(For a detailed account of Chicago’s architecture immediately before and after the fire, please see my Instagram site: “thearchprofessorinchicago” or click the icon at the right.) 

What were the effects that the 1871 fire had wrought on Chicago’s architecture and urban landscape before the 1873 Panic stopped the city’s reconstruction dead in its tracks? 


Meanwhile, the few improvements in construction that had been attempted in Chicago before the fire reviewed in Volume 1 had been too few and too late.  Even though the spread of the fire was mainly the result of the large amount of wood used within the city for buildings, sidewalks, and streets, the fire signaled the beginning of the end of exposed cast iron construction, as iron buildings that were reputed to be totally fireproof  were destroyed as easily as those that had made no such pretensions.

Iron beams in the ruins of the U.S. Post Office and Custom House. (Murphy, The Great Fire)

The problems of unprotected cast iron being exposed to the extreme temperatures that were generated in the conflagration were threefold.  First, cast iron suffered a loss of rigidity at a relatively low increase in temperature.  Second, since cast iron’s conduction of heat and coefficient of expansion is much higher than those of masonry, iron columns expanded under the intense heat at a greater rate than did the masonry.  This resulted in either the iron column’s buckling due to the increasing load in the column as it expanded or the disruption of the elevation of the floors in relation to the exterior walls with resulting damage to the brickwork.  Third, the heated cast iron elements that had not yet failed, upon contact with the firefighter’s cold water either cracked immediately, or bent out of vertical due to the contraction of the column face that was exposed first to the water, and then buckled.   No matter which mode of failure prevailed, the exposed cast iron column was one of the contributing factors for the immense destruction inflicted by the fire. (As well as the increased time and cost to remove the resulting debris as the melted iron simply recoagulated as its temperature dropped.)

Cast iron columns after the 1871 fire. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)


Chicago Tribune Building, Before and After the Fire. (Online)

The Chicago Tribune, having seen its “fireproof” building destroyed by the fire of October 8, 1871, launched a crusade for improving the building code by putting the issue in front of the public on a regular basis.   The two major parties, in a rare display of non-partisanship, nominated a “Union-Fireproof” ticket with a “fireproof” platform, led by the Tribune’s owner and editor, Joseph Medill, in which the parties had agreed upon who was going to hold which office.  On November 7, 1871, Medill was easily elected mayor with a new alderman, Chicago’s first architect, John M. Van Osdel, riding into Council on Medill’s coattails.  The new council asked Van Osdel to draft a revised building code that would rectify the conditions that led to the fire.  It was an easy thing during an election campaign to promise such a prohibition against the backdrop of a smoldering city; however, it was quite something else to enact once people had time to figure out the actual cost of such a change.  Even the promise that Medill had run on, that he was “unalterably opposed from this time forward to the erection of a single wooden building within the limits of Chicago,” went nowhere.  The harsh reality of such an idea was that better construction meant that houses would be more expensive, pushing the cost of the American dream beyond the reach of many of Chicago’s working class.  By this time, Chicago’s various immigrant and labor organizations had wrested control of the city’s government away from the city’s wealthy businessmen.  A swell of protest against the ban of wood construction arose from the largely German population in the North and West Divisions that had convinced their alderman to defeat the proposal to prohibit wood construction.  Enacted on February 12, 1872, the revised code, therefore, amounted to nothing more than a whitewash, as the only improvements in construction over the existing 1865 code was the de facto elimination of cast iron fronts and stone veneers.


Contrary to popular legend, no improvements in construction from a fireproofing standpoint were made following the 1871 fire, probably due to the fact that as of yet, no one really knew how to fireproof iron or wood, and the time needed to evolve a solution just wasn’t available.  The revised regulations as they pertain to the concerns of this study were:

1. While the fire limits of the city were greatly extended, in the belief that the large number of wooden buildings was the foremost cause of the spread of the fire, wood balloon frame construction was prohibited only in the immediate business district.  However, nothing was done to remove or remodel the large number of buildings that were constructed before the code’s enactment or that still stood to the south of the business district in the area unaffected by the fire.  (1872: Chapter 11, Section I).

2.  For the first time, a permit from the Board of Public Works was required to construct a building within the fire limits (1872: Chapter 11, Section I).

3.  Walls had to be of brick, stone, iron, or other non-combustible material.  Buildings over two stories in height were to have a minimum thickness of 16″ in their basement and first floor walls.  Walls above the first floor were to be a minimum of 12″ thick.  This was not a change from the 1865 code, except that no differentiation in minimum thickness was made for monolithic stone walls.  (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

4. The behavior of stone veneers and cast iron fronts in the fire was responded to in the new code:

“In all walls that are faced with their ashlar anchored to the backing…, the backing of brick shall not be less than twelve inches thick.  The backing in all walls, of whatever material it may be composed, shall be of such thickness as to make the walls, independent of facing, conform, as to thickness, with the requirements of this chapter.  The full thickness of iron fronts shall be filled in with brick work.”  (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

5. Interior load-bearing partitions could be reduced in thickness by 4″.  These walls could be substituted with brick piers, or iron or wood columns that supported appropriate girders.  As earlier discussed, solid timber columns once again became approved construction, yet, after all of the examples of the vulnerability of iron columns, no protection of an iron column was even mentioned (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

6. The maximum extension of bay or oriel windows into the public air rights over the sidewalks was increased to three feet above the second story.  This expanded the size of the vernacular Chicago bay window that was to become an integral part of the 1880s skyscraper.  (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

This was the extent of the new code’s jurisdiction over construction that was nothing more than a rewording of the existing code that had been developed in 1851 and slightly modified in 1865.  There were no new precautions set down to require fireproofing or improved construction beyond these minor improvements.  In fact, if anything, the new code was weaker for there was no mention of the former requirement for iron shutters for windows or fireproof hatches for openings between floors, both of which were integral parts of the old code.  Therefore, the effect of the 1871 Fire and the “Fireproof Ticket” on Chicago’s building code had been minimal, at best.  It banished the wooden balloon frame (Chicago’s own offspring, then only 38 years old) only from the immediate business district.  Stone veneers were made more expensive by the requirement of a full thickness of brick backing, not only in material costs but also because a thicker wall (15″ or 16″ vs. 12”) reduced the rentable floor area.  Therefore, if one desired a stone facade, either these costs were incurred or the wall had to be of monolithic stone that was also much more expensive than the old stone-veneered, brick wall.  “All-brick buildings” were being advertised and sold, that in reality only had brick in the exterior walls.  Brick exteriors would soon come to dominate post-fire Chicago, much to the benefit of the city’s bricklayers’ union.  Fortunately, the bricklayers’ union promised not to engage in any actions during the rebuilding.  There was no need to do so, however, with wages being determined by a demand that far outpaced supply.

Cast Iron-fronted buildings along Lake Street, 1876. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

Cast iron had performed no better than stone in the face of the extreme temperatures in the fire.  This did not mean, however, that the cast iron front was not used in the initial rebuilding following the fire.  As soon as possible before any new building ordinances could be approved, new cast iron fronts in the latest style were reordered from New York by owners who still viewed them to still be in fashion.  Van Osdel was asked by the owners of the Lake Street facades to quickly rebuild their stores so as not to lose more of the area’s declining reputation to Palmer’s State Street.  Indeed, 1872 saw the erection of twenty cast iron fronts in Chicago for which building permits had been obtained prior to the new code.

While not outright banning cast iron fronts from the city, the new February 1872 code’s requirement of a backing of 12″ of brick effectively increased the cost of the iron front beyond being profitable and, therefore, was the final step in the demise of Chicago’s cast iron fronts.  While cast iron fronts continued to be built in New York through the 1880s, it was not coincidental that Chicago’s first decorative stamped sheet galvanized iron front was erected on the Lord, Smith, and Co. Building by Cochrane & Miller at 115 N. Wabash in 1872.  The galvanized sheet iron panels were attached to two-feet thick brick walls.  Those in Chicago who still desired the same effect of the cast iron façade, therefore, could turn to manufacturers of stamped sheet metals panels that had been producing sheet iron coverings for wooden cornices since they had been required by the 1851 code.  The visual effect of a cast iron front could easily be achieved at a fraction of the cost by extending the cornice’s iron covering over the entire facade.

Cochrane and Miller, Lord, Smith and Co. Building, Chicago, 1872. The first Chicago building to employ a galvanized sheet iron facade. (The Land Owner, August 1873)


There were no great changes made in the city’s building code following the fire or even in the construction practices by the local craftsmen during the reconstruction.  In fact, I have shown that wood continued to be used as a structural material after the fire.  Only the wood balloon frame had been banned, but this prohibition extended only throughout the business district; there was no ban on using the balloon frame in any of the adjacent residential neighborhoods.  The fire had also proven that stone, especially that used as a veneer, was quite useless as a fireproof material and was replaced by all brick exteriors in the majority of the post-fire buildings or sheet iron veneered masonry walls. The only tangible result of the fire upon construction practices in post-fire Chicago was the increase in the thickness of party walls between the buildings, an attempt to prevent the spread of a fire between adjacent buildings.  Even this was accomplished in agreement solely between the owners and their architects beyond the thickness that was required by the new “stricter” code.  Therefore, the progress in the environmental quality of building interiors that had been achieved with the cast iron front prior to the fire, was sacrificed for the protection offered by the masonry wall, the defensive ramparts relied upon throughout the Ages.  It was a setback to the development of exterior iron skeletal construction and a return to the age-old architectural challenge of putting holes in masonry walls. 


Meanwhile, in terms of the city’s architecture, the fire had, indeed, “wiped the slate” of the business district clean of all buildings.  However, many of the destroyed buildings were simply reconstructed as they had existed prior to the fire (the best and largest example being W.W. Boyington’s La Salle Street Station, while the Illinois Central didn’t even bother to repair its damaged terminal).  The replacements that did differ from their originals typically had more ornament, and not less, contradicting what some authors have claimed to have been the result of the fire.

W.W. Boyington, (Top) Pre-Fire Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Station (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago); (Bottom) Post-Fire Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Station, 1872. Note the subtle differences from the pre-fire station: the shed no longer has dormers for daylight, and the company’s name has been updated from the “Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana” to the Vanderbilt “Lake Shore & Michigan Southern.” (Chicago Historical Society)

One of the first writers to document the history of Chicago’s architecture, in 1941 architect Theodore Tallmage clearly stated:

“the argument that the Chicago Fire revolutionized the art or even the science of building in Chicago or in other local cities could hardly be proved.  One might have hoped that in the white heat of such a blast the slag of our artistic impurities would be skimmed off, or that the phoenix, arising from the embers, would look more like an eagle and less like a turkey buzzard; but that was not the case.  A greater effort was made to fireproof buildings… but the Fire was no ending of an epoch nor a turning-point in the road.”

In summary, the majority of Chicago’s post-fire buildings looked and were built much like the buildings that were destroyed by the 1871 fire.  There were two notable exceptions, however. First, the fire had momentarily cast doubts upon the safety of the city’s tall building in regards to the city’s firefighters’ ability to extinguish a fire in the upper floors of such buildings, thereby resulting in a voluntary ban of the Second Empire’s mansard roof in some buildings (as the mansard was the uppermost floor in these) that resulted in the return of the old favorite Italian palazzo‘s flat, rectangular mass. 

John M. Van Osdel, (Left) Pre-Fire (The Land Owner, October 1871); and (Right) Post-Fire Kendall Building, Chicago, 1872. (The Land Owner, February 1872)

And second, the city’s public buildings, the City Hall/Courthouse and the U.S. Custom House and Post Office had disappeared, not to reappear for almost a decade, and when they did, these buildings were designed at a much larger scale than that of their predecessors, similar to that of the new grand hotels that experienced together had changed the scale of the business district from a collection of five-story, small storefront buildings, to block-long behemoths. 

Loring & Jenney, Pre-Fire City Hall-County Courthouse, 1868. (Online)
James J. Egan, Post-Fire City Hall and Cook County Courthouse, 1875-84. (Online)
Ammi B. Young, Pre-Fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, Chicago, 1855. (Jevni & Almini)
William A. Potter, Post-Fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, 1872-80. (Gilbert, Chicago and Its Makers)

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Meanwhile back in New York City, Peter B. Wight had also presented a significant professional treatise in 1869, albeit its subject was less theoretical and more practical.  He had joined the A.I.A. in 1866 and following the completion of the National Academy of Design, had expanded his expertise into the area of fire-resistant construction in buildings.  Similar to Jenney, Wight was also well versed in art as well as in science.  By the age of thirty, Wight had gained a reputation as one of the country’s experts on building fire issues.  The paper on fireproof construction that he delivered at the 1869 A.I.A. convention ranks as one of the earliest American indictments of contemporary iron construction.  Wight began by attacking one of the more famous “fireproof” cast iron buildings, Bogardus’ five-story Harper and Brothers Publishing House of 1854, as being far from fireproof. 

James Bogardus, Harper and Brothers Publishing Building, New York, 1854. (Online)

While granting that the floors were incombustible, Wight pointed out that wood was used extensively as the interior finish material as well as that the contents of the building were highly flammable.  Wight used the Harper and Brothers building as being typical of the 1850’s and 1860’s in its approach to fireproofing, which treated the building as a series of horizontal fireproof layers, stacked one on top of another separated by an incombustible membrane:

“The division of buildings into horizontal compartments, rather than vertical ones, is so much more desirable, where land is expensive, that inventors have almost exhausted their ingenuity in devising thoroughly fire-proof floors.  It is obvious, however that the division of a building by vertical fire-proof partitions, is a matter so easy of accomplishment, that it is questionable whether the horizontal division, so beset with practical difficulties, so expensive, and withal so much less to be depended upon, even when the best systems of construction are used, is ever economical, even where ground is expensive.  I even question whether it is of any use to build iron floors, or floors with iron supports, for buildings to contain goods; brick piers and groined arches are alone reliable.  If you divide horizontally you must have stairways within and windows on the exterior, both of which welcome the ascending flames.  You may enclose your staircase in a fire-proof enclosure, and you may put the heaviest iron shutters on your windows, but you must have doors through which to gain access from your stairways, and you must open your shutters when you want light.  There is a contingency that these traps may be set when the enemy comes, and then all your expensive floors represent so much wasted capital.”

“As yet, I believe that no buildings in this vicinity, built purely for storage purposes, have been constructed entirely of fire-proof materials, except the St. John’s Depot of the Hudson River Railroad Company. [Designed by John B. Snook, who would employ the young John Wellborn Root just prior to Root’s interview with Wight two years later.]  I am not aware that any attempt has been made in these buildings to stop a conflagration among the goods on storage either by horizontal or vertical compartments.  The floors, to be sure, are of iron and brick, non-combustible, but with hoistways; and it is not difficult to conjecture, even supposing that all horizontal openings and iron shutters were closed, what would be the result of a fire raging on one of those floors, hundreds of feet in expanse.”

In the corrections that Wight added to the paper before its publication, he listed two more buildings that were known for their fireproof qualities.  It was not merely coincidental that both buildings were fabricated by Daniel Badger and designed by George H. Johnson.  The first one was the I.M. Singer and Co. Building.  The second was the U.S. Warehousing Company’s “Iron Elevator,” in which Badger and Johnson went to great extremes to fireproof.  This is the earliest recorded evidence that New Yorker Wight was familiar with New Yorkers Badger’s iron frame-supported masonry curtain walls and Johnson’s early attempts at fireproof buildings.  It is inconceivable, therefore, that Wight and Johnson were not at least acquainted with one another in New York before 1869, let alone the 1871 Chicago fire.

George H. Johnson and Daniel Badger, Grain Storage Building, New York and Philadelphia, 1860 and 1862. Elevation showing the cast iron front with brick infill panels. In New York as late as 1865, this type of building was called a Grain Storage Building as opposed to the Chicago term, Grain Elevator. (Badger, Iron Architecture)

Great sums of time and money were spent on the development of fireproof floor systems and enclosures such as iron shutters for windows (note the conflict in their function: “you must open your shutters when you want light.”)  The shutters typically consisted of double sheets of iron separated by an insulating air space that were secured inside of the window frame to iron fames built into the brick work.

Daniel D. Badger, Rolling Iron Shutters, Patented in 1842. (Badger, Iron Architecture)

This resulted in a fireproof barrier independent of the window frame.  Wight warned that these contrivances were overrated for they depended on human action to maintain their protective qualities.  It was far better to realize the vertical nature of fire and react accordingly with economic prudence.  Wight thus foreshadowed a change to come in fireproofing strategy in the 1870’s from the Harpers’ Building’s horizontal layering to vertical compartmentalization by praising the construction of a number of warehouses in Brooklyn:

“These are about three hundred feet in length, and are divided into six compartments by fire-proof party walls; the width of each compartment is consequently about fifty feet, and the length about two hundred feet.  The floors are of wood, and it would have been useless to make them of iron and brick; for the goods taken in them are mainly sugars, and it would be folly to attempt to arrest a fire of such combustible material in its ascending course, by any practicable device.  But what is most interesting in these buildings is that each is fortified against its neighbor.  Recently the party walls were carried up about six feet above the roofs and were pierced with embrasures through which firemen can play from the roof of one building upon the flames in another, with perfect safety to themselves.  Here is an instance wherein capital would have been wasted on the expensive materials required for fire-proof floors.”

What Wight was recommending was a return to solid masonry exterior walls to protect the interiors of buildings from fire.  At the same time, he also presented a good argument in favor of the added expense of fireproof construction:  the extra cost of fireproof floors could be more than offset by a corresponding savings in insurance premiums, thereby allowing an owner to rent space at a lower rate than an equivalent building with wooden floors.   As we will see, it will be the insurance companies, and not Chicago’s municipal authorities that will be primarily responsible for requiring improvements to be made in building construction following the second, and not the first, Chicago fire of 1874.  And it will be Wight who will solve the technical problems identified by the insurance companies.

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Jenney’s years in Paris obviously had expanded his insights into art, as well as life itself, and Jenney himself attributed this period as the influence for his move into architecture. But before he could find employment in the profession back in the U.S., he joined the Union Army at the start of the Civil War, serving on the engineering staffs of first Grant, and then Sherman.  His skill set, therefore, included both ends of the spectrum of the profession of architecture: art and science.  Upon his arrival in Chicago after the war, he found an architectural position as the junior partner of Sanford Loring.  One can easily posit Jenney to have been a leader of Chicago’s nascent post-war avant-garde.  In early 1869 Jenney, at the age of 37 co-authored with Loring (I give the majority of the credit to Jenney on the basis of his later writings), Principles and Practice of Architecture, that appears to have been an attempt by Jenney to introduce his fellow architects in his newly-adopted hometown to the history of western architecture as well as the principles and nuances of modern architectural theory as they were then being published in Europe at this time. 

His first published essay that dealt with architectural history and theory revealed that he was a voracious reader, and as he was thoroughly fluent in French, it also included references to works of French theoreticians.  In this book, he managed to introduce the ideas of many of the major writers who were at this moment in the forefront of modern architectural theory: Pugin, Ruskin, Jones, Edward Lacy Garbett, Scot James Fergusson, Viollet-le-Duc, and Americans James Jarves and A. J. Downing.

Sanford Loring and William Le Baron Jenney, Principles and Practice of Architecture, 1869. Note that Jenney has included the fact that he is a graduate of the École Centrale. (Online)

Jenney found much of his inspiration in Garbett’s 1849 Rudimentary Treatise on the Principles of Design in Architecture.  While Garbett had fallen into professionally obscurity after its publication, having moved on to writing about theological matters, his architectural treatise was imported to the U.S. in 1853 when it was included with other British writings in a compendium of architecture knowledge published by John Bullock under the title The History of Rudiments of Architecture, that Bullock intended as a textbook for Americans interested in gaining a more thorough understanding of the art of architecture.  While Jenney chose to name his first book, Principles and Practices of Architecture, most likely after Pugin’s 1841 book, The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, the order of its contents seem to have been inspired by Garbett’s taxonomy of his five classes of architectural forms, in which he employed a gradation from the most important, overarching general issue to the most specific detail, that Jenney also employed to order his efforts:

1. Architectural Theory

2. Architectural History

3. Structural stability and calculations

4. Materials of Construction

5. Examples of Modern French Architecture

In fact, Jenney seems to have been so enamored with Garbett’s work, that he dedicated two entire pages for a direct quote of Garbett’s five classes of architectural forms and his three rules pertaining to a building’s composition.  Jenney also made two direct references to Owen Jones’ writings, first in regards to true beauty, “that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect and the affections are satisfied by the absence of any want,” and second, in regards to “harmony of form appears to consist in the proper balancing of the straight (horizontal or vertical), the inclined or the curved.”

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.” (Flores, Jones)

Jenney invoked Pugin and Ruskin in demanding Truth in Art by devoting an entire chapter to the topic, “by teaching one to look at nature as nature should be seen, with the intellect and affections as well as with the eye.”  He also cited Garbett’s condemnation of British contemporary architecture: “the object of all real art, as of all science, is to elicit TRUTH; but any one who, fresh from nature, or from the works of other ages, or nations, should arrive among the works of modern English architecture, would suppose its whole aim, and that of every detail in it, to be DECEPTION.” Jenney had also paraphrased Garbett’s argument in his critique of current American buildings: 

“There has been too much bad copying, an improper use of precedent.  The highest beauty is fitness.  How totally unfit is a heathen temple to modern requirements, yet how often we see costly copies of them, for public offices and even for suburban residences.  The temple was for the worship of a single deity… They were as well adapted to the use for which they were invented, as they are foreign to the use to which moderns have assigned their degraded copies.”

Jenney also addressed those architects whose writings had a different definition of architecture than his:

“The use of architecture is to provide proper buildings for the infinite varieties of uses developed by the wants of the human race… An architect is a building artist.  It is his office to use building materials as the musician uses sounds…  It is claimed by some writers that the province of an architect is to design sculpture to fill the frame-work of constructions.  Should he attempt this, the sculptor will excel him, for he has devoted a lifetime to the exclusive study of one branch of art.  Other writers insist that architectural beauty consists in polychromatic decorations, to use their own expressions: “throbbing with color,” – “suffused with all the tints of the rainbow.”  Mr. [George Ashdown] Audsley claims that the real office of the architect begins with the colored decorations of the interior, after he has completed the “mere shell of foundation for artistic display.”  If this is true there is no place for the architect at all; for the sculptor, the landscape and figure painter can surpass him… An architect in every other point of view than a building artist, finds some one to excel him in a specialty peculiarly their own, but in his own special province, that of combining in one harmonious whole the details of all, he stands alone and without rival.”

It is quite evident after having read Jenney’s book that he heartily agreed with Pugin, Ruskin, and Viollet-le-Duc in advocating not the Classical, but a modern Gothic as the appropriate style for the late nineteenth century:

“The architects and artisans were a numerous and privileged body.  United in a society or brotherhood… Art was practiced for the love of art… Art looked to Nature for her models, and followed her teachings in their true spirit, and adapted them to the nature of the materials she employed… Not only is every capital throughout a vast cathedral of a specific design, differing from all its fellows, but often this same variety of detail is found in the four sides of the same capital.  We talk much about the five [Classical] orders, and it is even stated by one author “that the ingenuity and intelligence of the world has never been able to invent a sixth.”  There are many times five orders in every thirteenth century cathedral, quite as beautiful and often differing quite as much, the one from the other, as the old classic ones, that have been repeated an incalculable number of times, often to the injury alike of the architects, workmen and the tastes of the people.  In literature we spare no pains to avoid a repetition of the same phrase or even words, however, fine, and yet we go on carving the same capital or modillion all around a building and expect the public to admire it.  We talk of the great nineteenth century, and justly in many things, but in our general architecture we fall far below the thirteenth.”

But if this indictment wasn’t sufficient, Jenney rubbed salt in the wounds of those who copied Classical buildings by stopping his history of architecture, that he had accurately begun with Egypt, with the demise of Gothic: 

“The English wars. factions and divisions of the French nobility…destroyed the most beautiful and rational style of architecture that the ingenuity of men and nations has yet invented.  From its ashes, Phoenix-like, rose the Renaissance, and conquered the world and pervaded all things; literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, even collegiate instruction.  It destroyed art in the last century, until Gros and Gericault burst its bonds.”

Obviously, Jenney believed that the architecture after 1400 had little to recommend it to contemporary practitioners. 

Jenney laid the blame for the poor state of contemporary architectural design in America on four causes.  First, the U.S. had been founded after the end of the Gothic, so there were no good examples of architecture to be found in America that might help inform its architects.  Second, the country was growing so fast that the buildings typically demanded by clients needed to be temporary, for they often would be replaced in only a few years.   Third, most of the country’s buildings were still being constructed without the aid of an architect.  And lastly, it was due to the general ignorance of the public:

“Art is dependent upon public feeling, and the public, as a whole, are not well-informed in architecture… They know little or nothing of architecture as a fine art, and very little of the purely practical side of adaptability to the wants and requirements… Why is it so many feel themselves capable of judging on art matters, while they would instantly decline, on the plea of total incapacity, were it a question of medicine, chemistry, or the merits of a sonata….What we require is a more universal art education.”

William Le Baron Jenney, therefore, had brought to Chicago in 1867 a sorely needed level of cultural sophistication in general, and in architectural theory in particular.  He had also produced in 1869, TWO YEARS BEFORE THE 1871 FIRE, an introduction to the latest architectural theory that any budding or experienced architect in town could learn from if he so chose to do.  Nonetheless, Owen Jones’ call for a search for a new, innovative style for the nineteenth century was simply too far advanced to comprehend, let alone undertake at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, especially in the relative cultural backwaters of the American continent (as evident in the illustrations from the book I have included).  Jenney’s was a lone voice in the wilderness of the West, but this about to change…

Sanford Loring and William Le Baron Jenney, Principles and Practice of Architecture, 1869. Advertisement for Chicago Terra-Cotta. Loring will terminate his partnership with Jenney at the end of the year in order to be able to work full-time at improving this product for architectural uses. CTC will become the leading manufacturer of terra cotta in the U.S.

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When William Le Baron Jenney settled in Chicago in May 1867, he brought with him a worldwide-ranging set of interests, talents, and experiences. Born in Fairhaven, MA, he had begun his engineering studies at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1851 but found that his interests were broader than its curriculum and decided to apply to the study in France at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufacturers.  At this moment he had his choice from among three excellent French schools, their ideas and curricula reflected the diversity of the fractured body politic wrought by the French Revolution, and what had followed since (see Europe Blog):

-the École des Beaux-Arts, that had just recently dropped “Royale” from its name, following the 1848 June Days uprising and the institution of the Second Republic that itself was about to be ended in November 1852 with the ascent of Louis-Napoléon as Emperor Napoléon III;

-the École Polytechnique, founded in the early years of the First Republic by renown mathematician Gaspard Monge as a replacement for the monarchy’s École Royale des Ponts et Chaussées (School of Bridges and Roads) that had prepared students for the country’s professional military schools.  Interestingly, architecture was included among the scientific foundation subjects of math, chemistry, and physics in French engineering schools.  Jean-Nicholas-Louis Durand, a former draftsman of the visionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, had been appointed as the new school’s first professor of architecture.  Durand believed the revolution had wiped France’s political and architectural slates clean, with the corresponding opportunity to approach architecture with a post-monarchist theory.  He saw no reason for architects to imitate either the mythological Roman past or the more recent French aristocratic past;

Jean-Nicholas-Louis Durand, Precis des leçons d’architecture données à l’École royale Polytechnique, “Whole Buildings,” 1802. (Online)

-the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, a private engineering school founded in 1829 to educate multi-disciplinary engineers for France’s growing private industrial concerns, as the Government’s écoles were focused primarily on educating engineers for public service. (This had been the model for Peter Cooper’s Cooper Union.);

-a fourth school, the private École Centrale d’Architecture, would be founded in 1864 with the encouragement of Viollet-le-Duc as a modern, politically contemporary alternative to the École des Beaux-Arts;

-a fifth institution, the École d’Arts et Métiers had been founded in 1780, that had evolved into a school dedicated to mechanical and industrial engineering (i.e., no construction/architecture).

I have consciously listed these five schools first to clarify their names and identities, as they are often confused with one another (especially the two École Centrales), and second, to dispel the idea that architecture and architectural education was a monolithic enterprise in France during the period 1850-1890 (as best witnessed during the intense political/aesthetic debate over whether or not to build Gustave Eiffel’s, an 1855 graduate from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, tower), and, lastly, to show that the monarchist-influenced program at the École des Beaux-Arts was not the only choice available at this time to architecture students from the United States.

Jenney had chosen the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures over the École Polytechnique as it was well-known that its entrance requirements were not as stringent as those of the École Polytechnique.  He taught himself French as he studied for the entrance exams that he passed and entered the three-year program in September 1853.  The school’s founding purpose and curriculum was to educate well-trained engineers in three years for employment in private industry.  Its founders, led by Alphonse Lavallée, wanted to improve France’s industrial economy by creating a private school, free of all government influence, that combined intellectual theory and practical knowledge.  In essence, as far as “architecture” was concerned, it was to bridge the gap between the “architects” from the École des Beaux-Arts and the “technicians” trained by the École d’Arts et Métiers.  The school’s students were meant to be experts in building bridges, in more than one way.

The École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures had four curricular paths: mechanical engineering, civil engineering, metal engineering, and chemical engineering (the program Gustave Eiffel graduated from in 1855, a year before Jenney).  Civil Engineering in France, especially during this period, included the design and construction of buildings, as a logical extension of the problem-solving process for an industrial product/process.  Jenney chose the Civil Engineering program in which he was taught the fundamentals of designing a building, albeit it from a very functional, deterministic (and occupant comfort) standpoint.  Nonetheless, these students did receive training in all aspects of the design and construction of a building (“architecture”).

Louis Charles Mary, Cours d’architecture, 1852. Iron work and hollow tile construction, c. 1835. (Turak, Jenney)

Jenney’s architecture classes were taught by professor Louis Charles Mary, a graduate of the École Polytechnique.  We know the theory he taught from his textbook, Cours d’architecture, published only the year before Jenney entered the program.  In essence, his lectures focused on construction types and the analysis of existing buildings and structures.  He taught how to plan basic buildings, such as lower-class housing, middle-class country villas, and factories.  He focused on practical solutions and planning with the use of grid paper (papier quadrilléà la J-L-N. Durand), and not artistic concepts.  

Louis Charles Mary, Cours d’architecture, 1852. Examples of geometric planning and Papier Quadrillé planning. (Graffiti added by student.) (Turak, Jenney)

Jenney was only one of the 38 of the original 176 students with whom he had entered the program, that were awarded the prestigious diplôme, having successfully completed the program in September 1856, only a year after Hunt had completed his studies. They had been contemporaries in Paris and one wonders if the paths of these two Americans ever crossed. Nonetheless, Jenney was the second American architect, after Richard Morris Hunt, to have graduated from a French school having studied architecture, a point seldom mentioned, let alone appreciated, in histories of architecture. These two French-trained American architects brought back to the U.S. the architectural bias of their respective institution, hence one might conclude that France’s Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes might eventually ignite across the Atlantic, which it eventually did.  In 1889, Jenney stated his opinion of the École des Beaux-Arts in an article in Inland Architect:

“The best detail drawings I have even seen are those of French architects.  I do not mean those from the students of the École des Beaux-Arts, who have little or no practice.  Far from it, for that is essentially an art school, of which I once heard an old French engineer remark, ‘The students of the École des Beaux-Arts make beautiful drawings, but chances are they are entirely unconstructable.’  I refer to details of French architects in successful practice.  Everything is thereon shown or explained by elevations, sections and bits of perspective.”


Jenney had spent his “coming into manhood” years in Paris during the start of the Second Empire, the art capital of the Western World, and after graduating and a stint in Mexico helping to engineer a railroad, had returned to Paris in early 1858 with the promise of another engineering position.  This turned out to be rather mundane, for the twenty-six year-old aspiring bon vivant, however, and Jenney turned to improving his life-drawing skills at the Luxembourg Palace, where he apparently fell in with a small group of bohemian Americans that included the twenty-five year-old painter James McNeil Whistler (who also hailed from Massachusetts). 

James Abbott McNeill Whister, Portrait of Whistler with Hat, 1858. (Online)

This group traveled in a circle that was unofficially led by the avant-garde painter Gustav Courbet.  By this time Courbet had adopted a “realistic” painting philosophy, eschewing both the traditions of academic classicism as well as the fantasies of romanticism, preferring instead to paint life as he saw and experienced it.  When Jenney first joined this group of Parisian artists, Courbet had just finished organizing his own exhibition of his paintings, that had been rejected by the Académie for the 1855 Exposition Universelle.  To protest this action, he erected a temporary gallery next to the official Salon, the Pavilion du Réalisme, in which he displayed forty of his paintings.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50, oil on canvas. (Online)


Turak, Theodore. William Le Baron Jenney. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986.

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Born in New York City in 1838, twelve-year old Peter B. Wight was enrolled in 1850 in the standard Bachelor of Arts curriculum at the city’s Free Academy (that would become the City College of New York) during the period of construction of Carstenstein & Gildemeister’s Crystal Palace for the 1853 World’s Exhibition, a process that the young student studied and later credited as having influenced his interest in iron construction.

Carstenstein and Gildemeister, Crystal Palace, 1853 New York World’s Fair. (Online)

It was at the Free Academy that Wight had befriended the older Russell  Sturgis, who would later be his first professional partner from 1863-1868, and who had also introduced him to the writings of Ruskin.  While the two friends were still attending classes, they had often walked the three blocks from the school to visit the construction site of Mould’s All Soul’s Unitarian Church.  They studied the drawings intensely, Wight later crediting this experience for igniting his passion for architecture.  It was Wight’s first introduction to the “structural polychromy” of High Victorian Gothic (to use only actual constructional materials to achieve color as opposed to “applied polychromy,” applying color to a surface via paint or mosaics, encouraged by Ruskin’s passion for color and the architecture of Venice and Northern Italy.  (Wight graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1855, the same year that Hunt had returned to New York having completed his education in Paris.)  Wight apprenticed in the office of Thomas R. Jackson, another English immigrant architect who had first worked in Richard Upjohn’s office where Jackson had learned Upjohn’s Gothic Revival details before starting out on his own.  Sturgis on the other hand, had chosen to work in the office of Prague-born and German-trained Leopold Eidlitz where he was exposed to the structural rationalism of German architecture.

In 1858, Wight was offered a design commission in Chicago from Josiah L. James, a real estate agent who was a friend of Wight’s father. He spent a year in Chicago, 1858-9, designing a small office building for the southwest corner of State and Randolph.  Asher Carter (who had been James Renwick’s supervisor for the Second Presbyterian Church before he decided to stay in Chicago) and Augustus Bauer (who had worked for Carstenstein & Gildemeister on the Crystal Palace before moving to Chicago), who were the architects originally promised the commission, graciously offered the young designer a space in their office from which to work on the project.  Due to the recession at this time, Wight was unable to procure any other work and had been forced to return to New York. Meanwhile, Sturgis had traveled to Munich when he studied at the Akademie for a year before he returned to New York and joined Wight in practice (that lasted until 1868).

Peter Bonnett Wight, National Academy of Design, New York, 1863. Located at the northwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street. Note that he was used tapered-section voussoirs as he had seen in Mould’s All Souls Curch. (Online)

In 1861 at the age of twenty-three Wight had burst into New York’s top tier of architects when he won the competition to design a new building for New York’s National Academy of Art, the nation’s arbeiter of taste in painting, having bested the designs of Hunt, Eidlitz, Mould, and Henry Van Brunt. The structural polychrome of Wight’s design had pleased its building committee who were devotees of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. It took the Academy’s board over two years to finalize the project asking Wight to economize wherever he could, but eventually a contract was signed on April 29, 1863, and construction commenced at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street, the building being dedicated two years later on April 27, 1865.  Wight had based his polychromed design on Ruskin’s theories, but critics said that he had merely copied the worse aspects of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.  

In Wight’s defense, Sturgis, his partner by this time, wrote a reply in the June 1864 New Path, strongly denying any such influence on his friend, stating that Wight’s submission had been designed following the design tenants that the magazine had been championing for the past year:

“First, that all buildings should be designed in the medieval spirit, in other words should be ‘Gothic’ and not revived classic of any school…[as the modern use of these is] pompous and luxurious trifling with unbelieved mythology and unfelt allegory…; second, that all carved ornament should be designed by the workmen who cut it… The building is so planned as to perfectly answer its purposes… it is possible, as this building shows, to deny nothing, to add nothing for composition’s sake which the occupants do not need.  [The building had been designed] as a Gothic artist of the thirteenth century might build, should he live now in New York, study our customs and needs, and become familiar with our materials and workmen and their ways.”

Peter B. Wight, National Academy of Design, Entrance Stairs. (Landau, Wight)
Peter B. Wight, National Academy of Design, Columns and Capitals, Entrance. Wight followed Ruskin’s advice to encourage the stone masons to design the ornament in attempt to restore a sense of Gothic unity to the construction process. (Landau, Wight)
Peter B. Wight, National Academy of Design, Elevation of the Proposed Stenciling for the Central Stairwell, 1863-4. (Landau, Wight)

Following his paean to Ruskin in the National Academy of Design, Wight had continued to develop contemporary British design idioms in his following projects.  He continued to follow Ruskin’s ideas in the exteriors of his next two buildings, the Yale School of Fine Arts (1864) and Brooklyn’s Mercantile Library (1865). 

Peter B. Wight, Yale School of Fine Arts, New Haven, 1864. (Landau, Wight)
Peter B. Wight, Brooklyn Mercantile Library, Brooklyn, 1865. Preliminary Design. (Landau, Wight)

In the interiors of these two buildings he veered from the truthful representation of nature championed by Ruskin and the PreRaphaelites to a more stylized abstraction of nature in his interior decoration and furniture, seemingly following the examples set by Pugin, Jones, and Jones’ colleague at the South Kensington School of Art, Christopher Dresser.  

Peter B. Wight, Stencil Design for Distemper Decoration, Brooklyn, 1870. (Landau, Wight)

In 1862, Dresser had published his views on ornament: “If mere imitation is ornament, the ornamentist must at once give place to the photographer… Natural adaptations, we have seen, are the lowest form of ornament, but the next step, which is more exalted, consists in the ‘conventional’ treatment of natural forms…”  While on the surface this sentiment seems to contradict a “truthful” approach to art, it was, indeed, an “honest” approach to the problem for two-dimensional surfaces such as wallpapers and floor surfaces as they were flat planes and not three-dimensional objects.

Peter B. Wight, Decoration for Dome, Williamsburgh Savings Bank, Brooklyn, 1873. Pencil and gouache on paper. (Landau, Wight)


By this time Wight had also become familiar with the recently published structural rationalist theories of French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who in 1863 had just published his first volume of his Entretiens sur l’architecture (Discourses on Architecture).  He would have known about Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas as his work was often mentioned in The New Path prior to its demise in December 1865.  Then in 1866, American critic Henry Van Brunt wrote an article in The Nation in which he introduced Americans to Viollet-le-Duc by stating the he was “the leading reformer of France” and also took the opportunity to self-promote the fact that an American (himself although it wouldn’t be published until 1875) was translating the Entretiens into English.  Wight had chosen to also translate Viollet-le-Duc’s work, finishing the first Discourse in 1868 which he read to the New York chapter of the A.I.A. and later published it in the new trade magazine, Manufacturer and Builder (as far as I can determine, Wight’s was one of the earlier, if not the first published English translation of Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas).


Landau, Sarah Bradford. P.B.Wight: Architect, Contractor, and Critic: 1835-1925.  Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1981.

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While Hunt was in Paris learning the French academic methodology for architectural design, there were American designers who found the ideas of the British Design Reform Movement (see Europe Blog) to be appropriate for the challenges they faced at mid-century.  The influence of Britain’s emerging reformist design theory on A. J. Downing’s practice was such that he decided to travel to Britain in 1850 in search of an architect whose design sympathies would complement his own theory of regional landscape design.  He found a kindred spirit in British architect Calvert Vaux, who had apprenticed with a Gothic Revival practitioner in London. Downing was able to induce Vaux to immigrate to the U.S. in 1852 to become his professional partner in the firm of Downing & Vaux, thus, the direct importation of British design theories into the U.S. and its immediate effect on American design had begun. In 1857, Vaux echoed Downing’s (who tragically died in a steamboat accident in 1852) theories in his Villas and Cottages, advocating for an American architecture that responded to the local conditions and climate.

Calvert Vaux, Villas and Cottages, 1857. (Online)

That same year Vaux asked twenty-five year-old journalist Frederick Law Olmsted, who had no professional background in landscape design at the time, to assist him in preparing a submission for the competition to design New York’s planned Central Park.  Vaux had sought out Olmsted because he had been introduced to Olmsted by Downing some years earlier, following Olmsted’s visit to Great Britain to do an article on its public parks, where Olmsted had greatly admired Joseph Paxton’s design of Birkenhead Park.  Their submission for the design of Central Park was chosen as the winner the following year, 1858.

While the first U. S. edition of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters was published in 1847, the later writings of Ruskin became accessible to American designers primarily through the auspices provided by The Crayon, a magazine “devoted to the graphic arts and the literature related to them,” started in January 1855 by New Yorker William J. Stillman. 

The Crayon, First Edition, Jan. 8, 1855. (Online)

Stillman was a painter who, having first read Ruskin’s Modern Painters, had then traveled to Britain in 1850 where he met Ruskin, and fell under the spell of two of the leading Pre-Raphaelite painters, Dante Rossetti and John Everett Millais, and converted to Ruskin’s theories.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2. (Online)

Meanwhile, the design reform ideas of Owen Jones that argued for a non-historic style of architecture had directly emigrated from Britain less than two years after the arrival of Vaux, and four years before Jones’ 1856 publication of The Grammar of Ornament, in the person of architect Jacob Wrey Mould, a British architect who had worked for Jones for a number of years, spanning the period between his assisting Jones in taking measurements of the Alhambra, to the design of exhibits in the Crystal Palace and in the initial preparation of the plates for The Grammar of Ornament

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. (Online)

Mould was also very familiar with the latest designs of Anglican churches in Britain advocated by the British eccleasiastical reform movement, inspired by Pugin’s writings, that had risen to prominence with the promise of restoring an appropriate spirit to the country’s church architecture.  Mould had been invited to New York by Moses Hicks Grinnell, a member of the building committee of All Souls’ Church, New York’s first Unitarian congregation, to design its new building.  Mould produced a striking Victorian Gothic building with a severe massing scheme and polychromatic exterior (employing alternating courses of red brick and a pale yellow Caen stone, influenced by Néo-Grec Léon Vaudoyer’s Marseilles Cathedral ) at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 20th.  Consecrated on December 1855, Mould’s church would provide the inspiration for a number of the next generation of architects in New York City.


It was into this maturing architectural environment in New York City that the École-trained Richard Morris Hunt had entered upon his return to the U. S. in September 1855.  On February 23, 1857, Hunt was one of thirteen New York architects, drawn from all three backgrounds of the early American architects, who met in the office of Richard Upjohn to organize the New York Society of Architects.  Upjohn, who had been born in Great Britain and had apprenticed under a builder and cabinet-maker, had immigrated at the age of 27 to Boston, and eventually found work with an architect.  He had moved to New York in 1839, where he was hired to redesign Trinity Church, at the foot of Wall Street.  Its overall design reveals the influence of Pugin’s early writings. When it was completed in 1846, its 281’ tall spire was the tallest structure in the U.S. 

Richard Upjohn, Trinity Church, New York, 1839. (Online)

The other eleven architects who met in Upjohn’s office were Horace W. S. Cleaveland, Henry C. Dudley, Leopold Eidlitz, Edward Gardiner, Jacob Mould, Frederick A. Petersen, J. M. Priest, John Welch, Joseph C. Wells, Upjohn’s son Richard M., and son-in-law, Charles Babcock.  They decided to expand the group in order to be a national organization by inviting 16 more architects, including Calvert Vaux, A. J. Davis, and Thomas U. Walter, changing its name accordingly to the American Institute of Architects, whose constitution was adopted on April 15, 1857.  The organization was apparently modeled after the Royal Institute of British Architects, as Upjohn, Mould, Vaux, and Wells, as former Royal subjects, were well acquainted with the British organization.  The group sought to create an architectural organization that would “promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members” and “elevate the standing of the profession.”


Some five months later an exhibition of British Pre-Raphaelite paintings that brought their first actual work to the U.S. was organized and ran in New York from the fall of 1857 to July 1858.  In 1860, British painter Thomas C. Farrar, who actually had been taught by Ruskin at the Working Men’s College in London, immigrated to New York in 1860 and found not only a job teaching drawing in the School of Design for Women at the new Cooper Union but also a covey of likeminded individuals:

“It was not long before he made, or rather found many strong friends.  For, to his surprise, there were a few sympathizers with the views he had imbibed in the Ruskin school, to give him a cordial welcome.  He even found a few artists who had long sought to emancipate themselves from the prevailing school of conventionality, and as many architects [my emphasis]… as these friendships ripened, it became their habit to hold informal meetings at each other’s studios… At one of these social meetings it was suggested (by Farrar) that a society be formed to advocate the reforms which, as individuals, they all were striving to effect.”

The meeting was held on January 27, 1863, at which time Farrar began to organize his compatriots along lines similar to those employed in the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Britain, some fifteen year earlier.  Among the group’s seven founding members, were architects Peter Bonnett Wight and Russell Sturgis.   While the group modeled itself on the PRB, it is more accurate to label this group as “the American Ruskinians,” for it was his ideas and writings, and not those of the PRB who, truthfully, shared little in terms of theory (and nothing architectural) with their own ideas, that formed the intellectual core around which these artists gathered.  At the group’s second meeting on February 18, the group approved its Articles of Organization, settling on the name, “The Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art.”  Their overall goals were to breathe a fresh truth into the arts and to educate the American public to better understand art.  Their organizing principles were:

1. Truth in art meant fidelity to nature,

2. The need for a close association among the arts, especially when combined with architecture,

3. To develop the artistic and handicraft talents of their associated craftsmen,

4. The superiority of Gothic architecture.

On March 28, the group decided to publish its own journal, The New Path (again following the lead of the PRB in its publication of its magazine, The Germ), under the editorial control of art critic Clarence Cook.  (It had a short life of July 1864-Dec. 1865.)


Dickason, David Howard. The Daring Young Men: The Story of the American Pre-Raphaelites. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1953.

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As I have already published my history of Chicago architecture up to the second fire of July 14, 1874, on my Instagram site (click logo at right), I would like to begin immediately with the events that followed that disaster, however, I also think it is central to understanding what came after the fire to review a few issues from my first volume.  Central to what happened in Chicago after the 1874 fire were two personalities: William Le Baron Jenney and Peter Bonnett Wight.  For all practical purposes, they can be considered to be the “Founding Fathers” of the Chicago School.  Fortunately for the city’s architectural future, Jenney came with a firsthand knowledge of the latest French ideas pertaining to a modern architecture, while Wight brought with him the latest British ideas.  In many ways, the Chicago School will represent the synthesis of the best of both of these modern traditions.

Prior to the Civil War, Chicago’s first generation of architects were, for the most part, a group of provincial Americans, who had little, if any, firsthand knowledge of European architecture, but had learned how to design a building by apprenticing with an architect who had learned in a similar manner.  While there were a few architects in Chicago who had trained in Europe (German immigrants August Bauer, Otto Matz, and Frederick Baumann were the best examples) who had some firsthand knowledge of the rising tide in Europe of architectural theory searching for a modern architecture, Chicago’s architects prior to 1867 designed by copying, many times indiscriminately, buildings and their details from other cultures and locations.  They were no different, however, from the architects in any other city in the U.S. during the first century of American independence.


Paralleling the theory of evolution, American architects did not just wake up one morning and decide to make a clean break with European tradition, but rather, the idea would have to take time to gain adherents and momentum; that is, to “evolve.”  Many mid-nineteenth century American artists who had this ambition found their inspiration in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that have been characterized by historians as the first attempts by an American to escape from the influence of European history and culture.  In 1836 (just a few months after Owen Jones (see Europe) delivered his lecture at the Architectural Association), Emerson had published an essay, Nature, in which he laid out his view that Americans were free of the Old World’s cultural heritage.  Where every aspect of the European landscape had been connected in one way or another over time to man through Europe’s history, America’s nature was free of all human (European) meaning, that had left Americans the ability to interpret nature free from human history or intervention.  In August 1837, Emerson had delivered an oration that he had renamed for its publication as The American Scholar, that Oliver Wendell Holmes later referred to as “our intellectual Declaration of Independence:”

“Perhaps the time is already come…when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.  Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.  The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests…     …instead of the sublime and beautiful; [a direct reference to Englishman Edmund Burke’s 1757 Philosophic Enquiry] the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.  That, which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign ports… I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy;  I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.  Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds…   We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.  The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame…We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own mind.”

American authors who had preceded Emerson in writing about American subjects using the American vernacular had included Benjamin Franklin, Susannah Rowson, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and James Fenimore Cooper.  There had also been American composers who had been writing uniquely American music, at least as far back as 1847 when Stephen Foster had penned “Oh Suzanna.”  The Hudson River School of Painting, starting around 1820, had marked the first foray into an American school of painting.  Winslow Homer (born and centered in Boston) and Thomas Eakins (born and centered in Philadelphia), who had both studied painting in Paris once the Civil War had ended, had begun their artistic careers as painters of everyday American life at the turn of the decade around 1870.  

(Left) Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875; (right) Winslow Homer, Breezing Up, 1876. (online)

Meanwhile, was there an equivalent “American architecture” being designed during this period?  As opposed to painting and music, buildings were a necessity for survival in the new world.  As such, architecture seemingly should have enjoyed a headstart among the arts in the new republic, until, that is, when one realizes the exponential cost differential between what it costs to erect a building versus that of penning a song or painting a picture.  The cost of a piece of architecture would naturally tend to force a client into a conservative frame of mind and make it difficult for an architect to actually erect an “artistic” design, unless the client had similar values and sufficient funds.


Following the successful divorce from the mother country, once political independence had been gained Americans began to ponder the issue of cultural independence. As had been the case with British landscape architect John Claudius Loudon’s recognition in 1817 of the potential for a new style of architecture, it appears that the profession of landscape architecture with its requirement to be sensitive of the local environs, was also the point of origin in the U.S. for the search for a modern style of design.  Self-taught, American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, regarded by many as “The Father of American Landscape Architecture,” had introduced the logic for a national style of design with the 1841 publication of his pioneering book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America.  

Andrew Jackson Downing, Cottage Residences: Or, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Cottage Villas, and Their Gardens and Grounds, Adapted to North America, 1842. (Online)

The influence of Loudon’s ideas, as well as those of Augustus Welby Pugin’s writings, are evident in a pair of very influential architectural pattern books Downing published in 1842 and 1850, in which he showcased “Carpenter Gothic” houses and stated that Greek images should be supplanted with those of the picturesque (Gothic) because “the expression of great wealth was contrary to the spirit of republican institutions.”  Downing, however, was merely echoing Pugin in advocating for the substitution of the Greek Revival with the Gothic Revival, using Pugin’s rationale that the good design of a building could improve the morals of those who came into contact with it.  He also stressed Pugin’s emphasis on the primary importance of function in any design: “[in] perfect architecture no principle of utility will be sacrificed to beauty, only elevated and ennobled by it.”

The first American to write about the possibilities of a truly American architecture, apparently was sculptor Horatio Greenough, (whose career had roughly paralleled that of Downing) in his essay, “American Architecture,” published in the August 1843 issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review:

“(The United States was) destined to form a new style of architecture… Let us consult nature, and in the assurance that she will disclose a mine, richer than was ever dreamed of by the Greeks, in art as well as philosophy… (another source could be) the Greek masters… the true apostles of correct taste in building… (but) let us learn principles, not copy shapes; let us imitate them like men, and not ape them like monkeys… the American builder, by a truly philosophic investigation of ancient art, will learn of the Greeks to be American.”

Echoing Emerson’s ideas, Greenough recommended that American architects adapt their forms to the climate and to evolve ornamentation in harmony with American Institutions.  “In our political institutions we have dared to be new.  Can we not shew that art too has a reason as well as government?”  He reiterated these sentiments in an essay he published in 1851, “Aesthetics at Washington:”

“The men who have reduced locomotion to its simplest elements, in the trotting wagon and the yacht America, are nearer to Athens at this moment than they who would bend the Greek Temple to every use.  I contend for Greek principles, not Greek things.”

George Steers, The America, 1851. (Online)

As an example, Greenough cited Yankee “simplicity” in the design of the schooner America that had just defeated fifteen of England’s best sailing ships in the annual regatta around the Isle of Wight, held that year in conjunction with the 1851 World’s Fair. 

“I call therefore upon science in all its branches to arrest the tide of sensuousness and arbitrary embellishment… not negatively by criticism thereof alone, but positively by making the instrument a many-sided response to the multiform demands of life.  The craving for completeness will then obtain its normal food in results, not the opiate and deadening stimulus of decoration.  Then will structure and its dependent sister arts emerge from the standstill of ipse dixit [he said] and, Llke the ship, the team, the steam engine, proceed through phases of development toward a response to need.”

A few weeks later, he had expounded on his theory of architecture in a letter to Emerson himself, that appears to have been taken directly from Pugin:

“A scientific arrangement of spaces and forms to functions and to site.  An emphasis of features proportioned to their gradated importance in function.  Colour and ornament to be decided and arranged and varied by strictly organic laws – having a distinct reason for each decision.  The entire and immediate banishment of all make-shift and make believe.”

But Greenough’s call for an American architecture in 1851 (some five years before Owen Jones published a similar philosophy in The Grammar of Ornament) was beyond the comprehension of American architects of his generation, if for no other reason than their view of architecture was dialectically opposed to what he was proposing.


So an American architect in the post-war 1860s would have either of these European poles, tradition or innovation, to turn to in his search for inspiration.  But in order to understand their individual efforts, we also need a better understanding of just who was the American architect during the 1860s?  There were three categories of architects in the U.S. at this time:

1. Immigrants who had been born and trained in Europe, many having attended actual classes in a university, whose work represented a continuum of European practice.  This category of architect came from principally three countries, Great Britain, France, and Germany, who brought with them the theory in which they were trained.  Chicago architect Frederick Baumann, born in Prussia and schooled at Berlin’s Künigliches Gewerbeinstitut and the Royal Academy before he emigrated in 1850, is an example.

2. Native-born Americans who had no personal exposure/experience with European traditions.  At the other end of the cultural spectrum, these architects had not been educated in an architecture school, for there were no such institutions in the U.S. prior to 1868, when William R. Ware initiated the first such program at MIT, but learned the profession along the traditional artisanal lines of apprenticing for an architect in his office. Chicago’s two leading architects in this era, John Van Osdel and W.W. Boyington are prime examples.

3. Native born Americans who had been educated/employed in Europe.  Richard Morris Hunt was the first, and best example.  Hunt was not the first native-born American to study design in Europe, that honor apparently belongs to Charles Ellet Jr., the great civil engineer who had studied at Paris’ École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in 1830-1.   Hunt, however, who had been the first American to have graduated from the École royale des Beaux-arts was the leading American architectural figure in the immediate post-Civil War period.  He had been born in Vermont in 1827, but following the premature death of his father, his mother had taken the family to Europe in 1843 in the hope that the health of his older brother, future painter William Morris Hunt, might be restored.  At the age of nineteen (1846), Richard had passed the entrance examinations for the École where he entered the atelier of Hector Martin Lefuel.  Hunt’s timing could not have been more fortuitous for he had hitched his wagon to who would become one of the stars of the Second Empire.  

The completed Grand Louvre/Tuileries, Paris, 1856. The arrow is pointing to the north gallery, and the Pavillon de la Bibliothèque. (Online)

In the year between Louis-Napoléon’s coup in 1851 and his ascendency to the throne the following year as Napoléon III, he had appointed architect Louis-Tullius-Joachim Visconti (who had designed and was supervising the construction of the tomb of the President’s uncle in Les Invalides) on July 7, 1852, to be the architect in charge of completing the Louvre’s North Gallery along the south side of the rue de Rivoli, a project initiated by his uncle that was planned to connect the Louvre with the Tuileries Palace, his uncle’s former chief residence.  Fortunately for Lefuel, and his twenty-six year-old assistant Hunt, Visconti died from a stroke in December 1853, and the Emperor assigned Lefuel to complete the Grand Louvre complex.  In April 1854, Lefuel invited Hunt to join the Imperial Staff as Inspector des Travaux (Building Code Inspector) on the Louvre project, in which Hunt was involved not only with supervising the construction of the gallery along the rue de Rivoli, but was given the responsibility to design and draw many of the details for the façade of the Pavillon de la Bibliothèque, that actually made the physical connection of the new gallery with the older Louvre.  Hunt formally graduated later that year and upon his return to the U.S. in September 1855, quickly established his practice in New York.  Inspired by his education in Paris, Hunt also began to teach architecture in his 10th Street studio, utilizing the French atelier system, where he chose a few students each year to work and learn alongside the Master.  Among his first two classes would be found some of the country’s early leading practitioners (Charles Gambrill, George Post, and Frank Furness), critics, (Henry Van Brunt), and educators (William Ware).

Hector Lefuel (with Richard Morris Hunt), Pavillon de la Bibliothèque, Palais du Louvre, Paris, 1854. (Author’s collection)


Baker, Paul R. Richard Morris Hunt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980.

Stein, Susan R. The Architecture of Richard Morris Hunt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Wright, Nathalia. Horatio Greenough: The First American Sculptor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at:


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.


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:


“Modern architecture” is an umbrella, inclusive term, similar to “Gothic architecture” or “Classical architecture,” still very valid today, under which can be gathered a plethora of regional movements and individual architects (that embraces among others, the Chicago School, Art Nouveau, Prairie School, Art Deco, Art Moderne, and the International Style) that reach back to at least the French theorist and Jesuit monk, Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier (1753: Essay on Architecture) and the Italian theorist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1769: Different Manners for Decorating Fireplaces and all other Parts of Building), who both wrote that the primary objective in the design of architecture was an architecture that spoke not of the past, but of the present.  This did not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, the development of a style that precluded the use of ornament.  

Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’Architeture, 2nd Ed.,1755. The Muse of Architecture directs the attention of the young architect to Nature’s “Primitive Hut,” and away from the collapsed Classical pieces made by Man. (Online)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Chimney Piece Decorated with Frieze of Dolphins, 1769. (Online)

Laugier’s essay was just one small shot in the grand battle across the entire spectrum of all the arts referred to in France as the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (the battle of the Ancients vs. Moderns) whose opening salvo is usually credited as author Charles Perrault’s “Le siècle de Louis le Grand” (The Century of Louis the Great) published in 1687.  Perrault (the younger brother of architect Claude Perrault) had come to the defense of his fellow authors who were attempting to write pieces about and with contemporary (moderne) subjects, arguing that the literature of the current era was superior to that of the past (ancien). 

One of earliest, if not the first European architect to consciously attempt to evolve a contemporary, if not modern architectural language was Henri Labrouste.  American historians Neil Levine, David Van Zanten, and Barry Bergdoll have consecutively shown in their work how Labrouste began this effort in his 1828 Prix de Rome envoi (report) in which he purposefully chose to analyze the three ancient temples at Paestum, Italy.  The most significant change he made from the traditional envoi was a longitudinal section of the “Basilica” that he cut through the columns, rather than in front of them. 

Henri Labrouste, Longitudinal Section of Paestum Temple, 1828. By cutting the section through the columns, instead of in front of them, Labrouste has consciously focused on the wall beyond, and not the ornament of the columns. (MOMA, Labrouste)

This seemingly innocuous decision was profound to its core: it eliminated the need for him to draw any of the corresponding ornament dictated by what type of column (i.e., doric or ionic) had been used.  Therefore, instead of focusing on the building’s columns and their ornamental system, that is, the École royale’s central architectural curriuclum, Labouste’s section focused on the walls beyond and the ornament that had accrued on these over time. In his accompanying Précis Historique, he explained his thesis that these buildings had been designed in response to their local context, never once referencing Roman architecture or making any connection to the École royale’s theory of a “universal” Classicism.  Upon his return from Rome in 1830, he was shunned by the École royale and the Académie royale, the professional organization that ran the École, (see my European Precedents Blog: coming soon) as if he was the anti-Christ.

Some nine years after his return, Labrouste finally received a commission, to design a freestanding library to house the medieval collection of the Couvent des Génovéfains that had been located to the rear of Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Sainte-Geneviève.  The most important aspect of Labrouste’s design was his decision not to use any columns in the library’s exterior, the first time for such an exclusion in a French public building since Laugier’s Essai of 1753 had codified the use of the freestanding column.  Labrouste’s design was a direct challenge to the hegemony over French architectural practice enjoyed by the Classical tenets of the Académie royale.  Without columns, Labrouste’s elevation had no inherent order, literally (i.e., doric or ionic), and, therefore, with this one simple, yet profound move, Labrouste had eliminated all of the formal rules of the Académie royale as they pertained to which order and set of proportions were to be used in a design.  Labrouste had finally freed himself from “Palladio’s golden rules,” so to speak. For all practical purposes, therefore, Labrouste had wiped the architectural slate clean, allowing him to approach the problem from any and all perspectives that he wanted, that has allowed some historians to claim that this was one of the first modern buildings.

Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Exterior. An example of his free use of Classic details. (Author’s collection)

If Labrouste did not use columns (and beams) to span an opening (i.e., a window or door) the only alternative left to him was the arch. From his earliest sketches of his ideas for the building that have survived, it is obvious that this was his intention, for these drawings already show the unbroken arcade (like that of a Roman aqueduct) of the second floor Reading Room set on top of a basement with smooth-faced ashlar.  By using this parti, the lack of columns (and the requisite order) would allow him the expressive freedom to use the building’s ornament in a very unclassical manner to communicate his idea/s for the building’s design.

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. (Author’s collection)

Levine has examined Labrouste’s use of applied ornament on the exterior to show Labrouste’s intent to communicate the building’s purpose, rather than the conventional expression of the building’s chosen structural order (i.e., doric or ionic) through the use of consciously applied ornament.  Labouste also wanted to communicate the building’s function and interior organization on its exterior.  The arcade sat on plain, square columns, separated by a non-Classical capital of his own invention, that he also carried around the corner piers (that were appropriated enlarged, relative to the columns, as they had to buttress the thrust at the end of the arcade).  He infilled each of the arches’ lower portion with an inset masonry panel that corresponded to the height of the bookstacks on the interior face of the wall.  On these surfaces he had inscribed, in chronological order, the names of famous authors, scientists, and philosophers whose works could be found inside, in columns and rows that abstracted how the books on the interior were stored.   This is not a Roman temple on the exterior nor a Roman bath on the interior where the books are removed and stored in a separate room. It is a modern, French library. 

Some ten years after Labrouste had completed the library,  French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, another adversary of the École (following the 1848 uprising and the rise of the Second Republic, the school dropped royale from its name) had stated this thought explicitly: “if we wish to find the architecture of our epoch [his italics] which is so loudly called for, that we find it not in mixing past styles but by looking to the principles of new structure.”  The architects of the Chicago School were simply taking this side of the centuries-long debate between the ancients and the moderns in their work, informed by the recent writings of Viollet-le-Duc and likeminded theoreticians.

Burnham and Root, Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Building, Chicago, 1881. I include this building as it stood directly across Adams Street from the site for the Field Store, offering Richardson the chance to do Root “one better.” In other words, Richardson had admitted that this building was his inspiration for the design of the Field Store. (Hoffmann, Root)

The importance of Labrouste and his library to the Chicago School came directly to Chicago via the designs of H.H. Richardson, who not only had briefly studied in Paris at the École where he could study the library in person (remember the arcades in his Marshall Field Wholesale Store), but more importantly, had also taken a position in the office of Labrouste’s older brother, Théodore Labrouste, where he was surrounded with the ideas of a new architecture, freed of the Classical strictures of the Académie and the École.

H.H. Richardson, Marshall Field Wholesale Store, Chicago, 1885. (Online)

As early as 1889. Boston critic Henry Van Brunt had identified this “Western” architectural phenomenon, as distinct from events on the East Coast in an article he wrote in 1889:

“Its independence of spirit, perhaps, its energy, enterprise, and courage, or a certain breadth of view, inspired by its boundless opportunities, [which] has happily enabled them to use this [European] inheritance without being enslaved by it.  It would have been easiest for them to quote with accuracy and adapt with grace the styles of the Old World, to be scholarly, correct, academical, and thus to stand apart from the sympathies of the people, and to constitute themselves an aristocratic guild of art.  They preferred to play the more arduous and nobler part: to become, unconsciously, ministers of an architectural reform so potent and fruitful, so well fitted to the natural conditions of the West [my emphasis], that one may already predicate from it the speedy overthrow of the temporary, experimental, transitional vernacular art of the county, and the establishment of a school [my emphasis] which may be recognized in history as the proper exponent of this marvelous civilization.”

Many of these Chicago architects had also read Van Brunt’s translation of Viollet-le-Duc’s Discourses on Architecture, first published in 1875, and Root’s own 1889 translation of portions of German Gottfried Semper’s Der Stil.   Under the influence of Europe’s most current ideas of what a “modern architecture” could and should be, the architects of the Chicago School, interested in developing a modern style of architecture that was the product of contemporary ideas, practices, and materials, that also responded to the particular contextual forces of the building’s function, site, and locale, following Root’s lead would also begin to develop their own theoretical and aesthetic approach to the design of buildings, that was largely independent of what was becoming fashionable on the East Coast during this period.


This was best represented in McKim, Mead, & White’s 1887 design for the new Boston Public Library, very much influenced by Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.  Charles McKim was most certainly aware of Labrouste’s building and ideas, as he had attended the École  from 1867 through 1870.  (Was it simply serendipity that McKim had chosen the building in which Labrouste had been the first to challenge the strict rules of the Académie des Beaux-arts, or did McKim, as a dutiful graduate of the École consciously mean to cancel the apostate Labrouste’s ‘Declaration of Architectural Independence’ by imposing the Académie’s traditional strictures upon American architecture?)  France’s querelle des Anciens et des Modernes had jumped across the Atlantic and had assumed physical form as the site for McKim’s library sat directly across Copley Square from and facing Richardson’s Trinity Church, voted the best building in the U.S. by the A.I.A. only two years earlier.

McKim, Mead & White, Boston Public Library, 1887. (Online)

Archeologically-correct Classical Revival architecture, quoting Summerson’s three categories, represented the antithesis of the what Chicago School architects were attempting to aesthetically achieve. Root expressed this as early as 1885 in a paper he published in the Inland Architect:  “The great styles of architecture are of infinite value but they are to be vitally imitated, not servilely copied.”  The most vocal in his opposition to the Classical Revival, however, was neither Root nor Louis Sullivan, but Sullivan’s always fearlessly argumentative partner, Dankmar Adler, who, following the close of the 1893 World’s Fair, gloomily predicted:

“The immediate effect of the example of the Fair buildings will be a general and indiscriminate use of the classic in American architecture.  Efforts will be made to force into the garb of classic Renaissance structures of every kind and quality devoted to every conceivable purpose… in palace and cottage, in residence and out-house, in sky-scraping temple of mammon on city streets, and in humble chapel and schoolhouse of the country roadside.”

After the Fair, while the majority of Chicago’s architects followed Daniel Burnham’s lead in joining the “American Renaissance,” there were opponents to the literal reuse of Classical details who continued to argue for the development of a modern style of ornamentation, with, of course, Louis Sullivan in the vanguard.  Adler also continued to voice his protest against the use of the Classical Revival wherever and whenever he was given an opportunity to do so.  Even three years after the Fair, in front of the entire A.I.A. convention of 1896 in Washington, DC, he defiantly argued his point, “What I have written is intended to be a protest against the dogma that art in architecture ended with the Renaissance.”


Drexler, Arthur (ed.). The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts. Cambridge: MITPress, 1977.

Middleton, Robin (ed.). The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French Architecture. Cambridge: MITPress, 1982.

Bélier, Corinne, Barry Bergdoll, and Marc Le Cœur. Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light. New York:MOMA, 2012.

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