Guaranty Building - Table of Contents ............Louis Sullivan - Table of Contents

History - The Guaranty Building

(formerly the Prudential Building)
28 Church Street, Buffalo, New York
National Historic Landmark

This building is world famous for two reasons:
1 - It has great historical value because it is an early skyscraper (the last building designed by Adler and Sullivan), and
2 - The interior and exterior Art Nouveau ornamentation is aesthetically exquisite.

Constructed by the Guaranty Construction Company of Chicago in 1895-96, the building was refinanced by the Buffalo Prudential Insurance Company in 1898, and the new owners altered the fašade by adding its name.

"Architecture Since 1900"
Art History Teaching Resources

(online June 2016)

Industrially produced iron and steel first began to see widespread use in architecture in the nineteenth century, decreasing overall costs and offering new opportunities to create large-scale and creative building projects. A good place to start, as a transition to the twentieth century, is Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Trust Building (1894–5) in Buffalo, New York. Given the expansion of American cities and the premium this created on land, the logical conclusion was to start building upwards - made possible by improvements in iron and steel and the invention of the modern passenger elevator in 1852.

An American architect, Sullivan was one of the first to experiment with skyscrapers in the US - this being a significant example. At the end of the nineteenth century, a skyscraper was considered to be a building with an internal metal structure that supported the exterior masonry. Some of the first attempts were only ten floors high, different than the soaring skyscraper conception we have now.

Here, Sullivan was not obviously referring to or reviving an historical style. Instead, he was trying to find a new, unique modern style to foreground these new, industrial materials and the functions and technologies of the building itself. His famous credo “form follows function” exemplified his belief that a building’s interior function should determine its exterior without extraneous design components. Despite this mantra, his building still displays decoration and includes some references to past architectural styles - most noticeably in the building’s cornice - but nonetheless marks a transition from away from a total historical design.

While not immediately apparent, the Guaranty Trust Building has a lot of natural and geometric detailing, influenced in part by Art Nouveau. The pattern unifies the fašade while emphasizing the terracotta sheathing over the metal skeleton of the building. Sullivan understood that a building with several floors has a lot of horizontal layers, so he used the decoration to emphasize his building’s verticality. With the massive cornice on its top tier, this building’s exterior organization is often compared to the tripartite design of a classical column - with a base, piers, and an attic - thus still referencing an historical precedent (if only slightly).

Although Sullivan still included decoration, his pared-down building style greatly influenced many architects in the twentieth century, where the material form and structural function of architecture would take precedence. As early as the 1890s, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos began calling for less decoration in architecture, a stance codified in his widely influential essay “Ornament and Crime” of 1908. Loos felt that an aesthetic of the Machine Age, rather than an organic or historical style, was more appropriate for modern architecture.

"Prudential" VS. "Guaranty"

The building was intended to be named after Hascal L. Taylor (1830-1894), the Buffalonian who commissioned Dankmar Adler (1844-1900) and Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) to build what he wanted to be "the largest and best office building in the city." Unfortunately, he died in November of 1894 just before construction plans were to be publicly announced.

The Guaranty Construction Company of Chicago, which was to construct the building for Taylor, bought the property and completed the project. Construction began in 1895, and the Guaranty Building was occupied on March 1, 1896. It was renamed the Prudential Building about two years after it was completed at the time of refinancing though the Prudential Insurance Company.

Historical Setting

As American cities and industry grew, so did office buildings, which wanted to be in the thick of things, and that meant an urban setting. Owners of such buildings, therefore, wanted to get the most out of crowded. valuable downtown sites. This. in turn, created a demand for taller buildings.

Historically, there were two limitations that restricted the height of buildings.

  • One involved vertical transportation, which was solved in the 1860s by the invention of the modern elevator.
  • The second concerned the structural system. which limited building heights by the number of stones or bricks that could be stacked on top of one another without having impracticably thick walls. By 1890, steel was being mass produced. and it permitted a strong, slender skeleton that could support itself, the weight of many floors, and a thin, light curtain wall for weatherproofing.

The remaining challenge was to make the end result aesthetically pleasing. Louis Sullivan was the first with the best solution. His skyscrapers looked tall, proud. and soaring.

Buffalo's Prudential and St. Louis's Wainwright

Most architectural historians consider Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building, along with his Wainwright Building in St. Louis, his greatest architectural achievements in office buildings.

Louis Sullivan called the Prudential Building a "sister" to his prototype skyscraper, the Wainwright Building (1890-1892) in St. Louis, both designed within the decade following William Le Baron Jenney's Home Insurance Building (1884) in Chicago, the first tall, metallic-framed structure. With the Wainwright, Sullivan first expressed the essential nature of the new tall buildings - the power of their verticality.

With these two structures Sullivan established the basic form of the American skyscraper. He seems to have followed the principal divisions of a classical column with a base, a shaft, and a capital.

  • In the Guaranty, the first two floors, which contain public spaces, constitute the base;

  • the office areas, the shaft (vertical shafts of piers soar uninterrupted past multiple, uniform office floors)

  • and the elaborate cornice and row of round oculus windows on the street sides make up the capital.

Using the narrow piers to give an upward thrust to the building, Sullivan created the archetype of the modern skyscraper, a column holding up or "scraping" the sky.

The Prudential, his most mature skyscraper, is a glorious refinement of the Wainwright. Its ruddy terra-cotta facade is embellished with Sullivan's rich foliage and geometric ornament, some of which (most of the exterior cladding except for the cornice) was detailed by George Grant Elmslie, Adler and Sullivan's chief draftsman. (The modeling was done by Christian Schneider)

Prudential / Guaranty Building

The Guaranty was one of the first steel-supported, curtain-walled buildings in the world, and its thirteen stories made it, at the time it was built, the tallest building in Buffalo.

Terra cotta: Sullivan's lively reddish brown
terra cotta ornament adorns the piers, spandrels, tympani, columns, and arches of the Guaranty Building, giving the structure an exuberance and personality that remind one that Sullivan's father was an Irish dancing master. The designs seem to be derived from American nature forms and perhaps from the Celtic Book of Kells.

The main motif is a kind of oval pod or seed shape, which Sullivan used to suggest man's potential for spiritual and creative growth. The pod is sometimes superimposed on a rectangle and connected to it with stem-like filaments. It recurs profusely in the interior of the building, in the stairway balustrades, the elevator cages, the letter drops, and the Tiffany-like art glass ceiling. The swirling lines and the opalescent glass also reveal Sullivan's interest in
Art Nouveau.

Lightwell: The Pearl Street lobby features a skylight adjacent to the elevators. In the original U-shaped building design, the elevators and the skylight filled the "cutout" section of the U shape, with offices receiving light from either the outside of the building or the interior lightwell. The lightwell is about 30' wide with a depth of about 68'. The lightwell was infilled in the 1980 restoration, adding an additional 1,400 square feet of office space. The lobby skylight is now artificially backlit (above the skylight).

Elevators: The original Sprague Gear Driven electric elevators were so bad that they were replaced in 1903 with water hydraulic ones.

Lavatories: Most of the offices from 2-12 had their own "lavatory" a sink with both hot and cold running water. These features were not unique but somewhat uncommon


  • Harry G. Meyer, consultant

  • Classic Buffalo: A Heritage of Distinguished Architecture

  • "Designated Landmarks of the Niagara Frontier," by Austin M. Fox. Buffalo: Meyer Enterprises, P.O. Box 733, Ellicott Station, Buffalo, New York 14205. 1986. OUT OF PRINT.

  • Buffalo Architecture: A Guide, by Francis R. Kowsky, et. al. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981

My research indicates that footers were first  being poured in April  1895. Although demolition of previously existing structures obviously started before then, title to the premises  was not actually conveyed by the bank acting as executor under  the Will of Hascal Taylor until February 2, 1895  (deed signed, acknowledged and recorded then).  The bank was  fairly tough in negotiations and extracted an option extension fee before then, so I question whether they would have allowed early entry in 1894  to start demo work.
Secondly, the first two owners of the completed building were  The Guaranty Building Company and The Prudential Building Company.   The shareholders in the first entity included Adler and Sullivan and various other firms or individuals, but control was effectively in the hands of the Guaranty Construction Company and its President, George Moulton.  Other shareholders included North Western Terra Cotta, Tiffany Pressed Brick Company and East Tennessee Stone Marble.
Prudential Insurance was a tenant of and a lender for the Building,  but never an owner.   The Building’s name was changed to The Prudential Building in 1898 when the insurance company refinanced the building at a slightly lower combined interest rate. George Moulton was the President of The Guaranty Building Company  and initially held the same position in the successor owner, The Prudential Building Company  which was incorporated in October 1900, and took title by a Deed dated in October but not recorded in Erie County until November 7, 1900.   I believe that The Prudential Building Company was formed to “take out” some of the minority stockholders, although the corporation’s stock record book, which apparently is now with the Chicago Art Institute would provide a more complete picture.
Finally, Hodgson Russ LLP does not itself directly own the Building, rather it does through an LLC, of  which it is the sole owner.
- Harry G. Meyer


Excerpts from
Chicago Ceramics and Glass
by Sharon S. Darling

Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, IL, 1979

Terra cotta (Latin for "burnt earth") had been used as a building material in other parts of the world since ancient times, but it was not employed for architectural purposes in America until the early 1870s, when the country's first architectural terra cotta factory was established in Chicago. Here rapid rebuilding after the Great Fire, technological progress, and architectural innovations - the same combination of factors that encouraged the widespread use of ornamental glass in private and public buildings - also stimulated experimentation and, in time, extensive use of architectural terra cotta in the city.

Taking advantage of steam-powered machinery, nearby clay deposits, and Chicago's excellent transportation network, local terra cotta manufacturers quickly created a thriving industry.

Adler & Sullivan

During a productive fifteen-year association, lasting from 1880 through 1895, Dankmar Adler became known for his technical ingenuity while Louis H. Sullivan earned praise for his imaginative decorative designs. During the mid-1880s when Adler & Sullivan were establishing their architectural practice, the buildings they designed often featured terra cotta ornament.

Sullivan, who was primarily responsible for the ornamentation, favored conventionalized motifs derived from botanical forms. For example ... the Troescher Building on South Market Street (demolished 1978), and ... the Ruben house on South Ashland Avenue - both designed in 1884 - displayed angular floral abstractions, incorporating shells and snake-like spirals.

But in the course of the next few years Sullivan's botanical motifs gradually became more natural and luxuriant, taking the form of elongated buds, sinuous tendrils, and sharply pointed leaves.

A further evolution of Sullivan's style of terra cotta ornamentation became evident in the early 1890s as geometrical forms began to supplement the botanical motifs. For example, the Schiller Theatre Building ... featured large geometrical forms intertwined with small clusters of curly leaves in light brown terra cotta ....

George Grant Elmslie

Adler & Sullivan's Guaranty Building's ruddy terra-cotta facade is embellished with Sullivan's rich foliage and geometric ornament, some of which (most of the exterior cladding except for the cornice) was detailed by George Grant Elmslie, Adler and Sullivan's chief draftsman. (The modeling was done by Christian Schneider)

--- George Grant Elmslie,

Christian Schneider

A man of essential importance to the execution of the delicate terra cotta ornament incorporated in many Purcell & Elmslie buildings was not employed directly by the firm but by the American Terra Cotta and Ceramics Company owned by W. D. Gates.

Sculptor Christian Schneider had modeled much of the terra cotta and iron work designed by Louis Sullivan and George Elmslie since 1892, and he excelled as no other person in translating their delicate, two dimensional drawings into the three dimensional forms of clay and metal. Almost all of the best terra cotta ornament designed by the Purcell firms passed through his gifted hands. The distinction between his abilities and those of other sculptors can be seen by comparing his work with that done after Schneider left the terra cotta company, when the modeling became visibly less sensitive.

-- Purcell and Elmslie, Architects

2004-05:.. New owners, Hodgson Russ law firm, restore exterior. Work done by Flynn Battaglia Architects.
..2005-06:.. Hodgson Russ law firm restore interior.

Original plans    ...    Note US Weather Bureau office in upper right

 Weather Bureau office

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index... .|....E-Mail ...| ..