happy birthday to lou

In this rare photograph, Louis Sullivan is shown reviewing a recipe.

Widely recognized as one of America’s greatest architects, as well as the designer of some of the best late-nineteenth century buildings to grace his adopted hometown of Chicago, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) is rarely given credit for another of his great contributions to western civilization: the deep-dish pizza.  True.  Is it really so surprising that this delectable treat, dependent on a simple and straightforward structural base and amenable to loads of personal embellishments, would be the creation of the genius who brought us the Auditorium Theatre, Carson Pirie Scott and the ‘cool one’ in the Gage Group?

This small morsel of Sullivan’s biography is as little discussed as the sad truths of his later life which, after his stunning achievements through the early 1890s, quickly fell into decline until his lonely, embittered, alcohol-soaked death alone in a south side hotel room.  The new light being shed on Sullivan’s life as a pizzeria pontiff—made available just in time for nationwide celebrations of his birthday as MoT goes to press (so to speak)–shows eerie similarities.  Sullivan’s story is usually told as one of various architectural experiences, but recent research reveals he actually was chasing a culinary muse.  Sullivan started baking as a way to break the cultural barrier that existed between Irish families like his living in his Italian Boston neighborhood.  His parents’ disapproval of young Louis’ interest in risotto, ziti and lasagna forced him to flee to Philadelphia, where he polished his hoagie expertise near the Italian market while moonlighting as an architect with Frank Furness.  Sullivan then traveled to Paris where he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to cover his real interest in enhancing his culinary techniques.  At last Sullivan felt prepared to move to Chicago, a city of great culinary promise and where success in his day job (architecture) actually eclipsed his efforts slinging pizzas in Little Italy.  At night, Sullivan worked to perfect his design of the pie: a sturdy base of cheese and tomato sauce supported in a highly functional tall crust, and finished with a dizzying array of embellishments, from balsamic glazed onions wound in tight Celtic knots to sausage-and-meat-patty interlace adorned with arrays of foliate-cut pepperoni and vegetal flourishes of basil chiffonade.

New interpretations for old buildings: basil leaves were the inspiration for this pattern in the Auditorium Building

Forever fighting the memory of his father’s discouragement (“what’s with all this clatty Italian ballsch?  Make yer pa some boxty, fer the luvah St. Aoidhghean!”), Sullivan plucked up his courage to unveil his creation at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  Sadly, here his dream turned to nightmare, as a preponderance of fair-goers (most of them from the east coast, records reveal) bypassed the Pizza Louis stand in favor of the tomato-smeared flatbread being offered at the nearby Neapolitan kiosk.  To make matters worse, at this time Sullivan also discovered his that his sous chef, Franco, was moonlighting at the nascent Gino’s East, and fired him in a fit of rage.  Discouraged and destitute, Sullivan marched away from his failed venture at the fair, never to return to the pizza kitchen again.  Sullivan’s oft-cited words that the Columbian Exposition had retarded American progress “by a half-century” is often misrepresented as a critique of its Classical architecture: he was really talking about the New York thin crust.

To help restore this tasty tale to its proper place in history, MoT is making available here, for the first time, a manuscript recently discovered among the Sullivan Archives at the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Discovered by MoT‘s Senior Food History Archivist, the essay, written in Sullivan’s own hand, appears here in unedited form.

“The Deep Pizza Artistically Considered”

The gourmands of this land and generation are brought face to face with something new under the sun–namely, that evolution and integration of yeast dough and cornmeal, that special grouping of pressed dairy curds and savory red fruits, that results in a demand for the erection of a tall crust and a deep pizza.

Problem: How shall we impart to this crude agglomeration the graciousness of those higher forms of omnivorocity and culture that rest on the fiercer passions?  Let us examine the elements, let us search out this essence of the problem.

The practical conditions are, broadly speaking, these:

Wanted: 1st, a foundation of dough, uniting the chewy deliciousness of yeast dough, with the crunchy texture of cornmeal, while serving the function of supporting the excess that will be piled above.

2nd, a ground floor, so called, devoted to a bed of cheese: ample, melty, luscious.

3rd, a second story of crushed tomatoes, full of the life-vigor and sun-joy of a summer’s day, while embodying the soulful autumnal warmth of lengthy stewing with herbs and a little sea salt.

4th, above this an indefinite number of toppings piled tier upon tier.  At the top of this pile is all that makes the structure complete, filled with ingredients that supplement and complement the layers hidden below.

We must now heed the imperative  voice of emotion.  And hunger.

It demands of us, what is the chief characteristic of the tall-crust deep-dish pizza?  And at once we answer, it is saucy.  This sauciness is to the artist’s nature its thrilling aspect.  It is the very open organ-tone in its appeal.  It must be in turn the dominant chord in its expression, the true excitant of the imagination.  The crust must be tall, every inch of it tall, while the pie is deep, deep as the eternal sea.

It must be every inch a round and saucy thing.

-Louis Henri Sullivan, Chicago

Fascinating on its own merits, this essay also enhances a fuller understanding of Sullivan’s better-known writings, especially a famous one in which he treats the design of skyscrapers.  Written just a few years after “The Deep Pizza,” it begs a comparison that reveals the extent to which Sullivan depended on his culinary experiences in the development of his architectural theory.  Surely these findings demand a full reappraisal of Sullivan’s entire oeuvre so we all may better understand the depths of this tasty genius.


The declining master’s memorial to his former glory: Merchants’ National Bank (1914, Grinnell IA) executed in colors of tomato and mozzarella; richly carved ornament celebrating what Sullivan himself referred to as the “pizza pie window”


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