Completed in 1894, Sullivan and Adler’s thirteen-story Chicago Stock Exchange was one of the earliest modern skyscrapers, rising to a new height made possible by developments in steel framing. The second-floor trading room was its magnificent centerpiece. When the building was demolished in 1972, architectural elements were salvaged and gathered by collectors and museums. This particular painted fragment features fifty-two distinct hues in muted tones of rust and gold, green and yellow. Shapes that recall root systems, stems, and leaves are transformed into stylized patterns that allude to prairie landscapes and the fundamental role of midwestern agriculture in the US economy. The rhythm and precision of the abstract design are also reminiscent of Islamic decorative traditions.
In its lush, organic motifs and intricately stenciled patterns, the frieze reflects Sullivan’s goal of synthesizing elements of nature with abstraction. Organic patterns portrayed at different scales and in various mediums were integrated throughout the entire building, arranged to emphasize the structure’s verticality. Motifs recurred in molded plaster and terra-cotta and in the ironwork of staircases and elevator grilles. Sullivan believed that decorative elements and architectural form could, and should, come together to create a unique and harmonious whole. Through his elaboration of a concept he called “organic ornamentation,” he paved the way for a distinctly American visual culture rooted in the simplicity of nature yet brimming with endless variations of architectural expression.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Sullivan and Adler’s second-floor trading room was the main attraction of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building. The apparent austerity of the building’s exterior contrasted with the complex, dense, and multi–colored decoration of the trading room, which featured magnificent ironwork, colored glass, stencil, and plaster ornament. This portion of the vivid fifty-two-color frieze’s stylized organic patterning alludes to the stock exchange’s prominence in the agricultural market and, more broadly, evidences Sullivan’s appropriation of Islamic decorative traditions. The building was torn down in 1972, but much of the trading room and many other fragments were salvaged.
Gallery label from Shaping Modernity 1880–1980, March 28, 2012–September 8, 2013.