Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building has long occupied a central place in the history of modern architecture. In The Wainwright Building: Monument of St. Louis's Lager Landscape, Paula Lupkin reexamines the canonical “first skyscraper” as a different type of monument: the symbolic center of St. Louis's “lager landscape.” Viewed through the lenses of patronage and local history, this ten-story structure emerges as the white-collar hub of one of the city's most important cultural and economic forces: brewing. Home to the city's brewery architects and contractors, a brewing consortium, and related real estate and insurance companies, the building, as Ellis Wainwright conceived it, served as the downtown headquarters of the brewing industry. Echoing the brewery stock house as well as cold storage structures and ornamented with motifs of lager's most expensive ingredient, hops, the building's design incorporated both the natural and technological elements of brewing. Analyzing the Wainwright Building as part of a lager landscape adds new dimension and significance to Sullivan's masterpiece.

In 1891 a ten-story building of red brick, granite, and terracotta rose on the corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets in the heart of downtown St. Louis.1 The Wainwright Building, an archetypal modern structure, is well known as the first design to express clearly the quality of “tallness” in the new steel-frame skyscrapers that emerged near the end of the nineteenth century (Figure 1). The standard architectural historical texts place great emphasis on the innovative and functionally expressive composition of the Wainwright's façade: a tripartite arrangement of stores at the base, a shaft of office windows, and mechanical systems in the decorative cornice at the roofline. Historians attribute even more importance to the building as a turning point in the oeuvre of one of the prophets of modernism, Louis Sullivan. To Sullivan the Wainwright was a watershed moment in his career. Years after he designed it, he wrote to fellow architect Claude Bragdon: “As to my buildings: Those that interest me date from the Wainwright Bldg., in St. Louis. … All my commercial buildings since … are conceived in the same general spirit.”2 This comment upholds the later critical reception and interpretation of the building as an icon of modernism.3 Few have questioned Sullivan's account of the design's genesis or looked beyond the formal organization of the façade. Although there has been significant revisionist scholarship on the history of skyscrapers, earlier interpretations of the Wainwright Building remain largely intact.4 This article offers a fresh perspective and a new identity for this iconic building, a monument of St. Louis's “lager landscape.”

Figure 1

Adler & Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1891, under construction (Engineering Magazine, November 1892).

Figure 1

Adler & Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1891, under construction (Engineering Magazine, November 1892).

In the late nineteenth century, St. Louis was home to more than twenty breweries, dozens of allied enterprises, and tens of thousands of newly arrived Germans.5 The production, marketing, distribution, and consumption of lager beer shaped a distinctive cultural landscape in the city. Humble spaces as well as great ones made up the lager landscape: massive breweries, cooperage factories, beer delivery routes, workers’ homes and union halls, corner saloons and beer gardens where steins of lager accompanied performances of German opera. The Wainwright Building, located in the heart of the central business district, was remote, geographically and experientially, from the ethnic brewing enclaves on the city's north and south sides. Suffused with steam from belching smokestacks, these industrial neighborhoods were redolent of cooked barley, delivery stables, and the sweat of workers hauling kegs of beer. By contrast, the managers, secretaries, and clerks who worked in the Wainwright Building inhabited an elegant, high-style, well-lit, well-ventilated, genteel white-collar world elevated high above the traffic, noise, and smells of the downtown streets. Despite its spatial and functional distance from the breweries, this skyscraper was a fundamental element of the “lager landscape,” linked to it both architecturally and economically.