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 is open through December 18, 2021.
Designed for the Larkin Soap Company, Wright’s building was born of a felicitous marriage between a new kind of company and a new kind of architect. Wright’s Prairie architecture had introduced a wholly new type of structure, premised on non-traditional founding principles, while the Larkin Soap Company did the same, pioneering a new kind of retail that entailed manufacturing their own products and selling them directly via mail order. An enormous company by turn-of-the-century standards, Larkin was an outsized force in Buffalo, making this commission a turning point in Wright’s soon-to-be outsized career.
Wright’s revolutionary design for the administration building materialized the values espoused by the Larkin Company: both architect and client believed that a well-lit, ordered, and harmonious environment would foster orderly, harmonious, hard work, benefitting all. The building layout made it possible for the company to smoothly process thousands of orders per day. In fact, the book Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building: Myth and Fact, by Jack Quinan, likens the work force to a “mammoth watch . . . each [department] steadily, quietly rotating about its own axis, yet in perfect coordination with the rest.” The architecture, with abundant fresh air and natural light, was meant to spark “intelligent effort” and “efficient service.” Inspiring inscriptions surrounded the central skylit atrium. Though it is often thought that companies like Google invented the idea of supporting and promoting the health and well-being of their employees, that idea has been around for a long time and is embodied in the Larkin Building, which incorporated lounges (with fireplaces), cafeterias, an outpost of the Buffalo Public Library, and classrooms, among other amenities. The architecture made visible the Larkin idea that a happy workforce was a healthy workforce, and all architectural decisions were made to support the comfort, productivity, and efficiency of the staff.
Pioneering an early form of modularity, Wright designed the building to accommodate Larkin executive Darwin Martin’s Cardex Filing system, an innovative system designed to keep up with the literally millions of pieces of mail the company received annually. In its modular metal furniture, its light-filled interior, and rooftop recreation area, Wright’s building and Martin’s company sought a seamless unification of technological innovation, beauty, and utility—the watchwords of what would soon be called American Arts and Crafts.
Unlike Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre—the demolition of which, in 1961, sparked Chicago’s historic preservation movement and led to the city’s Landmark Ordinance of 1968—the destruction of Wright’s building in 1950 did not ignite an intense level of outcry. Yet given its revolutionary design, the destruction of the Larkin Building remains one of the great architectural blunders of the 20th century.