“When Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, walks by the Sullivan Center, he can’t help but to go inside. It’s not the Target drawing him in. It’s the architecture.
“The terra cotta fortress — once the home of Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company — was designed by Louis Sullivan and built over a century ago. A Chicago school-style skyscraper, it’s one of the most quintessential of its time. And with its wrought iron ornamentation, steel frame design and sweeping glass windows, it pushed the limit on 19th century technology. Landmarked by the city in 1970, the twelve-story structure is by no means modern, but to Miller it is an enduring marvel — and his favorite Chicago building.
Why is this your favorite building?
“I started being a patron of Carson’s as a child and being very curious about that beautiful, whimsical, organic ornament that outlined the base of the store. It was so exuberant and breathtaking. When I was a teenager, the base of the building was restored by John Vinci and his firm. Vinci located a formula from the early days of Carson’s existence for painting the whole cast iron base brilliant vermillion and coating it in olive green. While the olive green was still wet, it would be wiped with newspaper so some of the red came through, giving you the effect of a bronze color.
What we see now is so bold and straightforward. The building has this black ornamental base and really unique, straightforward upper floors. The cornice was missing when I (was growing up), but now that it’s visible, you really see the original version of the building.
“The Sullivan Center has gone viral on TikTok, with users dubbing it “goth Target” for its wrought iron exterior. Do you think people are overlooking its beauty or appreciating it in a different way?
“When you use the term “goth Target,” I just start cracking up laughing. But at the end of the day, this is all wonderful stuff, because people are looking at buildings and are being very observant. They’re realizing there’s more to the structure than the store inside, in this case, a Target. “Goth” has a wide definition in our DNA, and I don’t think you would have gotten the same reaction 20 years ago.
The idea that it’s gone wild on social media is really beautiful. People are understanding that the structure is significant, that it speaks to them, and that they find it really intriguing. It almost doesn’t matter how you categorize these buildings or what you call them. I think the general feeling of the spirit is that this is a wonderful building. It shows the flexibility, vision, and the brilliance of these great architects for Chicago, and especially people like Louis Sullivan. Let’s celebrate that.
“Why is the building important to Chicago?
“I think we often forget that reinvestment in our historic buildings, especially our landmarks, is development. It brings about incredible heritage tourism. So if Chicago lost buildings like Carson, Pirie, Scott, would we be the same city? I don’t think so.
If we’d saved more of those earlier buildings, perhaps we’d be even more recognized on the world scale. It’s really important that we save these structures, tell these stories and continue to celebrate our landmarks across Chicago. This is a very special place.
“What, in particular, made the building special to you growing up?
“Around 1970, we picked up my stepmother from work and I remember getting in the car and my dad saying, “This is a wonderful day. The Carson, Pirie, Scott store became a landmark.” This idea of landmarking the building brought about a curiosity in me: There was something special about it that must be protected.
“It’s no different than looking at a work of art, where you never get tired of seeing it and it’s always a bright spot in your day. I’m always honored to walk past the Carson, Pirie Scott store and many of our Chicago landmark buildings, and I go out of my way to experience these structures because they are so incredibly beautiful. There’s never a time where they don’t shine.” (Abrams, Chicago Magazine, 5/1/22)
Think TikTok is Obsessed with Goth Target? Meet Ward Miller; The Chicago native, architect, and executive director of Preservation Chicago on why buildings like the Sullivan Center should be protected, Max Abrams, Chicago Magazine, 5/1/22