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 Craik 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, Sullivan 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 might, however, make the argument that the Auditorium’s tower is a skyscraper.) 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 building, 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)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s