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.
1.1. 1874: THE BEGINNING – FIREPROOFING THE IRON FRAME
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 was 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.)
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 30”). 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).