The Chicago Style of Architecture
The Chicago Style of Architecture
A National Style. In H. H. Richardson (1838-1886) America recognized indisputable genius. But could any one architect, or any one architectural style, be singled out as quintessentially American? Throughout the 1880s a debate raged between those architects eager to identify a representative “American” style and those who believed that no single style could hope to represent the vitality—and diversity—of the nation. One critic suggested that his countrymen “aim to unite the quiet serenity shown in the Greek with the heaven-aspiring tendency of the Gothic. Aim to have the proportions as agreeable and the whole as harmonious as the Greek. As agreeable as the French. As vigorous as the English. As refined as the Florentine. As systematic as the German. ... and the time may come when foreigners will copy as eagerly from us as we now do from them.” Champions of regional American architecture disagreed. Frederick Corser, a Minnesotan, fulminated against the American penchant for importing architectural styles from abroad. Good architecture, Corser insisted, answered a native population’s “living needs.” Corser counseled American architects to “adapt your buildings to the nature of things instead of trying to get up national styles or import the fashion of King this and Queen that.”
Out of the Ashes. Chicago—the largest city in the fastest-growing region of the country—answered Corser’s call for a vital indigenous architecture. In 1871 a devastating fire had nearly razed the downtown area of the city. When the smoke cleared, one in three buildings was burned beyond repair. Miraculously, over the following two decades, a bustling new city emerged from the ashes. The population of Chicago more than doubled between 1880 and 1890; buildings of seven, eight, nine, as many as twelve stories dotted the downtown area. By 1893, with visitors strolling the shores of Lake Michigan and marveling at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago had decisively entered the ranks of world-class cities. Boosters of Chicago rated their city above the aging metropolises of the East Coast. “How much do you suppose people in Iowa and Kansas and Minnesota think about Down East?” asks a character in Henry Blake Fuller’s novel The Cliff-Dwellers (1893). “Not a great deal,” the speaker continues, adding, “It’s Chicago they’re looking to. This town looms up before them and shuts out Boston and New York, and the whole seaboard from the sight and thoughts of the West and the Northwest and the New Northwest and the Far West and all the other Wests yet to be invented.” Fuller’s prose captures the spirit of a reborn city. With its lofty skyscrapers and imposing commercial buildings Chicago loomed literally as well as figuratively in the nation’s imagination.
Developing the Loop. A trolley route encircling downtown Chicago gave rise to a nickname for the area: “The Loop.” Among the architects who transformed the Loop in the aftermath of the Great Fire, the elder statesman was William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907), a graduate of Yale who had continued his architectural studies in Paris. Jenney arrived in Chicago in 1867, following a five-year stint in the army engineer corps during the Civil War. Over the next decade Jenney’s architectural office served as training ground for several architects whose names would be associated with the renaissance of Chicago: Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), William Holabird (1854-1923), Martin Roche (1853-1927), and Louis Henri Sullivan (1856-1924). Two other noted architects, Dankmar Adler (1844-1900) and John Wellborn Root (1850-1891), also migrated to Chicago and joined forces with Sullivan and Burnham, respectively. Working as collaborators and competitors, this band of architects transformed the Loop into a showcase commercial center.
Notable Buildings. Many post-Civil War commercial buildings in America were designed as virtual advertisements for an era of conspicuous consumption. Department stores assumed the form of palaces; so did insurance offices, banks, and stock-market buildings. Chicago rejected the gaudy. A commercial building should look like a commercial building: big, bold, and bluntly functional. Among the notable buildings developed in Chicago during the 1880s and 1890s are the Home Insurance Building (Jenney, 1884), the first American structure completely supported by a steel frame; the Rookery (Burnham and Root, 1885-1888), an expansive granite office building with an airy interior courtyard; the Tacoma Building (Holabird and Roche, 1886-1888), fourteen stories tall, with a frame constructed of riveted steel; the Monadnock Building (Burnham and Root, 1889-1892), sixteen stories tall and praised by Sullivan as “an amazing cliff of brickwork”; the Second Leiter Building (Jenney, 1889-1891), a latticework structure modeled on Richardson’s Marshall Field store; and the Reliance Building (Burnham and Root, 1890-1895), with a steel skeleton enclosed in grayish terracotta.
Commercialism versus Classicism. Late-nineteenth-century Chicago harbored high-culture aspirations. The Art Institute was founded in 1879; the Chicago Symphony in 1891; and the University of Chicago in 1892. Still, commerce and industry were the city’s lifeblood
—and the urban landscape reflected this exuberant materialism. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 could have served as a showcase for the city’s distinctive commercial style. Instead, under Daniel Burnham’s direction, the designers of the fairground looked backward rather than forward. In the words of one contributing architect, “It is the high function of architecture not only to adorn this triumph of materialism, but to condone, explain and supplement it, so that some elements of ‘sweetness and light’ may be brought forward to counterbalance the boastful Philistinism of our times.” Indeed, in finished form, the fair blatantly repudiated the Loop. With its domes, statues, and ubiquitous white stucco, the White City wallowed in classical revival styling. Louis Sullivan was among those who considered the White City “an appalling calamity” that warped the course of American architecture. Not all was lost, however,
for the adherents of Chicago’s “commercial style.” Long after the crowds of 1893 had dispersed and the storybook fairgrounds had closed, the buildings of Chicago’s Loop remained on exhibit and, more important, in use.
William H. Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects: Progressive and Academic Ideals at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972);
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982).