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Father of the American Sky Scraper and his Clonakilty Roots

He was the acknowledged ‘father of the sky scraper’ and was mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. But influential American architect Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924) also had his paternal ancestry rooted in the West Cork town of Clonakilty. That is according to the naturalization declaration completed by his father, Patrick Sullivan, in Boston in 1849, where he named Clonakilty as his place of birth. (1.)

This small detail is the best and perhaps only source that enables historians to pin down Louis Sullivan’s otherwise obscure Irish origins. Obscure because there was a dislike of or even disdain for those same Irish origins on the part of the 'Form follows Function' architect, and because Louis’ father was the weaver of a fantastic family back story that would not have been out of place in a Thomas Hardy novel.

According to Sullivan’s biographer, Robert Twombly, in his book Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work (University of Chicago Press, 1999), Patrick Sullivan claimed to have been separated at 12 years of age from his father and only parent, a widowed itinerant landscape artist, while they were visiting a Cork fair. He was never to see his father again.

Patrick Sullivan was thus thrown back on his own resources: a small child traveling through 1820s or 1830s Ireland where he danced and played the fiddle to survive. In time he found his way to England and Paris, where he studied dance. From London he sailed to America on a ship called the Unicorn in 1847 and this is the only verifiable part of the story so far.

In his memoir, Autobiography of an Idea (1924), Louis Sullivan wrote at length about his mysterious paternal origins but was unable to tease out fact from legend. There is no baptism matching the approximate year and date of Patrick Sullivan’s birth in Clonakilty Roman Catholic parish records, (24th of December, 1815, according to his naturalization record). The Church of Ireland records for this parish (Kilgarriffe) did not survive the 1922 Dublin fire.

What is known courtesy of Patrick Sullivan’s 1852 Boston marriage record (2.) was that the itinerant landscape artist father was called Jeremiah Sullivan. Disappointingly Patrick’s mother was unnamed in the same document and she remains a mystery.

Unlike most of his countrymen, it appears that Patrick Sullivan came to America with no relations or wider family and nobody from the old sod followed him there. He seemed to have been truly alone in the world until he arrived in Boston. And yet he was 33 years old when he arrived and could easily have been already married in the Old World.

Sullivan set up a dancing and music school at 323 Washington. (3.) His creative livelihood led to marriage in 1852 to 17 year-old Swiss-born Andrienne List, an accomplished musician whose piano playing so enchanted Louis Sullivan in childhood. The couple’s Boston residence was located at 22 South Bennett , where Louis Henri Sullivan was born on September 3rd, 1856.

Biographers of Louis H. Sullivan state that he was without direct descendants. Yet the architect's 1900 Chicago Census return reveals that he and his new wife, Mary Azona (or Margaret) Hattabaugh, whom he married in 1899 aged 42, had a six month old son called Lester Sullivan. (4.)

However, as Paul Sprague points out in his article ‘A New Chapter in the Life of Louis Sullivan: Margaret Hattabough Sullivan and Lester Sullivan’ (Arris, Vol. 13, 2002), this is the last time that Lester appears in official records or in connection with those of either parent . He literally vanishes off the face of the earth after this single 1900 census return.

Thus a second genealogical mystery associated with the Sullivan family unfolds. Sprague attempts to find an explanation for Lester but ultimately draws no firm conclusions due to the lack of available evidence.

But might the two mysteries be in some way connected ?

More to follow on this topic from Historyeye ....

Clonakilty Co. Cork
Clonakilty Co. Cork


(1.)National Archives at Boston; Waltham, Massachusetts; ARC Title: Copies of Petitions and Records of Naturalization in New England Courts, 1939 - ca. 1942; NAI Number: 4752894; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: RG 85

(2.)"Massachusetts State Vital Records, 1841-1920", database with images, FamilySearch ( : 28 December 2022), Patrick Sullivan, 1852.

(3.) Boston, Massachusetts, City Directory, 1853, U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

(4.)"United States Census, 1900", database with images, FamilySearch ( : 13 January 2022), Lester Sullivan in entry for L H Sullivan, 1900.


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