Looking at those soaring skyscrapers shaping the skylines of cities around the globe, have you ever wondered what started this? Well, it all started in Chicago; the small town that started with a mere population of 200, and grew to be a modern metropolis—home for over a million and a half Americans, by the end of the 19th century. A major reason why Chicago has tremendously flourished in those 70 years was its architecture, known as the Commercial Style, or the Chicago School.

The Industrial Revolution lead to many things; among which is Skyscrapers.

The Industrial Revolution started in the second half of the 18th century and changed the face of the world. It marked the end of the era of handcrafted products and introduced mass production using machinery powered by steam engines. Among the revolutionary products that highly benefited from mass production is steel. The availability of steel, in addition to the invention of the elevator, led construction and structure engineers to dream of a new world of possibilities, but we could sum it up in two words: “Tall Buildings”.

Elisha Otis introducing the elevator – Photography: Copie de gravure ancienne via Wikimedia Commons

World’s First Skyscraper was 10 Floors High!

Structural engineers dreamed, but architects were not as flexible. They liked their pediments, entablatures, and columns the way they were—classic by the book. However, this did not stop the flow, and the world’s first skyscraper rose to its full height in 1884. Architect and structural Engineer William Le Baron Jenney designed the 42-meter-high Home Insurance Building; the first tall structure to utilize steel for framing. The building comprised 10 floors which became 12, 7 years later, increasing the height of the whole edifice to 54.9 meters. Unfortunately, you can only view this building in old images now because it was demolished in 1931 to be replaced by an even higher building, the Field Building—a.k.a. LaSalle Bank Building.


Home Insurance Building – Photography: Chicago Architectural Photographing Company via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chicago School dominates . . . High-rises everywhere!

The construction of the Home Insurance Building initiated a trend that lives up to this day and only keeps flourishing. The need for those high-rise commercial buildings was initiated by, once again, the industrial revolution. Mass production meant more goods to be sold, and hence the need for sufficient commercial space. What could better do the job than multiple vertical expansions?

The Commercial Style buildings may have some common features that made them seem unified back in the time, but the truth is they showed more variety than similarities. This is why naming the movement/trend as Chicago School, by historian Carl W. Condit, has issued a debate.

How do you know it is probably Chicago School?

However, getting back to the similarities, here is a list of common architectural features between the Commercial Style/Chicago School Buildings.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

1. No more Greek columns, but the whole building has become one itself. How so?

The building’s overall form follows the structure of a classic column. Its lower floors act as the base/podium, featuring an exterior that is a bit distinctive from the rest of the buildings—usually incorporating more glass. Its middle floors act as the column’s shaft. And, finally, the top floors act as the capital, crowned with a cornice, and revealing some simple ornaments.

2. All buildings utilize a steel-frame structure, allowing more height. The structural steel was manufactured to be fire-proof to avoid catastrophes similar to the 1871 Chicago Fire.

3. The buildings are clad in masonry; e.g. Terra Cotta, showing little ornamentation and making space for large surface windows.

4. The design of the windows followed a system that ensured the entry of both light and ventilation;

The typical window then comprised a large fixed glass pane, between two smaller double-hung sash windows. Those windows are typically repeated all over the building, creating a regular grid. Sometimes, the windows are projected to the outside, creating a bay inside the space, and they are known as oriel windows.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As mention before, commonalities existed, but the Chicago School buildings maintained an air of diversity ensued by the brilliant architects who designed them. That brings us to the next question.

Who were the ‘Starchitects’ of the First Chicago School?

Wait! There was another one? Yes, the “Second” Chicago School was led by a number of modernist architects, like Mies Van Der Rohe, and it was there between the 1940s and 70s. However, this one is not the subject of our discussion.

The original Chicago School lasted between 1880 and 1910, and it featured these names most of all:  William Le Baron Jenney, Henry Hobson Richardson, William Holabird, Martin Roche, Daniel H Burnham, John Wellborn Root, Dankmar Adler, and last but not least at all Louis Sullivan.Those architects did not just design buildings for the sake of satisfying the demands of their clients or spreading an architectural trend, but furthermore to build a ‘modern democracy’ in the growing city of Chicago.

“With me, architecture is not an art, but a religion, and that religion but a part of democracy.” _ Louis Sullivan

Yes, Sullivan was good with his words. You might know him for these words too, a quote you have probably used or opposed yourself multiple times before; “Form follows function.”

Louis Sullivan – Photo via Art Institute of Chicago

Sullivan did not just leave us buildings, thoughts, and controversial quotes, but also Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan was the mentor of the legendary American modernist architect and his source of inspiration to the Prairie School style.

Finally, here is a collection of some of Chicago School’s most remarkable works.

Now, check these buildings and see how they all include the common features mention previously: the base/shaft/capital structure, the ornaments on the capital, the 6+ floors height, the standard windows, and the storefronts on the ground floor.

Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. (Sullivan Center) – Chicago

Louis Sullivan designed the Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. building, and it opened in 1899. Daniel Burnham completed the building by making some additions in 1906.

Auditorium Building – Chicago

The Auditorium Building is another masterpiece by Louis Sullivan and his practice partner Dankmar Adler. It opened in 1889. Young Frank Lloyd Wright joined as an assistant and worked on parts of the interior design.

Guaranty Building (Prudential Building) – New York

This is one of the fine examples of Chicago School architecture, but outside of Chicago. It features Sullivan’s exquisite floral ornamentation on the capital, especially at the corners.

Chicago Savings Bank Building (Chicago Building) – Chicago

The building was designed by William Holabird and Martin Roche of Holabird & Roche, and it opened in 1905. It features Oriel windows, Terra Cotta cladding, and a cornice on top of its capital.

Reliance Building – Chicago

Architect John Root designed the building in 1890, and Charles B. Atwood made additions and completed the building 1895. The building is remarkable for its relatively large glass surfaces which cover most of the facade, making it the closest thing to current skyscrapers fully enveloped in glass curtainwalls.

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