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1844: The Architect Who Would Rebuild Charred Chicago Is Born

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Photograph of Dankmar Adler (1844–1900) American architect.
Photograph of Dankmar Adler (1844–1900) American architect.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

July 3, 1844, is the birthdate of Dankmar Adler, the architect who helped rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, and who, with his partner Louis Sullivan, ushered in the era of steel-supported skyscrapers. If Sullivan was the design genius whose name has become legendary, it was Adler’s engineering prowess that allowed his designs to be erected. Adler is also remembered for another architectural giant who apprenticed in his office: Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for Adler & Sullivan for five years.

Dankmar Adler was the son of Liebman Adler and Sara Adler, and was born in the Prussian town of Stadtlengsfeld, in the very center of contemporary Germany. His mother died several days after his birth, and this is said to be the reason why his father, a rabbi, named him “Dankmar” – a melding of the German word “dank,” meaning “thanks,” and the Hebrew “mar,” meaning “bitter.”

Liebman remarried in 1846, and in 1854, the family moved to the United States, where the father became the rabbi of Congregation Beth El, in Detroit, Michigan.

Wounded in the Civil War

Dankmar was not a good student, and did not pass the entrance exams for the University of Michigan. Instead he took private instruction in drawing, and began working as a drafting apprentice to a Detroit architect. That was followed by private study with the architect E. Willard Smith, who taught him the fundamentals of the profession.

When Liebman Adler was appointed rabbi of Chicago’s Reform synagogue Kehilath Anshe Maariv, in 1861, Dankmar moved with the family, and began working as a draftsman for architect Augustus Bauer. The following year, however, Dankmar volunteered for the First Regiment of the Illinois Light Artillery, fighting with the Union army in the Civil War. He was even wounded.

After his discharge, in August 1865, Adler returned to the Bauer office in Chicago, then worked for the architect O.S. Kinney. Following the Great Fire, in October 1871, which destroyed more than 17,000 buildings in Chicago, Adler went into partnership with Edward Burling.

The Currier & Ives lithograph shows people fleeing across the Randolph Street Bridge. Thousands of people literally ran for their lives before the flames, unleashing remarkable scenes of terror and diCredit: Currier & Ives/Chicago Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons

Over the eight years the two were together, they replaced some 100 of those structures.

In 1872, Adler married Dilah Kohn, whose father, Abraham Kohn, had been one of the founders of his father’s synagogue, KAM. The couple had three children.

The prairie meets Art Nouveau

His glory years began after Adler opened his own firm, in 1879, and, the following year, hired Louis Sullivan as a draftsman. By 1883, the two men were partners, with Sullivan – who is credited with fathering the modernist movement in U.S. architecture, acting as designer and artist to Adler’s engineer and administrator. (Sullivan's fame is no less based on the intricate decorative details he brought to his projects, which contributed something of the Art Nouveau movement to Prairie Architecture.)

Adler was also unusually skilled in acoustics design (he served as a consultant on the interior of Carnegie Hall), although he was never able to explain his method. Even before he teamed up with Sullivan to design the iconic Auditorium Building (1889), a 10-story skyscraper that contained in its lower floors a 4,300-seat theater, and above it offices and a hotel, he had attained a reputation for the Central Music Hall, his first prominent building.

Auditorium Building, Chicago. Auditorium interior from balcony.Credit: JW Taylor/Wikimedia Commons

Adler and Sullivan, also designed the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (1894), and St. Louis’ Wainwright Building (1891), as well as massive new home for Kehilath Anshe Maariv, before dissolving their partnership in 1895, in the wake of a national recession.

It was a young Frank Lloyd Wright who was hired by the pair in 1888 to draft the final drawings for the interior of the Auditorium Building and he remained with the firm for five years. Wright liked to refer to Adler as “My Big Chief."

For a short time after he closed down the firm, Adler worked as a consultant for the Crane Elevator Company. He did return briefly to working as an architect, but both his life and career were cut short by a sudden stroke on April 16, 1900, when he was only 55. Adler was buried in the Mount Mayriv Cemetery in Chicago. 

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