History of Chicago Architecture

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Discover the history of how the city of Chicago rose up from the swampy banks of Lake Michigan to become the innovative proving ground for the world's tallest skyscrapers. Learn about influential architects and their novel styles.

Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Was to Blame

You may have heard the legend of how Chicago's Great Fire of 1871 had started when Mrs. O'Leary's cow knocked over a lantern. The story is as famous in Illinois as the one about Paul Revere's lantern in Massachusetts. While the police never confirmed that it was indeed the cow's fault, the story lives on as a memorial to the devastation caused by a simple accident, and the lessons that can be learned from such senseless destruction.

The Chicago Fire burned for three days and laid waste to three square miles of downtown. It ate through the buildings constructed mostly out of wood, as well as the sidewalks and roads covered in wooden planks. The city burned so hot and so long, it even melted the exposed cast iron of buildings thought to be 'fireproof.' This ironically contributed to the heat and endurance of the blaze.

Aftermath of the 1871 Chicago Fire
Aftermath of the Chicago Fire

The Great Fire of 1871 woke Chicago up to the challenges of urban planning and architecture. The limited space available in downtown and the high cost of land suggested that they could make the best of a bad situation by building up; taking advantage of the real estate of the sky.

The Age of Skyscrapers

Historians and architects refer to the ensuing period as the Age of Skyscrapers. Chicago became a center for architectural experimentation and innovation, home to many buildings that were at one time the tallest in the world. Chicago, the Windy City, faced many of the same restrictions as New York when it came to skyscrapers, limited real estate and heavy winds. In order to build taller and sturdier buildings, these architects applied state-of-the-art engineering and construction processes.

In place of the cast iron that had contributed to the devastating fire, engineers introduced steel. English inventor, Henry Bessemer, patented a modern process for manufacturing steel in 1856, calling it the Bessemer process. It consists of refining raw iron in a hot furnace; removing its impurities to make it into durable steel. The Bessemer process revolutionized engineering and construction. This modern process supplied the United States with an abundant and reliable resource for building railroads and bridges.

Chicago's architects in the 1870s were the first to apply these methods. Modern skyscrapers started to use skeleton frames, or steel interior grids inside the building, as opposed to the nineteenth century external frames of concrete, wood, stone, or cast iron.

Modern skyscraper under construction circa 1912
Modern skyscraper under construction

Schools and Styles

Chicago became home to a community of prominent architects. William Le Baron Jenney, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies became famous for developing innovative methods for erecting taller, more efficient, and more functional buildings. In the process, they contributed to the definition of modern architecture through a number of different styles. Among the many architectural styles found there, Chicago is home to its namesake Chicago School, as well as the International and Prairie School styles.

Louis Sullivan, Carson Pirie Scott Building, 1899
Carson Pirie Scott building

Modern Chicago architecture has its roots in the Jenney, Schermerhorn and Bogart firm, founded in 1867. Architect and engineer William Le Baron Jenney became known as the 'Father of the American Skyscraper' for his early contributions to designing and constructing several important Chicago buildings in the 1870s and 1880s. Jenney and his firm were responsible for providing the foundation for a Commercial Style that departed from traditional nineteenth century architecture. These buildings were taller than others of their time, with less ornamentation on their exterior. They were constructed from steel interior frames that allowed for large plate glass windows.

This style later developed into a full-fledged Chicago School of architecture. In the hands of architects such as Louis Sullivan, the Chicago School became defined as the American standard for tall, sturdy, modern buildings. Sullivan practiced the philosophy of 'form follows function,' omitting decoration from his designs and promoting a practical, clean and strong impression.

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