The Chicago Schools: American Architecture at its Best

 

The two “Chicago Schools” of architecture have had a profound influence on architecture in the rest of America. After the Great Chicago Fire in the late 1800s, the city had to be rebuilt from the ground up, which made it a hot-bed of architectural innovation.

If you want to learn more about the history of the architecture in this great city, it’s easy to find tours while you’re in Chicago that will take you past all of the city’s architectural highlights and share fun information and facts about the important features.

In addition to its modern exterior, Chicago has a host of architectural gems from the early 20th century.

In addition to its modern exterior, Chicago has a host of architectural gems from the early 20th century.

The Chicago School and the Second Chicago School

The Chicago School was an architectural style that reached its peak around the turn of the 20th century. This was when some of the first steel-frame construction architecture was created and this is why Chicago is referred to as the “birthplace of the skyscraper.”

The term “Chicago School” is actually in dispute by architecture scholars, however, as the term suggests that there was a unified aesthetic to the buildings, but in actuality they were really quite diverse in terms of their techniques and styles. An alternative term that has been used is “Commercial Style,” which refers to the innovative tall commercial buildings of the era. These buildings are characterized by their steel-frame construction with terra cotta or masonry cladding. They also contain elements of Neo-Classical style within them, such as echoes of the classic column. These skyscrapers also employ the use of the “Chicago window”, which is a window divided into three parts with a large center panel alongside two smaller sash windows.

The later “Second Chicago School” emerged in the 1940s and 1970s when new building technologies were available and is known for pioneering the use of the tube-frame structure in buildings. This allowed architects to design taller buildings and allowed for fewer interior columns so that they could include more floor space.

[Also see our travel article “Barcelona: The City of ‘God’s Architect’“]

Examples of Chicago School Buildings

While in Chicago, architecture buffs should take the time to visit a few of these impressive examples of Chicago-Style innovation.

The Sullivan Center

This building was designed by famous Chicago architect Louis Henri Sullivan and is thought to be one of the best examples of the early modern architectural style. It has all of the features of the classic Chicago skyscraper, from the Chicago windows to the cast-iron decoration and the rounded entry way on the corner of Madison and State Streets.

The Sullivan Center was built in 1903 and designed by architect Louis H. Sullivan. Photo credit Chicago Architecture Today.

The Sullivan Center was built in 1903 and designed by architect Louis H. Sullivan. Photo credit Chicago Architecture Today.

The Reliance Building

This iconic building was completed in 1895 and it was the very first skyscraper in the world to have most of its surface area made up of large plate-glass windows. This is a feature that is in almost every skyscraper that is built today, but at the time it was revolutionary. The building is now home to the Hotel Burnham and is a designated National Historic Landmark.

The Gage Group Buildings

These buildings are certifiable Chicago Landmarks and demonstrate the difference in style between Holabird & Roche and Sullivan, the two leading architecture firms at the time. The buildings by Holabird & Roche are constructed in a very straightforward and streamlined style, while the Sullivan building has a very expressive exterior.

The Gage Group Buildings date back to 1899 and have contrasting styles. Photo credit Michael / CC BY-SA.

The Gage Group Buildings date back to 1899 and have contrasting styles. Photo credit Michael / CC BY-SA.

The Wainwright Building

This 10-story office building is built with red brick and when it was constructed in 1891 it was one of the very first skyscrapers in the world. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been a prototype for the modern office building. Take a closer look at the ornate leaf-foliage decoration located below the cornice and between the windows; the level of detail is amazing.

The Wainwright Building, designed by Louis Sullivan in 1892, was one of the world's first skyscrapers.

The Wainwright Building, designed by Louis Sullivan in 1892, was one of the world’s first skyscrapers.

The Wrigley Building

Last but definitely not least is the stunning Wrigley Building, which features a dramatic clock tower that makes it hard to miss in downtown Chicago. The building has a bold white facade of glazed terra-cotta and is lit up at night with floodlights. This was the first air-conditioned office building in Chicago and it is now home to several international Consulate Generals, such as those from Austria, Ireland and the U.K.

The Wrigley Building (1920) was designed by the firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. Photo credit Marcin Wichary.

The Wrigley Building (1920) was designed by the firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. Photo credit Marcin Wichary.

 

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An architecture student and part-time tour guide living in Chicago, Mary likes to encourage visitors to look up and notice the little decorative details hidden on the buildings.