Associate the word genius with a person, an idea, or as a point of sarcasm, and you are sure to get someone’s attention. The weight of the word implies something or someone extraordinary -exceptionally intellectual, creative, or original. The trouble with the word is that it often carries with it an unwanted, unwarranted, burden. How can someone be a genius and yet be pretty, funny, lazy, needy, socially awkward, an addict, or just plain unassuming? If one is a genius, does it mean that they are above another, beyond reproach, not flawed like the rest of humanity? Like celebrities, a genius is often held to unrealistic standards that can seldom be upheld. As much as we admire the beautiful starlet, or piano prodigy, we like to see them fall from grace. The falling makes them seem, as one popular magazine points out, “just like us”.
I’ve had the time during the last couple of weeks to view some work of architect Louis Sullivan. I’ve visited many of his buildings throughout the years and taken my time to stand and observe, to feel the energy of the buildings that genius built. I was in Owatonna, Minnesota recently and spent time admiring the beautiful Owatonna Farmer’s Bank (now a Wells Fargo store), built in 1908. The bank is one of Sullivan’s “jewel boxes”. A red brick structure with arches within rectangular facades,heavy with ornamentation. To wander inside, is to gaze at elaborate stained glass, terra cotta, plaster, and iron work. Each craftsman, a genius, in his own right.
Louis Sullivan’s style fell out of favor and he took commissions in tiny towns where stories abound, from old-timers, who sat drinking at local bars with the famous, drunk, Mr.Sullivan. The man that was known as “the father of the skyscraper” and “the prophet of modern architecture”, would die in 1924, penniless and forgotten. Many of his buildings remain, beautiful testaments of not only Mr. Sullivan’s genius, but that of the gifted craftsman who created windows and ornamentation on buildings that defined communities. The Owatonna bank building is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark, and 106 years later, worth a trip to a little town on the prairie.
Genius always finds itself a century too early – Ralph Waldo Emerson