H.H. Richardson, Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, 1885. (Online)

Let’s review the major competitions that occurred between Cincinnati and Chicago as they struggled after the Civil Wat to be the dominant center of the Midwest:

1.Pork:  Chicago overtook Cincinnati’s Pork Production with the start of the Civil War, claiming Cincinnati’s title of “Porkopolis.”

2. Opera House/Convention Center: Uranus Crosby had built his Opera House in 1865 to be larger than Cincinnati’s Pike’s Opera House.  Following the end of the war, Cincinnati launched its campaign to be the “Art Center” of the West, erecting its huge Saengerfest-Halle and Exhibition Buildings in 1870. Following the destruction of Crosby’s Opera House by the 1871 fire, Chicago erected the Interstate Exposition Center.  Cincinnati responded by erecting the even larger Music Hall and Exhibition complex in 1876 to house its biannual May Festivals. It would take over 12 years (1888) for Chicago to erect an equivalent facility, the Auditorium.

3. In 1876, Cincinnati erected the largest department store in the West, the Shillito’s Department Store.  It would take a number of years for Marshall Field to build an equivalent building.

4. Cincinnati would beat Chicago in holding not only the first Music Festivals, its biannual May Festivals conducted by Theodore Thomas, but also the first Grand Opera Festivals in 1881 and 1882.  Chicago finally had responded in 1885.

Round Five would be the erection of a central “Exchange Hall.”  Chicago had beaten Cincinnati to the punch with not only the formation of its Board of Trade in 1848, but also its construction of Boyington’s Board of Trade with its 303’ tall tower.  As its construction neared completion during the fall of 1884, Cincinnati finally responded with a competition to design its new Chamber of Commerce, that included an “Exchange Hall.”  The competition was announced in December 1884, with invitations extended to local architects James McLaughlin (Shillito’s) and Samuel Hannford (Music Hall), as well as to Burnham & Root (Chicago), George Post (New York), and Richardson (Boston). Richardson was named the winner on June 8, 1885, (one month after Chicago’s Board of Trade had opened its doors) with Burnham & Root’s Flemish-inspired design taking second place. Richardson’s drawing was published in American Architect later that year for all to study.

The building’s section was organized into three layers: the ground floor of rental shops, the three-story high (48’) Exchange Hall, with three floors of offices/clubrooms suspended over the Hall from steeply-angled high trusses.  The elevation expressed this layering as was his conventional practice at this stage in his career. Although similar to the Allegheny County Courthouse, the Cincinnati design was a year later and revealed the evolution occurring in Richardson’s head about how to approach an elevation.  

The difference being, however, subtle, was that the upper sill courses were detailed within the plane of the wall, instead of being projecting beyond as was still the case in the Courthouse, thereby being absorbed into the wall surface, allowing the building to be read more as a unified mass that has been wrapped with a continuous surface, similar in its effect to what I noted in the upper stories of the courtyard elevations of the Courthouse.

Note Richardson’s characteristic alternating rhythm between the piers of the larger bay from below and the intermediate piers of the smaller bays detailed with three engaged pilasters. (Ochsner, Richardson)

In comparing the earlier Ames Wholesale Store, the Allegheny County Courthouse, and the Cincinnati building, all designed within the relatively short span of only three years, one can sense the subtle evolution of Richardson’s understanding of his elevations and massing.  Especially noteworthy in all three is Richardson’s continued use of the picturesque, steep-sloped hip roof, punctuated by high-pitched dormers.  All three designs exhibit his favorite roof detail, allowing a dormer to extend to the exterior wall line of the building, where it is intersected by the vertical projection of the wall plane beyond the eave of the roof until it blended into the dormer’s gable.  

Richardson, Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. Dormer. (Online)

This detail denied any chance for the wall to end in a Renaissance-like horizontal cornice that could conceivably hide his beloved roofs from an observer on the ground. As one reviews Richardson’s designs following his return from Europe, be they small residential projects or large, urban blocks, one constant formal theme is quite evident: the roof of a building designed by Richardson at this time was an important, indispensable part of the building that had to be architectonically celebrated.  


Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl. H.H. Richardson:  Complete Architectural Works. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982.

Rudd, J. William. “The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce Building,” JSAH, May 1968, pp. 115-123. 

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