Frank Lloyd Wright Works for Adler & Sullivan

After less than a year had passed in Silsbee’s office, Wright learned that Adler & Sullivan, the forerunning firm in Chicago, were "looking for someone to make the finish drawings for the interior of the Auditorium [Building]." Wright demonstrated that he was a competent impressionist of Louis Sullivan’s ornamental designs and two short interviews later, was an official apprentice in the firm.

Wright did not get along well with Sullivan’s other draftsmen; he wrote that several violent altercations occurred between them during the first years of his apprenticeship. For that matter, Sullivan showed very little respect for his employees as well. In spite of this, "Sullivan took [Wright] under his wing and gave him great design responsibility." As a show of respect, Wright would later refer to Sullivan as Lieber Meister (German for "Dear Master"). Wright also formed a bond with office foreman, Paul Mueller. Wright would later engage Mueller to build several of his public and commercial buildings between 1903 and 1923.

Despite Sullivan’s loan and overtime salary, Wright was constantly short on funds. Wright admitted that his poor finances were likely due to his expensive tastes in wardrobe and vehicles, and the extra luxuries he designed into his house. To compound the problem, Wright's children — including first born Lloyd (b.1890) and John (b.1892) — would share similar tastes for fine goods. To supplement his income and repay his debts, Wright accepted independent commissions for at least nine houses. These "bootlegged" houses, as he later called them, were conservatively designed in variations of the fashionable Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles. Nevertheless, unlike the prevailing architecture of the period, each house emphasized simple geometric massing and contained features such as bands of horizontal windows, occasional cantilevers, and open floor plans which would become hallmarks of his later work. Eight of these early houses remain today including the Thomas Gale, Parker, Blossom, and Walter Gale houses.

As with the residential projects for Adler & Sullivan, Wright designed his bootleg houses on his own time. Sullivan knew nothing of the independent works until 1893, when he recognized that one of the houses was unmistakably a Frank Lloyd Wright design. This particular house, built for Allison Harlan, was only blocks away from Sullivan’s townhouse in the Chicago community of Kenwood. Aside from the location, the geometric purity of the composition and balcony tracery in the same style as the Charnley House likely gave away Wright’s involvement. Since Wright’s five year contract forbade any outside work, the incident led to his departure from Sullivan’s firm. A variety of stories recount the break in the relationship between Sullivan and Wright; even Wright later told two different versions of the occurrence. In An Autobiography, Wright claimed that he was unaware that his side ventures were a breach of his contract. When Sullivan learned of them, he was angered and offended; he prohibited any further outside commissions and refused to issue Wright the deed to his Oak Park house until after he completed his five years. Wright couldn’t bear the new hostility from his master and thought the situation was unjust. He "threw down [his] pencil and walked out of the Adler and Sullivan office never to return." Dankmar Adler, who was more sympathetic to Wright’s actions, later sent him the deed.

In 1888 he took a drafting job with the firm of Adler and Sullivan where he worked directly under Louis Sullivan for six years. Sullivan was one of the few influences Wright ever acknowledged. Sullivan, known for his integrated ornamentation based on natural themes, developed the maxim "Form Follows Function" which Wright later revised to "Form and Function Are One." Sullivan also believed in an American architecture based on American themes not on tradition or European styles -- an idea that Wright was later to develop. Wright and Sullivan abruptly parted company in 1893 when Sullivan discovered that Wright had been accepting commissions for "bootleg" house designs on his own, a violation of an earlier agreement between the two. Many years later, the two renewed their friendship. Wright often referred to Sullivan as his "Lieber Meister," or beloved master.