Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Louis Sullivan and the Phalanx of Philadelphia

Even those least enlightened about architecture recognize, if they recognize his name at all, that Louis Sullivan and the rise of Chicago are intertwined. Significantly fewer know that he was not born in the Midwest but in Boston to immigrant parents. Pitifully rare is the person that knows of his short stint in Philadelphia in 1873 when he was all of 16.

In fact his apprenticeship in the city of brotherly love lasted a mere series of months when he was employed by the renowned Frank Furness whom many people feel should be played by Kenny Rogers in the TV movie of his life. Furness may have designed some of Philly's best known structures, but Sullivan -- a young man who prided himself on having both a beard of juicy proportions and immaculate grooming -- was appalled by the random bits of parsley, snuff and molding raisins that often gathered in Furness' gnarly patch of facial hair.

Brought on as a junior draftsman, Sullivan was part of the crew that helped with renderings of one of Furness' most ambitious projects to date, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

It was at a reception to introduce the latest designs for the Academy (where sun dried pesto pate and Jello shots were served on fancy Belgian dinner ware) that Sullivan met the enfant terrible de la academie, one Mr. Thomas Eakins, a dozen years his senior. Nearly 20 years later he would be expelled from the academy for having the audacity to ask students to have actual humans pose for figure painting classes. Though still in his 20s at the time, Eakins was already quite skilled at procuring new apprentices and models, and was soon drawn to Sullivan who was tottering around the reception hall after a dozen Jello shots which he did not realize actually contained alcohol.

Sullivan and Eakins quickly became inseparable as they toured Philadelphia and had discussions about how modern buildings could appropriately merge virile idealism, naturalism and be of juicy proportions.

The young draftsman who still had not formed a full edificial arch nor even decided if he would be a figure painter, lap dancer or architect hung on every word of Eakins.
Though a bit skeptical when Eakins asked him to join an all male, all nude rowing team -- "It's the Philadelphia way," Eakins assured him -- young Sullivan clung to his every word. Some afternoons they sat in parks, enjoying the sun and smell of moist grass as they quoted their favorite passages of Whitman.
It was not until their second month of brotherly love that Eakins invited Sullivan for a private sitting at his studio. He was a bit confused that it was to be a midnight supper and further dismayed by Eakins promise that it would deliver a "virile phalanx of earthly delights". Though he'd heard the word phalanx used before, especially in war correspondence and sports, Sullivan was a bit startled and equally excited when he saw the illustrations of the word in reference to ancient Greece when he looked up the word in his dictionary.
Sullivan's elegant but virile hands were shaking as he grabbed the large lions head brass knocker on Eakins studio door.

Exactly what happened that night remains undocumented in the papers of both Eakins and Sullivan. However, two weeks later after he was discharged from the firm of Furness do to the Panic of '73, he caught a train to Chicago, his vision for virile edifices of juicy proportions reaching for the heavens firmly etched in his imagination. Where Eakins figures into all of this is a mystery that rests somewhere between heaven and Lake Michigan.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia the Academy opened three years later without a single credit to the young draftsman named Sullivan. However, many suspect the pink walls were his touch since most considered Furness to be color blind and it was his parting shot to this stodgy Victorian.

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At 5:50 AM, Blogger Salty Miss Jill said...

What a lovely tribute to my favorite city. :)

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Salty - Did you know Mr. Furness when you were there?


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