Wrightwood 659 is a museum dedicated to socially engaged art and to architecture. Its new exhibit—Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan & Wright—is an appropriate homage to that mission. The 1961 demolition of Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre, a culturally and socially significant structure, generated a major protest at the time. In later years, as other important buildings faced the wrecking ball, the cry “Remember the Garrick!” energized a movement that resulted in the city passing a Landmark Ordinance in 1968.
The irony of the Garrick demolition is that it was replaced, not with a shiny new capitalist headquarters structure, but with a parking lot. A parking lot that remains on the Garrick Theatre site at 64 W. Randolph St.
Wrightwood 659’s exhibition explores the rise and fall of the Garrick Theatre, designed by Adler and Sullivan, and the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, NY, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commercial building and a work that relaunched his career.
The Garrick building opened in 1892 as the Schiller Theatre, designed as a German opera house and cultural center for Chicago’s large German population. It was a multi-use structure including a hotel and commercial spaces; at 17 stories, it was Chicago’s tallest building at the time. The Shubert Brothers took over the theater lease in 1903 and renamed it the Garrick Theatre. The building’s uses and structure were altered often; over the years it was used as a movie house, a television studio, and a jazz club (the Downbeat Room operated in the basement).
The 1906 Larkin Building, which Wright designed to facilitate the company’s innovative employment practices, was the headquarters for the Larkin Company, originally a soap company that became a mail-order company. Larkin sold all sorts of household products and was the “Amazon of its time,” according to exhibit curator Jonathan Katz of the University of Pennsylvania. The five-story building was designed with an early form of air-conditioning, an open, light-filled workspace and special features. Ramps replaced stairs so that heavy filing cabinets (in which all the company’s orders were stored) could be moved from floor to floor. The building interior was designed to motivate employees with recreational and lounge areas. After the Larkin Company went into foreclosure, the building was demolished in 1950. The site is now a parking lot with a few historical markers.
The two-part exhibition devotes the second and third floors to the Garrick story and most of the fourth floor to the Larkin building.
The Garrick exhibit, titled “Reconstructing the Garrick: Adler & Sullivan’s Lost Masterpiece,” is beautifully curated and designed by Chris Ware. Displays include a multitude of salvaged building remnants, 3D models, photographs, drawings and a virtual reality video.
Architect and preservationist John Vinci could be described as the godfather of the exhibit. As a young architect and protégé of Richard Nickel in 1960, he worked with Nickel and others to salvage architectural fragments by hand from the Garrick building. (Nickel had protested the planned demolition of the building, but saw it as a way to learn how the building’s interior was structured. Continuing his architectural activism, he made many visits to photograph the interior of the doomed Chicago Stock Exchange; he died in a fall there in 1972.)
On a similar mission to understand how the Garrick was structured, Vinci worked for a year to create CAD drawings of the building’s interior and exterior. One of his key resources was the set of 96 original, hand-drawn building plans on file at the Chicago History Museum. The drawings were transformed into a VR video shown on the third floor of the Garrick exhibition.
Vinci finished the drawings in 2017, and began making contacts with possible exhibition venues to determine interest in an exhibit devoted to the Garrick Theatre.
Vinci and co-curators Tim Samuelson (Chicago’s cultural historian), exhibit designer and graphic artist Chris Ware, and Urban Remains founder Eric Nordstrom, spoke at the exhibit’s press preview last week. A panel including Vinci, Samuelson, and contributor Daniel Bluestone discussed the Garrick during a virtual program later that day; Jonathan Katz also described the Larkin Building.
Samuelson pointed out that the Garrick was a new type of building, a skyscraper structured in steel with the cladding serving as ornament, rather than holding up the building (as in earlier examples such as the 16-story Monadnock building at Dearborn and Jackson, built in 1891).
The Larkin exhibit—“Reimagining the Larkin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Modern Icon”—is primarily made up of examples of Wright-designed office furniture, photographs and examples of Larkin company home goods products.
Two books have been published to provide greater detail on the Garrick Theatre project. Both are available for sale at Wrightwood 659.
Reconstructing the Garrick: Adler & Sullivan’s Lost Masterpiece is a lavishly illustrated catalog of the exhibit; it includes a 70-page insert reproducing Richard Nickel’s Ornament Salvage Workbook, with his notes and photos of the salvaged work. The book is edited by Vinci, with Samuelson, Nordstrom, and Ware.
Louis Sullivan’s Idea is a visual collection of the architect’s philosophy and life, by Samuelson with Ware.
Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright continues at Wrightwood 659, located at 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., through November 27. Hours are 12 noon to 7 p.m. on Fridays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Tickets are $15 and must be purchased in advance. The museum doesn’t admit walk-ins.
All photos by Nancy S. Bishop.
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