Tour of Early Chicago Architecture

Architecture Tour of Chicago

It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago. She outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them.
Mark Twain, 1883

Chicago was only 46 years old when Mark Twain wrote those words, but it had already grown more than 100-fold, from a small trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River into one of the nation’s largest cities, and it wasn’t about to stop. Over the next 20 years, it would quadruple in population, amazing the rest of the world with its ability to repeatedly reinvent itself.

Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837. It was ideally situated to take advantage of the trading possibilities created by the US westward expansion. The completion of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1848 created a water link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, but the canal was soon rendered obsolete by railroads. Chicago became an important railroad center, beginning with the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad in 1848. By 1900, there were six passenger terminals downtown, and 15,000 people worked for the railroads. As a result of this large employee population, administrators needed affordable office space. The Santa Fe Railroad approached the renowned architecture firm of D.H. Burnham to solve this problem. The proposed new Railway Exchange Building would be shared by the Santa Fe and several other railroads.

Railway Exchange Building, 1904
Railway Exchange Building, 1904, by D.H. Burnham & Company

Completed in 1904, the Railway Exchange Building features a sumptuous light court, beautiful glazed terra-cotta details and a breathtaking grand staircase. Burnham, along with chief designer Frederick Dinkelberg, went to great lengths to bring light and air inside. The entire building wraps around a central light well, like a square doughnut, with a glass atrium capping the grand two-story lobby. The steel skeleton frame allows for larger windows, and the projecting bays increase the amount of light streaming inside, bringing great visual interest to the building’s facade. The glazed white terra-cotta of the building echoes the famed White City.

Railway Exchange Building, 1904, by D.H. Burnham & Co.
Railway Exchange Building, 1904, by D.H. Burnham & Co.
Railway Exchange Building - Grand Staircase
Railway Exchange Building – Grand Staircase

Burnham immediately moved his firm into the building upon completion. His offices offered commanding views of Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan. It was in this building where Daniel Burnham produced the 1909 Plan of Chicago. The railroad corporations who once occupied the building moved out over time, and today the building is the headquarters for several architecture firms and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Railway Exchange Building
Railway Exchange Building

As Chicago grew, its residents took heroic measures to keep pace. In the 1850s, they raised many of the streets 1.5 to 2.5 meters to install a sewer system – and then raised the buildings, as well. Unfortunately, the buildings, streets and sidewalks were made of wood, and most of them burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Chicago Fire Department training academy at 558 W. DeKoven St. is on the site of the O’Leary property where it is believed the fire began. The Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station at Michigan and Chicago avenues are among the few buildings to have survived the fire.

The whole Midwest was parched, caught in the thrall of a mighty drought. Chicago, with its preponderance of wooden buildings, inadequate fire codes and inferior firefighting equipment, was a conflagration waiting to happen. On Sunday evening, October 8, it did.

The Chicago Evening Journal came out with a report stating that it all began “on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets, at about 9 o’clock on Sunday evening, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking.” This story spread quickly and the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow still persists today. Mrs. O’Leary later denied under oath that her much-maligned cow had anything to do with it.

For Carl Smith, curator and author of Chicago History Museum’s The Great Chicago Fire & The Web of Memory, there does seem to be a general historical consensus that the fire started in or around Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, though the actual cause of the fire, he says, remains “cloudy and confusing”.

Once begun, the blaze was quickly whipped into monster stature by “fire devils”, whirling pockets of gas and air that rolled through the city for two days, knocking down buildings and sending survivors scurrying for safety in the waters of Lake Michigan.

The fire jumped the river twice. Among its prey: Potter Palmer’s hotel, Marshall Field’s Marble Palace, the city’s brothels and the Chicago Tribune building, a spanking new, four-story, “fireproof” structure.

The fire reached Fullerton Avenue before it petered out on Tuesday morning. Nearly 300 people died, almost 100,000 became homeless and 17,450 buildings were destroyed, with damages totalling over $200 million. Many despaired, and many in rival cities gleefully wrote Chicago off. But, in its first post-fire issue on October 11, the Chicago Tribune declared: “Cheer Up . . . looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”

And it did. The fire changed the city’s character forever, infusing its inhabitants with a zealous, can-do spirit. Within a week, 6,000 temporary structures were erected. Tribune Editor Joseph Medill was elected mayor in November as the “fireproof” candidate, and before resigning in mid-1873, he oversaw a variety of fire-protection reforms, including a ban on wooden buildings in the business district. Out of the ashes rose new or rebuilt landmarks: a new Palmer House, a new store for Marshall Field, a cavernous exposition building on the lakefront and, throughout the “burnt district”, grander, more elaborate and taller buildings.

But one now-famous structure, a warped and weather-beaten shanty of two rooms, did not need to be rebuilt. Mrs. O’Leary’s cottage survived the fire!

Architecture Tour of Chicago

Chicago rebuilt quickly. Much of the debris was dumped into Lake Michigan as landfill, forming the underpinnings for what is now Grant Park, Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago. Only 22 years after the fire, Chicago celebrated its comeback by holding the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, with its memorable “White City”. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was in many ways a coming-out party for Chicago. As a relatively young city, this was an early opportunity to host visitors from around the world and establish a reputation as a center of culture and commerce.

World's Columbian Exposition - Administration Building
World’s Columbian Exposition – Administration Building

Between 1880 and 1890, Chicago’s population jumped from just over 500,000 to almost 1.1 million, and the city was running out of office space. And rather than be known as a hardscrabble hog capital, Chicago sought to rival the great cities of Europe.

This was the heyday of architectural invention. Chicago was home to many of the innovations that led to the modern skyscraper, including fireproof steel frames, floating foundations, and elevators. Improved heating, telephony, and lighting also helped make higher buildings feasible.

The most fundamental obstacle to building height was man’s capacity to walk stairs, especially after the kind of meals men ate in the 19th century, but this obstacle had been removed by the advent of the elevator and, equally important, by Elisha Graves Otis’s invention of a safety mechanism for halting an elevator in free-fall. Elevators got faster and safer.

Glassmakers became adept at turning out ever larger sheets of plate glass for windows what would cover the walls of the skyscrapers.

William LeBaron Jenney, of the firm Loring & Jenney, where Daniel Burnham started his architectural career, designed the first building to have a load bearing metal frame, in which the burden of supporting the structure was shifted from the exterior walls to a skeleton of iron and steel.

William Jenney’s Home Insurance Building was completed in 1885 and the 10-story, steel-framed building built at LaSalle and Adams streets was the first true modern office tower and set precedent in skyscraper construction. It was the first building to use structural steel at least partially in its frame (rested partly on granite piers at the base and on a rear brick wall), and was the first tall building to be fireproofed both inside and outside. Jenney’s ground-breaking structure was torn down in 1931 to make way for the Field Building, now known as the LaSalle Bank Building, but its legacy lives on in thousands of steel-framed and fire-proofed buildings around the world.

Home Insurance Building, Chicago
Home Insurance Building, Chicago

Burnham and Root realized that Jenney’s innovation freed builders from the last physical constraints on altitude. They employed it to build taller and taller buildings, cities in the sky inhabited by a new race of businessmen, whom some called “cliff-dwellers”.

In 1881 a Massachusetts investor, Peter Chardon Brooks III, commissioned Burnham & Root to build the tallest office building yet constructed in Chicago, which he planned to call the Montauk. Previously he had brought them their first big downtown commission, the seven-story Grannis Block. In that structure, Burnham said, “our originality began to show … It was a wonder. Everybody went to see it, and the town was proud of it.” Brooks wanted the new building to be 50 percent taller “if”, he said, “the earth can support it.”

The trickiest part of the Montauk was its foundation. Initially Root planned to employ a technique that Chicago architects had used since 1873 to support buildings of ordinary stature. Workers would erect pyramids of stone on the basement slab. The broad bottom of each pyramid spread the load and reduced settlement; the narrow top supported load bearing columns. To hold up ten stories of stone and brick, however, the pyramids would have to be immense, the basement transformed into a Giza of stone. Brooks objected. He wanted the basement free for the boilers and dynamo.

The solution, when Root first struck it, must have seemed too simple to be real. He envisioned digging down to the first reasonably firm layer of clay, known as hard-pan, and there spreading a pad of concrete half a meter thick. On top of this workers would set down a layer of steel rails stretching from one end of the pad to the other, and over this a second layer at right angles. Succeeding layers would be arranged the same way. Once complete, this grillage of steel would be filled and covered with Portland cement to produce a broad, rigid raft that Root called a floating foundation. What he was proposing, in effect, was a stratum of artificial bedrock that would also serve as the floor of the basement. Brooks liked it.

Once completed, in 1883, the Montauk was so novel, so tall, it defied description by conventional means. No one knows who coined the term, but it fit, and the Montauk became the first building to be called a skyscraper. “What Chartres was to the Gothic cathedral,” wrote Thomas Talmadge, a Chicago architect and critic, “the Montauk Block was to the high commercial building.”

The building was demolished in 1902. JPMorgan Chase Tower stands on the site now.

Illustration of Montauk Building, circa 1886
Illustration of Montauk Building, circa 1886
Montauk Building,  1891, by Burnham & Root - the decorative cast aluminum staircases were the first use of aluminum in building construction.
Montauk Building, 1891, by Burnham & Root – the decorative cast aluminum staircases were the first use of aluminum in building construction.

The most noticeable physical aspects of the Chase Tower are the graceful slopes of its Northern and Southern flanks. They induce a bit of forced perspective and make the tower seem taller than it is, but were designed to serve a purely utilitarian function. At the time this building was erected, the bank that commissioned it needed a large contiguous floor plate at ground level to handle daily transactions while at the same time offering high-placed executives equally high offices in the tower portion of the building. The solution was a downward slope that also adds geometric interest to what would otherwise be a fairly bland brown rectangle.

JP Morgan Chase Tower
JP Morgan Chase Tower

By the 1890s, Chicago architects had created a new architectural style, often termed the “Chicago school of architecture”. The School included architects such as Louis Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney and John Root, whose designs combined architectural aesthetic theory with practical commercial sense. They favoured placing rich, ornate designs on the outside of skyscrapers at the ground level and simpler, plainer ornamentation on the upper levels, with strong vertical lines. The roofs of their skyscrapers typically formed a comprehensible outline and structure when seen at a distance as part of the city skyline. The intent was to draw the observer’s eye upwards, celebrating what Sullivan termed the “lofty” nature of the skyscraper, but not wasting resources on intricate detailing unlikely to appeal to a busy businessman. At the same time, the more lavish ground floor designs would make the building stand out to passers-by and pull in the necessary business for a successful commercial building. Chicago skyscraper windows were also a feature of the style; these were large, fixed windows flanked by smaller sash windows on either side, which provided access to sunlight and adequate ventilation. Sometimes these protruded from the building to form a slight bay.

Reliance Building
Reliance Building, 1891, by Daniel Burnham, John Root and Charles Atwood

This community also saw close collaboration between architects, specialist structural engineers and building contractors emerge on the new skyscraper projects. Historically the industry had been dominated by individuals and small firms who combined the roles of architect and engineer, but this broke down in Chicago during the period, being replaced by a partnership between specialist architects who focused on the appearance of the skyscraper, and specialist engineers who focused on the structures that enabled it to be built.

Although the exterior of the Chicago skyscrapers buildings were relatively plain, the entrance ways and lobbies were fitted out in a grand style. The Unity Building, for example, was reported as including “Numidian, Alps, Green and Sienna marbles… an artistic screen of glass and bronze… a marble balcony” alongside “Corinthian columns with finely carved capitals, gold-leaf and silver chandeliers, and silver-plated latticework” on the elevators. The aim was to project a sense of prosperity and solid financial credentials, which in turn would attract tenants willing to pay high rents. For the tenants, such surroundings were good for their own business credibility, and affirmed their own social status as professionals.

Montauk Building,  1891, by Burnham & Root, now Burnham Hotel - lobby and restaurant
Reliance Building, 1891, by Burnham & Root, now Burnham Hotel – lobby and restaurant

The famous D.H. Burnham & Company, where Daniel Burnham and his partners, John Welborn Root and Charles Atwood, designed technically advanced steel frames with glass and terra-cotta skins in the mid-1890s, felt like a small factory to visitors, having expanded to employ 180 staff. The designs and constructions of D.H. Burnham & Company were made possible by professional engineers, in particular E. C. Shankland, and modern contractors, in particular George A. Fuller.

Of the twenty-seven buildings Daniel Burnham and John Root built in Chicago’s Loop, only three remain today, among them the Reliance Building, the Rookery, and the Monadnock Building.

The Reliance Building, whose base was constructed in 1890, was completed by Charles B. Atwood after Root’s death in 1891. Unlike its heavy, blocky counterparts of the time, this glass window-covered building with its thin bands of cream-colored terra-cotta almost seemed to defy gravity. Beautifully restored and now home to the boutique Hotel Burnham, its legacy can be traced in the elevator lobby through historic photos.

The Reliance Building was the first skyscraper to have large plate glass windows make up the majority of its surface area, foreshadowing a design feature that would become dominant in the 20th century. It was also one of the first skyscrapers to offer electricity and phone service in all of its offices.

Reliance Building
Reliance Building, 1891, by Burnham & Root

During the Great Depression, the Reliance Building struggled to stay occupied and slowly fell into disrepair. After years of neglect and deterioration, the building was rehabilitated and restored in 1999 and was converted into the Hotel Burnham. Its lobby features a one-of-a-kind mosaic-tile floor, multi-colored marble walls and metal elevator grills. Winding through the upper floors is the original open cast-iron staircase, whose elegant balustrade carries the same decorative device – a four-petal Gothic flower, or a quatrefoil – that is used in the undulating ribbons of white terra-cotta on the exterior. Rather than enclosing this staircase as current building codes require, the developers installed two new enclosed stairways through the building.

The restaurant is called the Atwood, after Charles Atwood, who replaced Root as Burnham’s chief designer.

Hotel Burnham
Hotel Burnham
Hotel Burnham
Hotel Burnham
Hotel Burnham
Hotel Burnham

With The Rookery, architects Daniel Burnham and John Root created an architectural masterpiece that is one of the greatest surviving examples of the early commercial skyscrapers. Its stately façade is unmatched in architectural detailing and is complemented by a rich and inviting environment within the building, highlighted by incredible architectural features including the mesmerizing oriel staircase and stunning light court.

The Rookery (1891)
The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root

The powerful exterior of this building, which is softened by lively ornament detailed by architect John Root, typifies the lingering picturesque attitudes toward commercial architecture still prevalent in the 1880s. A transitional structure in the evolution of modern architecture, the Rookery Building employs both load-bearing masonry walls and skeletal frame construction techniques. It takes its name from a temporary City Hall and water tank that stood on the site following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A favorite roost for pigeons, these structures were referred to as “the rookery”.

In the Chicago of the 1880s, getting sufficient light to read and work by was no easy task. Coal smoke and air pollution cast a haze across the city’s sky. The Rookery’s light fixtures were originally equipped for both gas and electricity, and that was a time when electricity had just begun to compete against gas lamps for lighting. But electricity was still very expensive and unreliable, and neither produced enough ambient light to be effective or efficient.

The Rookery
The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root

Therefore, access to natural light and air ventilation was critical to a building’s success. Burnham & Root achieved this by carefully organizing the Rookery’s façade. At the base, round granite columns allowed for large expanses of glass windows, and the lower floors were nearly continuous curtain-walls of glass. These elements meant that light could be captured even where surrounding buildings cast their shadows. Inside, the central well provided light to offices, and the court below ensured lower interior levels were well-lit.

At the bottom of the central light well is one of The Rookery’s most impressive feature — the light court. The building’s heavy façade supported the massive weight of the masonry exterior walls, but the light court was a stark contrast: a wrought and cast iron frame that created the airy, bird-cage-like feel. The mezzanine floor consisted of glass blocks that transferred light to the lower level. Elaborate, hand-laid mosaic tile covered the main floor. When Frank Lloyd Wright remodeled the Rookery’s large skylit lobby in 1905, he introduced elements characteristic of his Prairie School designs. The lobby was again renovated in 1931, while the building underwent a complete restoration from 1988. The restoration combined the original architecture of John Root and Frank Lloyd Wright and added a 12th floor to the top of the building and added a skylight at roof level to protect the light court’s ceiling and the light well.

The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root Atrium renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright 1907
The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root
Atrium renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright 1907
The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root Atrium renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright 1907
The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root
Atrium renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright 1907
Rookery Building Lobby Stairwell
Rookery Building Lobby Stairwell
The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root Atrium renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright 1907
The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root
Atrium renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright 1907

Burnham and Root installed their offices on the top floor of The Rookery to prove to clients that it was, in fact, safe to have an office on the 11th floor of a building. It was in Burnham’s library on the 11th floor where 1893 Columbian Exposition was designed.

Burnham and Root’s 1891 Monadnock Building, which sits at the southwest corner of Jackson Boulevard and Dearborn Street, is one of the heaviest skyscrapers still standing.

Monadnock Building
Monadnock Building, 1891, by Burnham & Root

The North half of the Monadnock was John Wellborn Root’s last and boldest design. Root died at the age of 41, while the building was under construction. At the time of his death, in addition to running Chicago’s largest architectural practice, John Root and Daniel Burnham were responsible for the design and construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was to open the following year. Root’s death forced Burnham to concentrate his energies on the Exposition, so when the north half of the Monadnock rented quickly and its owners decided to build the south half right away, they commissioned another firm to design it: Holabird & Roche, the second largest practice in the City.

Monadnock Building
Monadnock Building, 1891, by Burnham & Root

The two halves of the building are similar in scale and color, but quite different in style. The north half is often called a fountainhead of modern architecture because of its total absence of exterior ornament. Root evidently felt that all that was needed here was graceful form for the structure itself. The south half of the building, on the other hand, is a masterful early application of classical architectural principles to the design of a tall building.

The Monadnock also marks a historic transition in the development of structural methods. Most of the buildings that preceded it were supported by their outside walls. The north half of the Monadnock is probably the tallest building ever built that is supported primarily by brick walls. At ground level, those walls are 1.8 meters thick. Half of the south half of the building is built the same way, but the south quarter of the building is supported entirely by a steel frame, as were most of the tall buildings that followed it. Today, this is called “curtain wall” construction: the façade doesn’t support the building, it’s just a “curtain” to keep out the elements.

Although Chicago was rapidly achieving recognition as an industrial and mercantile dynamo, its leading men felt keenly the slander from New York that their city had few cultural assets. To help address this lack, one prominent Chicagoan, Ferdinand W. Peck, proposed to build an auditorium so big, so acoustically perfect, as to silence all the carping from the East and to make a profit to boot. Peck envisioned enclosing this gigantic theater within a still larger shell that would contain a hotel, banquet room and offices. The luxury hotel and business offices were intended to subsidize the cost of the theater and help keep ticket prices low. The idea of a mixed-use structure was still a fairly new idea for the time.

The many architects who dined at Kinsley’s Restaurant, which had a stature in Chicago equal to that of Delmonico’s in New York, agreed this would be the single most important architectural assignment in the city’s history and that most likely it would go to Burnham & Root. Burnham believed likewise.

Peck chose Chicago architect Dankmar Adler. If acoustically flawed, Peck knew, the building would be a failure no matter how imposing the finished structure proved to be. Only Adler had previously demonstrated a clear grasp of the principles of acoustical design. “Burnham was not pleased,” wrote Louis Sullivan, by now Adler’s partner, “nor was John Root precisely entranced.” When Root saw early drawings of the auditorium, he said it appeared as if Sullivan were about to “smear another façade with ornament”.

Auditorium Building
Auditorium Theater, 1889, by Adler & Sullivan

A young Frank Lloyd Wright was hired as an office draftsman by Sullivan and in the process of working on the massive project, he learned a great deal from Sullivan about the use of organic ornamentation. On the exterior, Sullivan emphasized both massing and the rhythm of repetitive window patterns, using load-bearing stone walls on the perimeter of various textures and colors. The building had separate entrances for theater, office building and hotel. Highly influenced by H.H. Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store, Sullivan included the use of monochromatic rusticated stone. Meanwhile, the theater and hotel interiors provided an outlet for his genius organic ornamentation.

Adler addressed several engineering challenges. His acoustical design for the theater, in an era before scientific acoustical calculations, is a masterpiece of sound. He developed a foundation substantial enough to support the 16-story tower originally planned for the building. However, after the foundation was in place, Peck requested two extra floors on the tower and the architects complied. The additional two stories caused excessive settlement under the tower, proving Adler’s original calculations correct. A banquet hall was also added late in the construction. Adler carried its load on giant iron trusses above the vaulted roof of the theater.

Auditorium Theater, 1889, by Adler Sullivan
Auditorium Theater, 1889, by Adler & Sullivan
Auditorium Theater, 1889, by Adler Sullivan
Auditorium Theater, 1889, by Adler & Sullivan

Workers began building the Auditorium on June 1, 1887. The result was an opulent structure that, for the moment, was the biggest private building in America, whose innovative engineering and design brought international recognition to the Adler & Sullivan. Its theater contained more than four thousand seats, twelve hundred more than New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. And it was air-conditioned, through a system that blew air over ice. The surrounding building had commercial offices, an immense banquet hall, and a hotel with four hundred luxurious rooms. A traveler from Germany recalled that simply by turning an electric dial on the wall by his bed, he could request towels, stationery, ice water, newspapers, whiskey, or a shoe shine. It became the most celebrated building in Chicago. The president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, attended its grand opening.

Roosevelt University now owns the building at the corner of East Congress Parkway and North Michigan Avenue.

Auditorium Theater, 1889, by Adler Sullivan
Auditorium Theater, 1889, by Adler & Sullivan

The Auditorium Building sheds light on how these late 19th century architects wrestled with designing increasingly taller and heavier buildings on Chicago’s waterlogged clay. If you visit the theatre, you may notice that the floors are not quite even. And if use the entrance off the Congress Parkway, located under the building’s 17-story tower, you walk down four steps to enter the lobby. Those four steps were not part of Adler and Sullivan’s original plans — they were added because that’s how far the building has sunk into the earth since it was constructed in 1889. The building weighs more than 110,000 tons.

All new buildings sink a bit at first — a fact architects and engineers have tried to account for since they began building big enough to notice. But the Auditorium sunk almost half a meter in the first year after it opened, leaving it with uneven floors. The technical term for this is “differential settlement,” which means that the different parts of the building — depending on how heavy they are and how much the soil can bear — settle to different depths.

From the start there was tension between the two firms, Adler & Sullivan and Burnham & Root (later D.H Burnham & Company) although no one could have known it would erupt years later in a caustic attack by Sullivan on Burnham’s greatest achievements, this after Sullivan’s own career had dissolved in a mist of alcohol and regret. For now, the tension was subtle, a vibration, like the inaudible cry of overstressed steel. It arose from discordant beliefs about the nature and purpose of architecture. Sullivan saw himself as an artist first, an idealist. In his autobiography, in which he always referred to himself in the third person, he described himself as “an innocent with his heart wrapped up in the arts, in the philosophies, in the religions, in the beatitudes of nature’s loveliness, in his search for the reality of man, in his profound faith in the beneficence of power.” He called Burnham a “colossal merchandiser” fixated on building the biggest, tallest, costliest structures. “He was elephantine, tactless, and blurting.”

Louis Sullivan was perhaps the city’s most philosophical architect. Realizing that the skyscraper represented a new form of architecture, he discarded historical precedent and designed buildings that emphasized their vertical nature. He arguably invented and indisputably defined the aesthetic and purpose of the skyscraper. But as the nineteenth century drew to a close, a faltering economy, changing aesthetic tastes, and the dissolution of his partnership with Adler hampered Sullivan’s career. By the time he died in 1924, alcoholic, depressed, and impoverished, his work had fallen out of favor, and in the years to come, many of his buildings fell into disrepair and were demolished.

The other Sullivan building still standing in Chicago is the Sullivan Centre. Formerly known as the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store, the building was designed by Louis Sullivan for the retail firm Schlesinger & Mayer in 1899, and expanded by him and subsequently sold to H.G. Selfridge & Co. in 1904. Subsequent additions were completed by Daniel Burnham in 1906 and Holabird & Root in 1961.

Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store, 1899, by Louis Sullivan
Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store, 1899, by Louis Sullivan

The building is remarkable for its steel-framed structure, which allowed a dramatic increase in window area created by bay-wide windows, which in turn allowed for the greatest amount of daylight into the building interiors. This provided larger displays of merchandise to outside pedestrian traffic creating the idea of the sidewalk showcase. In between the windows were lavish bands of terra-cotta that replaced the earlier plan for white Georgia quarries because it was lightweight and inexpensive. Another reason for the change in what type of marble they would use in construction was that stone cutters were having a strike in 1898 during the time of construction. The lavish Bronze-plated cast-iron ornamental work above the rounded tower was also meant to be functional because it was to be as resilient as a sheet of copper. Both the use of bronze and terra-cotta was important to setting the building apart from others because it was essentially fire resistant. It created a sense of monumentality. Sullivan thought the building would be an asset to the city for a long period of time. To ensure this great building would last and be resilient against the threat of fire, there was a 40 ft water tower put on the roof to supply the sprinkler system with enough water.

Sullivan Center, 1903, by Louis Sullivan
Sullivan Center, 1903, by Louis Sullivan

Sullivan highlighted the lower street-level section and entryway to draw shoppers into the store. This was done in a number of ways. The windows on the ground floor, displaying the store’s products, are much larger than those above. The three doors of the main entrance were placed within a rounded bay on the corner of the site, so that they are visible from all directions approaching the building.

Sullivan Centre - detail of corner entrance
Sullivan Centre – detail of corner entrance

The corner entryway and the entire base section are differentiated from the spare upper stories by a unified system of extremely ornate decoration. The cast-iron ornament contains the same highly complicated, delicate, organic and floral motifs that had become hallmarks of Sullivan’s design aesthetic. For Sullivan, the decorative program served a functional project as well, to distinguish the building from those surrounding it, and to make the store attractive to potential customers.

Sullivan Centre - detail of corner entrance
Sullivan Centre – detail of corner entrance

The upper parts of the Carson, Pirie, Scott building also reflect Sullivan’s adaptation of his skyscraper theory to a department store. Each successive story of the white terra-cotta façade contains identical windows, in this case the three-sectioned “Chicago” window common to late 19th century skyscrapers in the city. There is an overhanging cornice at the very top that seems to signify the end of the building’s ascent, and makes the slightly set-back attic level distinct from the broad mid-section and the dark cast-iron decoration of the base level.

Sullivan Centre - detail of terracotta exterior with "Chicago" windows at right
Sullivan Centre – detail of terracotta exterior with “Chicago” windows at right
Sullivan Centre - detail of terracotta exterior
Sullivan Centre – detail of terracotta exterior
Sullivan Centre - reconstructed cornice detail
Sullivan Centre – reconstructed cornice detail

Across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park is the Chicago Cultural Center, opened in 1897.

Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago Cultural Center

The building was designed by Boston architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge for the city’s central library, and Grand Army of the Republic meeting hall and memorial in 1892.

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial is a large hall and rotunda in the north wing. The hall is faced with deep green Vermont marble, broken by a series of arches for windows and mahogany doors. The rotunda features 30-foot walls of Knoxville pink marble, mosaic floor, and a fine, stained-glass dome in Renaissance pattern by the firm of Healy and Millet.

Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge - Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge – Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge - Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall Ceiling Detail
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge – Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall Ceiling Detail

The Washington Street entrance with an arched portal and bronze-framed doors leads to a 3-story, vaulted lobby with walls of white Carrara marble and mosaics. The grand staircase is of white Carrara marble, set with medallions of green marble from Connemara, Ireland, and intricate mosaics of Favrile glass, stone, and mother of pearl.

Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge - Top of the grand staircase
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge – Top of the grand staircase
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge - Grand Staircase and Preston Bradley Hall, with view of the Tiffany dome
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge – Grand Staircase and Preston Bradley Hall, with view of the Tiffany dome

Preston Bradley Hall is a large, ornately patterned room of curving white Carrara marble, capped with an austere 11 meters Tiffany glass dome designed by artist J. A. Holtzer. The Cultural Center states this to be the largest Tiffany dome in the world.

Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge - Preston Bradley Hall
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge – Preston Bradley Hall
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge - Tiffany dome in Preston Bradley Hall
Chicago Cultural Centre, 1897, by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge – Tiffany dome in Preston Bradley Hall

Louis Comfort Tiffany was one of America’s most acclaimed artists who revolutionized the art of stained glass windows, not only through his innovative glass and techniques of production, but also by bringing changes in the theme of stained glass windows, from religious compositions, to pastoral scenes, ornamental designs and also floral motifs.

Tiffany’s name is associated with New York City. He was born in NYC and his most famous firms – Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. and Tiffany Studios – were both based in NY city. However, he had very close ties with Chicago. Tiffany’s strong association with Chicago began with World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, where Byzantine inspired chapel and ecclesiastical wares were an international sensation, and won him 54 medals. Soon many commissions in Chicago followed, which compelled him to open a satellite studio in Chicago.

Apart from the dome at the Chicago Cultural Center, Tiffany’s work can be seen in other places in Chicago.

The Tiffany dome at Fullerton Hall of the Art Institute of Chicago was uncovered during the 2001 restoration of the Fullerton Hall Auditorium, built in 1898.

Art Institute of Chicago - Tiffany dome in Fullerton Hall
Art Institute of Chicago – Tiffany dome in Fullerton Hall Auditorium

The Tiffany dome at Macy’s at State Street [earlier Marshall Field and Co.] was built in 1907. Tiffany designed the store’s ceiling and chandeliers. It is the largest unbroken example of Tiffany Favrile glass in the world, with over 1.6 million pieces of glass.

Tiffany dome at Marshall Field's [now Macy's] at State Street, Chicago
Tiffany dome at Marshall Field’s [now Macy’s] at State Street, Chicago
Tiffany dome at Marshall Field's [now Macy's] at State Street, Chicago
Tiffany dome at Marshall Field’s [now Macy’s] at State Street, Chicago

The Marquette Building has a frieze of six stunning iridescent glass and abalone mosaics designed by Tiffany designer J.A. Holzer and executed by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company of New York.

Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche

The Marquette Building, completed in 1895, was built by the George A. Fuller Company and designed by architects Holabird & Roche. The building was one of the early steel frame skyscrapers of its day, and is considered one of the best examples of the Chicago School of architecture.

Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche

The building was named after Father Jacques Marquette, the first European settler in Chicago, who explored the Chicago region in 1674 and wintered in the area for the 1674-5 winter season. The ensemble of mosaics, sculptures and bronze of the Marquette Building entry and interior honors Jacques Marquette’s 1674-5 expedition. Four bas-relief panels over the main entrance by sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil show different scenes from Marquette’s trip through the Great Lakes region, ending with one depicting his burial.

Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche – Main entrance

The hexagonal railing around the lobby atrium is decorated with a mosaic frieze by the Tiffany studio depicting events in the life of Jacques Marquette, his exploration of Illinois, and Native Americans he met. The mosaics are by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his chief designer and art director, Jacob Adolph Holzer; they contain panels of lustered Tiffany glass, mother-of-pearl and semi-precious stones.

Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche – Tiffany mosaic frieze
Tiffany
Tiffany mosaic detail

Unlike other Chicago office buildings that restricted public access after 9/11, the Marquette Building remains open to the public. Visitors can go up the lobby stairs to the second floor for a grand view.

Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche

In 2007 the MacArthur Foundation opened a free interactive exhibit, which shows the building’s history.

Model of Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche
Model of Marquette Building, 1895, Holabird & Roche

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