Louis Sullivan designed only a single building for the Northwest, and it never proceeded beyond the foundation. Still, his influence is evident in a few works in Seattle and Hoquiam in the little-known mode called “Sullivanesque.”
One of the heroes of American architecture, Louis Sullivan is best known for giving form to the skyscraper in the 1890s and his influence on Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School that emerged just after the turn of the 20th century. But Sullivan was also the unwilling instigator of a decorative mode and an approach to façade composition now characterized as Sullivanesque. Most Sullivanesque practitioners were once Sullivan apprentices or were members of the Prairie School, so, as documented by University of Illinois Professor Ron Schmitt, most Sullivanesque architecture is found in the Midwest, particularly in Chicago and its suburbs.
In Seattle, Sullivanesque work is typically the product of architect Charles Bebb (1856–1942). Bebb first came to Seattle in 1890 to supervise the construction of the new opera house by Adler & Sullivan. After an economic downturn doomed that project by early 1891, Bebb returned to Chicago, but he had “fallen in love” with Seattle. He returned permanently in 1893–94 and opened his own architectural practice in 1898; in 1901, with Louis L. Mendel, he formed the partnership Bebb & Mendel.
Bebb’s earliest buildings are often Sullivanesque. The most extraordinary is the Oriental Block (1902-3), also known as the Corona Hotel on the east side of Second Avenue in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, a building restored and updated under the direction of SMR Architects in 1996–98. Because the six-story building occupies a mid-block lot, architectural development is confined to the street façade. Nonetheless, we see a typical Sullivanesque/Prairie School compositional approach with end bays with punch windows and central bays with recessed spandrels and projecting columns. The top floor is clad entirely in Sullivanesque terra cotta, produced by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago, which is also used in the frieze above the storefronts. The swirling forms of this terra cotta present conventionalizations of botanical elements following the example of Sullivan’s work. Terra cotta sills and window surrounds also display small Sullivanesque motifs.
Not far away, at the corner of First Avenue S. and S. Jackson Street, Bebb & Mendel’s Schwabacher Hardware Company warehouse (1903-5; now part of Merrill Place) also displays a Sullivanesque façade composition, but here the Sullivanesque ornament is limited to decorative elements over the entrances facing First and Jackson.
Just north of Jackson at 317 First Avenue is Bebb’s Squire Building (1900), another example showing Sullivan’s influence. A small project with a limited budget, this building evidently did not allow for significant embellishment. Nonetheless, the treatment of the fourth floor, with engaged columns, continuous sill and the slight projecting canopy, derives from the second floor balcony at Adler & Sullivan’s Charnley House in Chicago (now home to the Society of Architectural Historians).
Another example of Bebb’s Sullivanesque ornament is not as easy to see; it is found in the basement ballroom of the F. S. Stimson mansion on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill (although there is a photograph on page 91 in The Stimson Legacy: Architecture in the Urban West, by Lawrence Kreisman, published in 1992).
Although Bebb designed other Seattle buildings with Sullivanesque ornament, they no longer stand.
The other distinguished example of Sullivanesque architecture found in Washington state is located in Hoquiam: the Hoquiam Library (1910-11) designed by Madison, Wisconsin architects Claude & Starck. Louis W. Claude, who was originally from Wisconsin, had worked for Adler & Sullivan in the early 1890s. The firm was selected by the librarian, who had previously worked in a Claude & Starck library in Evansville, Wisconsin. The broad, overhanging hipped-roof is evidence of the Prairie School influence. Below this roof standard Sullivanesque terra cotta by the Architectural Decorating Company of Chicago forms a continuous frieze. A similar, smaller frieze surmounts the original entrance. When the library was expanded in 1991, Tonkin/ Koch Architects (now Tonkin/Hoyne) echoed the original form including the Sullivanesque frieze.