It was the Chicago School’s honest expression of structure, however, that caught the attention of European “International Style” or “Modernist” historians (Sigfried Giedion, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson, Louis Mumford, and Carl Condit) to distinguish them from other “Modern” historians during the mid-20th century, as they presented the Chicago School buildings of this period as a precedent of the new functionalist, minimalist, undecorated architecture of Europe in the latter half of the 1920s.  Note that nowhere have I said that a goal of the Chicago School architects was the elimination of ornament, for their objective, following Owen Jones’ lead was to develop a modern style of ornament to be part and parcel of their new architectural language. 

John Root said as much, before Sullivan and Wright began to echo his sentiments, in one of his early essays, “Architectural Ornament” published in the April 1885 issue of Inland Architect:

“the purpose of decoration is… subordinate.  It should never be applied so as to conceal the outline and intent of more elementary and essential features.  It can never take the place of the vital parts of the structure.  It may cover them, but it must follow the form in which they best do their work… Decoration being thus subordinate and non-essential because a politeness, and as such is intended first to avoid giving offense, and then confer pleasure… Not only does the repose of a design demand that ornament shall be applied with accent and a sense of rhythm, but stretches of undecorated surface are essential to the value of such ornament… There is no reason why every smallest ornament of the building should not tend toward a predetermined result, and buildings constructed and decorated to be as homogeneous in expression and absolute in type as the organic creations of nature… Unity of design we must have. But the unity must spring from within the structure, not without it. The great styles of architecture are of infinite value but they are to be vitally imitated, not servilely copied. “

Therefore, it had been a chronological error, in fact, a complete misinterpretation of these buildings, to infer that the goal of these architects had been the elimination of all ornament from their buildings as a means to evolve a “modern” style, for the Chicago School was located not in Europe during the 1920s, but in the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century, when ornament was still an essential piece of a building’s total aesthetic.  Tom Leslie may had stated this best in his book, Chicago Skyscrapers: “Ornament was seen not as the ‘crime’ [referring to Adolf Loos’ 1913 essay, “Ornament and Crime”] that the avant-garde of coming decades would decry, but rather as a useful emphasis for basic compositional principles derived from economic and functional factors.”

Burnham & Root’s unornamented Monadnock was an aberration, not a prophecy, that was not the result of Root trying to strip all ornament from his designs, (look at his later Masonic Temple if you need proof).  The lack of carved ornament on the Monadnock was the result of the adamant requirement of the building’s owners, Peter C. and Shephard Brooks who did not want to expend the capital for unnecessary ornament on a building whose sole function was to generate rental income and whose visual textures would be quickly rendered illegible by the city’s smoke pollution.  (Does this mean that the venerable masonry pile on S. Dearborn Street is also not a “true” Chicago School building?  My answer should be obvious because I’ve already included it in the list of such buildings I presented earlier.  We’ll address this issue in a later post.)

Burnham and Root, Monadnock Block, 1889. Note that this version shows six bay windows as it was drawn before Shepherd Brooks decided not to build on the last 75’ of property. (Inland Architect, Nov. 1889)
Burnham and Root, Masonic Temple, 1890. Front Entrance. (Online)


I have criticized the “International Style” historians during the immediate post-war era for having claimed that the Chicago School’s objective was to evolve an architecture without any ornament, i.e., the Monadnock Block and, thereby, had identified Mies van der Rohe’s and his followers’ post-war buildings as a “Second Chicago School.”  On the other hand, it is also erroneous, as has become convention in the last quarter of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, to avoid using the term “Chicago School” completely, or worst, to even claim that no such movement ever existed.  Not only is this argument contrary to the historic record, it trivializes the professional and artistic accomplishments of these architects.  True, these architects at that time did not refer to themselves or their buildings as “Chicago School” per say, (if they were to use a term, most likely they would have referred to it as a “Western School”) but most artistic styles, especially those prior to the 20th century, were never so self-aware as to declare a style for their work.  For instance, the term “Renaissance” was used in reference to the artistic events in 15thcentury Italy for the first time only in 1858.

One of the methods to erase the name “Chicago School” from the historic record is to lump all American buildings, especially skyscrapers, from the period, say 1880-1900, that exhibited some aspect of their framed structure into a new category such as the “19th Century Commercial Style.”  As early as 1891 Industrial Chicago, a Chicago booster publication with little architectural background or expertise, nonetheless had attempted to identify these Chicago buildings, to distinguish them from their Eastern contemporaries, by coining the rather generic term, the “Commercial Style.”  William Jordy appears to have been one of the first writers to propose the continued use of this term in his American Buildings and Their Architects of 1972:

“But the relatively unaffected functional approach to commercial buildings, based partly on a consistent realism with respect to economics of the commercial situation, partly on a committed but inconsistent response to a watershed situation in technology, might perhaps better be specified as the “commercial style.” (Even better, it might be considered a “school” rather than a “style,” if “school” implies group activity conditioned by a common point of view, but applied with some diffuseness of purpose and uncertainty of result.)  Then “Chicago School” can encompass those forces, attitudes, and personalities accounting for the totality of the Chicago achievement in architecture and planning around 1900… The “commercial style” is only part, even if a very large part, of the larger story.”

In the very same year, Winston Weisman also used “what I like to call the ‘Commercial Style,’ because in its [design] it aimed first and foremost at fulfilling the requirements of commerce.” In the same article, he poo-pooed the idea of “the so-called ‘Chicago School.’”

As the International Style historians had done before them, Jordy and Wesiman, and those who came after them, perhaps Robert Bruegmann being the most articulate and persuasive, had also underrated the value and use of ornament in the 19th century by also looking at this collection of buildings through the 20th century Modernist’s lens, rather than through the eyes of their 19th century designers.  In Bruegmann’s excellent monograph on Holabird & Roche, he compared the ornament in Jenney’s Home Insurance Building to that in Holabird & Roche’s Tacoma Building:

“Jenney’s building used classical ornament where Holabird & Roche’s used a kind of Romanesque, but this was not important [my emphasis].”

However, this next generation of historians were educated (as was I) in the second half of the 20thcentury when ornament was irrelevant to their Modernist teachers and their curricula.  Therefore, while acknowledging the presence of the ornament, these historians tend to assign little importance to the style of a building’s ornament with little or no differentiation between the styles, thereby disallowing the distinctions that 19th century architects and publications had made in the buildings of their era.  But the style of ornament in a Chicago School building was THE issue that made it a “modern, 19th Century American” building, as opposed to an “European Classical Revival building.”

Louis H. Sullivan, Schlesinger and Mayer (Carson, Pirie, Scott) Store, 1902. (Online)

To these later historians, Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894) and Holabird & Roche’s Marquette Building (1894) can both be identified under the term, “Commercial School,” circa Chicago 1880-1900.  Attempting to legitimatize this term, these historians simply ignored the difference between Chicago school ornament and Classical details.  

Top: Louis H. Sullivan, Guaranty Building, Buffalo, NY, 1894; Bottom, Holabird and Roche, Marquette Building, Chicago, 1894. (Online)

However, David Van Zanten, Sullivan’s foremost historian, had noted this difference between the Classical ornament used by, for instance, McKim, Mead, and White and that used by Louis Sullivan:

“A generation ago Vincent Scully [Frank Lloyd Wright, 1960] observe how close Sullivan’s first solutions around 1890 were to contemporaneous house and skyscraper designs of the New York classicists McKim, Mead & White… But in [their use of terra cotta ornament] an important difference emerges: McKim’s ornament is deliberately scaled, sharply patterned, and effectively placed, but it also reproduces Renaissance forms pedantically. Sullivan’s ornament is freer: it is base on a few, consistent motifs… that are scaled up and down, cast in deeper or shallower relief to respond precisely and powerfully to their situation on the facade as well as to the quality of light falling on them.”

For instance, New York architect George Post was well-known for designing commercial buildings with rational, rectilinear elevations during this period.  The difference between his designs and a Chicago School design was that Post always employed Classical ornament.  This approach of grouping buildings into architectural styles by their function, and not by their details, is historically misleading, if not meaningless.  

George B. Post, Mills Building, New York, 1881. Note that all the windows have awnings. (Landau, George B. Post)
Burnham and Root, Rand-McNally Building, Chicago, 1888. Note the ornament surrounding the entrance. (Online)

For example, we could apply this same logic to churches: “Religious School” circa Italy 1360-1440 can embrace the contemporary Florence and Milan Cathedrals.  Ignoring the Classical details of Florence and the Gothic details in Milan allows such a taxonomy, but we should all realize how meaningless this grouping would be when we take into account the significant differences between these two buildings, the operative theories behind their designs, and their individual styles of ornament.

The bottom line seems to me that the historical facts are:

1. that the Ground Zero location of this movement was in Chicago, not Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, or the Twin Cities;

2. following the death of Root, Burnham led a seismic shift in the style of ornament used in the majority of Chicago’s buildings, from non-Classical details to Classical details, joining the East’s architects who had been experimenting with the Classical Revival style since 1884 (McKim, Mead & White’s Villard Houses).   The success of the Fair had catapulted Burnham beyond Chicago, having jettisoned Root’s theories based on Owen Jones’ ideas in favor of those ideas of the École des Beaux-arts gaining traction on the East Coast.  His Selfridge’s Department Store in London (1908) could be moved to any large city in the U.S. or Europe.  Sullivan’s Schlesinger & Mayer (Carson, Pirie, Scott) Department Store (1902) is the southeast corner of State and Madison.   

D.H. Burnham & Co., Selfridge’s Department Store, London, 1908. (Online)
Louis H. Sullivan, Schlesinger and Mayer (Carson, Pirie, Scott) Store, 1902. (Online)

This is a perfect example of an international style versus a regional architectural style, if for no other reason than the difference between the style of ornament used in the two stores.  The two buildings cannot be lumped into the same “commercial style,” one is a Chicago School building, the other is an Academic Classical Revival building, that is, unless one ignores the different styles of ornament on each building. 

Therefore, historically there was a style of architecture that flourished in Chicago between 1885 and 1892 that looked and was conceived differently from the Classical Revival that was emerging in the East during this same period.  This movement needs to be identified in order to better understand and appreciate the differences between these two styles and theories.  (A perfect example of the two different styles, side-by-side for easy comparison by the public stands along south Dearborn Street, the two phases of the Janus-like Monadnock Block.)  I believe identifying the Chicago School as the “Commercial Style” is so generic from an architectural design viewpoint that it is meaningless, while the “Chicago School” locates it in history accurately.

Holabird and Roche, Monadnock Block, South Addition, 1893. (Condit, Chicago School)


Van Zanten, David.  Sullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan. New York: Norton, 2000.

Waldheim, Charles, and Katerina Rüedi Ray (ed.). Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives. Chicago:UChicago, 2005.

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

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