Louis Sullivan-A history in the making And the Romanesque design of the Masonic Temple in Bay City created by Tommy Bodrie

Louis Henry Sullivan was an American architect in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  He has been called the “father of skyscrapers” and the “father of modernism”.  He has been considered by several as the creator of the modern skyscraper and was a very influential architect, where he created many modern skyscrapers.

Prior to Sullivan’s time (the late 19th century), the weight of a multistory building had to be supported mainly by the strength of it’s foundation walls.  The larger the building (height wise), the more strain that was placed on the lower sections of the building.  Because of this, there was  clear engineering limits to the weight of such “load-bearing” walls could sustain and large designs meant massively thick walls on the ground floors, so there was definite limits on the building’s height.

The development of cheap, versatile steel in the second half of the 19th century changed these rules.  America was in the grips of rapid social and economic growth that made for wonderful opportunities in architectural design.  Because society was becoming more urbanized, society called out for new, larger buildings.  Due to the mass production of steel as the main driving force behind the ability to build skyscrapers during the mid-1880s, assembling a framework of steel girders, architects and builders could suddenly create tall, slender buildings with a strong and relatively lightweight steel skeleton.  As for the rest of the building’s elements (the walls, floors, ceilings, and windows) were suspended from this steel skeleton, which carried all of the buildings weight.  This new way of constructing buildings (called “column-frame” construction) pushed them up and up rather than out further to support the buildings mass.  The steal weight-bearing frame allowed not just taller buildings, but permitted must larger windows, which meant more daylight reached interior spaces and interior walls became thinner, which created more usable floor space.


“Form follows function” would become one of the prevailing tenets of modern architects.  Three main points to Sullivan’s structures would be that they must be solid, useful, and beautiful.  This credo, which placed the demands of practical use above aesthetics, would later be taken by influential designers to imply that decorative elements, which architects call “ornament”, were superfluous in modern buildings.  But Sullivan himself neither thought nor designed along such dogmatic lines during the peak of his career.  Although his buildings could be spare and crisp in their principal masses, he often added to their plain surfaces with eruptions of lush Art Nouveau and something like Celtic Revival decorations, usually cast in iron or terra cotta, and ranging from organic forms like vines and ivy, to more geometric designs that were most often inspired by his Irish design heritage.   Most famous was another signature element of Sullivan’s work is the massive, semi-circular arch.  Sullivan employed such arches throughout his career (in shaping entrances, in framing windows, or as interior design).

In 1890’s Bay City, the masons undertook the job of erecting their own building, purchasing several lots on the corner of Madison Avenue and Sixth Street adjacent to the old Baptist Church.  Ground was broken in October of that year with cornerstone ceremonies on June 24, 1891.  Designed by local architects Pratt  and Koeppe, the three story brick structure measured one hundred by one hundred feet with the elevations along Madison and Sixth streets faced with red sandstone.  The central entrance with its flanking paired pavilions and small onion domes gives the front façade a formal design with the arches, stout columns, and ornamental capitals of Romanesque design providing a monumental scale.  The geometric design of the terra cotta tiles and 114 foot tall campanile, the later surmounted by an octagonal drum and colorful onion dome, gave the building a distinctive Moorish appearance, an unusual influence indicating Victorian interest in exotic architecture.

Both Sullivan’s building in Chicago and the Masonic temple in Bay City used the Romanesque revival design as seen in the following pictures.  The use of Victorian as well as Palladian and multiple/single sash windows marked this type of design and can be seen in the photos.  Details such as the columns or piers and arches mark the Romanesque Revival as well as ornamental Frieze or Corbelled Arches, Brick Voussoirs set in the Arch, Ornamental Tourelles, and Stone Lintels and Sills.  All of these details can be seen in the photos below and highlight the Romanesque Revival design used by many architects such as Louis Sullivan as well as Bay City’s Pratt and Koeppe.

I had a wonderful time in Chicago and experienced the grand architecture of Chicago with a student’s eye.  Although the photos are amateurish in nature, they still reflect that eye of a student, interested in every aspect of the buildings creative nature.  As I reflect upon the trip, I realize that I didn’t capture quite enough information to supply with my photos and I apologize for that….these pictures were taken in the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 28th….with the help of my fellow student, Denise.  And now as I sit here summarizing my architectural experiences, both here in Bay City and in Chicago, I see that I learned more than I can say and know more than I can share because it is beyond my own words.  I enjoyed myself  a great deal and look forward to joining another trip sometime soon.  Thanks to Laura Dull and Amy French, who worked to put this trip together and made it so successful.  Without you, the trip would have been a bust.  Overall, I believe that the success of this trip was a combination of everyone’s excitement, interest in the subject matter, and the desire to do well in the class.

Unfortunately I’ve been unable to get my pictures to upload to wordpress….as I keep getting error messages.  So all those lovely photos I have from the Sullivan’s building in Chicago as well as the one’s I took here in Bay City of the Masonic temple on Madison street.  As we have all heard a picture speaks a thousand words, so I regret having to post this blog without the pictures….maybe I will be able to figure it out tomorrow when I come out to Delta.  Thanks to all for understanding and your support.


8 thoughts on “Louis Sullivan-A history in the making And the Romanesque design of the Masonic Temple in Bay City created by Tommy Bodrie

  1. Hi Tommy,

    I agree that seeing Chicago and the city’s architectural features through the eyes of our historian guides made for an interesting and challenging trip. There was a lot of information to absorb in just a few short days! The descriptions of the Masonic Temple in Bay City and the Sullivan building in Chicago led me to Google. This MLive Bay City Times article has some great pictures showing the beautiful tower and “onion domes” you describe.

    Here is a link to a bunch of Louis Sullivan buildings and landmarks. http://www.chicagosavvytours.com/apps/photos/album?albumid=11597949
    I know this isn’t as cool as your photos will be, but maybe it will do until you can unscramble the technology 😉


    PS. I think your post provided the answer to the question generated by my blog post about why Mount Pleasant replaced a beautiful Gothic cathedral with a pragmatic church structure.

    1. Hello Tommy, I think several more personal trips would be needed for me to feel like I absorbed enough information and saw an adequate amount of architecture ( I am sure I could never see “enough”). I love arches not only for the beauty but because it just takes more craftsmanship to accomplish such a feat. I loved that on our trip we got to see some of the work the architects from our book did. I also feel as though it is hard to express what was truly learned.

      Rebecca Gohm

  2. Thanks all to your comments. I can imagine learning more in such a short period of time…but we sure did. I only wish I could post my pictures…my computer keeps saying it’s in error when I try to down loud them. I’m going to try delta’s system next and hope that I can post the pictures. I took over 399 pictures in three short days…wow is all I can say! I have fabulous pictures of Chicago…and think that if I ever get them posted it’s going to be a miracle but I appreciate all your patience. I had a blast in Chicago and wouldn’t have changed a moment…well maybe the knee but other then that…I wouldn’t change a moment.

  3. Hey Tommy, I thought your post was informative and insightful. I enjoyed how you added engineering aspects of the time period. I also enjoyed how you said that cheap steal changed the dynamics of architecture in the 19th century. I also had problems uploading my pictures to word press, so I feel your pain. I feel as if the pictures I took online did not do the structures justice, but your descriptions of your photos gave me a vivid picture to imagine.

  4. Yes to Nick. I didn’t realize that cheap steal would have been a major factor without seeing it myself in Chicago. What a great learning experience. The trip brought out a lot of new architecture I have not seen before and I now am able to look at buildings differently.

  5. Hey Tommy!

    Love the buildings that you chose, I like the heavier looking buildings. I think that they give a look of power and mean business. Probably why mine look similar. Glad that you enjoyed yourself on the trip!

  6. It’s interesting to observe the way changes in technology led to new architectural techniques. I think Sullivan’s credo is especially interesting in that regard. It bridged the gap between necessity and intention with regard to aesthetics. I toured the Masonic Temple in Bay City recently during an open house, and was really impressed. Even there, it was evident that the different rooms were designed with their purpose in mind. The ladies meeting room even had a sort of hidden door up on the wall which is suspected to have been a spy portal for the men. Of course, we also saw purpose suited rooms in the Driehouse Museum.

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