Whether it is Chicago’s status as a sophisticated, world-class city by the lake, its famous skyline, beloved sports teams, different seasons, or famous deep-dish pizza, Chicagoans have much to appreciate about their city. If you live, work and play in the Windy City, you should add the city’s architecture to your list of things to be proud of.
Many design concepts that originated in Chicago weld heavy influence in the world of architecture. Since rising from the ashes of the Chicago Fire that occurred in 1871, which destroyed most of the buildings located in the downtown area, you cannot overstate the breadth and depth of Chicago’s contribution to the history of architecture in the United States. Only two buildings remained standing after the fire — one of them Old Water Tower.
Buoyed by a resurgence in civic pride, developers and engineers in Chicago turned their attention to building. The city has experienced a growing population with over 2.5 million residents. Chicago’s property owners in the central district wanted to take advantage of rising real estate prices.
This new approach to construction symbolized the ingenuity of Chicagoans. It also served as a preview of the contributions the city would make to architecture history in the United States and abroad.
The original meaning of the “Chicago School” references the pioneering skyscraper architecture that took place from 1879 to 1910. The following pioneers approached their craft free of a blind allegiance to a particular set of principles in design:
- William Le Baron Jenney
- William Holabird
- Martin Roche
- Daniel Hudson Burnham
- John Wellborn Root
- Dankmar Adler
- Louis Sullivan
Often referred to as the Commercial style, the first wave of Chicago style is known for using:
- A steel-frame structure
- An exterior usually made of terra cotta
- Large plate-glass windows
The Commercial style also introduced the “Chicago window,” a large, fixed glass panel in the center with a smaller double-hung window on each side.
Chicago’s famous landmarks credited to this influential wave of architects include the following:
- Home Insurance Building (1884)
- Marshall Field Warehouse (1885-7)
- Rookery Building (1885-87)
- Auditorium Building (1889)
- Monadnock Building (1889-91)
- Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company Building (1899)
Frank Lloyd Wright has a place on this list, but unlike the others players who focused on commercial structures, Wright focused on domestic designs and the development of his Prairie-style portfolio.
Many of Chicago’s famous landmarks make up skyline of downtown, and they’re located within easy walking distance of each other. If you venture out into the neighborhoods, you will discover countless hidden architectural jewels that may not have Chicago’s famous landmark status, but are real treasures nonetheless.
When you plan your architectural outing in downtown Chicago, a neighborhood or in a nearby suburb, make sure you identify local eateries where you and your family can refresh and enjoy a meal. A stop at Giordano’s — one of the best restaurants in Chicago — will complete a day that encompasses everything there is to love about our diverse city.
Old Water Tower
Old Water Tower stands as a testament to Chicago’s resiliency, and many Chicagoans walk past this structure every day without possessing a true understanding of its background.
Built in 1869 and originally named the Pine Street Water Tower, this 18-story tall structure sits at 800 North Michigan Avenue — right in the center of the Magnificent Mile. Its silhouette makes for a stark contrast to other Chicago landmarks like the John Hancock Center and Water Tower Place, which is America’s first vertical mall.
The purpose of Old Water Tower was to conceal a 131-feet tall standpipe installed to balance the pressure of the water siphoned from nearby pumping stations. The new system eliminated the need to draw water from the basins situated along the shoreline, which contain pollutants from the Chicago River. The pumping system ensured a supply of clean water for Chicagoans and marked a pivotal juncture in the city’s growth and development.
The details that cover the exterior of the tower belie the simplicity of the underlying layout. The design utilizes four cubes, which create a larger square. Engineers positioned two additional cubes of the same size, vertically. This provided support for the octagon towers.
The building’s architectural adornments have a way of projecting complexity, such as:
- Corner buttresses
- Angular parapets
- Slotted battlements
- Lancet windows
- Projecting turrets
- Wall piers
- Tower spires
In 1911, the city disconnected the structure from the water system after it became technologically obsolete. For years, officials listed Old Water Tower with a height of 154 feet. In 1994, the National Parks Service reported that the height actually measured 182 feet.
Although there have been numerous schemes to demolish or move the “old lady,” preservationists ultimately prevailed. The restored structure remains in its original location. Now you know why Michigan Avenue curves toward the east and Chicago Avenue at this location.
When you approach the Museum of Science and Industry with its massive columns and beautiful inscribed metal doors, even from afar, you will intuitively know that the building has some modicum of importance to Chicago.
Located at South Lake Shore Drive and 57th Drive along Lake Michigan, and near the University of Chicago, the neoclassical structure looks like a Roman temple. It happens to be the only remaining building from the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition.
Daniel Burnham, the Director of Works for the fair, envisioned the construction of a number of key buildings that would draw on the Classical Revival style and the use of Greece and Roman forms. Expecting 27 million visitors, including 14 million international tourists, Burnham believed the structures would provide the city “historical credibility.”
Originally called the Palace of Fine Arts and designed by Charles C. Atwood, the exterior walls consisted of a material called gesso, or staff. This blend of plaster of Paris, glue and hemp was painted white, and it enveloped the wood frame of all of the main exposition buildings.
This core of Beaux-Arts buildings, affectionately called “White City,” provided the space required to facilitate the celebration of the 400th-year anniversary of Columbus setting foot in the New World. It also served as a backdrop for Chicago’s coming out party to the nation and the world.
At the end of the fair, the Palace of Fine Arts became the home of the Field Museum, which moved to its current location in Grant Park in 1921. The Palace of Fine Arts deteriorated until 1926. At that time, Julius Rosenwald, the Chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co, took an active interest in the property. Rosenwald knew that the Palace of Fine Arts had a fireproof substructure made of steel and brick and would provide a perfect spot for a museum dedicated to interactive exhibits — much like the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany — which Rosenwald and his son had visited many years earlier.
Rosenwald put up about $8 million of his own money to replace the plaster-clad exterior of the building with limestone and marble to provide more permanence. Positioned at the far end of the 1893 World’s Fair original Midway Plaisance, the Museum of Science and Industry opened its doors in 1933. This was just in time for the Century of Progress Exhibition, the first interactive museum in North America.
Today, with 14 acres of interior space, and billed as the “largest science center in the Western Hemisphere,” the Museum of Science and Industry provides a unique look at the important architecture that emanated from the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.
Working from his Oak Park, Illinois studio, Wright created the design for the Robie House in 1907 and 1908. Built on a 60-feet wide by 180-feet long corner lot, the structure has double-width walls constructed of Chicago common brick and a red-orange, iron-spotted Roman brick veneer. The thin lines of cream-color mortar in the vertical joints accentuate the horizontal lines of the Roman bricks.
The home has a continuous band of art-glass windows and cantilevered roof eaves. Made from Bedford limestone, the copings, lintels, sills, planter urns and other exterior trim work completes the exterior of this Hyde Park home.
The interior of consists of two rectangles:
- One side includes a billiards room and a children’s playroom. Both rooms open to a private enclosed garden. Another door leads to the courtyard. The second floor on this side contains the living room, which flows into a dining room. The rooms have a series of 12 French doors, which open to an exterior balcony. The balcony runs the length of the side of the home and overlooks the enclosed garden area.
- The other rectangle space houses the functional area and service-related spaces, such as the main door, entrance hall and the stairway that leads to the second floor living and dining rooms. This side also has the boiler room and leads to the garage, servant quarters, guest bedrooms and other space. The third floor of the 9,062-square feet property, which Wright called the “belvedere,” includes the master bedroom, dressing area, full bath and additional bedrooms.
Millions of ranches, bungalows and other styles for homes in Chicago and across America have their genesis in Wright’s Prairie Style. It gave American architects the permission they needed to experiment with styles, materials and forms that expanded beyond the traditional bounds of the neoclassical style that dominated the early nineteenth century with its pointed gable roofs and quaint, boxy interior spaces.
Frank Lloyd Wright, a student of Louis Sullivan, smashed that paradigm. His portfolio emphasized flowing, sleeker and airy designs — the Prairie style, as personified in the Robie House. Even Wright called the house, which has influenced subsequent generations of designers and engineers, “a source of world-wide architectural inspiration.”
You can spend days perusing the Hyde Park neighborhood, checking out architectural wonders like the Robie House, Rookery, Museum of Science and Industry and other Chicago’s landmarks.
You will surely work up an appetite as you explore these historic buildings. Make sure that you stop by the local Giordano’s, which ranks as one of the best places to eat in Chicago, year after year. Located at 5311 S. Blackstone Avenue, you can enjoy one of our famous deep-dish pizzas, exceptional pastas and unique sandwiches.
Lake Point Tower
If you’ve traveled on Lake Shore Drive, you probably noticed Lake Point Tower. It punctuates the skyline and stands out as one of the most noticeable structures in the city, located at 505 N. Lake Shore Drive, just west of Navy Pier.
John Heinrich and George Schipporeit, two students of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, created the masterpiece. The two men borrowed some of the design concepts from a Mies van der Rohe sketch made in 1921, which depicted a glass-sheathed skyscraper positioned on a triangular site in Berlin.
The original design had four wings. The reduction of the design to three wings shortened the construction period and provided less surface area for wind resistance. Completed in 1968, and originally an apartment building, the 70-story structure with its sweeping curtain of curved glass walls became condominiums in 1988. It remained the tallest residential building in the world until 1993.
Even today, Lake Point Tower exudes a modern yet timeless beauty. One architect and resident of the building said of the unique shape and futuristic form, “Few buildings are so attractive from every angle.” The design facilitates unobstructed views of the city and shoreline. The three wings that flow from the core of the building form an asymmetrical Y-shaped floor plan. The outer walls provide privacy for each apartment.
The list of people who have called the building home includes Tom Cruise, Halle Berry, Alice Cooper and Ozzie Guillen. The 1973 Lakefront Protection Ordinance ensures that the elegant tower will retain its place in the city’s history as the only Chicago skyscraper east of Lake Shore Drive.
The Marina City Towers brought to downtown Chicago offer some of the conveniences of suburbia in the form of a vertical, self-contained commercial and residential complex. The two cylindrical, sixty-story towers were a vision of Bertrand Goldberg, a protégé of Mies van der Rohe. They were completed in 1964.
A 35-foot diameter cylindrical core in each of the towers provided rigidity for the structures and housed most of the services and utilities required for the complex. This design element also allowed the living areas to receive plenty of natural light and spectacular views of the city.
At the time of its construction, Marina Towers represented the biggest building ever built with reinforced concrete. The use of concrete made it feasible to accommodate the petal shape of the apartments. The towers stood in sharp contrast to the contemporary structures in the background, which consisted of straight lines and cube-shaped apartment buildings and office spaces.
Each corncob-shaped tower has more than 400 hundred apartments. The complex includes restaurants, banks, a 16-story office building, a 1,750 seat auditorium, recreation facilities and 18 stories of parking space. Beneath the two towers, the complex even has its own dock at the Chicago River.
Other Notable Buildings in Chicago
The former Sears Tower was at one time the tallest building in the world at 110 stories and 1,454 feet. The skyscraper at 233 S. Wacker represents a smooth and intense triumph of structural engineering, which often leaves both Chicagoans and visitors alike in awe. The work of the architect Fazlur Khan and the Skidmore Owings and Merrill architectural firm, the structures is composed of nine squares. The sides measure 75 feet. As the tower rises above the 50th floor, some of the squares give way to smaller floor plates. This design element creates the stepped silhouette effect of the structure. The glassed-in topside observation deck presents stunning views of Chicago. As one of Chicago’s famous attractions, it continues to attract more than 1.5 million visitors each year.
John Hancock Center
Another of Chicago’s famous attractions, the 100-story John Hancock Center, located at 875 N. Michigan, also has an observatory on the top floor that provides a truly impressive after-dark panorama of the Windy City.
First National Bank Plaza
The massive, multi-level First National Bank Plaza offers one of the most inviting contemporary urban open spaces in the country. It provides an excellent place to rest, watch people, read your favorite book, listen to music, or take in the freestanding mosaic piece created by Marc Chagall. If you want something to eat, pick up a slice of deep dish pizza from the nearby Giordano’s located at the Lake Street Plaza. Then, find yourself a seat on the plaza and watch the computer-controlled performing fountain.
Whether you call the Windy City your home or you’re planning to travel here in the future, you can’t deny the impressive architecture of the global city of Chicago. And if there’s anything else Chicago is known for, it’s deep dish pizza. Get your fill of architectural beauty and deep dish by visiting one of our city’s design landmarks and then a Giordano’s.