Birthplace of Skyscrapers: 5 Inspiring Chicago Architecture


Trace the evolution of the Skyscrapers in Chicago due to Great Chicago fire followed by great architecture works in the late 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century with examples.


Following the mid 19th century, the American preference for the Greek revival began to decline. The Europeans had migrated in large numbers to America which led to war. The need for indigenous architecture prevailed.


  • Chicago was founded in 1837 on a marshy site.
  • Grew rapidly owing to the balloon frame.
  • With the arrival of the railroads, the city of Chicago really started to boom reaching a population of 300,000 in 1870. 

The historical backdrop of Chicago, Illinois, has assumed a significant job throughout the entire existence of the United States. Americans established the city in 1833. The Chicago zone’s written history starts with the appearance of French travelers, teachers and hide dealers in the late seventeenth century.

Consolidated as a city in 1837, Chicago was undeniably arranged to exploit the exchanging prospects made by the country’s westbound development.

1. Birth of skyscrapers

Reasons paved the way for a whole new type of building: the skyscraper, in the 19th century at Chicago:

  • The first was the Development of a Safe Elevator- in 1853, an American inventor named Elisha Graves Otis developed a safety device that kept elevators from falling if a cable should break. This new development had an enormous impact on public confidence. And later in the century, the switch to an electric motor made the elevator a practical solution to the problem of getting up and down tall buildings.
Great Chicago fire
  • Secondly, in 1871, Chicago suffered a devastating fire laying the city in ashes known as Great Chicago fire. The fire destroyed about 17450 buildings and leaving 100,000 people homeless. Besides such a huge loss it provided an opportunity to redesign the city. The reconstruction of this area gave several architects the opportunity to use new techniques in maximizing the usage of the limited space in the central area of the city.

2. Advancement in Techniques:

By the 1880s, the available land for new buildings in this area could not keep up with demand; the only alternative was to build up. But in order to achieve the desired height, construction techniques had to change. A boom of new construction would revitalize the city’s economy and completely transform its skyline.

Two Major modifications in construction techniques:

pile foundation in early skyscrapers

1. Pile Foundation: The comparatively soft earth of Chicago was basically unsuited to heavy buildings.  The problem of building the foundation of the massive walls in such earth was solved by the introduction of piling in the foundation.

2. A Grid Of Steel Beams And Columns: This method of building developed which was strong enough to support any stresses or forces a building might experience, including both the dead and the live loads, as well as the force of wind or even, in some areas, earthquakes.

It burdened foundations with less weight and made it possible to avoid the thick ground-floor walls which had stood in the way of generous shop windows and thus the lucrative rental of ground-floor store space.

Grid Of Steel Beams And Columns in early skyscrapers
Grid Of Steel Beams And Columns

Elevation wise modification in techniques:

  1. The skyscraper’s steel frame took the entire load librating the walls from load-carrying and allowing them to take any form. The wall envelop took only its own weight and wind thrust.
  2. The wall envelop was initially made in brick and later replaced by glass.
  3. The wall envelop could be hung to the frame thus freezing the two components. This made fireproofing the frame easier than when the wall was fused with the frame.

3. Chicago School (Architecture)

Chicago’s architecture is acclaimed all through the world and one style is alluded to as the Chicago School. The style is otherwise called Commercial style.

So far as Modern architecture is concerned, in Chicago the greatest number of significant buildings represented a continuous and unbroken development in high-rise building architecture. Chicago grew faster than any other city in the 19th century, and produced a large number of important architects whose work during the 1880s and 1890s is usually known as the Chicago School.

Louis Sullivan was the most important of these, but William Le Baron Jenney can be regarded as the father of the Chicago School.

Others as Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root, Martin Roche and William Holabird made up the next generation of Chicago architects.

4. Evolution of skyscrapers

skyscraper is a continuously habitable high-rise building that has over 40 floors and is taller than approximately 150 m (492 ft) with the following attributes:

  • Steel frame effectively fire- proofed
  • Elevator as a means of vertical circulation

Historically, the term skyscraper first referred to buildings with 10 to 20 floors in the 1880s. The repetitive pattern made by the floors on the exterior walls was the most common feature of the skyscraper.

Originally, the steel frame was not exhibited on the facade but hidden. It was only gradually that reserves regarding its recognition as an aesthetic element were used. The following options were available:

  1. Emphasis on: horizontality.
  2. Emphasis on: verticality.
  3. Emphasis on: Tri-partite resolution as seen in history with a well-defined base middle and top.
  4. Emphasis on: Centre versus the side and on top versus the bottom.

Chicago School Architecture works:

1. William Le Baron Jenny’s Works

In 1854, William enrolled in Paris’s prestigious Ecole des-Beaux-Arts. William Le Baron Jenney constructed the world’s first completely iron-and-steel-framed building in the 1880s.

First Leiter building, Chicago- 1879

William made a tentative approach to skeleton construction, and the facade was prophetic of the glass curtain wall that became common in the 20th century.

First Leiter building
  • Behind the brick columns, lay the iron pillars that supported the wooden ceiling joists for each floor. It is a seven-floor building consisting of a load-bearing structure.
  • Since the construction featured almost no tension-resistant joints, it cannot be said to possess a true framework. The building does not possess much of ornamentation on its facade.
  • It was a Chicago commercial structure demolished in 1972. The original building was five stories; two stories were added in 1888.
  • The building is rectangular in form measuring 102’ x 82’. The exterior surfaces are painted in light grey.

Second Leiter Building, Chicago- 1889

Built-in 1891 by Levi Leiter, Jenney implemented the skeletal frame made of steel to make the design fireproof.

Second Leiter building
  • The structure is eight floors and occupies the entire block of State Street between Congress Parkway and Van Buren Street. The State Street facade consists of nine bays separated by wide pilasters.
  • The pilasters are capped by simple capitals and an unadorned cornice crowns the entire structure. The Congress and Van Buren facades are three bays wide with measurements of 400 ft (120 m) by 143 ft (44 m).
  • Within each bay are four windows on each floor aligned vertically. The building is faced with pink granite. Each floor contains 50,000 sq ft (4,600 m2) with 16 ft (4.9 m) ceilings and could be divided to house multiple tenants.

Home Insurance Building- 1884-85

Home Insurance building- skyscrapers
Home Insurance Building
  • It was the first building to use structural steel in its frame, but the majority of its structure was composed of cast and wrought iron.
  • It is generally noted as the first tall building to be supported, both inside and outside, by a fireproof metal frame.
  • It originally had 10 stories and stretched138 feet in the air.
  • During its construction, city authorities were so worried that the building would topple over that they halted construction for a period of time to ensure safety.
  • In 1890, two additional floors were added, bringing the total height to 180 feet.

2. HH Richardson’s Works

Henry Hobson Richardson’s Marshall Field Department Store in Chicago (1885-87) is the peak of his architecture, but no longer exists.

The Marshall field Wholesale Store- 1885-87

Following the departure of Leiter, the retail store began to grow in importance.

Marshall field wholesale store- skyscrapers
Tiered design with arched windows resembling Italian palazzo typology (demolished in1930)
  • The Field Wholesale Store appeared to be a single huge block. Since the interior consisted of open loft spaces, Richardson maintained an uninterrupted rhythm of arcades along each side.
  • Instead of historical detail, Richardson used the textured monochromatic surface of the granite and brownstone masonry to provide visual interest, supplemented only by a chamfer at the corners and an enriched terminal cornice.
  • Though structurally the Field building was conservative, with bearing walls and cast iron and wooden columns for internal supports, the visual expression was highly advanced and pointed in a new direction which many critics and architects.

3. William Holabird and Martin Roche’s works

Tacoma Building- 1887-89

Tacoma building- skyscrapers facts
Tacoma building
  • Technological progress and aesthetics did not always coincide. Technically-innovative buildings frequently appeared conservative in their exteriors, while facades which seemed to express new concepts merely concealed conventional stone constructions.
  • The Tacoma Building ultimately looked like the steel skeleton construction which is possessed.
  •  The two facades towards LaSalle Street and Madison Street are true curtain walls.

Republic Building- 1905-09

Skyscrapers of Chicago
Republic Building
  • The wall envelope took only its own weight and wind thrust. It could be hung to the frame thus freeing the two components. Fireproofing could be easily done to frame than when wall fused with the frame.
  • Much of the ornamental detail is influenced by Italian renaissance precedents; the building is finished with light buff terracotta. It has a monumental 3 storey entry. The building is finished with light buff terracotta.

4. Burnham and Root’s Works

Daniel Burnham (1846-1912) and John Wellborn Root (1850-1891), who had worked in Jenney’s office, played a significant role in the development of skeleton building.

Monadnock building- 1984-91

The north half of the building was designed by the firm of Burnham & Root and built starting in 1891.

Monadnock building- skyscapers
Monadnock building with Bay windows
  • Together, the two parts of the building have a frontage of 420 feet (130 m) on Dearborn Street with a depth of 70 feet. The original northern half presents a plain, unbroken vertical mass of purple-brown brick, which is contoured to create a gentle curve at the base of the building and an outward flare to form an austere parapet at the top.
  • The gentle swelling at base and cornice, observed historian Donald Hoffman, “came very close to the bell-shaped column the Egyptians had derived from papyrus”.
  • The corners of the building are gracefully chamfered as they rise to the top and the oriel windows are chamfered at their base. The entryways are small, single-height portals topped with plain stone lintels.

Reliance Building- 1894-95

Reliance building- Chicago skyscrapers
Reliance Building with Chicago School Window grid
  • It is the first skyscraper to have large plate glass windows make up the majority of its surface area, foreshadowing a feature of skyscrapers that would become dominant in the 20th century.
Reliance building windows
Oriel Windows
  • Glass windows and terracotta surfaces dominated on the façade contrasted with the cast iron structure inside.
  • The Chicago window combined the functions of light-gathering and natural ventilation; a single central pane was usually fixed, while the two surrounding panes were operable. These windows were often deployed in bays, known as oriel windows that projected out over the street.

5. Adler and Louis Sullivan’s works

The Auditorium Building was completed in 1889. It was the greatest building in Chicago of the period and one of the most important building complexes of early American architecture.

Auditorium Building- 1886-89

Early skyscrapers
  • It was the greatest building in Chicago of the period. Dankmar Adler and Sullivan worked on the Auditorium Building. A large office building, a hotel, and a theatre combined were required. This was therefore one of the first multi-functional cultural centers.
auditorium building
Inside view of auditorium
  • In the middle was the theatre with its enormous auditorium. It had 6000 seats and was famous for its acoustics. The hotel part is wrapped around two sides of the theatre.
    • The bold sculptural massing,
    • The varying degrees of rustication,
    • The huge arches and
    • The visual expression of inner tension placed the building broadly in a Richardsonian lineage, but the vertical attenuation and flattening of the main shafts and piers anticipated some of Sullivan’s later solutions for tall building.

Guranty Building, Buffalo- 1894-95

  • Sullivan followed the principal divisions of a classical column with a base, shaft, and a capital. In the Guaranty, the first two floors, which contain public spaces, constitute the base; the office areas, the shaft; and the elaborate cornice and row of round windows on the street sides make up the capital.
  • Despite the fact that the interior of the skeleton was filled with identical spatial units, for the first time, it was also expressed in the exterior.
  • Sullivan provided his building with a firm visual base, treated the intermediate office floors as a unit, and crowned the whole with a bold cornice.
  • 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.
  • An intricate weaving of linear and geometric forms with stylized foliage in a symmetrical pattern is the unique element of the Sullivanesque style.

Bonus Story:

After the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and the following financial crisis, Sullivan’s partnership with Adler broke up, and from 1895 onwards he was on his own. From then on, Sullivan was given very few commissions, and in 1924 he died in great poverty. One commission he got during this period, however, resulted in his most important building, the Carson, Pirie and Scott Department Store in Chicago.

Wainwright Building- 1890-91

Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s works

An architectural landmark of international significance is the Wainwright Building, Louis Sullivan’s masterpiece, which marked the beginning of modern skyscraper design.

  • Louis Sullivan solved the problem of previous architects in finding ways for treating a skyscraper. He treated the building like a column.
  • The lower two floors form the base, floors I through 9 a fluted shaft and the ornate frieze and cornice the capital.
  • Despite the classical column concept, the building’s design was deliberately modern, featuring none of the neoclassical style that Sullivan held in contempt.
115 min
  • he ornamentation for the building includes a wide frieze below the deep cornice, which expresses the formalized yet naturalistic celery-leaf foliage typical of Sullivan.
  • The intricate frieze along the top of the building along with the bulls-eye windows.

Carson Pirie Scott Store- 1899-04

  • The building was considered to be quite advanced for its time, with its notably large Chicago style windows and clear geometry and one of the first department stores to be built using steel frame construction.
The corner site is very cleverly used by making the corner of the building round and placing the main entrance there.
  • The new technology allowed for more open and more light-filled retail spaces. The Carson Pirie Scott building emphasizes its horizontality at the north and west facades with long overbearing spandrels, but where the ornamentation culminates at the corner, the soaring piers emphasize the building’s verticality.
  • In the case of the Carson Pirie Scott building, Sullivan considered the ornamentation at the base of the building to be functional in the sense that it would literally attract people into the store.
  • Sullivan also designed the interior rooms, which are subdivided only by slim supports.
  • In 1906, while Sullivan was still alive, Burnham and Co. were commissioned to extend the building with five further units, in Sullivan’s style.
    1. Taken off in 1948, the cornice was re-created from photos as well as drawings that were discovered in a file cabinet at the store.
    2. The 12th floor was totally rebuilt to return the structure to its original design. The recessed windows gracefully accentuate the cornice.
    3. More than 100 pieces of terra cotta—among the thousands that cover the building’s façade—were replicated and replaced.
    4. The many “Chicago windows”—two opening side sashes with a large centre picture pane—were sanded and painted.
    5. The School of the Art Institute’s architecture program has moved into the top floor. State of Illinois offices fill floors 8 through 11.

Thus conclusion:

By the end of 19th century, Chicago becomes the forcing ground of a new synthesis of technology and form. Chicago school began to decline.

By facing industrial realities head-on, and reflecting on the essence of their art, the Chicago architects contributed a major foundation to a more universal ideal, that of the modern architecture.

  • The History of Skyscrapers- A race to the top: By Karen Barss
  • Modern architecture since 1900: By William J.R. Curtis (3rd edition)
  • Tracing the History of the Skyscraper: William Le Baron Jenney, Father of American Skyscraper | 
  • Encyclopedia Britannica by James Francis O’Gorman

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. Excellent blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any recommendations? Bless you!

  2. watch says:

    Appreciation to my father who informed me regarding this weblog, this website is in fact awesome. Brittany Hartley Drain

  3. watch free says:

    Awesome post. I am a regular visitor of your website and appreciate you taking the time to maintain the excellent site. I will be a frequent visitor for a really long time. Alameda Lukas Renelle

  4. movies says:

    Well, as long as Kenzi is happy about it, I can be happy about it, but public exhibition would be a hard limit for me. Love the snippet, though. Very intriguing. Maris Garey Etoile

  5. 720p says:

    Hello! I simply wish to give you a huge thumbs up for your excellent info you have right here on this post. I am returning to your blog for more soon. Eleonora Gilles Rabin

  6. netflix says:

    You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I in finding this topic to be actually something which I believe I’d by no means understand. It sort of feels too complex and extremely huge for me. I’m looking ahead to your subsequent post, I’ll try to get the grasp of it!| Delcina Devy Ceciley

  7. movies says:

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you should publish more about this issue, it might not be a taboo matter but typically people do not talk about such topics. To the next! Kind regards!! Minnnie Pippo Idden