Art Facts: Wright stuff in a store by Sullivan | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Art Facts: Wright stuff in a store by Sullivan 

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Despite the building's landmark status, it's easy to miss Louis Sullivan's last work, a highly stylized two-story terra-cotta facade at 4611 N. Lincoln. Over the past several months the building has undergone subtle restoration on the outside and transformation on the inside to accommodate a gallery with collections that are unerringly appropriate.

This month new owner Scott Elliott reopened his Kelmscott Gallery here. Kelmscott, once located in the Fine Arts Building and named after the press founded by protean English aesthete William Morris, will specialize in European decorative arts and artifacts of the English arts-and-crafts movement and the Chicago school of design and architecture, with an emphasis on Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Elliott says with a laugh that he "couldn't resist the K," referring to the initial centered in the elaborate cartouche of Sullivan's facade.

The building was commissioned in 1921 by William Krause as a music store with an apartment upstairs for his family. Krause hired his neighbor, William Presto, as the general architect, and Presto in turn chose Sullivan, who was then 65 and down on his luck, to design the storefront and facade. Presto had worked as a draftsman for Sullivan several years earlier, when Sullivan was designing a series of small but masterly banks in several midwestern cities.

The Krause Music Store was Sullivan's last flourish. Though the facade is not the ideal realization of Sullivan's artistry, it shows his striking application of ornament and an appreciation for retail design that reflects Sullivan's commitment to the idea that form should follow function. By recessing the storefront, Sullivan created a cove that offered a full view of the store's interior and elegantly framed that view in a foliate motif.

Over the years, age and the elements have faded the terra-cotta. A precisely composed design has lost essential details: simple, elegant wood-and-glass doors and a single-pane display window were replaced by more practical elements; frail leaded-glass windows were obscured by frame windows and blinds that shifted the vertical emphasis to horizontal; and a large sign was hung perpendicular to the building to advertise the funeral business located there for 60 years. The artistry was easy to overlook.

That made it perfect for Elliott. Though his emphasis on selling original Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, working drawings, and other memorabilia fires up those who believe the sale of such artifacts is tantamount to cannibalizing Wright's legacy, Elliott takes a good measure of the credit for bringing Wright's genius back into the public consciousness. He traces the present rage for anything connected to Wright (and the concurrent inflation of prices) back to a show he curated in 1981 at his gallery in the Fine Arts Building.

At that time he discovered that his clientele "wasn't in Chicago. We were selling to people from the east coast, Europe, and museums from other cities, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was curious that a city which prides itself so much on its architecture should have presented such a resistance to purchasing Wright.

"Of course there were people in Chicago who lived in Wright houses or who had Wright furniture, and though often they didn't think it had any commercial value, they knew it had intrinsic value in its design. On the other hand, there were other people--some of Wright's clients--who discarded much of his work soon after the house he designed for them was finished. The miracle is that so much of it survived."

For Elliott, the greatest pleasure is the hunt for Wright items, as well as for his other specialties. His favorite story is about finding the dining-room table from the Willits House (built in 1902 in Highland Park) in a barn in Spring Green, Wisconsin, not far from Wright's summer studio, Taliesin. "We cleaned out a chicken coop and a gathering of barnyard animals to get at it--and it wasn't irreparable."

Then there was the encounter with a curator at a "major Chicago museum" who was using a Wright chair as a paint-can stand in the basement. "He argued with me, saying it wasn't worth anything--until I came back and showed him the picture of the chair from Wright's Roberts House."

Some of the results of Elliott's searches are already being set up in the gallery, even as workers continue to add finishing touches, restoring the building's original fine details and materials; eventually the facade will be cleaned. Although business has begun, the first show Elliott will curate is scheduled to open May 8. "Chicago-Boston," the working title, will be a grouping of objects of the arts-and-crafts movement in America, showing the particular affinity between architects, draftsmen, and metal craftsmen from both cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Elliott also plans to mount an exhibition of Wright photography--still lifes, landscapes, and figures--later this year: "He was not only a great artist and architect but also one of the great art photographers of this century," Elliott says. "He was far ahead of Stieglitz, Steichen, and others of his time, as I think this exhibition will show."

Kelmscott Gallery, at 4611 N. Lincoln, is open 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. Beginning May 8, hours will be Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 7, and Saturday and Sunday, 11 to 6. Call 784-2559 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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