The Birth of Architecture In Chicago

Real estate and architecture have been part of my awareness since as long as I can remember. I recently rediscovered The Birth of Chicago Architecture, an article written by my father in 1975, and am amazed at how much of the detail he rendered still seems present in Chicago’s spirit today. I am sharing it with pride in his work and my connection to it all.


The Birth of Architecture In Chicago

Originally written by Michael Masi

Reproduced with permission from St Mary's University, MN


A unique set of circumstances at the end of the 19th century came together to produce in Chicago the most significant architectural moment seen anywhere for perhaps a hundred years. A community based on burgeoning commerce developed an architectural style eminently suited to its needs—a style which set the pattern for 20th century commercial architecture across the world. Its nature was determined by a wide array of factors that came to play at many creative levels. From the merely technical point of view, the need to design tall heavy buildings to rest on the settling soil of Chicago’s Loop challenged the ingenuity of all creators of early office buildings. The solution of complex structural problems and ingenuous use of new building materials, chiefly cast iron columns, steel beams, and glass, gave birth to the skyscraper. This architectural form, which Europeans still see as the symbol of American culture, was particularly well suited to the needs of a rapidly growing city. Technical problems were solved, however, under pressure of demands from an unusually vital community, one which was developing without parallel in human history. In the 19th century, people came to Chicago for one reason, basically—to make money. The business of commerce and trade flourished in a population that grew by unprecedented proportions: in 1850 it consisted of 30,000 persons, increased to almost 300,000 by 1870 and, with astonishing rapidity, on to 1,600,000 in 1895.


Wealth and greed, of course, brought with them crassness and vice of every kind. Exploitation of the masses, prostitution, political corruption, fierce competition, and dogged individualism in pursuit of self interest have given the city an enduring reputation for vice, violence, and crime. But the city also had its saints, poets, and scholars. While big business demanded large buildings, soundly constructed, in which to house its enterprise, its call was answered not only by engineers who rose to meet unique technical demands, but also by designers of sensitivity and a deep commitment to creativity. For all its crassness, the busy community was marked by an intense intellectual bent and we may note that in 1892 the Chicago Public Library and the University of Chicago were founded, and the present structures of the Newberry Library and the Art Institute were completed. The architectural firms had on their staffs men notable for an artistic sense, men clearly aware of what was happening to them. Fortunately, these men, particularly James Wellborn Root and Louis Sullivan, have left written documents of their ideas and we know their inner responses to the demands of the community for which they worked. It is their feeling for external design coupled with their desire to make the large impersonal structures of commercial office buildings appeal to the aesthetic sense that resulted in many quite remarkable buildings. A number of these have withstood to our own day the severe tests of time in the service of a pitiless enterprise that is seldom willing to spare a structure for the sake of art.


Chicago architecture began certainly at a clearly marked stage in the history of the city. The fire of 1871 cleared the metropolitan area of many useless, unenduring structures and created a vacuum that was filled by an enormous gathering of talent and energy. The designers of new buildings were acutely aware of the necessity for creating fire proof structures and from that date commercial buildings were noted for simplicity, fire resistance and stability in a sinking, marshy soil. There exigencies called into use cast iron columns, iron or steel floor members, and external walls of masonry and glass.



First among the notable architects in Chicago was a man better known as an engineer rather than as poet or artist. William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907) is a name lost among those who designed the early buildings of Chicago; yet he is a man whose imagination and courage, as Sigfried Giedion says, is worthy of as much attention as many of them. While Jenney's career ran concomitantly with that of Root and overlapped the productive years of Sullivan, both of whom came under his influence, he differed from them markedly. Sullivan, in fact, refused to consider him an architect. He was “a free-and-easy cultured gentleman, but not an architect except by courtesy of terms. His true profession was that of engineer” Certainly his interest and talent was less in design and ornamentation but rather more in the realm of structure, of which he had a functional, severe conception. His attitude toward architecture led eventually to entirely new concepts of beauty of design in later Chicago buildings. When Jenney did use ornamentation, as in the Home Insurance Building (constructed, 1885; demolished, 1949), it was less than successful unless, as in the old Sears building on State Street, it is so subdued as to be almost unnoticed. But his instinct for the needs of the times, and perhaps the simple functional demands of a warehouse, make the first Leiter Building (1879 to 1972), as it has been considered by many, the prototype of the skyscraper. Simple yet beautiful in its fine proportions (visible even under the cumbersome apparatus, added later, of external fire escape), it was significant for several reasons that became important in the 20th century. Supported by cast-iron columns, it unadorned masonry members, whose surface constitutes a smaller total area than its large windows set in ranks of three, are not load-bearing parts of the structure. Further, these windows, placed on every level of the seventy story building, were predecessors of the widely known and still used “Chicago Window,” eventually composed of one large central panel of glass and two smaller side panels.


Jenney’s role in the development of architecture is important partly because it represents a European input. He was a learned man who studied abroad and received an engineering degree from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris. He served during the Civil War an an engineer and was in charge of the Engineer Headquarters in Nashville. Some academic experience at the University of Michigan and at the old Chicago University helped him to formulate and verbalize his ideas. His lectures and publications in the lnland Architect and Builder as well as the in­fluence of his personality made a considerable impact on young architects during the period of the 1870’s and 1880's. He was doubtlessly responsible for the transferral of some interest in steel structures from France to Chicago. The St. Ouen docks, com­pleted in 1865, made use of iron framing and certainly caught Jenney's attention.


Two significant structures which came from Jenney's draw­ing boards and had a considerable technical influence in the development of skyscrapers were the offices of the Home In­surance Company (1884-1931) and the still standing Sears Roebuck Store, initially called the second Leiter Building (completed in 1891) at the corner of State and Van Buren.


“The chief importance of the Sears Roebuck Store lies in its for­mal character. The structural problems that it posed were solved by Jenney and his engineering assistants with a mature grasp of the technical means now available for the fully developed skyscraper. What is essential is that for the first time the steel and wrought-iron skeleton became fully and unambiguously the means of architectonic expression.”


The Sears Building exhibits a characteristic of contemporary Chicago architecture which has become almost fundamental in the design of tall structures. Never before its time had the struc­tural element of the building been so boldly made part of the external design. This functionalism became obscured in the 1920's and 1930's when eclectic taste made buildings resemble Gothic cathedrals or Greek temples. Jenney's was a design concept which eventually came to full fruition in the structures of Mies van der Rohe who completely externalized the structural elements. In Jenney's building the vertical and horizontal supportive elements determine the size and shapes of windows and other openings. Traditional masonry structures of the 19th century depend on the thrust of gravity in heavy accumulations of stone and brick to maintain the position and shape of the building. In the Sears Building, supportive stresses, both lateral and vertical, are balanced by the strength of steel members in equilibrium with the pulls of gravity. Here emerged the steel cage which presently, for better or for worse, proliferates in the crowded center of every large city.With this kind of structure, greater height and greater space are available with less weight; as more refinements are made in the strength and weight of the metal, the steel cage proves an ideal design. In such a building, ornamentation becomes an expression of structure and thus eventually, as in the John Hancock Building, traditional and derivative designs, whether functional or not, were lost. Gradually, a new style was being born.


Another technological development of the late 19th century contributed to the growth of the skyscraper: the power-driven elevator, which came into use at a relatively early date. One of the first was a steam-driven model, used in 1964 at the Charles B. Farwell Store, 171 North Wabash, replaced by a hydraulic model six years later. After the fire, demands for space in a small crowded metropolitan area led to an extension of building space upwards, a movement encouraged by the convenience of elevators. The use of masonry as the essential supportive material was stretched to its utmost capacity and though iron and steel framing was already in use, its cost prohibited extensive application in large structures at this early date.


Burnham and Root

The Monadnock Building emerged as a result of this need for taller buildings. Designed by Burnham and Root, the structure shows a considerable difference from the designs of Jenney who, for all his engineering ability, clearly had to give way to a man of superior creativity, John Wellborn Root (1850-1891). Had Root lived out his years, the direction of architectural development in Chicago would have certainly taken a different course. Born in Georgia, he arrived in Chicago in 1871 to help rebuild the city after the fire. By 1890, his influence was so great that he was instrumental in establishing the site of the Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. His tragically early death by pneumonia prevented him, however, from leaving a personal stamp on the architecture of the Exposition.


The Monadnock, one of Root’s most important buildings, was constructed between 1889 and 1891 at 53 West Jackson Boulevard, at what was then the ragged edge of the city, next to poor one-story hovels of the workers. Its location was a testimony to the foresight of its planners who understood the city’s expanding vitality. This sixteen story building embodies many of the design features which have characterized 20th century architecture, and yet it is a firm link with the architectural past. Through it, Burnham and Root demonstrate the limits to which masonry supported walls can be extended. As a result of the tremendous weight which the walls of the first floor must support, they were expanded to a width of six feet; then, at the second and third floors, the walls slope sharply inward to form the thinner shell of the upper floors. The corners, sharp at the first level, then “camfered off” or beveled in a progressively wider strip toward the cornice, produce, along with the inward slope, a visual impact of swooping upward. In this the Monadnock’s plain, unornamented surfaces are dramatic in their geometric simplicity; the deeply recessed openings of the first floor and walls contrast with the thinner projecting bays of which there are five on the longer side (West and east) and two on the exposed northern side. The building is striking in its severe functional design which, for all its ponderous masonry, still conveys as sense of light and openness. Its success as a utilitarian structure is attested by the continuous occupation of its office space from the time of construction to the present. Its engineering design has withstood the severe test of Chicago’s settling soil and though it has sunk some 20 inches since its construction, the settling has been uniform. As a work of art, the Monadnock even drew the praise of the East Coast architectural establishment when Robert D. Andrews, president of the Boston Architectural Club, wrote of it:


The results arrived at are, therefore, not gotten haphazardly, but with a deliberate and conscious intention. This building has no precedent in architecture. It is itself a precedent. Yet it has a precedent outside of architecture; it comes up to an ideal, and by virtue of its correspondence with this ideal it becomes a work of art.


All the details in the forces which came together to produce the design of the Monadnock Building have not been fully explored, but some conception of the interplay between the money interest which required the building, the architects who realized its design, and the engineers who constructed it may be seen in Harriet Monroe’s biographical study of Root. This adulatory but engaging work by the founder of Poetry Magazine has special significance since it was written by one of the leaders of Chicago’s intellectual community who was also the architect’s sister-in-law. Her book shows the intricate relationship which operated between what would seem disparate elements of the city’s community. She recounts of the building’s genesis:


The Monadnoch—’Jumbo,' Root used to call it—was the last of the 11 buildings to show walls of solid masonry. For this build­ing Mr. Aldis, who controlled the investment, kept urging upon his architects extreme simplicity, rejecting one or two of Root's sketches as too ornate. During Root's absence of a fortnight at the seashore, Mr. Burnham ordered from one of the draughts­men a design of a straight-up-and-down uncompromising un­ornamented facade. When Root returned, he was indignant at first over this project of a brick box. Gradually, however, he threw himself into the spirit of the thing, and one day he told Mr. Aldis that the heavy sloping lines of an Egyptian pylon had gotten into his mind as the basis of this design, and that he would ‘throw the thing up without a single ornament.’ At last, with a gesture whose pretense of disgust concealed a shy experimental interest, he threw on the drawing table of Mr. Dutton, the foreman of the office ‘a design,’ says this gentleman, ‘shaped something like a capital I—a perfectly plain building, curving outward at the base and cornice.’ This was the germ of the final design and it provoked much discussion and study in the office.


Conflict over a building’s design has seldom resulted in such a happy outcome for architecture.


It is impossible to write a study on the history of Chicago architecture and restrict the discussion to existing buildings. One may argue that those structures still standing have withstood the practical test of time and in addition to being artisticall important have been selected as superior by a sort of “survival of the fittest.” But this kind of aesthetic Darwinism quickly reveals its logical flaws. The stresses within the Chicago community have not always been equally balanced between the financial interests and lovers of art. On numerous occasions buildings of real worth have succumbed to the wrecking ball. It would be impossible to discuss the importance of Adler and Sullivan in terms of existing structures alone. Obviously, then, anyone undertaking a serious discussion of Chicago architecture will be obliged to rely on photographs and descriptions made when important structures still stood. This procedure differs markedly from the usual practice of art historians who seldom undertake prolonged analyses of works which no longer exist. In addition, I found it necessary to review all structures in situ since even the most recent literature may report a building as standing which has since fallen to the city’s ever busy demolition crews.


Among the important buildings of Burnham and Root no longer extant is the Great Northern Hotel (constructed 1892; demolished 1940). Generally, a large hotel is designed in essentially the same manner as a large commercial office building, except that the arrangement of numerous cubicles is intended for around the clock use and a greater variety of function. Plumbing also becomes a more complex design which Burnham and Root learned in the construction of the Monadnock, its severity was tempered by a series of undulating bays, as though the presence of human habitation in comfort required a sense of greater liveliness.


The masterpiece of Burnham and Root’s career, however, is certainly the Rookery, one of the most striking and original buildings in the Chicago Loop, constructed 1883-1884 at LaSalle and Adams. While the general design of the Rookery did not have many imitators — it was built as a open box with an interior court-yard, resembling a Renaissance palace— its architectural details displayed many items that later became standard features on later large buildings. The inner court walls, for example, are covered by glazed brick and pierced by “ribbon windows,” items so familiar they seem to come from an apartment building of the post World War II years. But the building stands alone for its beauty, its harmonious combination of wrought iron and stone, and a functional practicality attested by continuous full occupancy to the present day. The Rookery combines numerous structural features that testify to Root’s creative imagination and still provide meaningful examples of engineering originality. The skylight over the courtyard is a marvel of architectural fantasy; its delicacy contrasts beautifully the power of the exterior masonry. It displays the important elements of strength that admits light and firm construction that covers a wide area. (Unfortunately, however, the skylight has been painted over in recent years.) The courtyard and the four-sided openness on the exterior afford direct or refracted sunlight to eight wall surfaces. The simple and subdued ornamentation of the streetside allows the texture of the masonry to speak for itself. The interplay between open surfaces created by the building’s special demands and the use of ornamentation so beloved of the 19th century achieves an effective balance on the outer wall of the Rookery, and equilibrium of design that Root was consciously aware of at the time.


Whatever is to be spoken in a commercial building must be strongly and directly said. The very style of the ornamentation should be simple enough, and the scale large enough to be easily comprehended. If not, if the unseeing eyes of busy men are daily saluted by delicate details, not only are the details wasted, but they become so far vulgarized that it becomes impotent to produce pleasure…


Adler and Sullivan

The culmination of the work by what is now called the Chicago School of Architecture was reached in the designs of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the latter probably considered among the very greatest of American Architects. Three of their most representative buildings —the Garrick Theater, the Stock Exchange Building, and the Auditorium Theater—were landmarks in the maturation of modern building style, but unfortunately only the Auditorium Theater survives. The Garrick Theater and the Stock Exchange reflect Sullivan’s predilection for controlled ornamentation and the surviving portions of the external decoration from the Garrick which are now preserved at the Art Institute and the Illinois Institute of Technology are treated as important works of sculpture. But the elaborate engineering of the Garrick Theater was a tribute to the efforts of Dankmar Adler in constructing a stable structure on the uncooperative soil. To achieve the firm foundation which the heavy building required, he drove eight hundred 50 foot wooden piles until they reached a layer of firm clay. On those there were set large rafts of concrete supported partly by the piles and partly by the resistance of their surface against the marshy soil. The concrete mass was, in effect, “floating” on the yielding earth to support the heavy super-structure of the tower. This procedure was an important step in the development of true concrete caissons on which heavy buildings such as the John Hancock were constructed in recent decades. Eventually the wooden piles were eliminated because of their vulnerability to decay and because driving them to such depths inflicted disturbing shocks on adjoining structures. The steel columns of the frame rested on this foundation. Adler’s genius may be further seen in the complex array of iron ribs, hangers, and trusses devised to support the large auditorium within. The demands of the design were considerable since offices required light, and the theater vault, level with the seventh floor, had to be securely enough constructed to support several floors of structure above it. The entire design emerged as masterful, a combination of artistic sensitivity in decoration, plan, durability, and suitability to a variety of purposes.


The theater proper, later devoted to movies and then to television broadcast, was another good example of workmanship and artistry that went into the Auditorium. The richly ornamented ceiling was again a series of expanding segmental vaults extending from the proscenium on the north of the forward edge of the balcony. Vision was unobstructed; acoustics were near perfect; scale and spatial relationships were exactly calculated to give a sense of intimacy while preserving the necessary spaciousness of a large theater.


The destruction of the Garrick constituted one of the greatest acts of technological vandalism in American history.


The Stock Exchange, which stood at 30 North LaSalle Street, was designed by Adler and Sullivan in 1893 and constructed the following year, at a time when Frank Lloyd Wright, then in his 20’s, was still with the firm. Adler’s engineering can be seen at work in the full use of cement caissons which extended some 55 feet to the hard clay. Though this was not the first use of such supports, the details of their adaptation for a large and heavy building (though 13 stories may not seem a great height by modern terms) were worked out by Adler. The adoption of caissons ended once and for all the persistent problem of unequal settling in pillars of cement have maintained even the tallest buildings upright. Settling is no longer a major problem and architects may erect structures as tall and heavy in Chicago as on any other site which enjoys granite or similarly stable foundations.


In the ornament and design of the Stock Exchange we see Sullivan at his sensitive and creative best. The elaborate door, as always conspicuous for its attempt to entice the person passing by foot, was warm, human, exciting, but subdued and not as fantastic as the “Golden Door” for the entrance of the Transportation Building Sullivan designed for the World Fair in 1893. But while the heavy, decorated masonry doorway may remind one of Burnham and Root, the Stock Exchange creates a different, more contemporary impression of a building made mostly of glass and steel. ITs walls, articulated into bays, are completely unornamented between the third floor and cornice. The upper floors create a feeling of balanced tension between the thin walls of the upper floors, light and airy, affording vision in several directions from any one side, and the lower floors of masonry, heavy, and drawn into large arches. The Chicago Windows of the upper floors, with their geometric regularity, contrast with the gothic columns and spandrels of the lower floors. It seems that the impersonal nature of the building’s function—tradem expedience, profit—did not hinder the architects from making an individual aesthetic statement. The colonnade of the topmost floor seems a little out of place in a building which combined a highly stylized gothic design with simple functional architecture. Perhaps it was a concession to the classical tastes of the time, represented in the board of architects for the World Fair.


Auditorium Theater

I have not reserved the Auditorium Theater for final place in my discussion because it represents the highest achievements of the firm of Adler and Sullivan. That it does not. In fact we may see in it the kinds of flaws that led Adler to develop the caissons of the Stock Exchange because the combination of tower and walls in the Auditorium suffered from an inadequate preparation on the sinking soil. The building’s survival, however, represents a different achievement in the society which finally came to terms with the need to preserve a work of artistic merit, a need that becomes more acute when the community is confronted with the loss of the major works of Burnham and Root and some of the more important designs from the offices of Adler and Sullivan. Part of the reason for the Auditorium's survival was good fortune, part the result of a concerted effort by a group of citizens organized as the Auditorium Theater Council. The first forty years of its life were its Golden Age, when the entire structure continued in profitable use for a variety of functions. Lectures, dances, con­certs, religious meetings, sporting events were all held in the theater. The rest of the structure was an opulent hotel frequented by the most elegant guests and linked with thriving shops. By the late 1930's, however, its owners went bankrupt and during the Second World War it became the Chicago center of the United Service Organization. It would certainly have been destroyed shortly after had not the newly founded Roosevelt University purchased the structure and, with the exception of the theater, put all rooms to academic functions. The University operated on a marginal budget, but the building was saved; the theater re­mained dark, unused and steadily deteriorating. By 1960 the Auditorium Council was established and began to seek means for raising an estimated $3,000,000 toward restoration. That the Council succeeded when such organizations had previously failed is largely because Roosevelt University owned the outer structure and money needed to be raised only for the theater. Unlike the case of the Garrick Theater where its owners, the Balaban and Katz Corporation, felt compelled to sue the city for a permit to destroy the structure, the University was not operating under the compulsion of a profit motive. The University was in a better position to serve the artistic needs of the community by preserving the theater until funds could be raised for its renovation and, as anyone in Chicago now knows, the theater again functions as it once did.


The citation of the Landmarks Commission for the Auditorium reads:


In recognition of the community spirit which here joined com­mercial and artistic ends, uniting hotel, office building, and theater in one structure; the inventiveness of the engineer displayed from foundations to the perfect acoustics; and the genius of the architect which gave form and, with the aid of original ornament, expressed the festivity in rooms of great splendor.


This statement stands in need of explanation because while cer­tainly the acoustics are far superior to anything else in the city, the foundations were laid in 1887, before Adler had successfully devised a method of dealing with the support of such heavy struc­tures. The most problematic element of the structure is its tower constructed in part to contain hydraulic machinery for the stage which could not be allowed to settle unevenly and distort the rest of the building. It also housed, for 20 years, the offices of Adler and Sullivan. Adler attempted to prepare the soil by pressing it with enormous amounts of brick and pig iron, on the assumption that if this weight would absorb most of the settling he could then construct and fear Ii ttle additional settling. This did not work, and the building has settled slightly.


Yet the building can boast many engineering marvels used with enormous success. Chief among these is the great vault over the theater which is supported by a system of framing which Adler learned from the structure of truss bridges. Six transverse trusses support a load of 660 tons and from them hangs a series of el­liptical arched trusses forming the vault. This enormous effort was essential to preserve the excellent acoustics which Adler desired for his auditorium and to present a line of vision unobstructed by columns or pillars. Wrought iron girders and cast-iron columns support the galleries and everywhere we see Sullivan’s beautiful designs in wrought iron, glass, plaster, wood, and mosaic.


The exterior of the Auditorium reminds one of the Rookery in its balance of power and delicacy. The enormous rusticated arches of heavy granite form a loggia on the Congress Park Way. Above the three floors of heavy rustication with deeply set windows arranged in patterns of two in the second and  third floor, delicate arches with gothic columns rise four additional floors, followed by two levels of smaller arches (two to each one below) and topped by a floor of colonnaded openings (three to each two arches below). Delicacy of design with strength, harmony, and order reign on all sides of the building’s exterior. The original interior was finished in opulent splendor, much of what is now not seen.


The second floor of the hotel contained another lobby and the main lounger, reached by a stairway with onyx paneling, gilded plaster relief, and wrought-iron stair rails. The mosaic floors of the landings were composed of an intricate profusion of de­tail and a great richness of color, all thoroughly disciplined and harmonized. It was the lyrical and romantic element of nine­teenth century architecture developed almost to the point of Baroque lavishness.


Dankmar Adler died in 1900 and the movement which produced the most notable architecture of the times had almost spent itself. Buildings continued to be constructed, but the greatest architec­tural talents were choosing to design residential dwellings rather than commercial structures. Chief among these younger men was Frank Lloyd Wright who by 1900 had already completed a string of very notable structures including Charnley House (1892), the Francisco Terrace Apartments (1895), the Francis Apartments (1895) and the Heller House (1897). The choice to build private residences rather than commercial structures on expensive prop­erty doubtless resulted in higher survival rates for the buildings designed. Aesthetic and purely human considerations became more important than engineering demands and though the sub­sequent period yielded a remarkable series of innovations and enduring structures, the first great period of Chicago. architecture was over. Sullivan lived on, embittered by declining commissions, still to produce the remarkable and very notable Carson, Pirie and Scott Building (finally completed in 1906). After that date, as Giedion notes, the "commercial classicism of the New York school of architects ruled Chicago and the rest of the coun­try. By the time of the Tribune Tower Competition, the old Chicago tradition was dead and new trends were developing more eclectic, more tradition bound. Only later did a new and more distinct Chicago style emerge that showed certain clear signs of its origin in the work of the late 19th century architects.