The foundation of the conventional misreading of Sullivan's work has been the refusal to see it spatially, as the architectural enframement of an experience of movement to a goal, in spite of the theme of movement proclaimed in his ornament.
David Van Zanten teaches the history of architecture and urbanism in the art history department of Northwestern University and is the author of numerous books on French and American architecture.
Cervin Robinson has photographed buildings for more than forty years and has produced books on H.H. Richardson, Frank Furness, and New York Art Deco architecture.
Sullivan's City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan is available at Amazon.com.