American Architecture Series
Chicago School

History, Characteristics of Early Skyscraper Design, Engineering.

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Wainwright Building, St. Louis,
Missouri (1890-91). Designed by
Adler and Sullivan.

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Chicago School of Architecture (c.1880-1910)


What is the Chicago School of Architecture?
Why Did Skyscraper Design Develop So Fast in Chicago?
What Were the Characteristic Designs of the First Chicago School?
- Foundations
- Steel Frames
- Stylistic Influences: Richardsonian Romanesque and Steel
Who Were the Greatest Architects of the First Chicago School?
- William Le Baron Jenney
- Henry Hobson Richardson
- William Holabird and Martin Roche
- Daniel H Burnham and John Wellborn Root
- Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan
Famous Skyscrapers Designed by The First Chicago School

American Architecture Series
• For a brief introduction, see: American Architecture (1600-present)
• For a general view, see: History of Architecture (3,000 BCE - present)
• For an international view, see: Greatest Architects (1400-2000)

Marshall Field Wholesale Store
(1885-7) Chicago. Designed by
Henry Hobson Richardson.

Home Insurance Company Building
(1884-5) Chicago. Designed by
William Le Baron Jenney.

If you are looking for rare books
on Chicago School architecture,
see: Rare Art Books.

What is the Chicago School of Architecture?

In the history of American art, the term "Chicago School" commonly refers to the groundbreaking skyscraper architecture developed during the period 1879-1910 by the designer-engineer William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907), along with a number of other innovative American architects including William Holabird (1854-1923), Martin Roche (1853-1927), Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912), John Wellborn Root (1850-91), Dankmar Adler (1844-1900), Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). These individuals went on to form some of the most famous firms in 19th century architecture, such as Holabird & Roche, Burnham and Root (later D.H.Burnham and Co), Adler and Sullivan. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who worked for Adler and Sullivan, was another important Chicago building designer but left to focus on domestic design.

Although the phrase "Chicago School" properly identifies the midwest city as the locus of the new developments in high-rise design - Root, Burnham, Adler and Sullivan actually formed the Western Association of Architects in opposition to East Coast architects. - it had no unified or coherent set of principles, and the landmark buildings created by the members of the school used a wide variety of designs, construction techniques and materials.

Later, during the 1940s, a new wave of building design - known today as the Second Chicago School of architecture - appeared in the city. This centred around European Modernism, the work of the ex-Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), as well as his teaching activities at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Closely associated with the "International Style" and its idiom of modern minimalism, which derived in part from the Bauhaus design school, whose founder Walter Gropius also emigrated to the US, the Second Chicago School is famous for structures like the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51), and the Seagram Building (1954-58). The principal firm of architects associated with the Second Chicago School is Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, whose breakthroughs in design and structural engineering during the 1960s, spearheaded by Fazlur Khan (1929-82), confirmed America as the undisputed leader in high-rise 20th-Century architecture and led to a new generation of supertall towers.

Photography was an important
medium of modern art in the
United States, whose urban
practitioners included
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and
Edward Steichen (1879-1973).

Why Did Skyscraper Design Develop So Fast in Chicago?

There were several reasons why Chicago produced such an outstanding group of architects in the 1880s, whose work would have such a profound effect upon high-rise building design. To begin with, the disastrous fire of 1871 coupled with a resurgence of civic pride had (by 1880) led to a building boom. At the same, the city's population was rapidly expanding: by 1890 it totalled more than a million people, surpassing Philadelphia to become the second-biggest city (after New York) in the United States. All this caused a surge in property prices, notably in the Loop area, where landlords were desperately looking for ways to add value to their investment in real estate. Under these conditions, the only feasible way forward was to build upwards. More floors meant more office space to rent and thus more profits. Furthermore, the city of Chicago - already home to inventions like the McCormick reaper, the Pullman sleeping car, and mail-order retailing - was a location where new ideas thrived.

There were two other timely factors which had no connection with the city. First, in the mid-1880s, came the introduction of the electric motor for Elisha Otis's safety elevator. This increased the speed and height of ascent, and led to convenient bush-button controls. Second, the price of steel tumbled - from $166/ton in 1867, to $32/ton in 1895 - which greatly facilitated the adoption of steel-frame designs, which in turn enabled the erection of taller buildings.



What Were the Characteristic Designs of the First Chicago School?


The first design breakthrough by the Chicago School was in the area of structural foundations. It arose largely because Chicago was built on marshy ground, which was unable to support tall buildings. The city's architects solved the problem in stages. As far back as 1873, Frederick Baumann had suggested that each vertical foundation of a building should stand on a wide pad that would distribute its weight more widely over the marshy land. A decade later, Daniel Burnham and John Root incorporated this exact same idea in their Montauk Building (Montauk Block) (1882-83) on West Monroe Street. But this type of foundation took up too much basement space and was only able to support a structure of 10 stories in height. The way forward was provided by Dankmar Adler, who used his experience as a military engineer in the Union army, to devise a foundation "raft" of timbers, steel beams, and iron I-beams. An idea used successfully in the construction of Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium Building (1889). Adler made a final improvement in 1894 when he invented a type of underground, watertight foundation structure for the Chicago Stock Exchange which quickly became the template foundation for skyscrapers across the United States.

Steel Frames

The first series of high-rises in both New York and Chicago - including the Tribune Building (1873-5) designed by Richard Morris Hunt, and the Auditorium Building (1889), by Adler and Sullivan - had traditional load-bearing walls of stone and brick. Unfortunately, these could not support supertall structures, a problem which stimulated Chicago School designers to invent a metal skeleton frame - first used in Jenney's Home Insurance Building (1884) - that enabled the construction of real skyscrapers. A metal frame was virtually fireproof and, since the walls no longer carried the building's weight, enabled architects to use thinner curtain walls, thus freeing up more usable space. The same applied to the exterior walls, which could now be replaced by glass, reducing the amount of electrical lights required. An important European influence in the use of metal skeletal frames, was the French architect Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79).

Stylistic Influences: Richardsonian Romanesque and Steel

To complement the technical and structural advances made, Chicago architects invented a new set of skyscraper aesthetics, the impetus for which emanated from two totally different sources.

The first was the architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Although a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Richardson rejected its credo that French Neoclassical architecture embodied the ultimate design-standard. Instead, he preferred the more rugged Romanesque art of southern France, upon which he based the Marshall Field Warehouse (1885-7), whose harmonious massiveness completely altered Louis Sullivan's design of his famous Auditorium Building (1889). Sullivan's original drawing showed an eclectic structure with a high, gabled roof. In response to the Marshall Field Warehouse, Sullivan destroyed his original designs and replaced them with a restrained Romanesque structure with a single massive tower. "Richardsonian Romanesque" also influenced Solon S. Beman (1853-1914) in his design of both the brick and granite Pullman Building (1883) and the Fine Arts Building (1885), and Burnham & Root's design for the Rookery Building (1885-87). But perhaps the greatest master of Romanesque skyscraper design was Sullivan - notably in his interior of the Auditorium Building and the entrance to the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (1893-94) - although he was the first to embrace the new vertical shape entailed by buildings that for trhe first time had greater height than width. (See below for more about Sullivan's modern aesthetic.)

The second source of stylistic inspiration for the modern art created by the First Chicago School, stemmed from the nature of their prime building material: steel. The physical attributes of this crucial material lent themselves to the creation of the sinuous curve, an outcome which made it a perfect match for the fashionable style known as Art Nouveau, which flourished in both Europe and America, and which was a feature of both the Rookery Building and Chicago Stock Exchange. [See, for instance, the use of iron and steel by European Art Nouveau architects such as Victor Horta (1861-1947) and the Frenchman Hector Guimard (1867-1942). See also the use of wrought-iron in the design of the Eiffel Tower (1887-89, by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923).] Steel also facilitated the emergence of the right angle, boldly expressed in Holabird and Roche's 13-story Tacoma Building (1889). This idiom was also an important factor in the upper floors of Adler & Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building, and most exquisitely in the sense of the sharp edges of the steel frame lying just beneath the thin, terracotta and glass walls of Burnham & Root's Reliance Building (1895).

The Chicago World Fair of 1893 signalled the end of the city's dominance in skyscraper design, although its reputation would soon be restored with the emergence of the Second Chicago School during the 1940s, due to the arrival of Bauhaus ideology, and later in the work of Mies van der Rohe and his followers, along with the outstanding multi-disciplinary achievements of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), formed in Chicago in 1936 by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings.

Who Were the Greatest Architects of the First Chicago School?

William Le Baron Jenney

A highly successful architect and the first Professor of Architecture (1876-77) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, William Le Baron Jenney influenced a generation of pupils and apprentices, some of whom became famous across America, including Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, William Holabird, and Martin Roche. He is best-known for designing the 10-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago (1884-85), the first high-rise in America to use a metal frame rather than stone and brick. This landmark structure influenced numerous architects, including Edward Baumann and Harris W. Huehl who designed the Chicago Chamber of Commerce Building (1888-9), whose interior light court extended the entire height of the building. Jenney also pioneered the use of terracotta and iron to reduce the risk of skyscraper fires.

Henry Hobson Richardson

Jenney's younger contemporary, Henry Hobson Richardson, favoured lithic structures with load-bearing walls like his Trinity Church, Boston (1873) rather than Jenney's steel frame. Even so, his masterpiece - the Marshall Field Wholesale Store (1885–1887, demolished 1930) - had a huge influence on the development of Chicago School building facades, notably those of Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan. Borrowing elements from both Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, this monumental structure emphasized form rather than ornamentation. Its multi-storied windows, for instance, topped by semicircular arches, lent the structure a beautiful, unified appearance.

William Holabird and Martin Roche

The architectural partnership of Holabird, Simonds & Roche was founded in Chicago in 1880, by Holabird, Roche and the landscape architect Ossian Cole Simonds (1855–1931), all former trainees under Jenney. After Simonds left, it became Holabird & Roche. Its most important skyscraper projects included the Tacoma Building (completed 1889; demolished 1929), the Marquette Building (1895), the three Gage Group Buildings (1899) (at 18, 24 and 30 S. Michigan Avenue), and the Chicago Savings Bank Building (1904-5). In addition, Holabird and Roche designed a number of large, opulent hotels across America, including the Muehlebach Hotel (1915), Palmer House Hotel (1925) and Stevens Hotel (1927).

Daniel H Burnham and John Wellborn Root

Root was born in Lumpkin, Georgia. Burnham was born in Henderson, New York, but grew up in Chicago. Of the two, Root had a better formal education, with preparatory schooling in Liverpool, England, and a degree in civil engineering from New York University; he also worked as an unpaid apprentice in the firm of James Renwick (1818-95), one of the great champions of 19th century Gothic architecture. Burnham's scholarship was less impressive than his social, artistic and managerial talents, and he was rejected by both Harvard and Yale universities. Yet, his sketching was good enough to get him work in Jenney's office and later in the firm of Peter B. Wight, both busily engaged in rebuilding Chicago after the fire of 1871. In Wight's office, Burnham met John Root, and the two formed a partnership in 1873. They began by designing private houses for the barons of Chicago's meat industry. The fact that both young men married into wealthy families also helped them to establish the necessary contacts among the midwest elite.

Both men sensed the differing but reciprocal qualities of talent and temperament that, when integrated, would form the ideal partnership. Amiable, quick-witted and brilliant among friends, Root was shy and reserved in public. Unless guided and stimulated, he also tended to procrastinate. Burnham, on the other hand, toughened by his earlier failures, had grown increasingly determined, aggressive and persuasive and ultimately became the chief office administrator and liaison with clients. He was also, Root acknowledged, mainly responsible for the planning and layout of most of the firm's buildings and served as a perceptive critic of the architectural designs, which both partners considered Root's special domain. Their respective views of architectural design were also different: Root greatly admired the Romanesque idiom of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), while Burnham was influenced by European Beaux-Arts and neoclassical architecture.

During their 18-year partnership, Burnham and Root built hotels, railway stations, stores, warehouses, schools, hospitals, churches and more than 200 private residences and apartment buildings. Yet, their greatest achievements were the tall office buildings, or skyscrapers.

Burnham and Root's Most Famous Buildings

Although Burnham and Root built numerous metal-cage, steel-framed buildings in the late 1880s and 1890s, their most famous skyscrapers, ironically, were three wall-bearing structures, all built in Chicago for the developers Peter and Shepherd Brooks. The 10-story Montauk Block (1882-83) was virtually without traditional historical references, predicting in its stern obeisance to functionalism much of the ethic and aesthetic of the subsequent Modern movement. Its design incorporated Root's floating raft system of interlaced steel beams, which kept the building stable in Chicago's notoriously marshy ground. The Rookery (1885-87) was a more consciously elaborate building with Root's lush ornament highlighting the Romanesque stylistic references. Its logical internal plan, attributed to Burnham, with four connecting wings surrounding a light court, would long serve as a model for skyscraper layout. (Its lobby was remodelled in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright.) The stark, dark Monadnock Building (1889-91) divested itself of ornament even more explicitly than the Montauk. Despite the anachronism, demanded by the client, of its dramatically flared, wall-bearing structure, the Monadnock would become another canonical monument of Modernism. Another of the firm's important structures was the Rand McNally Building, completed 1890 but demolished 1911, which was the world's first ever steel-framed skyscraper. In San Francisco, Burnham and Root's Mills Building (1890-91) reflected a significant synthesis of the essential skyscraper elements: steel frame, four-winged plan around a central light court and orderly Chicago School proportions, as accented by Root's exuberant ornament.

D.H.Burnham and Company

Before Root's premature death from pneumonia in 1891, the firm had made preliminary plans for the elegant Reliance Building, also in Chicago, which Burnham completed with Charles Atwood in 1894. He also completed several other designs begun by Root including the 21-story Masonic Temple Building (1892). Burnham was also left to choreograph the epochal World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (whose Beaux-Arts image ironically signalled the decline of the Chicago School) and to pilot the firm, reconstituted as D.H.Burnham and Company. Burnham's work over the next 20 years would make continuing contributions to skyscraper architecture - notably the iconic Flatiron Building (1901-3) in New York - and urban planning. His grand vision for Chicago as a "Paris on the Prairie", along with his interest in art in general and the classical revival in particular, gave impetus to the City Beautiful movement, whose principles were reflected in the 1909 "Plan of Chicago", the 1902 plan for the renewal of the Mall area of Washington DC, and in the urban plans for Cleveland (1903) and San Francisco (1905). Yet, Burnham never found a replacement for Root in what had indeed been an ideal partnership. He died in a car crash in 1912 while on holiday in Germany.

Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan

During its 12 years of existence (1883-95), the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan left an imprint on urban public art far beyond the American Midwest. Dankmar Adler led the movement to license architects, with the result that the first registration act was passed in Illinois in 1897. Louis Sullivan became the first American architect to produce a modern style of architecture and the first architect anywhere to revolutionize skyscraper aesthetics and give a stylish unity to the tall building. The pair were also early employers and mentors of Frank Lloyd Wright, who revered both men for decades.

Adler, born in Germany, emigrated with his parents first to Detroit and then to Chicago. After training in architectural offices in both cities, he became a practicing architect in Chicago during the 1870s. Sullivan joined him in 1882 as a minor partner. Full partnership came in 1883, when Adler and Sullivan was founded. Adler's father was the rabbi of an important Chicago congregation, and many of the firm's clients came from the Jewish community in Chicago.

Born in Boston, Sullivan was the son of artistic parents and was drawn to the arts at a young age. His formal education was restricted to one year in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another year in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Work in architectural offices in Philadelphia and New York provided the finishing touches. Known today as the "father of the modern skyscraper" and regarded, along with H.H.Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright, as one of the great threesome of American architecture, Sullivan early on stated his determination to create a "modern" style of architecture, with buildings that were largely original in form and detail instead of being dependent for inspiration on historic styles, like Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or Neoclassicism.

Auditorium Building

The results of his ambition are exemplified in several projects which began in the mid-1880s. First, in keeping with Adler and Sullivan's initial reputation as theater architects, came the Auditorium Building (1886-89), a building which incorporated not only a magnificent 4,000-seat theater, but also The Auditorium Hotel, plus a 17-floor office building with ground level commercial storefronts. It was the Auditorium Building that put Chicago on the cultural map, elevating the city's profile sufficiently to enable it to host the World Fair of 1893.

Wainwright Building

This was followed by the Wainwright Building, (1890-91), a steel-frame skyscraper built for Ellis Wainwright in St. Louis. For this building, Sullivan devised a scheme for unifying the fronts of a building that was taller than it was wide. By abandoning historic styles, most of which had been developed for buildings that were wider than tall, Sullivan was free to manipulate his materials in an original way that achieved aesthetic unity. This he achieved in the Wainwright by knitting together thin, vertical piers and textured, horizontal spandrels into an integrated architectural fabric.

Adler the Structural Engineer

Adler made these designs possible by his efficient and forward-looking management of the firm's business affairs, for he secured the clients and encouraged them to build Sullivan's unusual designs. As outlined above, he also took charge of the mechanical and structural aspects of design. Together they worked as an effective design team that produced numerous architectural milestones, especially between 1888 and 1895, including - in addition to the above-mentioned Auditorium and Wainwright Buildings - the Getty Tomb (1890-91), the Schiller Theater Building (1891-93), the Palazzo-style Guaranty Building (Prudential Building) Buffalo (1894), and the Chicago Stock Exchange building (1893-94) - whose trading floor is now preserved at the Art Institute of Chicago. Another of their masterpieces was the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Department Store Building (1899), complete with Art Nouveau ironwork by the entrance.

Sullivan's Modern Aesthetics

Of all the architects associated with the Chicago School, it was Louis Sullivan who first rose to the challenge of creating a new "modern" aesthetic for high-rise towers. He did so by accepting the new but inevitable rectangular box-like shape created by the steel frame, and adopting the credo "form follows function" - meaning, practical matters determine shape. He therefore gave his buildings a new image - one that recalled the classical tripartite division associated with the classic column of Greek and Roman architecture, namely base, shaft, and capital - while simplifying the appearance of the building by using vertical bands to draw the eye upwards. But although his "modern" structures with their simplified vertical aesthetics paved the way for the next wave of modernist architecture - a late 1920s style heavily influenced by the Bauhaus School in Weimar led by Walter Gropius, which became known as the International Style of modern architecture - they also displayed an equally modern type of ornament. This decoration would later be rejected by the International Style architects who sought a modern style entirely devoid of historical precedents. Sullivan's designs are thus more properly seen as a bridge between the stylistic Romanesque architecture of 19th century skyscrapers, and the clean, unadorned lines of 20th century modernism.

Without Adler, it is unlikely that Sullivan could have achieved what he did; and without Sullivan, Adler would probably be virtually unknown today. Yet, in 1895 they dissolved their partnership for reasons still not fully explained.

In the following years, neither architect received many commissions. Adler died in 1900, but Sullivan endured a 20-year-long decline, plagued by financial problems and alcoholism. He managed to obtain a few commissions for a number of small-town midwestern banks and, at the same time explained his ideas and goals in a series of books - Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings (revised 1918), The Autobiography of an Idea (1924) and A System of Architectural Ornament According to a Philosophy of Man's Powers (1924). One lasting contribution of his style was that it provided the basis for the modern architectural idiom developed by his student Frank Lloyd Wright. Sadly, Sullivan died in poverty in a Chicago hotel room, at the age of 67.

Famous Skyscrapers Designed by The First Chicago School

Here is a short chronological list of the most important high-rise buildings associated with the First Chicago School of architecture, together with the architects responsible. Unless indicated, all structures are located within the windy city.

- First Leiter Building (1879) William Le Baron Jenney
- The Montauk Building (Montauk Block) (1882-83) Burnham and Root
- Pullman Building (1883) Solon S. Beman
- Home Insurance Building (1884) William Le Baron Jenney
- Marshall Field Warehouse (Chicago) (1885-7) H.H.Richardson.
- Rookery Building (1885-87) Burnham and Root
- Chamber of Commerce Building (1888-9) Edward Baumann & Harris W. Huehl.
- Tacoma Building (Chicago) (1889) Holabird & Roche
- Second Leiter Building (1889-91) William Le Baron Jenney
- Auditorium Building (1889) Adler and Sullivan
- Reliance Building (1890-95) John Root and Charles B. Atwood
- Rand McNally Building (1890) Burnham and Root
- Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri (1890-91) Adler and Sullivan
- Monadnock Building (Monadnock Block) (1889-91) Burnham and Root
- Schiller Theatre Building (Garrick Theater) (1891-93) Adler and Sullivan
- Chicago Stock Exchange Building (1893-94) Adler and Sullivan
- Prudential Building (Guaranty Building) Buffalo (1894) Adler and Sullivan
- Marquette Building (1895) Holabird & Roche
- Fisher Building (1895-6) Designed by Charles Atwood, D.H.Burnham & Co
- Sullivan Center (Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company Building) (1899) Sullivan
- Gage Group Buildings (1899) (at S. Michigan Avenue) Holabird & Roche
- Flatiron Building, New York (1901-3) D.H.Burnham & Company
- Heyworth Building (1904) D.H.Burnham & Company
- Chicago Building (Chicago Savings Bank Building) (1904-5) Holabird & Roche
- Brooks Building (1909-10) Holabird & Roche

Earlier American Architects

For more biographies of designers active in America during the colonial era and the early-mid 19th century, please use these resources:

Greek Revival Style
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820)

Neoclassicist Style
William Thornton (1759-1828)
Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)

Gothic Revival Style
Richard Upjohn (1802-78)

Beaux-Arts Architecture
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

• For more about skyscraper design in the United States, see: Homepage.

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