Louis Sullivan's Krause Music Store
When music salesman William Krause hired architect William C. Presto to create a new striking storefront for him in Lincoln Square that could attract attention from potential customers, Presto immediately thought of his mentor Louis Sullivan. The special facade, completed in 1922, would turn out to be Sullivan’s last architectural commission. Unlike the majority of Louis Sullivan’s work, the building is still with us 100 years later.
In 1920 Krause, a German immigrant, was living at 4552 W. Wilson Ave (now a parking lot) in Mayfair with his wife Olga and sister Minnie, a saleswoman at his music shop in Ravenswood, when he bought a lot on Lincoln Ave from Charles Leon. The family must’ve moved to temporary living quarters in Lincoln Square soon afterwards, which is probably how they met William C. Presto, a 27-year-old architect residing at Fairfield and Lawrence around this time.
A year earlier Presto had just been released from military duties when he returned to his employment as a draftsman at the architectural offices of George C. Nimmons and Company. He would work there on and off for nine years. Nimmons is best known for his commercial work like the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Administration Building (1905); Reid, Murdoch & Co. Building (1913); and the American Furniture Mart (1926).
At the same time Louis Sullivan was a washed up architect without a permanent office or work who had also lost most of his possessions. A small group of former employees and devoted friends provided whatever they could to help him, whether it was paying his rent at the Hotel Warner or making arrangements for Sullivan to eat and work at the Cliff Dwellers Club. In a letter to one of his most famous students, Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect wrote: “With the future blank I am surely living in hell. To think I would come to this at 61.”
Once a major architect designing skyscrapers and other large commercial projects, Sullivan was reduced to a commission a year if he was lucky. During the last fifteen years of his life Sullivan worked on eight small banks across the Midwest. Due to their box-like shape and rich ornamentation, they are now referred to as “jewel box” banks with the last one constructed as the Farmers and Merchants Union Bank in Columbus, Wisconsin. As work began on what would be his final bank project in 1919 Sullivan desperately needed assistance, which is how he came looking for help in George C. Nimmons’ office. Nimmons said, “I’ll loan you my good man Bill Presto.”
The two men joined forces at the drafting table inside the sales offices of the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company located in the former Keith residence at 1808 S. Prairie Ave right next to the Glessner House. Sullivan had a long-time relationship with Kristian Schneider, a modeler for the firm, who arranged for the architect to have an office there, which had been leased for commercial purposes since 1917. Sullivan would later move offices to another old mansion on Prairie Ave, specifically a William Le Baron Jenney-designed residence built in 1868. It was a long way from the days when Sullivan was in charge of his own firm based in the tower of Chicago’s then tallest structure, the Auditorium Building.
The bank work kept them busy through the year but it wasn’t enough for Presto, who soon left to establish his own architectural practice. One of his earliest independent commissions turned out to be the small-scale project for William Krause, who mainly sold phonographs and pianos. The building permit (dated March 28, 1922) specified a store with a second floor five-room apartment to be constructed on the site the Krauses had acquired two years earlier.
Presto knew how dire Sullivan’s financial situation had become; he recalled how Sullivan would ask to borrow 50 cents for cab fare or to buy lunch. But like many other architects Presto deeply respected Louis Sullivan, who Frank Lloyd Wright would later refer to as “Lieber Meister” (German for “beloved master.”) so he was embarrassed to ask Sullivan to design the facade for this small commercial project. He inquired what Frederick Wagoner of the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company thought of the idea: “Well, you know Louis as well as I. If you asked me this ten years ago though, I’d have thought you were crazy.” Instead of being offended, Sullivan gratefully accepted it and did all the working drawings himself, which turned out to be the only known surviving drawings executed in his own hand.
From his time at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris to the last years of his life, Sullivan always started with a plan or design through equisse or the “initial sketch.” The method was to stay as close as possible to the original idea. After Presto submitted floor plans to Sullivan with a request for an elevation, the architect sketched it out on the back of an envelope. It was not unlike what was later developed to scale for the Krause Music Store at 4611 North Lincoln Ave.
Preservationist Richard Nickel, who dedicated his life to documenting as many Louis Sullivan-designed buildings as possible before their untimely demolitions, interviewed the former co-owner of the building, Olga Krause, before her death in 1962. She explained how the famous architect became involved with the project. William Presto also wrote a letter in 1963 explaining Sullivan’s contributions to the facade. Before then architectural historians like Carl W. Condit questioned whether Sullivan had anything to do with the design at all.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Besides doing the drawings for the Krause facade, which was completed in January of 1922, Sullivan traveled out to the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company factory in Crystal Lake, sometimes accompanied by William and Olga Krause or architect William Presto, to supervise modeler Kristian Schneider’s execution of the building’s ornament. The two men had been working together since Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium Building over thirty years earlier. In the December 1924 issue of The Western Architect both Presto and Sullivan’s names are listed as the official architects of the project (it also noted it was Sullivan’s last realized design).
The shop window and double entrances are set within a recessed and angled frame, which emphasizes the rich ornament “studded with electric lights.” Although a beautiful design some architectural critics did not think the facade reflected Sullivan’s famous philosophy of “Form follows function,” believing it was too elaborate for such a simple job. Yet others saw the design as symbolizing a music box with an emblematic key on top; an appropriate demonstration for a structure that functioned as a music store. Contemporary reviews, like The Music Trades, actually recognized how the new “architectural gem…harmonizes with the products (Krause) sells.” The owner even kept a baby grand piano and other musical apartments inside his apartment above the store to show customers what the products would look like in their own homes.
While Sullivan’s ornamentation mainly had geometric and botanical forms, there were occasional historic references to late-medieval iconography whether it be lion heads or heraldry, which you can see with the letter ‘K’ for the owner’s last name that is surrounded by a wreath in a hexagonal medallion. The building’s date of 1922 is directly underneath. Contrasting with the black-and-white tiled entrance that spells out "‘Krause’ is the glossy greenish-gray terra cotta cladding sprinkled with black particles. It is similar to the one used in a Sullivan-designed building in Newark, Ohio. The detailing also resembled the plates that Sullivan prepared for his book A System of Architectural Ornament in 1924.
This remarkable design only existed for a short time as a music store. Owner William P. Krause died of suicide at the age of 49 in the second floor apartment in 1931 less than a decade after the building’s completion. His wife Olga continued to own the building until 1958. It was converted into a funeral home around 1929, which would stay in operation until the 1980s. Bodies, embalmed in the basement, were hoisted up to the first floor chapel by a special casket elevator. But in 2007 the structure received “new” life when it was restored just after the 150th anniversary of Sullivan’s birth.
Architectural historian Willard Connely noted that “with ironical consequence” it was Presto, Sullivan’s last assistant, who would turn Sullivan into his assistant on what would be the famed architect’s last architectural project. But thank goodness he did. The Krause Music Store is still a striking presence, standing out amid neighboring buildings, on the commercial strip of Lincoln and Wilson Aves 100 years after its construction. Currently for sale, I’d love for this piece of art to become an architecture museum or some kind of cultural space. But whatever its future, let’s just hope this Sullivan design falls in the right hands and continues to shine for at least another century. If not more.
Historic American Buildings Survey
Louis Sullivan: The Poetry of Architecture by Robert Twombly and Narciso G. Menocal
Louis Sullivan’s Idea by Tim Samuelson
The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan by Richard Nickel