Little house on the prairiePublished on March 8, 2018

The Sullivan house

Francis Conroy Sullivan was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1882, but would soon leave the Limestone City at the age of eighteen to work in Ottawa as a draftsman in the offices of Moses Chamberlain Edey. Edey was a prominent Ottawa architect who designed the Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park and Ottawa’s first department store, the Daly Building, which was also one of the few Chicago-style buildings in Canada.

It was during his time with Edey that Sullivan met an American architect by the name of Frank Lloyd Wright. Sharing a like-minded design sense, Sullivan soon found himself moving to Chicago to work for several months with Wright at his Oak Park Studio.

The young Ottawa architect and Wright became friends and worked together on the latter’s Prairie Style of architecture, recognizable by its one or two-storey designs using one-storey projections, an open floor plan, low-pitched roofs with wide overhangs and strong horizontal lines. These design principles are what Sullivan brought back to Ottawa with him in 1911 when he opened his own independent architecture practice. His firm in Ottawa created some of this city’s, and maybe even Canada’s, only examples of Prairie Style architecture inspired by Wright, the master of that style. 

Sullivan worked in Ottawa for five very productive years between 1911 and 1916, producing significant Ottawa area structures. These included The School House Lofts (formerly Ecole du Sacré Coeur) in Hintonburg, The Pembroke Public Library and countless other residential apartments, homes and public buildings in Ottawa, as well as a very distinctly designed church out on Dwyer Hill Road. Sullivan is also rumoured to have been responsible for designing those cool concrete and metal lamp posts lining Island Park Drive. During this time, he also collaborated with Wright to design the Banff National Park Pavilion and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, both since demolished.

In 1913, with his business booming, Sullivan built his own unique home in Sandy Hill. Sullivan’s trademark was similar to Wright’s Prairie Style, except in contrast to his horizontal themes. Instead, Sullivan used a strong vertical aesthetic, including his own home which is still standing at 346 Somerset Street East.

Known for a quick temper and a bristling attitude, Sullivan began to lose important Ottawa contracts and moved into designing military hospitals for the Canadian Department of Defense. By the 1920s, while working a gig at City Hall designing the Lindenlea Housing Project, Sullivan decided to move back to Chicago to become chief architect for the Chicago Public School Board. However, Sullivan’s health was deteriorating along with his personal life as his wife and four children took a back seat to his career.

Back in in America, his old friend Wright became aware that Sullivan was not doing so well and invited his colleague to live with him in Arizona to recover. Yet the inspiring forces of the famous architect and the desert air were not enough to save the ailing Sullivan.

Wright arrived home one day to find his friend lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Sullivan was rushed to hospital, but died shortly after at age 47 on April 4, 1929. This was the second time Wright had returned home to tragedy. 15 years earlier his girlfriend and her two children, along with six others, were murdered in the home with an axe by a male servant, who later set the house on fire and attempted to kill himself by swallowing hydrochloric acid.

Wright personally arranged for his friend’s remains to be returned to Kingston, where Sullivan was buried in an unmarked grave. It seems an ironically sad end for someone who designed some of Ottawa’s most unique and distinguished structures to be buried under absolutely no structure at all.

Andrew King

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