Chicago – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

The story of America’s special contribution to world architecture–the skyscraper–can best be seen in Chicago.  And there is no doubt that architecture is one of the special travel appeals and attractions of the city.

Chicago can boast the first efforts to construct tall buildings with a steel frame, rather than load-bearing stone walls. In Chicago you’ll find one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sear’s Tower.

Start an armchair or actual tour of Chicago architecture by entering the Willis Tower and taking the 20-miles-per-hour elevator to the observation deck, called the Skydeck, 103 stories above the street.  There is even a small glass box, the Ledge, putting you 4.3 feet beyond the Skydeck if you want to go out on the Ledge.  The Willis Tower (233 South Wacker Drive) rises 1,454 feet, fully 110 stories.  The observation deck is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., affording a chance for views of the city in changing daylight and in darkness.

Looking down, you see a vast concentration of major skyscrapers, including the white marble-sided Aon Center, formerly the AMOCO Building, and the John Hancock Center, both of which are among the taller buildings in the world.  From the John Hancock Center, you get special views of the winding shore of Lake Michigan.

From either the Willis Tower or the John Hancock Center you enjoy a bird’s eye view of the many historic structures that paved the way, from 1890-1920, for the modern architectural era.  Just being at the top of these tall buildings creates an exhilarating feeling. You can gaze into four states, watch jets take off from one of the world’s busier airports, O’Hare, peruse the vast expanse of Lake Michigan stretching to the eastern horizon, and take in the hefty development north and south from Chicago.  About 9.8 million people live in the Chicago metro area.

After an initial overview from the Willis Tower, proceed to the Chicago Architectural Foundation (224 South Michigan Avenue), which can provide brochures for a downtown walking tour of the great architectural monuments.  The Foundation’s website at describes a range of 65 guided walk and bike tours, plus exhibits that may be of interest.  The tours celebrate all aspects of Chicago architecture. One intriguing tour leaves via boat from North Pier for a view of Chicago from the Chicago River.

Chicago’s good fortune as the skyscraper capital began with a disaster, as happens so often in human history.  The Chicago Fire of 1871 literally wiped out the wood city that then existed.  Civic leaders with vision and businessmen of means then set out to rebuild a city with ample shoreline parks, sufficiently wide streets, and an orderly north-south and east-west orientation.  The city needed to rebuild quickly because it was the rail and lake-boat transportation hub.  Chicago’s fresh start was comparable in recent times to San Francisco’s opportunities after the Earthquake of 1906 or Japan’s industrial reconstruction after the devastation of World War II.


In the last quarter of the 19th century, new technology and building materials made possible feats of engineering and design that could produce much taller buildings.  The new element was the idea of an inner steel structure for a building.  Until then, stone or masonry walls had supported all tall structures.  One limitations of a stone structure was that the base needed to be built progressively wider as the building became taller.

With a supporting steel frame, the sky literally became the limit.  A parallel invention of the elevator enabled people to move effortlessly up and down the tall buildings.  Prior to the elevator, the cheaper rents were always on the upper floors, which were arduous to reach by stairs.  After the elevator, the rental structure reversed itself as potential renters sought a view.  Chicago architect William Le Baron Jenney experimented with the new steel construction, which allowed the walls of the building to be devoted to windows, letting in more light.

The Chicago School of Architecture

Two of Jenney’s students, Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham,  led the revolution. They developed commercial buildings that were identified as “The Chicago School,” noted for rectangular shapes with flat roofs and a terminating upper edge, or cornice.

Louis Sullivan’s signature building from this early era is the renowned department store, Carson, Pirie, and Scott (1 South State Street).  The building shows a modern design independent of historic styles for inspiration.  Notable around the store is Sullivan’s intricate cast-iron ornamentation.

The World Fair of 1893, known as The World Columbian Exposition, stimulated civic pride and a building boom.  Remember that the city had burned to the ground only 22 years earlier.  Architect Daniel Burnham admonished Chicago to “make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…”  The city responded to the challenge.

A third major name in the developing Chicago architectural drama was a German architect appointed as director of architecture for the Illinois Institute of Technology, in 1937.  This architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, emphasized what he called “The International Style,” a commitment to modern structural materials–steel, glass, and concrete–and built the world’s first all-glass-shell apartment building, along Lake Shore Drive.  The International Style produced glassed-in, box-like structures that could house any number of human activities.

Innovations in design continued, not without controversy.   Old and new architecture stands in close proximity in Chicago.  For example, architect Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center, now the James R. Thompson Center, consists of a massive round structure in which the offices of the bureaucrats are readily viewed, without walls, by citizens traveling up and down the elevators in the center of the building.  Jahn meant to create a modern village, a kind of polis, where the affairs of government are carried on openly, visible to the scrutiny of the people.  Many Chicagoans have an opinion on Jahn’s Illinois Center, which is 165 feet in diameter and rises in a mammoth atrium 17 stories high.

Complementing the architecture of Chicago are impressive public sculptures by the likes of Picasso and Calder.  The sculptures have become integral elements in the traveler’s experience of the city’s architectural heritage.

In summary, some main buildings and public sculptures to see on a downtown Chicago architectural tour are:

*The Willis Tower Tower (233 South Wacker Drive), one of the world’s tallest buildings, with a superlative observation deck.

*The Aon Center, formerly known as the AMOCO  Building (200 East Randolph Street), which provides another observation deck for viewing the city.

*The John Hancock Center (875 North Michigan Avenue), which has a 360 degree view Observatory on top.

*The Water Tower (806 North Michigan), a stone structure from 1869, one of the few buildings that survived the Fire of 1871.  North and south of the Water Tower stretches the famous Chicago shopping area, known as  The Magnificent Mile.

*The Sullivan Center, formerly known as the Carson, Pirie, and Scott Department Store (One South State Street), one of Louis Sullivan’s acclaimed designs.  Visually pleasing because of its cast-iron ornamentation.

*The Monadnock Building (53 West Jackson Boulevard), held up with six-foot-thick masonry walls, flaring at the base.  Demonstrates the limits of load-bearing walls.  Sixteen stories high.

*The Manhattan Building (431 South Dearborn), from 1890. The Manhattan Building was one of the first tall commercial buildings to use steel frame construction throughout and was the world’s tallest building when completed in 1891.

*The Chicago Board of Trade Building (141 West Jackson Boulevard), built in 1930.  Topped with an aluminum statue of the Roman god of grain, Ceres.  A good example of Art Deco architecture in Chicago, with strong vertical lines and a stepped-back facade required by ordinances of the time to insure more light and ventilation in urban environments.  Inside, you can watch the grain-market traders at work.

*The Richard J. Daley Civic Center Plaza (Washington Street between Dearborn and Clark Streets), notable for its large and unnamed Picasso sculpture, a symbol of Chicago.

*The Federal Building (Dearborn and Adams), site of Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo” sculpture, an elegant, red abstraction of the bird.  Calder’s mobile, “Universe,” graces the second floor of the Willis Tower.  The cluster of three Federal Buildings forms a pure expression of Mies van der Rohe’s “International Style,”  box-like structures of steel and glass with a walk-through look at street level.

*The Merchandise Mart (Wells and Orleans), the most massive building in Chicago.  It rises only 25 stories, but covers a city block and has 5,500 windows.  Be sure to see the bronze, sculptured heads of American merchant princes in front of the building.  Appropriately, the merchant princes have their eyes on the store, contemplating the bottom line.

*The James R. Thompson Center,  formerly the State of Illinois Center (1oo West Randolph),  by architect Helmut Jahn. One of the most controversial buildings in Chicago today.  Some would argue that the round design of the structure looks out of place.  Others feel that the building is a brilliant innovation, opening up the business of state government, visually, to the people.  Functional problems, such as heating and cooling difficulties within the glass-dome structure, have obscured the question of its aesthetics.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses

The most famous student of Louis Sullivan was a young man from Wisconsin who was destined to put his name on the home architecture designs of America.  That student, Frank Lloyd Wright, built his own home and 23 other residences in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.  This is the largest concentration of Wright houses in the world.

A visit to Oak Park and Wright’s houses makes a fitting counterpoint to viewing the commercial high-rises of downtown Chicago.  The guiding entity behind the Wright legacy and tours is the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust (

Oak Park, an easy ten-mile L-train ride west from downtown, has a Visitor Center where you can get maps of the adjacent walking area.

Wright’s house and studio (951 Chicago) is now a museum.   The house is where he lived with his family of six children and worked with a dozen assistants.  Wright hand-crafted the house with careful designs for everything from the chairs in the dining room to the piano in the spacious children’s playroom.  The Wright House has been carefully restored to its 1909 appearance and is open for tours.  The drafting room in the house, with its ample skylight, is a prototype of his later designs for vertical spaces.  Innovations such as recessed lighting, design prominence of geometric grillwork, and plentiful use of natural materials, especially the oak wood then plentiful, characterize the house.

His designed houses reflect Wright’s “Prairie style” and his fascination with Japanese motifs.  Prairie-style houses, inspired by the flatness of the American Midwest, were low, earth-hugging dwellings, with strong horizontal lines, built of natural materials such as wood and stucco.  Prairie-style homes, emphasizing long roof overhangs and shielded entrances, can be spotted easily in Oak Park against a backdrop of choice Victorian, Queen Anne, and Italianate structures.  The city of Oak Park amounts to a living library of turn-of-the-century American house design.

At 210 Forest, you can see the first of Wright’s Prairie-style homes, that of Frank W. Thomas.  Another 11 Wright houses cluster within a three-block area.  A guide map from the Oak Park Visitor Center or from the Wright House alerts the traveler to this easy walk.

One of Wright’s major public space commissions, the Unity Temple of the Unitarian Church, can be seen in Oak Park.  Unity Temple shows his passion for geometric style and many design innovations, such as parishioners exiting the church by passing in front of the minister rather than turning their backs to leave.  Wright’s church was a radical departure from past church architecture, constructed of concrete, an unfamiliar church material at the time, and planned without a customary steeple outside or a cross inside.

While many aspects of Chicago can delight a traveler, the role of Chicago in the development of American architecture ranks as a pre-eminent rationale for visiting the city.


Chicago: If You Go

Obtain further information from Choose Chicago, the official Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau,




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

I accept the Privacy Policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.