Guaranty Building (also known as Prudential Building) (1895 – 1896)
Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler
28 Church Street
Louis Sullivan was perhaps the preeminent American early modernist architect, and along with H. H. Richardson and Daniel Burnham, he was also one of America’s most famous architects at the time of the Guaranty’s construction. The Guaranty represents the apex of Sullivan’s tall-building design, evincing a number of refinements on the architect’s earlier Wainwright Building (1891) in St. Louis. Here, the squat, Renaissance-inspired form of the Wainwright has been elongated, emphasizing the verticality of the structure, and the stringent tripartite division of the Wainwright’s façade has been softened, providing a more organic integration of its parts. However, while the facades of both the Wainwright and the Guaranty Buildings derive their organization from Renaissance palazzos, what sets Sullivan apart from his peers is his conscious attempt to develop a distinctly American architectural tradition.
This is best seen in the terracotta ornamental detailing of the Guaranty’s façade, which eschews historical references in preference for abstract geometrical and foliate designs. These motifs cover the entirety of the exterior, and extend to the handrails and pier detailing of the interior. Combined with Sullivan’s emphasis of the vertical nature of the building, these details represent a conscious effort to create a uniquely American style. This said, the soft, salmon colored terracotta embellishments of the building’s exterior are not entirely decorative, as the terracotta provides a layer of fireproofing for the building’s innovative steel structure; a problem of early American tall building design that is, here, elegantly resolved through decorative detailing.
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