Back in 2008, I wrote a book for Chicago’s Lake Claremont Press entitled For Members Only: A History and Guide to Chicago’s Oldest Private Clubs – pretty self-explanatory title re the subject, but if I do say so myself, full of great stories about people, architecture and Midwestern social strata few of us get to see.
One of my favorites involves the Cliff Dwellers Club, which the Chicago Sun-Times reports this morning is packing its bags. (It’s not closing, thankfully. It just lost its lease.) It’s about the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan and the end of his life, which he spent in near-poverty after a lifetime of brilliant work and squandered professional and personal relationships (including Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Sullivan fired).
A longtime Cliff Dwellers member himself, Sullivan spent his last years supported by club members who funded two projects Sullivan would complete shortly before his death — the first a series of 20 plates that would illustrate his philosophy of architectural ornament, the second his autobiography.
In its soon-to-be-vacated top-floor-with-terrace space at 200 S. Michigan, there exists a small space (the clubhouse isn’t that big) known as “the Sullivan room” containing the desk where he wrote that autobiography. From my book, (page 243): For the autobiography, Dunning and Nimmons (Cliff members and distinguished local architects Max Dunning and George Nimmons) arranged for initial publication in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in at least 12 monthly installments for $100 each.
These were windfalls for Sullivan, who at the time was having trouble pulling together the $9 a week for his room at the Warner Hotel. According to (Sullivan biographer Willard) Connely, Sullivan worked on his plates during the day (at the American Terracotta Co., where many of his designs had been modeled). After dinner at the Cliff Dwellers (his membership paid in full by architect members of the club) he’d retreat to the desk and chair the club provided him and write.
Sullivan died alone in his hotel room in April 1924, just three month after publishing the book he wrote at the Cliff Dwellers, entitled The Autobiography of an Idea. According to the club’s own history, one of the last people to see him alive was his old employee, Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s written that they patched things up before Sullivan died.
Creative people always need someplace to gather, especially in a tough economy where art seems to be the last thought in the world. And though I’m not a member of the Cliff Dwellers, for years they’ve graciously hosted The Society of Midland Authors (I’m a member) among many other independent groups and creatives. They’re keeping their core mission alive, and always with a sense of fun and warmth.
Now in their 105th year, I really hope the Cliff Dwellers’ latest clubhouse search (for those who remember, they were at Orchestra Hall until 1996) gives them a chance to renew their ties to Chicago’s cultural community and perhaps draw new members and attendees who can benefit from their history. I also hope they find another killer view like this: