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Wainwright Inspirations Show The Values of Historic Preservation

When I first moved to St. Louis, I worked downtown and spent a good deal of time running errands. Walking to various office buildings in a few-block radius, I grew to enjoy the feeling of being part of the accelerating activity of downtown and “owning” that part of the city as I learned my way around and became familiar with the buildings that were part of my daily walkabouts.

One in particular that I loved having an excuse to walk past was the Wainwright Building: terra cotta brick, unusual ornamentation and bizarre wood-frame windowsills were a pleasure to walk past. There are many beautiful buildings downtown, but every square-inch of the Wainwright Building was visual candy.

Unlike many office buildings that have an appealing ground floor but very utilitarian, basic successive stories, the Wainwright Building’s rising stories visually draw the eye up with Corinthian columns that run the entire length of the building, while the building frieze of intricate ornament makes the building itself a column. Rather than implementing architectural garnishes to hide the unattractive nature of high-rise buildings, the architect Louis Sullivan made the form follow the function – a design credo Sullivan penned in his article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”, ushering in a new era of architecture that sought to solve problems instead of covering them up or working around them.

Louis Sullivan, born today in 1856, is credited as the father of modern architecture, and was mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose famous architecture shows the Sullivan influence. His geometric designs incorporated in iron or into the stonework are a work of art in their own right. Sullivan’s style fell out of favor later in his life, and many of his buildings were demolished or destroyed over the years, while most of his smaller, more discreet designs remain largely unknown and under-appreciated, though they firmly represent the idea he was trying to impress upon architecture.

Historian Carl Condit spoke of the Wainwright building as “a building with a strong, vigorously articulated base supporting a screen that constitutes a vivid image of powerful upward movement.” [1] Sullivan’s impression, it seems, touches many points in architecture and beyond.

Sullivan’s often misquoted “form ever follows function” is a great way to frame questions even outside of architecture. Architecture has always solved the simple problems of meeting the objectives and specs of a project, but Sullivan, and later Wright, found other problems from the aesthetics of a skyscraper to issues particular to a waterfall or a budding metropolis.

Buildings define a city, and even become a way of branding. It’s hard to think of Sidney without the Opera House, Paris without the Eiffel Tower, and to me the Wainwright Building is one of the treasures that shape downtown St. Louis. Its beauty and form has kept St. Louisans looking up since its creation, and hopefully we’re continuing that spirit of problem solving that looks beyond the obstacle at hand to fundamentally change the way we look at things.

Photos by: Whitewall Buick under a Creative Commons license.

1. Condit, Carl W. (1973). The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875-1925. University of Chicago Press.