British historian John Summerson analyzed 19th century architecture into three broad categories in terms of how an architect employed traditional architectural details: the archeological (an accurate copying of the details of a specific style or building), the eclectic (a creative mix of details from different styles and buildings), and the modern (a search for a new style of ornament and expression).   To this taxonomy, I add two of American historian Barry Bergdoll’s conceptual styles, the Revivalistic (while similar to the archeological, the revivalist uses the style in a creative way that transcends mere copying), and the Pluralistic (an architect or an era uses more than one style dependent upon its associative value for a given program).  I believe it is accurate to say that mainstream American architects in 1880, that is, before the stylistic division of 1884, both in the East and the West fell into the Eclectic/Pluralistic categories.  This is quite apparent in the first “Ten Favorite American Buildings” list compiled by the AIA in 1885.  In order these were:

1. Trinity Church, H.H. Richardson, Boston, 1872 (Romanesque Revival) (Online)

2. U.S. Capitol, William Thornton et.al., 1793 (Classical Revival) (Online)

3. William K. Vanderbilt House, Richard M. Hunt, New York City, 1878 (French Chateauesque) (Online)

4. Trinity Church, Richard Upjohn, New York City, 1839 (Gothic Revival) (Online)

5. Jefferson Market Courthouse, Vaux & Withers, New York City, 1874 (Victorian Gothic) (Online)

6. Connecticut State Capitol, Richard Upjohn, Hartford, 1871 (Eastlake/Queen Anne) (Online)

7. Albany City Hall, Richardson, Albany, 1880 (Romanesque Revival) (Online)

8. Sever Hall, Richardson, Harvard, 1878 (Romanesque Revival) (Online)

9. New York State Capitol, Richardson and Leopold Eidlitz, Albany, 1875 (Romanesque Revival) (Online)

10. Townhall, Richardson, North Easton, Mass, 1879 (Romanesque Revival) (Online)

Note that all of these buildings, with the sole exception of the much earlier U.S. Capitol, were designed in a style that was not Classical.  Five of the ten were designs by H.H. Richardson, attesting to the professional esteem in which his version of the Romanesque Revival was held in 1885, only six years before the architects chosen to design the World’s Fair for 1893 would first meet to determine the style in which the Fair would be designed.



But at this moment (1884) mainstream American architecture began to diverge into two dialectically opposed directions, broadly defined by geography.  While the Chicago School architects during the second half of the 1880s would slowly, but inexorably move from the mainstream’s Eclecticism (Romanesque Revival) to the Modern, Eastern architects whose number of graduates of France’s École des Beaux-Arts had continued to grow and led by McKim, Mead & White, following the death of Richardson in 1886, began to move away from the mainstream Romanesque Revival in the opposite direction.  That is, following the École’s archeologically correct version of Academic Classicism or the Classical Revival by incorporating Classical details and ideas, sometimes in very non-Classical ways, into their buildings. American historian William Jordy identified these two trends as the Progressive (in the West) and the Academic (in the East).


Bergdoll, Barry, European Architecture: 1750-1890, Oxford: Oxford Press, 2000.

Jordy, William H. American Buildings and Their Architects, Vol. 3. Garden City, NY/Anchor Press, 1976.

Summerson, John, Architecture in Britain 1530-1830, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


The School’s architectural aesthetic or vocabulary, as do all architectural styles, comprised of three parts: the concept for the design (the plot, if you will permit an analogy with literature), the building’s overall artistic/architectural expression (the rules of its grammar), and the style/type of ornament that the architect put on the building (the words) .  These Chicago architects used as their bible British architect Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, in which he exhorted his readers not to “slavishly copy” the works from the past, but to develop new styles of art for the contemporary world:

“How is any new style of art or new style of ornament to be formed, or even attempted to be formed?… the rising generation in both classes are born under happier auspices, and it is to them we must look for hope in the future.  It is for their use that we have gathered together this collection of the works of the past; not that they should be slavishly copied, but that artists should, by an attentive examination of the principles which pervade all the works of the past, and which have excited universal admiration, be led to the creation of new forms equally beautiful… The principles discoverable in the works of the past belong to us; not so the results.”

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. “Proposition Ten.” Jones recommended achieving harmony in a new ornamental system by “the propering balancing , and contrast of, the straight, the angular, and the curved.” One can find Jones’ system in most of Sullivan’s ornament. (Flores, Owen Jones)

Root had thoroughly digested Jones’ theory and applied it rigorously:

“To rightly estimate an essentially modern building, it must not be viewed solely from an archeological standpoint… Whenever in the world there was a period or style of architecture worth preserving, its inner spirit so closely fitted to the age wherein it flourished, that the style could not be fully preserved, either by the people who immediately succeeded it, or by us after many years… Our architecture if it is good will fit us… The object of all this study of architectural styles must be to acquire from former times the spirit in which our predecessors worked; not to copy what they did.”

While during the School’s early phase, its ornament admitted the free use of any historical detail, including Classical details, the real challenge faced by these architects was the development of a “modern” expression or language.  Taking their cues from European modern theorists that included Jones, Augustus Welby Pugin, John Ruskin, Gottfried Semper, Viollet-le-Duc, James Fergusson, and Edward Lacy Garbett, the key idea was Truth:  truth in function, truth in the use of materials, and truth in construction.  During the 1880s, they slowly but consciously moved away from their starting point, the then fashionable Romanesque Revival (the round-arched style championed by H.H. Richardson and used throughout the country) and abandoned the romantic, but anachronistic use of arches (needed to span openings in masonry construction) as the iron frame was carefully worked into the exteriors of their buildings.  

Adler & Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1890. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

So my thesis is that while this group of similarly minded architects, the “Chicago School” started by designing in the Romanesque Revival, they evolved a new architectural language, the “Chicago School,” that expressed the structure of the building and enriched it with a modern, ahistoric style of ornament.  Note that this means their language was not a formal language, but a theoretical or process aesthetic.  It was not, therefore, formally limited to expressing the skeleton frame, as some historians have claimed, for the objective was to express the structure, whether it was a bearing wall or an iron frame.  Another misinterpretation by some historians equates “express” with “expose” the structure.  Therefore, such a critic could condemn Sullivan’s Wainwright Building on the basis that every other column in its façade is not a structural column but a mechanical run, even though they are detailed to look the same. The word “express” in architecture has an artistic or poetic side that allows for the architect to blur the literal meaning of the word “express” in the employment of his/her “artistic license,” such as Sullivan was prone to do.

This is my definition of the “Chicago School” aesthetic, not the Romanesque Revival buildings that these architects had cut their professional teeth on.  The best example of this difference in the Chicago School architects’ two aesthetics are the elevations in Root’s Rookery designed in 1885: the exterior is Romanesque Revival, while the lightcourt elevations are Chicago School.  

Burnham and Root, The Rookery, Chicago, 1885. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)
Burnham and Root, The Rookery. Lightcourt. (Author’s collection)

So if you are following my logic, the vast majority of buildings designed during this period by the Chicago School architects were in the Romanesque Revival style, while a few examples of the new, modern “Chicago School” style did manage to be erected, sometimes only in portions of an elevation during the first experiments. Examples included the Shillito’s Store, the First Leiter Building, the Phoenix and Rookery lightcourts, the Tacoma, the Second Leiter, the Monadnock, the Chicago (Great Northern) Hotel, the Masonic Temple’s lightcourt,  and the Wainwright Building.

Burnham and Root, Phoenix Building, 1885. Rear elevation showing the skeletal nature of the lightcourt facade, the first use of exterior iron framing in post-fire Chicago. The alternating horizontal bands of brick spandrels and glass foretell of the elevation of the Rookery’s lightcourt and the exterior of the Tacoma Building, and predate Le Corbusier’s principle of the “free façade” by some thirty years. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)
Holabird and Roche, Tacoma Building, Chicago, 1888. (Online)


Flores, Carol A. Hrvol. Owen Jones. New York: Rizzoli, 2006.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


In 1878, Peter B. Wight, whom I consider to have been the School’s leading critic, identified the John Shillito’s Department Store in Cincinnati, designed by local architect James McLaughlin only the year before, as:

“the most important store building of the kind that has been erected… The style has been used in Chicago in many business buildings of moderate size and cost… A store now erecting on the [northwest] corner of Fifth Avenue [Wells] and Monroe Street is a good example.”

James McLaughlin, John Shillito and Co. Store, Cincinnati, 1877. (Cincinnati, The Queen City)
William Le Baron Jenney, First Leiter Building, Chicago, 1879.  Monroe Street Elevation.  Note the pinnacles above each pilaster that extend beyond the corbelled cornice.  These were eliminated in the 1888 addition, which imparted a sleeker, more boxlike or “prosaic” appearance to the building, for which the original 1879 building has been mistakenly known in Chicago’s history. (Art Institute of Chicago)

The building that Wight had identified as the first example in Chicago of this style was the much smaller and shorter First Leiter Building designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1878.  The building’s owner, Levi Z. Leiter was the partner of Marshall Field in their drygoods business, a direct competitor of Shillito’s, and had sent his architect to Cincinnati to study his competitor’s new building in the process of designing his own new building.  

Therefore, I chose the dates for the period in which this aesthetic was a mainstream movement (as opposed to its entire life of 1874-1904) as 1877-1892.  I chose 1892 as the other bookend of the movement, following the premature death of the group’s intellectual and artistic leader, John Wellborn Root.  He was an articulate, socially-gifted polymath whose talents ran the gamut from art and music (he was a natural pianist) to math and science (he had graduated from NYU with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1869). During his professional career, Root had designed more skyscrapers that were built than the combined total of all of the city’s other architects.  On the eve of the first meeting of the Columbian World’s Fair architects on January 12, 1891, Root had caught pneumonia and died three days later.   While buildings that were under construction or design at that moment extended the movement’s existence as the mainstream style in Chicago into the following year, Root’s surviving partner Daniel H. Burnham unilaterally led a change in the city’s mainstream architectural vocabulary to the Classical Revival with the changes to Root’s original Fair designs that he oversaw in the final design of the Fair.  Robert Craig McLean, editor of The Inland Architect, realized this as early as 1897 when he wrote: “By the time that the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago was projected and formulated, the Neoclassical influence became most potent, and it is safe to say that in the West it dates from the sudden and unfortunate death of John W. Root.”


If we employ the 19th century’s theory of the three-cycle life of a movement (birth-maturity-decline, to use one variation), the last period of the Chicago School comprised of Louis Sullivan’s unsuccessful attempts to assume Root’s mantle of leadership.  Although I doubt anyone would argue that Root’s ornament was equal to that of Sullivan’s (as best represented by Sullivan’s ceiling stencils for the Stock Exchange that I have consciously chosen to be the header of my blog), Sullivan was never the leader (theoretical, artistic, or political) of the movement while Root was alive, and soon after Root’s death, found that his design ideas had quickly fallen out of the public’s taste.  Sullivan’s position, vis-à-vis Root is quite evident in the fact that Sullivan’s first skyscraper, the Wainwright Building, didn’t start construction until after Root’s death.  One of the many tragic results of Root’s death was that Adler & Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building, that I consider to have been the quintessential building of the movement, was commissioned in 1893 and therefore, was never fully appreciated for its design perfection at the time of its completion because of this change in the public’s taste.  The completion of Sullivan’s last important Chicago skyscraper, the Schlesinger & Mayer Building marked the end of this movement in 1904.

Adler & Sullivan, Chicago Stock Exchange, Chicago, 1893. (Online)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


I have researched the Chicago School architects and their buildings for over four decades in my career as a Professor of Architecture.  I have completed the manuscript for just such a book, but until I find a publisher who is interested in making a book that does justice to this collection of important buildings, I have decided to serialize my findings in this blog, if for no other reason than to make this information public, hopefully before I die, otherwise it could be lost forever and my efforts totally in vain.  (I am, nonetheless, very interested in publishing this book, and if you have a contact or might be interested, please contact me.)  In order to start right away with the American precedents of the Chicago School, I have also chosen to write a second blog, “The Chicago School – European Precedents,” (this will be available next week) to be able to discuss the influence that contemporary French, British and other European architecture and theory had on these architects, so I don’t have to complete this section of European precedents before I begin the Chicago story. These blogs are also my way of marking the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871. I have already published my research (with over 600 images) on the architecture of pre-fire Chicago in my Instagram site: “thearchprofessorinchicago” (click the link in the right hand margin). 

This blog will document the history of the “Chicago School of Architecture,” a term that describes both the architectural style itself as well as the group of architects centered in, but not limited to Chicago whose objective in the design of their buildings was to develop just such a truly American modern, 19th century style of architecture.  By no means does this imply that every architect in Chicago during this period pursued this language, nor that only Chicago architects employed this style, but there was a critical mass of so interested architects that these professionals started their own magazine, The Inland Architect to publish their work and to communicate with other likeminded individuals.  They eventually even broke from the A.I.A. and formed a Western equivalent, the Western Association of Architects.  


I set the dates of the life of this movement as a style as 1874 to 1904.  The year 1874 marked the start of the technical development of what would be eventually called “Chicago construction,” that is, an iron skeleton frame that supported its masonry (fireproofed) enclosure.  These events in Chicago are historically associated with, but not limited to the development of the skyscraper as a typology and as a technology.  In fact, it lessens the sense of achievement in these buildings if one does not integrate their technological development with their aesthetic objectives.  The iron frame is a (but NOT THE ONLY) central technology for the Chicago School skyscraper, hence, the beginning of “Chicago construction” marks an important date in this history.

Chicago’s Peter B. Wight had patented on September 8, 1874, a system of wood casings attached to an iron column intended to fireproof the iron member.  Although the wood was quickly replaced by Wight with porous terra cotta tiles, a material patented by another Chicago architect, Sanford Loring, Wight’s system saved the iron skeleton frame (as developed in the U.S. from 1848 on primarily by New Yorkers James Bogardus, Daniel Badger, and George Post) from being prohibited by the Insurance companies in building construction following Chicago’s second great fire of July 14, 1874.  (Note that it was not the fire of October 8, 1871, that caused this development.)

Extent of 1874 Fire. (Online)

Therefore, 1874 marked the beginning of the technical development of Chicago’s iron skeleton frame, a construction technique needed to enable the city’s builders to erect skyscrapers taller than ten stories on Chicago’s relatively weak soil.  Traditional “cage construction,” that is, an interior iron frame enveloped and braced completely by exterior masonry bearing walls, had been employed to construct up to ten-storied skyscrapers in Chicago that still resulted in a controllable and acceptable amount of settlement over time.  But taller structures required ever thicker masonry bearing walls for their support whose overall weight simply surpassed the local soil’s bearing capacity and resulted in unacceptable amounts of settlement (the 17-story tower in the Auditorium eventually settled almost 28”).  Meanwhile, the vast majority of New York City’s underlying geology posed no such limit and therefore, cage construction could still be used there to build 20-story buildings (George Post’s 309’ New York World building of 1890 had 88” thick walls in the ground floor).

Burnham and Root, Monadnock Block. Longitudinal section showing how the thickness of the bearing walls varies as the wall grows taller. (Online)
George B. Post, New York World Building, New York, 1889-90. (Landau, Post)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)