World’s Fair and decline
Tragically for Sullivan, at the height of his powers two major events would cut short his drive to transform architecture. The first harkened back to his early days when the panic of 1893 eviscerated the demand for new buildings when Adler and Sullivan were at their most famous. Second, and more tragically, the World’s Columbian Exposition would alter the course of taste in American building in a way that would all but destroy Sullivan’s career.
At first glance the exposition seemed like it should have been the triumphant moment of both Sullivan and the Chicago school of architecture that was growing around him, a chance to show to the world the bold new direction they were taking designs. However the plan for the fair ended up falling into the hands of mostly Eastern architects. Unlike Sullivan these men were still beholden to the Beaux-Arts influence and classical forms. They turned a celebration of Chicago’s progress into a showcase for what Sullivan saw as backwards-looking architecture, devoid of connection to the modern world. As was his nature, Sullivan attempted to rebel, his Transportation Building broke free wherever it could from the conventions being imposed on him. Featuring another one of his breathtaking entryways, for many foreign visitors it was the star of the show. But the damage had been done, businessmen and builders across the country fell back in love with the grandiose designs of the old world for the next two decades.