Thomas Sully was born in Mississippi City, Mississippi, November 24th, 1855. He lived for a time in New Orleans and then moved to Austin, TX to study architecture with the Larmour and Wheelock firm. He opened his own architectural firm in 1881 in New Orleans, and from 1889-1893 he joined Albert Toledano to create the Sully and Toledano firm. During this period architecture was well into a transition from Greek Revival and Italianate to Renaissance Revival and Victorian, and Thomas Sully’s work reflects this change. (Here are some of the highlights.)
In 1883 Sully was contracted by Simon Hernsheim, a wealthy tobacco supplier, to design his home at 3811 St. Charles Avenue. This house was originally designed in the Italianate style of the day and is the only one of Sully’s Italianate style homes still standing today. This building was badly damaged in a hurricane in 1915 which resulted in the loss of its tower and arcade. Colonial revival columns were added during repairs and this building is now known as the Columns Hotel.
In 1884 Tomas Sully designed the New Orleans National Bank, located at 201 Camp Street. This building has elements of the Romanesque style including: rusticated stone first level, brick upper levels which are decorated with pilasters, a modillion course in the cornice, and many examples of carved decorations from the faces on the capitals of the pilasters to the rinceau (foliage motifs). The dormers are particularly decorative, with two arched windows surrounded by pilasters and pediment that contain carvings of leaves that are topped with finials that resemble torches ablaze.
Confederate Memorial Hall was designed by Sully in 1890 for Frank T. Howard, as a place to house the Louisiana Historical Association and Confederate artifacts. As it was located next to the Richardsonian Romanesque styled Howard Library, this new building was designed in much of the same manner, with rustic stone details applied to a mostly brown brick building. Carved terra cotta details are reminiscent of the New Orleans National Bank, discussed above. It should be noted that the arched portico and tower were added in almost 20 years later, by the Stone Brothers firm.
In 1893, Sully designed the Maritime building, located at 201 Carondelet Street. This building is considered New Orleans’s first skyscraper which at 10 stories was the city’s tallest building from 1895-1904. As is common to many buildings in New Orleans, this building rests on Cyprus pilings. This building uses new ideas and technologies associated with the Chicago School of Commercial Structures shown through the use of steel frame construction and inclusion of bay windows. Decorative features are a mix of old and new: Greek Key framing of windows speak to the Greek Revival moment in America, but the medallion decorations and terra cotta wreath carvings suggest Beaux arts style that was becoming popular in America during this period.
Opening in 1896, the third St. Charles Hotel was designed by Thomas Sully. As the first two buildings of the same name had burned attempts were made to make this building less flammable. As with the Maritime building, a steel frame was used for support but like his earlier New Orleans National Bank, this building featured elements of Italian renaissance design including heavy decorative cornice. This great building was demolished in 1974, and this spot is currently occupied by Place St. Charles.
His work was not limited to commercial buildings, he also designed houses. Two homes that he designed are now used as Bed and Breakfasts. The Tomas Sully Bed and Breakfast (2631 Prytania Street) and the Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast (2727 St Charles Avenue) were built in 1890 and 1893 just blocks from each other and can give visitors an impression of what it was like to live during this period. He designed a few homes that he actually lived in as well, such as 4010 St. Charles Avenue, 1305 South Carrollton Avenue, and 7 Richmond Place.
Thomas Sully died on March 14, 1939 in his home in the Uptown area. His career was unparalleled by anyone else in this period, and the versatility of his design skills can catch a researcher off guard. From the Italianate homes in his early career to the larger monumental projects such as the St. Charles Hotel, Thomas Sully proved his adaptability in a changing world.