28 Church Street
alternate name: Joseph Ellicott
architect: Louis Sullivan
owner: The Guaranty Construction Company
years built: 1896
In 1896 two skyscrapers, the Prudential Building and the Ellicott Square Building were built in Buffalo by two great Chicago architects. These buildings were more remarkable than any skyscrapers then built in New York City.
Metal skeleton construction, which made the skyscrapers possible, was developed in the Chicago of the eighties. Louis Sullivan of Chicago was the first architect to find for the new tall buildings, with their interior supports, an appropriate expression.
His first skyscraper was the Wainwright Building of 1890 in St. Louis. But the Prudential is often judged his best, particularly as it can still be seen in isolation as it was designed. It is not overshadowed, like the earlier skyscrapers elsewhere, by taller buildings
Sullivan was not altogether a functionalist. It will be observed that there are two verticales in the upper floors to each of the steel supports which come through to the ground, because he preferred to stress the vertical, at least in his better known works. The tower like proportions, however, emphasized by continuous verticals between the horizontal base and cornice are clearly appropriate to such isolated edifice.
Sullivan’s architectural innovations were not wholly in major matters of design. He used terra cotta frankly not as a substitute for stone (compare III. 14 where this is the case) but as a mere decorative sheathing as a fire proofing of the metal skeleton. Sullivan was a virtuoso in the use of this material which lent itself to a wholly novel sort of surface decoration.
The isolation of the structural support is particularly well expressed on the ground story where they pass through the tops of the shop windows. These windows in turn continue unbroken before them.
Although these ground story piers have decorative, capital-like tops, although non-structural arch forms are used to accent entrances and join the piers at the top of the building, although the strong horizontal line which terminates the composition still suggests a traditional cornice, Sullivan, in his skyscrapers opened a new age of architecture.
The promise of Sullivan’s modernism was never accepted in the east nor even for long by his Chicago colleagues.
In admiring this, one of the few architectural masterpieces in Buffalo, the mid-twentieth century may prepare to take up the challenge which the earlier twentieth century let pass.
Sullivan esteemed himself even more as the creator of a new ornament than as the pathfinder of a wholly new approach to architecture. Sometimes his indulgence in ornament is to be regretted. The superb metal-work of these elevator cages, even more than the detail of the external terra-cotta, displays his virtuosity in ornament at its best.
Such work by Sullivan was perhaps the last really fine architectural ornament created in Europe or America.
Sullivan’s architectural innovations were not wholly in major matters of design. He used terra cotta frankly not as a substitute for stone but as a mere decorative sheathing and as a fireproofing of the metal skeleton. Sullivan was a virtuoso in the use of this material which lent itself to a wholly novel sort of surface decoration.