Louis Sullivan and the Physiognomic Translation of American Character

I am happy to announce that an article I wrote, entitled “Louis Sullivan and the Physiognomic Translation of American Character” has recently been published in the Journal for the Society of Architectural Historians (See March 2017 issue). This article is a fragment of chapter three of my forthcoming book manuscript, Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style, which examines the racial discourses created within French, German, and North American modern architecture movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Louis Sullivan, he was an Irish-American architect who practiced in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He is most famous for creating the dictum “form follow function” and for refining the aesthetic appearance of the American skyscraper in cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Buffalo. During these productive years, he partnered with Dankmar Adler, a Jewish-American architect who was the son of an influential rabbi (Liebman Adler) in Chicago.

My research examines the representational meaning of Adler and Sullivan’s designs for a Reform Jewish synagogue–Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv–in Chicago’s South Side, which was eventually purchased and transformed into a Baptist church–Pilgrim Baptist Church–that gave birth to Gospel music, which was home to singers such as Mahalia Jackson. Despite the cultural importance of this latter moment in African American history, it has rarely been studied in association with Louis Sullivan’s architectural expressions of American character. I examine the ways that physiognomic theory influenced Sullivan’s interpretation of racial and national characters, and how, inversely, the customs of Jewish and Black life unintentionally expanded the architect’s early notions of national identity.

Below is an abstract for my article, which can also be found here:


Louis Sullivan and the Physiognomic Translation of American Character examines the racial politics of Louis Sullivan’s democratic vision for American architecture, as manifest in his interpretations of physiognomic character in people and the built environment and in his reflections on U.S. nationalism. Charles L. Davis II argues that while Sullivan believed that ordinary Americans would produce an indigenous culture reflective of democratic ideals, his assimilationist conception of American citizenship excluded recent white immigrants and resident nonwhite peoples and limited his democratic architecture, as in the case of Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue in Chicago. While Sullivan’s ornament for the synagogue expressed Jewish identity in Chicago, its Richardsonian exterior referred to his secular-assimilationist model of national culture. The synagogue’s subsequent use as Pilgrim Baptist Church by an African American congregation complicates our understanding of Sullivan’s assimilationist political theory and its expression in his architecture.


JSAH cover (March-2017)

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