Ornament: to love, seduce, submit

By Daniel Snyder

This thesis charts the repression of sentimentality at the end of the nineteenth century in America and its manifestations in the evolution of architectural ornament through two of its most important practitioners: Louis H. Sullivan (1856‐1924), the late Romantic who marked ornament’s apogee for the era, and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867‐1959), the proto‐modernist who prefigured ornament’s demise. Covering the time period from the birth of Sullivan until his death, the thesis tracks three broad arcs: the evolution of the understanding and expression of sentimentality; the manifestations of that evolution in the making of ornament; and the sentimental narrative of the relationship between the two men. None of these themes is a simple trajectory but rather together they constitute an interwoven and entangled knot that is best metaphorically illustrated by Wright’s intention when he said of one of his most ornamented buildings, “no damned sentimentality.” And yet he called himself “the most sentimental person I ever knew.”

Wright’s troubled relationship with sentimentality drew from the broader cultural difficulty with it in general. By the turn of the twentieth century many came to see sentimentality, understood as the appeal to the tender emotions, as a feminine expression. Its repression was consistent with the assertion of a new masculinity and the continued oppression of women. Sullivan and Wright, each in their own way, were aware of and spoke to these broader cultural issues in their work and writing, and as indexed within their individual ornamental practices. The research suggests that Sullivan embraced a subset of sentimentality for an intentionally emotive and poetic response of sympathy and shared feeling. His position suggests a way of being in the world in affective communion with the other. In contrast, Wright repressed the affective position of tenderness in a struggle for an intentionally rational response of mastery and confrontation. Wright’s position therefore was consistent with and a significant voice of a modernist conception of being in the world through rational self‐assertion and mastery of the other. The ultimate objective of this study then is to locate that repression of sentimentality, through ornament, within a broader philosophical and social discourse that effectively interrogates its status and its value. As a kind of abreaction this thesis seeks to uncover a relational mode of being that remains repressed to this day.