In Volume Three, I documented Chicago’s architecture and urban growth during the years 1879 through mid-1886.  I started in Chicago just as it began to recover from the Great Depression of 1873-79 and ended with the events that led up to the Haymarket Square Bombing.  During this period, Chicago emerged as a serious competitor for New York City in business as well as architecture, although it was still playing catch-up with Cincinnati in the cultural arts. The rise of Chicago during this six-year period is easily visualized: imagine that on May 1, 1879, you have just stepped out of the temporary city hall and are standing in the middle of the intersection of La Salle and Adams (lower lefthand corner in left figure below), looking south to the La Salle Street Station. You are surrounded by 3-4 story buildings, with the towering exception of the seven-story Grand Pacific Hotel (right photo) on your left. Then blink your eyes and its now May 1, 1886. BAM! The new Board of Trade is standing towering over you and blocking the view of the station. You are now surrounded by new 10- to 12-storied skyscrapers that dwarf the not-so Grand Pacific (your relative vertical scale has just increased by over 300%!).


In architecture, the major stories in Volume Three were:

1. The move of the Board of Trade and the erection of its new building, that topped off at 303’ (322’ if we count Sperry’s Corona).  This was taller than any structure in New York City (a first!) and was second in height in the U.S. only to the Washington Monument.

S.S. Beman, Pullman Building, Chicago, NW corner of Michigan and Adams. I chose this early photo because it shows the large jump in urban scale from pre-elevator Chicago with its 3-4 storied buildings to the vertical scale of the 10-storied “skyscrapers.”

2. The importation from New York of a new building typology, the skyscraper, a tall office building made possible by the exploitation of the elevator. Two investors from Boston, Peter and Shepherd Brooks were responsible for the construction of Chicago’s first skyscraper. The height of these early skyscrapers was able to be increased with the addition of iron skeleton framing, also invented in New York, in fact, by the same architect who had worked on New York’s first skyscraper, George B. Post. (Let me repeat: The skyscraper and the iron skeleton frame were invented in New York, and the first skyscraper built in Chicago was the idea of the two brothers from Boston.  Notwithstanding “Windy City” legend.) In order to build this type of building on Chicago’s “uncertain” soil, the city’s architects and builders had developed a lightweight system of terra cotta tiles to build fireproof floors and to protect iron structural members that allowed them to replace heavy masonry interior bearing walls.  This type of construction was referred to as “Chicago construction,” as it was invented in Chicago. This invention, and not the skyscraper or the iron skeleton frame is Chicago’s factual legacy to architecture.

“Chicago Construction.” Hollow fireclay segmental flat arches span between iron/steel beams that are protected from fire either by the floor tiles or by added fireclay casings, as are the iron columns. This is a drawing of a more developed system employing steel columns from the early 1890s. (Condit, Chicago School)

3. There were 15 skyscrapers (10+ stories) built during this period.  Burnham & Root had designed half of these.  (As I had stated early on, Root had designed and erected more skyscrapers than the combined number designed by all of his peers, even by this early date of 1886.) The other architects involved in decreasing order were two each: W.W. Boyington and S.S. Beman; and one each: J.J. Flanders, Cobb & Frost, George Edbrooke, and William Le Baron Jenney. (Once again to remind you, Louis Sullivan’s first skyscraper, the Wainwright Building was designed in late 1890, four years into the future; if you want to count the Auditorium Tower as a skyscraper, it still wasn’t started until 1887.  This is another of my primary theses, that is, that Sullivan, contrary to many histories, was not a central player in the first ten years of the Chicago School.)

Burnham & Root, Phoenix Building. South(rear) elevation. Demolition photo taken by Richard Nickel in 1959. The windows behind the four elevators that were supported by iron skeleton framing. The first use of iron framing in a partial exterior wall in a Chicago skyscraper. (urbanremainschicago.com)

4. The central figure in the first ten years of the Chicago School was John Wellborn Root. This will become even more obvious as we move through 1886-1890.  Root brought the technology of the New York iron skeleton frame to Chicago, that he first employed in 1885 in the elevator wall of the Phoenix Building and the light court walls of the Rookery.  His precedents came from the buildings by George Post in New York. (Remember that Root had graduated from the same Engineering program at NYU that Post had eleven years earlier.)  Note that no skyscraper by the end of 1885 in any city, however, remotely came close to being constructed solely with the skeleton frame simply because this new technology had not sufficiently matured to the point that it could resist wind loads (or seismic forces for that matter) without the rigidity imparted to a building by its masonry walls.  The good news is that we will see the solution to this problem in this coming volume.  Meanwhile, Root had also applied his technical knowledge to the problem of foundation design and winter construction.  He will continue to innovate in the technical design of his buildings of the next four years. The bad news is that just as Chicago’s architects were beginning to push iron skeleton framing into the exteriors of their skyscrapers, the Haymarket Square affair halted construction in Chicago in its tracks at precisely this moment.

Burnham & Root, The Rookery’s light court. The first use of iron skeleton framing in an exterior wall in a Chicago skyscraper. (Author’s collection)

5. In urban design/structure, investors of La Salle Street (the Board of Trade gang) overran the plans of those invested in Dearborn, meaning primarily Peter and Shepherd Brooks.  The Brookses had inside information about the planned location of the new C&WI station to be built in line with Dearborn, but their plans were frustrated by the La Salle group’s “clout” with City Hall, that slowed the construction of the extension of Dearborn south of Monroe for over two years. During this same time, Adams Street emerged as the major east-west corridor, running from Union Station at the river to the Exposition Center at Michigan Avenue.  Adams was a natural simply because the post-fire City Hall, the “Rookery” sat the corner of Adams and La Salle, and the site for the new, post-fire Federal Government Building had been moved two blocks farther south to Dearborn and Adams.  The buildings erected on Adams during this period included: the Pullman, the Revell, the Home Insurance, the Insurance Exchange, the Burlington, Field’s Wholesale Store, and, of course, the Rookery.

Reconstruction of Adams Street Looking East from Franklin, Left side, Burlington Building, Right side, in order, Field Wholesale Store, Rand McNally Building (1889), Insurance Exchange, The Rookery, with the Home Insurance Building across Adams. Cobb & Frost’s Owings Building (turret in back of the Rookery) is three years in the future, and the Pullman Building (in front of Expo Building). (Digital image by David Burwinkel)

6. The architects in the West had left the A.I.A. en masse and formed their own organization in 1884, the Western Association of Architects.  They began to enact professional reforms that they believed were long overdue, sometimes by themselves, other times in collaboration with the A.I.A.

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


The Haymarket Square Bombing, Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1886. (Online)

On Tuesday, April 27, 1886, H. H. Richardson quietly succumbed to the disease that had increasingly incapacitated him, denying him the opportunity to see and enjoy his last creations, including the three buildings that were under construction in Chicago. Only two days earlier on Easter Sunday, buildings that lined the streets on Chicago’s West Side were bedecked in red banners of all kinds.  The Central Labor Union had organized a march reported to have involved over 15,000 people that marched among the red flags of the International Working People’s Association that day, forming a procession over two miles in length, that ended at the lakefront, where Albert Parsons encouraged them to act and stay united.  The “Great Day” was only a week away, and it appeared that the supporters of the “Eight-hour workday” movement were succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.  Since the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had set a deadline of May 1, 1886 for the universal acceptance of the eight-hour workday back at its convention in Chicago in October 1884, over 47,000 workers in Chicago had already been given an eight-hour workday, City Counsel had approved an eight-hour day for municipal workers that Mayor Carter Harrison whole-heartedly had endorsed, and there was still a week to go before workers across the entire country were to go on a coordinated general strike on Saturday, May 1.  For all practical purposes, there was little work done in Chicago during the spring of 1886 that led up to the “Great Day.”

Anticipation of the “Great Day,” May 1, 1886, had continued to build throughout the early months of 1886.  To mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Paris Commune, 1,500 people celebrated at Vorwärts Turner Halle with the usual speeches, theater, and dancing.   The following day Parsons reported on the celebration in his paper, The Alarm, urging the need for an American Commune: “Vive la Commune! is a cry which condemns the state, the state which in all its forms seeks but one object, the oppression of the many by the few.  Vive la Commune! is a protest against private property which kills all progress… [An American Commune was called for to be the] revolt of labor against the domination of capital.”  Meanwhile, the city’s “captains of industry” were seemingly justified in their nightmares of a reoccurrence of the Paris Commune of 1871, and were making their preparations accordingly.  

Five weeks later, Parsons and other IWPA leaders stood before the Easter protest throng in Lake Park, where Van Buren deadended at Michigan Avenue, and poetically predicted the resurrection of the working class by the end of the week. And, indeed, so it seemed that Parsons’ vision was coming true, as over 80,000 marched down Michigan Avenue with red flags unfurled in the annual May Day protest on Saturday, May 1, 1886.  The sun shined that day on Chicago’s working class of whom it was reported that between 40,000 and 60,000 had struck peacefully in support of the national General Strike.  Reports came in from throughout the land that over 350,000 had stopped work altogether.  That night the beerhalls and pubs in Chicago, the center of the storm, were alive with talk of the success and what was to come next.  Sunday passed relatively quietly, as many attended church in the morning and then returned to the beergardens to continue the ongoing speculation about what tomorrow would bring.

Monday, May 3, would be the first real test of the new eight-hour workday.  And it would be its last.  As the workday ended at the McCormick Reaper Works, that had been relying on non-union workers since Cyrus McCormick, Jr. had locked out all union workers in February, the non-union workers were starting to leave the plant when they were confronted by a group of striking McCormick workers.  This had been a common occurrence since the start of the lockout and had not resulted in any significant altercations before.  But today it was going to be a different story, as those among the city’s elite who had had enough of this socialist-inspired revolution had convinced the city leaders to station a force of 200 policemen to put a stop to any attempt to convince the non-union workers to stop work and join the union movement.  The police wasted no time in dispersing the mob of strikers with clubs and pistols.  Class warfare, once again, had been engaged in the streets of Chicago.

The “Revenge” Flier: “Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force.” (Online)

Anarchists among the labor movement saw their opportunity and ran with it.  That night they flooded the streets with copies of the famous “Revenge” pamphlet, calling all to a mass-meeting the following night at 7:30 in the Haymarket Square on Randolph at Des Plaines.  Tuesday, May 4, saw tensions rise as strikes continued and anticipation of the evening’s meeting grew throughout the day.  The actual meeting that night was unorganized, and poorly attended.  Most felt that the police would be there and, therefore, there would be a repeat of yesterday’s violence and wanted no part of it.  They were not wrong, as a special detail of 176 policemen had been brought into the Des Plaines Street station, a half-block away, as a precaution.  The meeting finally commenced around 8:15 to a very dishearteningly small crowd.  It was peaceable enough, so much so that Mayor Harrison, who had come to make sure nothing violent was about to happen, had convinced himself that nothing was going to come of the meeting and bid those around him a good night sometime after 10:00.  

Unfortunately, this left a power vacuum that was willingly filled by those in the police force who were spoiling for another fight, and in less than 20 minutes later, a police column was spotted by the crowd, moving at double-time up Des Plaines towards the speaker.  The commander yelled halt to his men and demanded that the speaker cease immediately.  The speaker replied that they were acting peaceably, and as the commander began to repeat his demand, an unknown assailant in the crowd threw a lighted bomb into the middle of the police formation.  In the midst of the confusion caused by the explosion, the police opened fire, wounding not only many of the crowd, but also a number of their own.  The final recorded death toll included eight policemen, at least four bystanders, seven of the eight anarchists who were rounded up in the ensuing dragnet and found guilty of murder, and the eight-hour movement (at least for many more years to come).

What was to become known as the Haymarket Square Affair, Bombing, Incident, Massacre, or Riot (depending upon one’s political orientation and whether one included the subsequent courtcases and executions) had put the final nail in the coffin of real estate investment in downtown Chicago for the immediate future.  The vast amount of newly constructed office space near the Board of Trade had flooded the Chicago market in the spring of 1885.  The national economy had already been already in recession as capitalists had retrenched their finances following the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland in the previous November.   The bombing only confirmed the worst fears of capitalists that Chicago was truly becoming “the Paris (Commune) of America.”  No new skyscrapers would be proposed in Chicago during the three-year period from early 1886 to the summer of 1888.  This period was marked in Chicago by stagnation in the speculative development market, a decline in the local economic picture in general and in architectural commissions specifically, and extreme dissatisfaction within the ranks of organized labor.  Nowhere had this been better recorded than in the pages of Inland Architect:

In June 1886:

“The almost complete stagnation which describes the building situation for the past month continues but with hope of permanent revival within a few weeks.  While the agitation of the trade unions in favor of shorter hours and increased pay was the cause which brought on this condition, the continuance is mainly due to the fact that owners have yet received no assurance that they can order work resumed without further interference.

In June 1887:

“’It is an ill wind that blows nobody good’ is an adage applicable to the general ‘dullness’ that is a feature of architects’ offices in Chicago just now.  Good use of any spare time could be made by getting perspectives drawn and sending them to us for publication.”

In April 1888:

“The building season has seemed rather backward as far as actual work is concerned.  This is not due to any lack of business in projected work among the architects, but largely because of a certain amount of nervousness among architects and owners in regard to possible building strikes, the experience of the past two years making this quite natural.”

In January 1889:

“Strikes in the building trades in 1886 and 1887, undoubtedly were most largely responsible for the comparatively small number of large buildings constructed during the past year, and although there has been but little agitation recently in labor, still the past experience makes a stoppage of work next spring a possibility…

Chicago’s architects understood what the Haymarket Square affair meant for their immediate prospects: the city’s two leading architects, John Root and S. S. Beman, individually booked passage to Europe and were en route within a month for an extended summer of travel.


Green, James. Death in the Haymarket. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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

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