Architecture: “The Guaranty Building” by Thomas H. Yorty
It will take your breath away...
It will take your breath away, if you let it. When Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan first saw it he stopped and clapped for joy. Thirteen stories tall, by today’s standards barely a high rise, Buffalo’s Guaranty Building, designed by Louis H. Sullivan in 1894 and constructed in 1895/6, helped give birth to a new architectural form: the skyscraper.
The desire for a prominent building came from a Chautauqua County carriage maker, Hascal L. Taylor, who struck it rich in western Pennsylvania’s oil fields. Taylor, an entrepreneur, envisioned the “best office building” in the city of Buffalo with his name on it. Pursuing his dream, he contacted one of the nation’s leading architectural firms, Adler and Sullivan of Chicago, to design the building and Chicago’s Guaranty Construction Company to erect it. Unfortunately, Taylor died in the winter of 1894 before construction began but the Guaranty seized this prime investment opportunity and purchased the property and rights to complete the project. Then, in 1897, the Guaranty firm sold the building to the Prudential Company for which it was renamed.
In 1895, while much of the rest of the country was mired in a severe economic depression, Buffalo was a rapidly growing and prosperous city. Yet, even with its burgeoning industries, immigrants and electrical generation Buffalo then was not what we might picture today as a bustling metropolis. It was a city, as were many growing mid-western urban areas at the time, without a planned or discernable center. The city was comprised of structures largely constructed of wood, not more than a few stories and often in disrepair. What made Taylor’s plan so attractive to investors was that Sullivan’s building would create a modern commercial center.
Indeed, between 1895 and 1900 twenty of Buffalo’s twenty-five new, electrified trolley lines offered direct access from outlying districts, to what The Guaranty with its neighboring city and county hall, Ellicott Square Building, City Trust, and St. Joseph and St. Paul’s churches defined as the city’s commercial core. The new transit system linked to a stunning new and commercially efficient destination enabled rapid, concentrated development of department stores, music halls, hotels and offices. What was taking place in Buffalo would be repeated in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit and many other emerging urban centers across the nation. A new economic, political and social frontier called the modern city was being born. Anticipated by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations a century before, having taken root in England during the Industrial Revolution, this new urban frontier for good and ill enjoyed unimpeded growth in America.
It is no small irony that just as Louis Sullivan’s skyscraper was giving birth to the new vertical frontier in urban America, the old horizontal frontier was officially closing. Frederick Jackson Turner, in one of the most important speeches in the nineteenth century, announced at the American Historical Association in Chicago on July 12, 1893 that the American frontier had closed. Jackson’s evidence was a forgotten government report on the 1890 census from which he quoted the important observation that isolated settlements previously establishing a “line of development” could no longer be said to exist, since that “line” had been so broken into by other settlements. In just eighty years from Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the 1890 census the western wilderness was settled.
Jackson’s theory that this rapid expansion could be explained by the western frontier inspired a generation of academics and entrepreneurs. “What the Mediterranean was to the Greeks,” said Turner, “breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that ever retreating Great West has been to the eastern United States, and to the nations of Europe more remotely.” The same might be said of the new “vertical” urban frontier Louis Sullivan had begun to explore with his innovative and daring architecture. Sullivan intensely disliked popular architectural forms using Greek and Roman designs for everything from banks to churches to the recent World’s Columbian Exposition in his own city of Chicago. These forms were ‘old and dead’ he claimed. They neither had anything to do with the purposes for which they were applied, nor did they speak to the newness and spirit of America.
Thus, did Sullivan conceive and create the first indigenous American architectural form known as the “tall office building” or skyscraper? Historians trace the development of the skyscraper to Sullivan’s St. Louis Wainwright Building, constructed in 1892, and William LeBaron Jenney’s 1894 Home Insurance Building in Chicago. The difference between The Guaranty and Sullivan’s earlier building in St. Louis and Jenney’s Chicago project is breathtaking. Both the Wainwright and the Home Insurance buildings employ metal-frame construction that enabled increased height without bulky, reinforced concrete foundations. But The Guaranty embodies for the first time an aesthetic quality now made possible by metal-frame construction and a new innovation–the Gray column, named for its inventor James H. Gray who was a member of Sullivan’s firm. The Gray column with its unique design and application bolstered the building’s lateral stiffness thereby increasing wind load capacity. These technological advancements, combined with Sullivan’s artistic genius and philosophical orientation, allowed him to create what he called a democratic form of architecture fitting for America.
It should also be noted that one other invention, the elevator, made it feasible for Sullivan to pursue the construction of the skyscraper. Elisha Otis conceived, and put into production in 1853, the commercial hoist. By 1854 he demonstrated a braking system that included a safety device for stopping the elevator should the cable break. By 1857 the first passenger elevators were being used thus heralding the age of the skyscraper.
Just as the flying buttress allowed architects to catapult the lower, thicker walls of Romanesque churches into the soaring, thinner walls of the Gothic cathedral, so metal-frame construction, the Gray column and the passenger elevator allowed visionaries like Louis Sullivan to design and build structures higher than ever before. And just as those Gothic period designers used stained glass windows and sculpted interior and exterior walls and doors to teach people religious lessons employing the visual arts; so Sullivan used elaborate floor and wall mosaics, mass-produced terra-cotta brick designs, as well as any visible functional component of the building, to depict his philosophy of life. Lighting fixtures, staircases and door panels were designed with a message in mind.
The message was Sullivan’s organic philosophy of life. His formative years reading the New England Transcendentalists and the poetry of Walt Whitman influenced his thinking. His notion that form should follow function could be seen he said in a tree–beautiful without any relation to preconceived style. It was nature’s interdependence such as in the bark, branches, leaves, and roots of a tree that fascinated him and influenced his architectural style and philosophy. Buildings, like trees, were living organisms. Therefore, reasoned Sullivan, they had distinct identities of their own, not generic forms borrowed from past movements. These architectural identities were so distinct Sullivan called them ‘souls.’ A concept somewhat similar to the notion of animating life, articulated by Sullivan’s contemporary Henry Adams concerning Chartres Cathedral. Not only did Adams praise Chartres as an architectural masterpiece he also talked at length about the soul of Chartres, its living spirit, Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Adams’ mind Mary gave the Cathedral its powerful aura and presence.
As Whitman did with words so Sullivan infused his materials with life, spirit, and purpose. A poet at heart, Sullivan’s creations were brave and visionary attempts to break from the past, from the generic and mediocre, and pay tribute to the inherent beauty and grandeur of each day and each living thing. Sullivan stands at a watershed of American cultural development. His creations opened the way to a new era and century defined in vertical terms. His ability to both harness and unleash the power of verticality in his Buffalo skyscraper defies words to describe it. It is why The Guaranty’s modest thirteen stories are irrelevant. The upward thrust of the building seems to come from somewhere deep below mere street level, somewhere intrinsic and primal to the earth itself. The trim foundation and long, slender window lines in parallel, transcend finite limitations. There is something eternal and unending here. The building’s almost translucent, red-lace terra-cotta skin pulses with feminine energy, the power of life itself. This is a building that has no end. The future is its destiny.
As a romantic, Sullivan believed his buildings would actually influence and guide those who worked in them toward more noble lives. He occasionally expressed his convictions also in poetry, little of which survives. But one stanza suggests perhaps a prescient notion of his pivotal position in history:
O, soft melodious Springtime!
First-born of Life and Love!
A great Life has passed into
The tomb, and there, awaits
The requiem of Winter’s snows.
It was springtime in America. The Gay 90s gave way to a century of optimism and hope challenged by the First World War, dampened by the Great Depression, nearly submerged by the Second World War, under siege in the 60s but never extinguished, always resilient, emergent.
Sullivan was truly ahead of his time. In the century about to unfold Americans would literally and figuratively define their lives in vertical terms. From Kitty Hawk to the moon, from a lowly Dow Jones average earlier in the century to its robust ten thousand points plus today, from The Guaranty’s thirteen to the World Trade Center’s one hundred and four floors. Who would have predicted the day when a church in mid-town Manhattan would sell its “air rights” for millions of dollars? Who knew social prestige would be totally reversed from owning urban real estate at ground level in 1890, to penthouses in the sky by the 1930s? Sullivan’s revolutionary architecture captured the newness, spirit and optimism of an American century, leaving the old western frontier, and embarking upon a new and uncharted vertical frontier in its urban, social, and cultural life. That terrorists would strike against the pre-eminent symbol of American strength and spirit on September 11, 2001 appears predictable and obvious three years later. That American resolve to rebuild this symbol in the form of a tower 1776 feet tall is a tribute to the vitality of Sullivan’s prophetic insight and his artistic genius.
Thomas H. Yorty, Senior Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Buffalo; Ph.D. in Nineteenth Century Studies; degrees from Drew University, Muskingum College, Yale University; city-dweller with wife Carol, two sons; likes cycling, fly fishing, tennis; collects rare and classic books on fly-fishing; serves on National Conference for Community and Justice, Board of Directors, Auburn Theological Seminary, New York City; writes poetry.