Meanwhile Sullivan’s family had left the East Coast several years earlier for the opportunity of the rapidly expanding Midwest. With the panic killing his chances at more work in the East he boarded a train for Chicago. It quickly became obvious to Sullivan that this city was where he would make his mark. With his aggressive attitude and innovative spirit he had the natural bearings of the classic American pioneer. Still barren from the great fire in 1871, Chicago was wild and raw, buildings were going up in entire blocks all over the city. For Sullivan it was a canvas already bursting with energy and potential. Like in Philadelphia, he would find a building he liked, step up to office that designed it, and impetuously ask for a job. The next week he was back at work.
At this point the only thing holding Sullivan back was his education. He was bright and ambitious but had only spent a year at MIT. His new job gave him the benefit of several benefactors who admired his work and were willing to fund his continued schooling. The destination was the Beaux-Arts Academy in Paris, at that time the gold standard of architecture schools. At first Sullivan was impressed by the learned and beautiful designs of his professors, but soon a familiar scene played out. The artificial nature of applying classic design to modern buildings bothered him, and more importantly he felt constrained by the rigid schools of thought that separated structures into different styles. Work was how he would learn, and Chicago was where it would happen.
It was upon this return that Sullivan would end up in his most important partnership, with a veteran engineer named Dankmar Adler. Sullivan met him through a mutual friend he had done some design work for after returning from Paris. Adler, who was a master of the technical aspects of architecture, recognized a need for a dynamic and artistic mind to flush out his buildings. After one collaboration he brought the young Louis Sullivan on as a partner in 1880.
Adler and Sullivan
It is through this partnership that Sullivan first made his impact on the landscape of Chicago. Being so early in his career he was still struggling to tackle the creative problems he saw in American architecture. Few of Adler and Sullivan's buildings have survived from this period, mostly private residences which formed the backbone of their business. In them, we see from Sullivan subtle attempts to break free from the faux-classical or overly ornamented style many his contemporaries favored. In particular the Leon Mannheimer and Joseph Deimel homes, on North Cleveland and South Calumet respectively, show the mixture of mostly unadorned masonry work mixed with detailed geometric patterns for ornament that would define his later style.