Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Caitlin Eichner and Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Roster Researchers.
Confession: we, Alex and Caitlin, your intrepid Shapell Manuscript Foundation bloggers, did not know in school that we were going to grow up to be archival researchers. The both of us studied Historic Preservation in college; with Alex continuing on to get her Master’s and Caitlin breaking from the fold and heading to law school (which is why Alex is responsible for a lot of the technical parts of this post). People from the Historic Preservation community think our job is really cool, but we don’t do a whole lot of architectural and landscape conservation out of the National Archives. What our Historic Preservation backgrounds did give us though, which is essential to our chosen profession, is a HUGE awareness and appreciation of the importance of saving the past for future generations. Every day we get to document and reconstruct the lives of people who lived over a century ago, to share with people living now and hopefully generations later. And Caitlin’s law degree, well that just makes her really OCD about sources and occasionally helps her interpret a court martial.
But, this week, we came across a soldier who allowed us get our inner Preservation geek on, and relive our school days of architecture and design. Dankmar Adler had immigrant beginnings, like most of our soldiers, but he went on to become one of the most well-known architects of his time. His more famous partner, Louis H. Sullivan, is considered the father of modern American architecture. Together, they helped train Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably the most famous American architect of all time. We have several gentlemen in our database who made great names for themselves for their great deeds and exploits during the Civil War— Marcus Spiegel, Leopold Karpeles, Judah P. Benjamin, to name a few— but none, perhaps, who built such a lasting legacy.
Dankmar Adler was born in Germany, in 1844. His father, Liebman Adler, was a Rabbi, and upon coming to America, he moved the family first to Detroit, where he served as Rabbi for Temple Beth El. In 1861, he then became Rabbi of the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue in Chicago, IL, and the Adlers moved again. Dankmar had been an apprentice to a local architect in Detroit, and when he got to Chicago, he found employment as a draftsman.
The Adlers’ move, of course, coincided with the build up to and beginning of the Civil War. And, in August 1862, Dankmar Adler enlisted to join in the fight. The US Naturalization Indexes show Adler did not become a citizen of the United States until 1888, so he would not have been eligible for the draft instituted during the Civil War. And working as a draftsman, Adler would not have been in any great need of money; like many of the poor immigrants enlisting in the service. His decision to enlist seems only to have been motivated by a sense of pride in or duty to his adopted home; a choice motivated by patriotism and honor.
Dankmar Adler joined the 1st Illinois Light Artillery as a Private. He was promoted to Corporal during his service, but requested to be reduced back to Private. No explanation is given in the soldier’s service records as to why he made this decision. In March of 1865, as the war was winding down, many men detached for special duty were being returned to their regiments to be mustered out. This left the Department of the Cumberland’s Topographical Engineer Office in desperate need of draftsmen. So, Adler was sent down to Nashville, at the request of the Chief Engineer of the Department of the Cumberland, to fill that void. He remained at the Topographical Engineer’s Office until the end of July 1865, when his unit returned to Chicago to be mustered out.
In 1870, according to the US Census, the 26 year-old Adler was still living at home with Rabbi Adler, like today’s Millennials. But, Adler’s career was about to take off. In 1871, he formed a partnership with architect Edward Burling. Then the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 happened, and business was booming. Adler married Dila Kohn in 1872, the daughter of Abraham Kohn, who helped found the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue. Abraham Kohn is well-known for sending then President-elect Abraham Lincoln a silk American flag, hand painted by Kohn himself with lines from the Book of Joshua in Hebrew. You can read more about Kohn and his flag in the upcoming book Lincoln and the Jews – A History.
Adler’s success continued to grow. He was able to open his own firm in 1879 and shortly after, formed what is often referred to as one of the most significant and influential partnerships in American architecture, when he hired a young Louis Sullivan.
Louis Henry Sullivan has often been referred to as the “father of skyscrapers,” a designation that would not have been possible without the training and initial success with his partner Dankmar Adler. Adler was formally trained as an engineer and believed that Sullivan’s creative and artistic abilities would be an ideal match to his more technical training. Adler’s premonitions were correct and his sense of structure along with Sullivan’s artistic eye lead them to become extremely successful, designing around 180 buildings during their 15 year partnership.
Adler and Sullivan achieved initial fame as theater architects, using Adler’s expertise in acoustics and Sullivan’s artistic eye to create beautiful and functional designs. One of their most well-known buildings, the Auditorium Building in Chicago, was completed in 1889, with a young Frank Lloyd Wright hired to draft finished drawings of the interior of the project. Wright would spend five years working for the firm, learning from Adler and Sullivan, and developing his distinctive style.
Adler and Sullivan also designed the new Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue (1891), where Adler’s father was the Rabbi. After this time, Adler and Sullivan focused primarily on office buildings and created some of the most famous designs of the time including the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, MO (1891) and the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY (1896).
Despite their enormous success, Adler and Sullivan split in 1895, citing that year’s economic depression as the reason for their separation. Adler agreed to continue to consult on Sullivan’s projects however, and went into practice with his son. Adler’s career was cut short by his early death on April 16, 1900, from a stroke at the age of 56. He is buried at Mount Maryiv Cemetery, a Jewish Cemetery in Chicago, IL.
Dankmar Adler’s legacy goes far beyond his designs, lasting buildings, and writings on architectural theory. Both the partner and the apprentice he inspired would go onto create and write theories about the most important architectural designs of the 20th century. Sullivan would go on to command the new Modernist movement with new technologies such as steel-frame construction and be a mentor and inspiration to young American Architects of the Chicago School such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan was also one of the ten architects chosen to build the major structure of the “White City” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Frank Lloyd Wright became the zenith of American architecture. Like most of Wright’s personal and professional relationships, his tenure at Adler and Sullivan did not end on the best of terms, but without their help, Wright would not have been able to influence the Chicago and Prairie Schools of Architecture and design masterpieces such as Fallingwater, the Ward Willits House, the Robie House, or Unity Temple. Despite their tumultuous relationships, Wright would still go on to refer to Sullivan as “Lieber Meister” (German for “Dear Master”) as a sign of respect for the rest of his life.
We here at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation are excited to tell Dankmar Adler’s story, and help memorialize not only his part in modern American architecture; but his part in American history as a whole. He was one of the many brave young men, who chose to fight to defend the Union, when he did not have to; and he used that courage later on in his work. Plus, Alex and Caitlin have had a blast reading their old architectural history books and looking at pictures of beautiful buildings. We highly recommend everyone do the same!