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Carson Pirie Scott

2010 September 29
by Caroline Nye Stevens

CNS 2010

1 South State St.

In the July 1904 issue of the Architectural Record, Henry Desmond wrote the following about Louis Sullivan: “Mr. Sullivan occupies today something of the usually isolated position of the prophet, the forerunner, the intensely personal force . . . For let it be understood, Mr. Sullivan is really our only Modernist . . . He has his precedents no doubt, but his mature work . . . is not to be dated from elsewhere either as to time or place. Mr. Sullivan himself is the center of it. He is his own inspiration, and in this sense may be saluted as the first American architect.” This was written immediately after and in regards to the opening of Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store.

However, when this was written the building was not owned by Carson Pirie Scott, but instead by Schlesinger & Meyer – a dry goods store dating back to 1872. Due to escalating financial difficulties, the store was sold to Mr. Scott in the fall of 1904. Still under the name of Schlesinger & Meyer, advertisements were found everywhere in anticipation of the building’s opening in October of that year. In typical windy city fashion there was no end to the store’s advertised amenities, such as “mahogany and marble fixtures . . . new combination arc and incandescent lights . . .[the] largest and finest display windows in the world . . . reading, writing and rest rooms . . . telephone booths . . . [an] emergency medical aid room . . . [an] exposition of oriental rugs . . . and 10,000 chrysanthemums . . .” That didn’t even include the restaurant, grill and tea room that sat 1,000. What the advertisements failed to mention was the most important feature of all – the building itself.

as the store appeared in 1904

The Carson Pirie Scott Building was the last major commercial building by Sullivan and is considered to be the culmination of his skyscraper designs. Sullivan took the model of a Chicago School commercial building to its highest level. The Carson Pirie Scott building had the most clearly expressed steel frame of any building in Chicago. The frame, sheathed in glazed white terra cotta, allowed for some of the largest windows ever seen and flexible, wide-open spaces. Both of these features were key to a successful department store and examples of Sullivan’s famous design philosophy, “Form follows Function.”

But what really makes Sullivan’s design stand out is the building’s lavish foliate ornamentation. Every inch of the framework surrounding Carson’s bottom story windows is covered in entirely original cast-iron, nature-inspired embellishments. Though many claim that the artist behind the building’s ornament had to have been Sullivan himself, most of it is more likely attributed to his principal assistant George Grant Elmslie. Elmslie claimed the ornament as his own and Sullivan never denied it. However, Elmslie did credit Sullivan as his major influence and teacher in ornamental design, and said that Sullivan looked critically and approvingly over his shoulder as he worked.

CNS 2010

The over all effect of the building is nicely summarized in Willard Connely’s biography of Louis Sullivan: “The effect was festive, a store . . . bedecked for permanent commemoration; but the psychology of it was that an individual shopper should feel that her own visit was being celebrated . . . At the corner, the bulge offered a choice of five arched entrances, to invite approach from all directions, each door being topped with a great wreath of laurel . . . To cross such a threshold . . . confirmed not one’s interest in vulgar commerce, but one’s devotion to art.”


Carson Pirie Scott was sold in 2006, currently stands empty and has since been renamed to “Sullivan Center.” If the rumors are still true, Target is likely to take over as the building’s newest tenant. The good news is that after years of the building’s trademark ornamentation hiding under scaffolding, its full and glorious restoration is complete thanks to Harboe Architects. The next time you walk by this building be sure to look for Sullivan’s initials H.L.S. (Henri Louis Sullivan) buried in the ornament surrounding the main entrance.

click to ENLARGE!

(It’s important to note that the first three bays of the building on Madison street were completed by Sullivan in 1900, the corner and first seven bays on State St. completed in 1904, the next five bays in 1906 by Burnham and Co., and the final three bays on State St. by Holabird and Root in 1961.)

3 Responses
  1. Madeleine Raymond permalink
    September 29, 2010

    I found it so interesting that George Grant Elmslie designed the ornamentation. Also I believe I correctly learned that the seventh floor is open to the public and is used to display AIC student work. I know I plan to explore the possibility and look forward to seeing the inside of the building.

  2. September 29, 2010

    fantastic post!
    – it is hard to imagine Tar-zhay inhabiting this space, but…..

    to you for your article

Comments are closed.