Louis Sullivan and the Physiognomic Translation of American Character

Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Assistant professor of architecture Charles Davis II 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.

This paper 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.


Charles Davis,
Assistant Professor
Department of Architecture, University at Buffalo


Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

Date Published