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Form follows function.

The glory of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, constructed in 1893-94, was its Trading Room. Developer, Ferdinand Peck, commissioned the newest building type, a skyscraper, an iron and steel-framed office building more than nine stories tall, served by elevators developed in Chicago and New York in the 1880s. Peck chose as architects the firm of Adler & Sullivan who had already designed for him the Auditorium Building, built in 1887-89. Peck specified that his skyscraper was to include a suitable space for a large trading room to accommodate the needs of a lucrative tenant, the Chicago Stock Exchange. The result was an architectural masterpiece, a building widely acclaimed as one of the greatest to come out of The Chicago School, the name given to the talented group of designers and engineers whose office buildings of the 1880s and 1890s were the first to be called skyscrapers.

The Stock Exchange Building was entered through a magnificent arch on La Salle Street and an elegant double staircase led up to the second-floor Trading Room. Fourteen years later, the Stock Exchange moved south of La Salle Street to be closer to the Board of trade. The building remained 93% occupied until it was demolished to make way for a taller skyscraper in 1962. In what writer Ada Louise Huxtable, in the New York Times, called "the crash heard round the world," Chicago lost a major element of its architectural history. The Trading Room and entrance arch were salvaged and reconstructed at the Art Institute. Other fragments were added to the collections of the Art Institute and other museums, and the staircases were installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Throughout his career, Louis Sullivan thought, talked and wrote about the tall office building, an American invention, and one that he believed should express the American Spirit. The principles that governed his designs were that "form ever follows function"; ornament should derive from nature, express its underlying geometry, and not appear "stuck on": the building should express its structure; and together with design and ornament should make a harmonious whole. All these principles are expressed in the Trading Room, which illustrates the exceptional abilities of both Adler and Sullivan.

The Trading Room's two-story height and location were indicated on the exterior of the thirteen-story building by an ornamented arcade and large windows. To create the virtually uninterrupted 64' x 81' floor space, ideal for traders who needed to see every hand gesture of competing bidders, Adler utilized a modern variation of the ancient post and beam system: "a rectangular inverted box of steel trusses above the Trading Room's ceiling which transferred the weight of the upper floors to four columns within the room's space." Sullivan clearly indicated the location and size of Adler's trusses, the beams of the structural system, by sheathing them with plaster coffers covered with stenciled designs. He transformed the load-bearing iron columns into an attractive counterpoint to the rest of the room's decoration by surrounding them with scagliola, a plaster that is given a faux marbre (false marble) finish. The columns were topped with gilded plaster ornament, completing a harmonious design.

The stencils, scagliola and gilded plaster were part of an integrated ornamental scheme that turned the Trading Room into a "pastoral respite in the heart of an office building." The fifteen different stenciled designs which cover the tresses and shorter ceiling beams and the ceiling with its inset square decorations (coffers), include fifty-two different colors. The stenciled designs are grounded in nature, part of Sullivan's "messianic effort to bring nature to the city." In Sullivan's words, "The poet-architect uses not words but building materials as a medium of expression."

In the designs for the Stock Exchange Building: elevator grilles, balusters, door kickplates, and related metalwork, the linked ovals and a flower like burst, are a Sullivan signature. These organic designs are often reduced to their underlying geometry. A motif is the often repeated, like the form of the seed pod which bursts into linear elements. Sullivan's drawings preserved at the Art Institute include sheets with careful botanic studies of plants next to their abstracted form. Sullivan's purpose was to create organic designs, to bring forth from lifeless materials as "stone, metal, seasoned wood, and clay ... a garment of poetic imagery." Sullivan's ornament complemented and expressed the architectural form, and, in the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, was "his inextinguishable gift."

Preservation and Reconstruction

The destruction of the Stock Exchange Building inspired many people in Chicago to try to preserve their architectural heritage, a battle which has continued for almost twenty years with some wins as well as more losses. The reconstruction of the Trading Room and its entrance arch at the Art Institute is a lasting memorial to Sullivan. As the building was being demolished above their heads, dedicated construction workers removed and numbered each salvageable fragment. The fragments were stored while plans were completed for the reconstruction of the room in the new east building of the Art Institute. Contractors sought out practitioners of the almost lost arts of creating scagliola, decorative plaster, art glass, and stenciled designs. Surviving fragments of stenciled canvas showed the original colors which were carefully matched and the designs served as models for new stencils. One gilded column capital survived; a model was made from it to cast in plaster the other three capitals. A firm was located in California that was able to copy the art glass for the few required replacements. The workers in all the trades took tremendous pride in their efforts, and the reconstruction of the Trading Room was completed in eleven months, opening to the public in 1977.

Key Concepts

* Nineteenth-century scientific and industrial growth provided architects with new technologies which made the skyscraper possible.

* The technical skill of Dankmar Adler and the aesthetic concerns of Louis Henri Sullivan combined to create the Stock Exchange Trading Room in 1894.

* The Chicago Stock Exchange Building was a tall office building, whose second and third floors were combined into one large space (a structural marvel for the time.

* Although the Stock Exchange Building was demolished, the Trading Room has been restored and preserved as an outstanding example of Adler and Sullivan's ability to create a dynamic balance between ornament and structure.

* The drive to enhance the built environment has been expressed in civilizations from Egypt to Mesoamerica. Architect Louis Sullivan's organic architecture and ornamentation is the expression of a philosophy based on nature as the source of human creativity and imagination.

Suggested Activities

Elementary: Design a Detail

* Look carefully at the pattern, colors, and sculptural forms used in the Stock Exchange (the door kickplate, ceilings, walls). Ask students to imagine tracing their fingers over the patterns and to notice the way they bend and conform to a space or architectural detail. Compare the kinds of patterns and colors used in the metal, plaster, or wall stencils. What ways has the material affected the nature of the ornamentation?

* Ask students to design and decorate an architectural detail to enhance the classroom. Students should look carefully at doors, doorknobs, window latches, walls, etc. Ask students to select one detail, re-design and embellish it in the style of Sullivan, sketching the design first in pencil and adding color with crayons, colored pencil or markers.

Hang the details in the room. Discuss ways in which the style of the ornamentation (the patterns, repetition of shapes, colors, or material) make sense considering the location and purpose of the detail. Is there a balance between form and function?

Secondary: Design Competition

* Divide the class into four groups each representing clients who need a building (airport, hospital, business, school, etc.)

Clients should brainstorm and develop a program for a building, defining its function, preference of materials, lot size, etc. After the program is complete it should be presented to the other groups.

Each team then becomes an architectural firm, and accepts one of the building projects to work on.

Suggest the teams brainstorm ideas embody the Adler & Sullivan dictum form ever follows function. The shape and decor of the rooms should reflect the building's purpose and enhance the lives of employees. Each team sketches ideas for exterior and interior design, including a description of materials. Suggest individual members work up drawings of details, door knobs, ceiling beams, light fixtures, etc.

Present final designs to clients. Let clients critically assess the proposals and comment on each team's ability to create a successful balance between ornament, function and purpose.


de Wit, Wire, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Saliga, Paulina, ed. Fragments of Chicago's Past: The Collection of Architectural Fragments at The Art Institute of Chicago Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1990.

Sullivan, Louis H. A System of Architectural Ornament. New York: Rizzoli, In Cooperation with the Art Institute of Chicago, 1990.

Twombley, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Vinci, John. The Trading Room: Louis Sullivan and The Chicago Stock Exchange. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1989.

Jane Clarke is Associate Director of Museum Education, The Art Institute of Chicago, in charge of special projects, and co-author of The Sky's the Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers, New York, Rizzoli, 1991. Seonaid McArthur is Coordinator, School Programs, and author of Journey Into Art: a Teacher's Resource Guide to The Art Institute of Chicago.
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Title Annotation:Chicago Stock Exchange Building
Author:McArthur, Seonaid
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1992
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