The Wrightwood 659 exhibition “Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright” explores two long-demolished architectural masterpieces: Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre, which opened in Chicago in 1892, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building, which opened in Buffalo in 1904. The exhibition opens on September 24.
The destruction of the Garrick Theatre (originally called the Schiller Building), an iconic building by the renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, cast a long shadow. It was razed in 1961 amidst a great protest that eventually organized itself into the historic preservation movement in Chicago and led to the city’s Landmark Ordinance of 1968.
The Garrick is deeply interwoven not only with the history of the city, but also with the life of yet another well-regarded Chicagoan, John Vinci. As a young architect, Vinci (born 1937) worked alongside the celebrated photographer Richard Nickel (1928–1972) to salvage the lavish ornamentation characteristic of Sullivan’s work. It was an experience that left a deep imprint. Several years ago, Vinci revisited the building, creating a series of drawings on display in “Romanticism to Ruin.” It was Vinci’s exploration that sparked the idea for the portion of the exhibition that traces the construction and ill-fated demise of the Garrick, a building that helped cement Chicago’s reputation as the originator of the skyscraper.
Vinci undertook his project in order to work out certain aspects of the building that continued to puzzle him. Though a set of drawings exists at the Art Institute of Chicago (now off-limits due to their fragile condition), and a set of structural engineering drawings lives at the Chicago History Museum, there are no drawings that depict the building as it was upon its completion, as modifications were made very shortly after it was finished. Among other questions, Vinci investigated how some circulation routes connected certain areas of the building and how the structure above the theater, which contained office suites, was supported. His beautifully delineated drawings provided answers and became the impetus for a group of Venetian students to undertake their own drawing exploration of the Garrick–works that are also included in the show.
In addition to these drawings, the exhibition includes photography of the building as it existed and in its demolished state; original and re-created pieces of ornamentation; a new digital re-creation of the building; and ephemera that traces its unique role in Chicago’s cultural life.
Vinci was assisted in curating the show by Tim Samuelson, an eminent Chicago historian and another participant in the salvaging of the Garrick’s ornamentation; graphic artist Chris Ware, who designed the Garrick section of the exhibition; and Eric Nordstrom, owner of the salvage shop Urban Remains, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Nickel, Sullivan, and his ornamentation proved invaluable to the curators.
“Romanticism to Ruin” is accompanied by two publications—Reconstructing the Garrick, Adler & Sullivan’s Lost Masterpiece and Louis Sullivan’s Idea—that will prove to be important contributions to the scholarship on Sullivan and his work.