T he first time Rick Erwin, executive director of the City Museum in Saint Louis, tried to buy a piece of a Louis Sullivan building, a Catholic priest damned him to hell. That was back in 2012. The museum had sent workers to Hammond, Indiana, to pick up some terra-cotta by the architect George Grant Elmslie. On that trip, one of Erwin’s colleagues negotiated a deal with Father Donald Rowe, a former head of Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago and an avid collector of architecture, who was involved in procuring architectural artifacts for the school’s atrium. The City Museum had arranged to buy a section of cornice from the Sullivan-designed Chicago Stock Exchange building, which had been demolished in 1972. Then, as Erwin tells it, “it just went south really, really fast. Next thing I know I get this e-mail from Father Rowe where he’s basically damning myself and the owner of the City Museum to hell. We’re like, what? We didn’t do anything!”
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Erwin says that he and the museum owner realized that there had been some miscommunication during the negotiation and the deal wasn’t really fair to Father Rowe. They worked things out with the priest, and ended up buying not only the cornice sections but a baluster from the Carson Pirie Scott building, also designed by Sullivan. The museum’s collection of work by the architect has been expanding ever since; the most recent addition, which the museum installed last fall, is another, much larger cornice from the Stock Exchange. This one, which the museum bought from the Chicago Botanic Garden, is a corner section that’s 29 feet long on one side, 13 feet on another, and nine feet high (the section acquired from Father Rowe is about four by six feet, Erwin says).
“Where the City Museum is fortunate is that we can do large-scale stuff that other people can’t,” Erwin says. “If it’s 20 feet, 40 feet long, I can put that up within the building.” That’s a mild understatement. The museum is housed in a 600,000-square-foot former shoe factory that’s ten stories tall, which means that there’s a lot of room for—well, whatever management decides to put there. Four stories of the building and the roof are dedicated to the museum, much of which is essentially a giant playground made from reclaimed industrial materials, part sculpture, part jungle gym. There are tunnels in the ceiling and below the floor, a massive outdoor installation with metal coils big enough to crawl through and two airplane fuselages, and slides everywhere—including two that go down the entire ten stories. “It’s an evolving sculpture,” Erwin explains. “It started with Bob Cassilly, out of his brain, and we just keep adding to it. It’s all about play, how play helps you grow and learn.” (Cassilly, a sculptor who had made a fortune flipping real estate, opened the museum in 1997 with his then-wife; he died in 2011.) “The architecture, it’s around because we love it. Hopefully it inspires somebody—they can see that things can have a second life.”
Much of the museum’s fourth floor is devoted to work by Sullivan, one of the most influential Chicago School architects. Many of his iconic buildings have been demolished over the years, but pieces were salvaged by Chicago-area collectors. Some of those architecture custodians are getting older, though, Erwin says, and are ready to part with their collections.
The City Museum acquired a lot of its Sullivan pieces from Stuart Grannen, owner of Architectural Artifacts, an enormous antiques store in Ravenswood, who had a collection spread out over several warehouses. Erwin says that he heard Grannen was considering selling, and wanted to make sure the collection stayed together. In late 2012 the museum began buying all the Sullivan architecture that they could find in the warehouses. “We just kept sending trucks up there,” Erwin says. Those purchases included terra-cotta pieces from Carson Pirie Scott, the Garrick Theater, and the Stock Exchange. At the time, Erwin says, they didn’t know exactly what they were buying or what went together, since the pieces were so spread out. Later, though, they were able to figure out how to rebuild a cornice section of the Garrick Theater. Erwin believes it’s the only section of the theater like it left in the world. While Erwin says that the City Museum doesn’t have the world’s largest collection of work by Sullivan—that honor goes to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville—it does have some of the largest assemblies of the architect’s work on display, including the Garrick and Stock Exchange cornices.
As for why the City Museum is buying up Chicago architecture from local collectors, Erwin says, “Honestly, people in Chicago don’t want it. It should be in Chicago. I would love for it to be in Chicago. But it’s found its way to us, and we’re more than happy to keep working.”
The museum’s collection of Chicago architecture isn’t limited to Sullivan; it also has pieces from the Manhattan Building, the Fisher Building, and the Plymouth Building, as well as cast-iron art deco swans from a former garage at Lake and Dearborn and cast-iron streetlights adorned with frogs that used to be at Navy Pier. “If it’s large and hard to move, usually we’re the only people that can get it,” Erwin says. He estimates that the swans and frog lights weigh around 400 to 600 pounds each.
There are more than 200 Sullivan pieces in storage at the museum just waiting to be rebuilt and added to the collection on the fourth floor, Erwin says—including a section of staircase from Carson Pirie Scott that he’d love to put together somewhere in the museum where people can walk on it. And he’s far from done collecting. “We’re just always looking,” he says. “If something [by Sullivan] comes up and it’s a good value and we can put it out for display, we definitely want it.” v