at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, through September 14

In 1954, when architect Crombie Taylor was beginning the project of restoring several halls in Louis Sullivan’s great 1889 Auditorium Building, he asked the Chicago Architectural Photographing Company if they had any documentation. They brought him several boxes containing 127 eight-by-ten glass-plate negatives of Sullivan buildings, all taken shortly after completion, that had apparently been commissioned by Sullivan himself. In 1918, when the penniless architect was evicted from his office in the Auditorium, he passed the photos on to architectural photographer Henry Fuermann, who had also taken many of them. In this trove were 27 photos of the Auditorium, 26 of the interior and 1 of the exterior. So many shots of a building interior were unusual at the time, Taylor says, and those photos proved an invaluable resource.

When Taylor began his work, the Auditorium Theatre was separated from the second-floor foyer by two rows of boxes and by several sets of doors that could be closed. But the photographs revealed that originally there were no doors or boxes; the theater and foyer were not completely separate spaces. This helped account for the theater’s renowned acoustics; by reducing the reverberations from reflected sounds, the open foyer served a function similar to the acoustic panels that reduce reverberations in modern halls. Using the photos, Taylor persuaded the building’s owners to restore the original design.

Other photos provided evidence of other alterations. Taylor found the high-contrast light in one picture very puzzling until he realized it was a photo of the theater in the afternoon, and the harsh light was daylight coming through a skylight–which hasn’t yet been restored.

While only one photo of the Auditorium Building’s interior is included in the 95 currently on exhibit in “Sullivan on Sullivan,” almost all the others from the collection of 127 are on view. Many were by Fuermann, but most of the other photographers are unknown; Taylor thinks some may be by Sullivan himself.

The utility of these photos in restoring Sullivan’s buildings alone makes them invaluable, but they’re vital for many other reasons as well. Sadly, more than half of Sullivan’s buildings have been destroyed–most of what we’re likely to see of Babson House and the Schiller Building is in this show. And many buildings, like the Auditorium, have been greatly altered, mostly by human hands, sometimes by the elements. Most interesting, though, is the way these photos reveal aspects of Sullivan’s buildings that might not otherwise be apparent to the casual viewer. In this regard, the exhibit’s location at the Chicago Architecture Foundation is ideal. Three Sullivan buildings–the Auditorium, the Gage, and the Schlesinger and Mayer Store, now Carson Pirie Scott & Company (the sponsor of this exhibit)–stand only a few blocks away. A viewing of the photos combined with visits to these and other Sullivan structures (perhaps the two tombs in Graceland, one of his churches, and the former Krause Music Store, now the Kelmscott Gallery) will provide a superb experience of Sullivan, recently voted the second greatest of all American architects by the American Institute of Architects. (Frank Lloyd Wright, once one of Sullivan’s apprentices, was first.)

Most of the photos are shot diagonally, not only showing parts of two facades but creating a dynamic form whose edge asserts a strong presence. One such photo, of the Merchants National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, reveals the strong, almost perfect symmetry of the building’s boxy shape, which I had overlooked on a visit there because I was infatuated with the huge window ornament on the front. The irregularly serrated roof of the Getty Tomb–which one tends to ignore when looking at its ornamentation close up–in two photos contrasts strongly with its massive, square shape. But perhaps most revealing is the way multiple views of the same building suggest relationships between different parts of the design.

The two photos of the Auditorium Building, taken by Chicagoan J.S. Taylor, juxtapose interior and exterior views. A shot of the grand theater itself shows the multiple arches on the ceiling and proscenium that lead one’s eye toward the stage, as well as numerous arches above the boxes on the side. The exterior shot reveals not only the three entrance archways but rows of arches above upper-story windows. One could of course first view the actual exterior and then the interior (a tour can usually be arranged by phone), but those views would be separated by the time and distraction of crossing a busy street. Though the photos are less rich in detail than actual views, they make visible the organic relationship between inside and outside Sullivan so often sought.

For Crombie Taylor, retired associate dean of the University of Southern California’s school of architecture, the photographs also reveal other information, including contemporary attitudes that may be obscure today. Why are there so many photos of stairways, for instance? Originally there were not rest rooms on every floor of these buildings, and tenants would walk up or down a few flights rather than take the elevators, which were very slow, so stairways were much used. More generally, Taylor says, the photos were meant “to show space and the transportation between spaces,” revealing pedestrian traffic-flow patterns. Close-ups of ornamentation can help viewers understand that it’s not mere decoration but “a diagram of the actual stresses,” Taylor says: ornamentation often grows more dense at those points where a beam meets a column, sometimes beneath and sometimes on the building’s surface.

That this exhibit hangs in the recently restored atrium of Daniel Burnham’s Railway Exchange (now Santa Fe) Building is a bit ironic. Sullivan felt that it was Burnham’s successful championing of the neoclassical style at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that sent his own career on a downward spiral; after 1905, Sullivan’s few major commissions were mostly banks in the rural midwest. But in some ways the banks, well represented in this show, are his crowning achievement: original almost to the point of eccentricity, these buildings display an elaborate ornamentation that never (in the ones I’ve seen) lapses into mannerism.

The most famous, the National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, is represented by 19 photos, ranging from wide views of the outside and inside to details as small as a corner or an ornate clock. These multiple perspectives help show us how to see a great building: the photographs compress the time needed to see relationships between parts and the whole; one loses the richness of real surfaces but gains the ability to see connections quickly. A view of the exterior’s massive semicircular windows is juxtaposed with the interior’s sweeping arches; details seen in context, in longer views, are also presented in close-up. Interior views of the Merchants National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa–a network of right angles with square hanging lamps, vertical windows, and brick walls–underline the fundamental boxiness of the ornate exterior: another union of inside and outside.

Photos of the Home Building Association in Newark, Ohio, caused me much sadness: they reveal the richly colored designs of the exterior (spectacular even in black and white) and the original interior’s incredibly elaborate stenciled ceiling pattern, combining diverse shapes with a near- labyrinthine density–it seems an otherworldly forest. But the interior photos shouldn’t encourage anyone to visit. When I saw the interior in 1989, the ice cream parlor occupying the space had covered the patterns with a false ceiling; one hopes the many other beautiful details are in storage. What is one to think of a nation that cannot preserve the works of its “second greatest architect”?

Viewers inclined to such laments might include a visit to the Art Institute on their real-Sullivan tour. This exhibit offers two photos of the long-since demolished Chicago Stock Exchange Building, one of the entire exterior and the other of the building’s famous arch–now preserved in disembodied form, like the relic of a ruin, outside the Art Institute’s east entry. (Inside the Art Institute the building’s trading room has been reconstructed.) The Art Institute gives us an object, exhibited in isolation like a freestanding sculpture, but only these two photos can put the entrance arch back on the building.

Several other photos occasioned a sense of loss but also helped me avoid any simple dualism between “us,” the Sullivan lovers, and “them,” the evil destroyers. Four images of the Getty Tomb reveal how sharp and clear the ornamentation was at the time the photo was taken compared to the state of the century-old structure now. Anyone who looks closely can see it’s being eroded–presumably by rain, enriched by Chicago’s many vital fluids and gases, eating away at it just as acid rain is corroding the monuments of ancient Greece. I hadn’t realized how deep the original stone reliefs were until I saw the photo: as has often been remarked, photographs momentarily reverse time.

Nearby is a picture of the entire Guaranty Building facade, an architectural miracle that can easily repay an hour’s gaze. In the photo, however, the ornamentation is quite fuzzy–presumably due to a technical defect in the negative or printing–reminding me of what the facade of the Getty Tomb is becoming.

Both these forms of “disintegration” play off one of the myths of architecture: that if one can only see a great building well preserved, one will have a great experience. On my first visit to the Wainwright I did, but on my second, when I was distracted by a less-than-interested companion about whom I had ambiguous feelings, my view of it was metaphorically as fuzzy as the bad Guaranty photo, and more fuzzy than the designs on the Getty Tomb. One cannot hope to have a direct, unmediated, “pure” experience of an old building. The erosions of time and remodeling mean that some photos are actually “better” than the present buildings themselves. And the physical degradation of buildings has its correlative in our own psyches, whose blindness can interfere with whatever it is we’re looking at–there is a remodeler, a demolition crew, in us all. If a fuzzy photo of one building recalls the erosion of another, and both recall some of my own imperfect viewings, perhaps these imperfections are variants of the natural tendency of all forms to collapse, finally, into chaos.

But for moments, or years, these photos can restore, even to jaded viewers, the almost primal wonder of Sullivan’s forms. The way his ornamentation springs from solid surfaces recalls for me the harmonies of nature itself, the endlessly varied mixture of lines and complex curves, the tiny forests beginning to sprout from lichen-covered rocks. Among Sullivan’s buildings were some of the first skyscrapers–but they don’t reach only for the sky. His greatest structures soar toward an ecstatic, almost Edenic unity, of materials and forms, of the geometric and the organic, of inside and outside, of humankind and nature.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Henry Fuermann–Chicago Architectural Photographing Co..