Architects in the Midwest during this period also held strong views regarding professional practice that differed greatly from their peers back East who belonged to the A.I.A.  Although at the height of the early A.I.A.’s activity during the mid-1870s, when there were eight active local chapters: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, Boston, Baltimore, Albany, and Rhode Island, the depression of the middle 1870s had exacted a toll on many of the country’s architects who were forced to justify the cost of being an A.I.A. member.  Interest in the organization had waned toward the end of the decade also due to philosophic differences on a number of issues and was only compounded in the western chapters of Cincinnati and Chicago by a sense of growing isolation and disaffection with the A.I.A.’s increasing East Coast myopia.  For example, note that all of the buildings in the A.I.A.’s List of Top Ten buildings in 1885 were located no farther west than Washington, DC (even though surely Cincinnati’s grand Music Hall should have merited inclusion).

By 1880, Western apathy was met by the A.I.A. Committee on Membership with a proposal to spin-off the local chapters making them completely independent, in favor of a more honorary and literary (academic-oriented) national organization modelled after the Royal Institute of British Architects.  The 1880 convention in Philadelphia approved the dissolution proposal, leaving the only operative connection between the national organization and the local societies as the requirement that the president of each chapter should be a Fellow of the A.I.A.  In August 1883 this rule was also abolished, along with the rule that made members of local chapters automatic Associates in the A.I.A.

The A.I.A.’s elitist decision to cast off its inactive chapters in the West, was quite ill-timed for by 1883, the construction boom in the West was giving western architects the opportunity to design buildings that were not only comparable in size and cost to those in the East, but were also many times more significant with regards to the technology employed in them.  Quite simply, western expansion had begun to mature to the point that the earlier economic and cultural inferiority of the West seemed unwarranted.  Western architects, many of whom had actually grown up and been trained in the East (including Wight and Root), no longer saw any reason to hold their peers on the East Coast in such high esteem.  Nowhere was this general attitude of indifference to the East more pervasive than in Chicago.  This opinion was best revealed in the opening toast by Chicago architect J. C. Cochrane at the banquet of the Western Association of Architects’ first convention:

“We have had heretofore a chapter of the American Institute of Architects; we have tried to carry that along, but it has been a perfect failure, and I have regarded it as detrimental to the architectural profession in the West, for this reason, that the majority of our architects did not become members.  I attributed this to the fact that the American Institute of Architects really seems to be an Eastern institution.  I feel that we have not been treated fairly in the West by the Institute.  I feel that we Western architects have not been represented.”

In February 1883, the first issue of Inland Architect was published in Chicago under the editorship of Robert Craik McLean, a good friend of Burnham and Root.  McLean coordinated the effort to form a Western Association with monthly articles and rather single-handedly promoted, in coordination with Burnham and Root a convention to formally organize the Western Association of Architects.  This took place in Chicago on November 12, 1884.  The comparative strengths of the two organizations were revealed in the relative sizes of their 1884 conventions.  While 22 architects, all hailing from east of Cincinnati, attended the A.I.A. convention in Albany on October 22, 140 architects that came from as far east as Buffalo, gathered in Chicago three weeks later to form the Western Association of Architects. 

Attendees at the 1885 W.A.A. Convention, St. Louis. (Inland Architect, March 1886)

For the next five years while the two regions grew further apart on professional as well as on aesthetic issues, Burnham and Root, the same two architects who had engineered the formation of the W.A.A., were quietly planning to reunite the two organizations, under a constitution similar to that of the W.A.A.  This occurred at a joint convention of the two associations in Cincinnati on November 20-2, 1889.  While both groups were forced to compromise, the W.A.A. had finally got want it wanted when it had first split from the A.I.A.  While the name A.I.A. was retained for legal reasons (its legal charter continued to be used by the consolidated organization), the constitution of the new A.I.A. called for only one level of membership (gone were the A.I.A.’s second-class associates) and for a hierarchical structure of national, state, and local organizations.  W.A.A. members also held a majority of 4-3 on the new A.I.A. Executive Committee, with Root (note it was not Burnham!) named its Secretary.  All A.I.A. communications would no longer emanate from New York, but from the top floor of the Rookery. In addition, the tradition in the A.I.A. was that the Secretary was the presumptive candidate to replace the President in the next election.  Root was, therefore, scheduled to become the President of the A.I.A. in 1892, just in time to lord over America’s introduction to the 1893 World’s Fair.

Title page, Proceedings of the 1889 Consolidation Convention of the A.I.A. and the W.A.A., Cincinnati, 1889. (Online)


Burnham and Root also had plans similar to how they had reformed the old A.I.A. for the national architectural debate.  They would bring the nation’s citizens to Chicago to view not only its new, 19th century American modern, Chicago School buildings, but also a face-to-face architectural ensemble between designs of Chicago’s architects and those by Eastern Classical architects, with whom Burnham and Root had become very familiar during the entire A.I.A./W.A.A. consolidation process.  Such an opportunity would be provided by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, for which Root was the head of its overall design.

John Wellborn Root, Preliminary study for the Fine Arts Building for the Fair that would then become a new building for the Art Institute, 1890. (Zukowsky, Birth of a Metropolis)

In conjunction with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Root had conceived of the Fairgrounds as an updated version of Venice’s Piazza San Marco, overlooking not the Grand Canal, but Lake Michigan.  (Root was a reader of Ruskin, and Venice was Ruskin’s favorite city, in which his favorite building, the Doge’s Palace bordered the Piazza.) The design also included Venice-inspired canals and bridges, with gondolas and gondoliers as well.

Left: John Wellborn Root, First Site Plan for 1892 Fair, November 1890. (Hoffmann, Root) Right: Piazza San Marco (Mirror image), Venice, plan. Root’s original intention of basing the design of the central court on a mirror image of Piazza San Marco in Venice is quite evident.  (Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1890)

All of Burnham and Root’s efforts to first secure the Fair for Chicago, (do not underestimate the effort this took, including the ultimate all-nighter: on November 19, 1890, they were ordered by the National Fair Commission, then meeting in Chicago, to present on the morning of November 21, a final design with a list of all buildings and their sizes, neither of which existed at that moment:  they had been given 24 hours to design the Fair or the committee would pull the plug on the entire endeavor) and then bring the East Coast architects to Chicago to visit the site and to finalize the design for the Fair, had succeeded up through the night of January 11, 1891.  On the eve of the first official meeting of these architects, Root generously hosted a dinner for the out-of-town architects at his house.  It was a cold, blustery Chicago winter night in which the “lightly-clad” Root, physically exhausted from his non-stop efforts to plan the fair while also maintaining his office responsibilities, personally escorted his guests to their carriages.  He caught pneumonia that night and died three days later.  Without his articulate intelligence and witty, yet charming personality, Root’s plans for the Fair never had a chance.  Instead of a display of the latest American ideas showcasing both Progressive and Academic buildings, without Root, Burnham, now under the guidance of two graduates of the École des Beaux-arts, Charles McKim and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (who became his artistic muse, filling the void left by Root’s premature death) steered the design of the Fair solely to the Academic, leaving only Adler & Sullivan to display the Progressive side of American architecture in their Transportation Building.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Transportation Building (The Golden Door), Chicago, 1891. (UCLA Urban Simulation lab)

The Chicago School as the mainstream style in Chicago architectural community died with Root, its heart, brain, and voice. Therefore, my thesis is that there was, indeed, a group of architects centered in Chicago who were designing buildings with the goal of developing a modern style of American architecture during the 1880s.  After reading my story, you can form your own, informed conclusions.


If these events and buildings appeal to your curiosity and passion for architecture and/or Chicago’s history, I think you will enjoy this story.  There are three nolumes to my history of the Chicago School:


The history of Chicago’s architecture from its founding in 1803 to the fire of 1874.  I have already documented this in my Instagram site: “thearchprofessorinchicago” and I refer you to it if you are so interested. (clink the link in the righthand margin).


Before discussing what happened in Chicago following the 1874 fire, we will need to understand the existing context in which these architects were practicing to better understand their influences, models, and ideas.  (Particularly those of us who are interested in Chicago architecture should appreciate the importance of a good, appropriate foundation upon which one can then build upon confidently.)  I discuss the influence that events in Europe had on these architects in a second blog: European Precedents (to be online in a week or so),  We will also review events and architects in America during the 1870s that had an impact on Chicago’s architects in the 1880s.  These I will address in the following order:

1. The 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia and the exposure of the work of Frank Furness towards achieving an American architecture.

2. While the depression of the 1870s had stopped almost all construction in the U.S., Cincinnati, that was fifty years older than Chicago and until the end of the Civil War, had been the largest city west of the Alleghenies, had an economy independent of East Coast venture capital, and as such, was not severely impacted by the depression of the 1870s and so, continued to erect major buildings that would provide Chicago either with models for Chicago’s architects to follow (such as the huge Shillito’s Department Store that Peter B. Wight had identified as the first of the new, “Chicago School” language), or to surpass, (such as its Music Hall, the largest concert hall and convention venue in the country, that provided the incentive to eventually build the Auditorium, with its second balcony in order to seat more people than did Music Hall).  During this period of great building, Cincinnati was referred to as “the Paris of America,” an obvious reference to Haussmann’s urban renewal of Paris in the 1860s.

3. The rise of H.H. Richardson and the potential of his interpretation of Romanesque architecture to become an American architecture.

4. The depression first began to let up in the East, allowing New York and Boston to renew the construction of skyscrapers that also provided models for Chicago’s architects to emulate in the early 1880s.


Finally, I can then document the history of Chicago’s architecture during the 1880s.

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