Louis H. Sullivan and Dankmar Adler Elevator Door
Lot 245 Wright’s “Important Design” sale in Chicago, June 9: an elevator door from the Chicago Stock Exchange designed by Louis H. Sullivan (1856–1924) and Dankmar Adler (1844–1900) in 1893, produced by the Winslow Brothers Company. The piece sold for $76,900 off a pre-auction estimate of $20,000–$30,000.
Some reasons for the unexpectedly high price:
Consider the Source
Louis Sullivan was one of the most progressive and influential architects of his generation. An astonishingly innovative building in its day, the Chicago Stock Exchange and its decorative motifs were a tour-de-force demonstration of Sullivan’s ideas on new commercial building types, which departed from the prevailing Beaux Arts historicism of the day that Sullivan railed against. Sullivan turned to nature for inspiration, liberating his work from the revival styles that had been regurgitated throughout the nineteenth century. The elevator door derives from these principles, using organic imagery abstracted to form a geometric composition that foreshadows designs of the twentieth century. Some architectural historians consider the Chicago Stock Exchange to be Sullivan’s masterpiece.
The Right Time
Richard Wright, proprietor and director for Wright and an expert in modern design and architecture, noted that the outstanding condition of the elevator door, combined with its historical significance to American modern architecture and the renown of Louis Sullivan, were all elements that made the door an especially desirable piece. “It’s very iconic; it has a futuristic quality,” Wright says. The visual appeal of the abstract decorative composition in wrought iron and cast bronze is undeniable. Wright also believes the elevated price shows that strength is now returning to the market. A Sullivan elevator door sold by Wright in December 2009 went for considerably less—$25,000—and another sold at Christie’s in New York in June 2009 for $27,500. Several lots in the recent Wright auction, especially by historically significant designers, exceeded their estimated prices. Determined bidders also emerged at the auction, vying for this signature piece in such excellent condition.
The Right Place
Louis Sullivan’s legacy is ever intertwined with the great architectural history of Chicago. The Great Fire in 1871 decimated much of the city’s downtown area, and thus Chicago provided a great opportunity for architects to create new modern structures harnessing the most advanced building technologies, such as steel framing, which allowed for taller buildings—the first “skyscrapers.” As a journeyman architect, Sullivan arrived in Chicago during this development boom, and it is there that he developed his career and reputation. The Chicago Stock Exchange was one of the most noteworthy early skyscrapers from this period, and its destruction in 1972 spurred a fervent preservation movement. The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) was founded in Chicago in 1971 when the building became slated for demolition. Richard Nickel, the photographer and passionate preservation activist, saved numerous decorative fragments from the building, such as this elevator door. He died in an attempt to save more pieces shortly before its destruction when part of the building collapsed on him. Perhaps only in Chicago could such a handsome auction price have been achieved, to the benefit of a local consignor who enjoyed and cared for the piece for many years.