The aesthetic/theoretical issue that all architects faced with the use of the iron skeleton frame was how to design the exterior elevation that was to be placed onto the iron framework.  Although architects throughout time had faced a similar problem with timber and masonry/stone skeletal structures, “modern” European architecture theory in the middle 1800s had called not just for “honesty/truth” in architecture, but for also a new style of architecture that was an expression and a product of the era/context that they were living in, not a temporally displaced copy of an architectural style from a different period/context.  We have seen (v. 2 sec. 1.7) that this debate over the use of the art of the past versus new innovations of the present extended back to 1687 in France with the publication of author Charles (the younger brother of architect Claude) Perrault’s “Le siècle de Louis le Grand” (The Century of Louis the Great). 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). Perrault’s essay was just one small shot in the grand battle that began in Europe across the entire spectrum of all the arts referred to in France as la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (the war of the Ancients vs. Moderns). 

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)

In architecture, France’s Marc-Antoine Laugier’s 1753 Essai sur l’Architeture is credited as having made the earliest such argument in architecture.  It was now time for American architects to enter the fray.  They would do so, and as was the case in Europe, there would be advocates for tradition, and there would be advocates for innovation.  The Chicago School took the side of innovation.  It was this idea that compounded the problem of designing the elevation of a skyscraper in Chicago in 1888.


Given that an architect now had to use the iron frame in the exterior of a skyscraper. how was one to design the building’s elevation? An American architect facing the design of a twenty-story skyscraper in 1888 had at least one of two directions:

George Post, St. Paul Building, New York, 1895. (Landau and Condit, New York)

First, they could apply directly onto the building’s iron structure a direct copy or an assemblage of historic designs and details.  As this size of an appropriate building in the past would have been more than likely constructed from masonry bearing walls (with arches), this practice would be attacked by “modern” critics as being “false/fake/dishonest” because the new building’s structure did not comprise of masonry bearing walls but a steel skeleton. The pejorative word best used by these writers to disparage this approach was “pastiche.” (An artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.)

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)

The alternative was to find the solution to the design by understanding and artistically interpreting the problem (and not merely copying the details of the past). Once solved, they then could enrich their design with a modern, ahistoric style of ornament. European architects (see v.2 secs. 1.4 and 1.7) at least since Henri Labrouste’s 1828 envoi had been trying to break the tradition of using details of past styles to define architectural “beauty.” A nineteenth century architect could attempt to evolve either an “honest” design (Pugin, Ruskin, Jones, Fergusson, and Semper), or one that went beyond honesty, that is, a more rigorous or “rational” solution (Garbett and Viollet-le-Duc).  The inspiration of these architects for these designs came not from the past, but from a study within their own imagination of the problem they were then facing in their present. They were not Latin-speaking Romans; they were not building with cut stone. They were English-speaking Americans designing a new type of building to be erected with a new material, iron.  So how were they to express these issues?  Honestly and artistically how…?   Note that this means the Chicago School language was not a formal/visual style, but a theoretical or process aesthetic.

Holabird and Roche, The Tacoma Building, Chicago, northeast corner of La Salle and Madison, 1889. (Online)

The aesthetic of the Chicago School was not, therefore, formally limited to expressing (let alone to exposing) the skeleton frame, as some historians have claimed.  In fact, let’s not even limit it to the skeletal frame, but expand the definition to the building’s structural system, be it frame, wall, or composite. This neuters Winston Weisman’s criticism about Carl Condit’s failure to address the “patterns of [structural] development” in these buildings, i.e., Condit favored the exposed frame over the “curtained-walled” frame.  My thesis negates both authors’ arguments. The Chicago School aesthetic was not limited to only expressing the building’s structure.  Expressing a building’s structure was but only one of the design processes that these architects pursued.

I believe the Chicago School’s “collective” goal was to express the building’s function/s or purpose: this definition of function/purpose ranged from “being architecturally artistic” to “being an office building containing 20 repetitive floors,” and everything between these bookends (that includes, of course, “being a system of construction”).    As in most things in life, there would not be only one, right way to design a skyscraper.  Claude Perrault had dispelled such an idea in 1683 when he introduced the validity of the subjective/arbitrary in aesthetics in his Ordonnance pour les cinq sortes de colonnes d’après la méthode des anciens (Ordinance for the five kinds of columns according to the method of the ancients).

Adler & Sullivan, Chicago Stock Exchange, Chicago, 1893. (Online)

Once solved, they then could enrich their design with a modern, ahistoric style of ornament.  As Thomas Leslie so aptly inverted Adolf Loos’ famous 1910 dictum, ornament in the Chicago School was not a crime.


Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.

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


“Frame-construction,” Burnham and Root, Reliance Building, 1890, 1894. (chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com)

The constructional challenge facing Chicago’s architects in 1888 was how to incorporate the fireproofed iron skeleton frame, i.e., “Chicago construction” into the exterior of skyscrapers over ten stories in height. This problem was rather unique to Chicago (the majority of Manhattan’s soil had no such limits on taller buildings) and so, it is appropriate to place these new buildings under the taxonomy of a new style that I will label “Chicago School.”   It was not the technical challenge that triggered the search for a new style, but the fact that the iron frame did not require arches, the signature detail of the Romanesque. Using an arch on an iron frame brought the theoretical issue of “honesty in construction” to the forefront, that resulted in the search for an “archless” style of architecture. That is, Chicago architects were evolving an architectural style in Chicago skyscrapers that employed Chicago construction. These same architects, led by Burnham and Root, were advancing at the same time, a parallel new approach to professional practice, as manifested with the break from the East Coast A.I.A. with the formation of the W.A.A. in November 1884.  Yet some historians downplay the importance of, let alone the existence of such a group of Chicago architects pursuing a distinct style of architecture in response to the Chicago context in the 1880s.

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

Back in the beginning of the blog, in Vol. 2, Sec 1.4, I gave my definition of a “Chicago School” building:

“The School’s architectural aesthetic or vocabulary, as do all architectural styles, comprised of three parts: the concept for the design (the plot, if you will permit an analogy with literature), the building’s overall artistic/architectural expression (the rules of its grammar), and the style/type of ornament that the architect designed for the building (the words).” 

Any building that qualifies as a piece of architecture has a concept (yes, while all examples of architecture are buildings, not all buildings qualify as architecture, i.e., those that do not have a concept), so what distinguishes a Chicago School building are its expression and its ornament.  In both instances, the Chicago School architect found his solution to these design challenges, not in historical precedents, but either within himself or the problem he faced.

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

These Chicago architects used as their bible British architect Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, in which he exhorted his readers not to “slavishly copy” the works from the past, but to develop new styles of art for the contemporary world:

“How is any new style of art or new style of ornament to be formed, or even attempted to be formed?… the rising generation in both classes are born under happier auspices, and it is to them we must look for hope in the future.  It is for their use that we have gathered together this collection of the works of the past; not that they should be slavishly copied, but that artists should, by an attentive examination of the principles which pervade all the works of the past, and which have excited universal admiration, be led to the creation of new forms equally beautiful… The principles discoverable in the works of the past belong to us; not so the results.”

David Van Zanten’s research has highlighted the writings of two other European writers that also influenced the design of the ornament designed by these architects: French architect Victor-Marie-Charles Ruprich-Robert and English designer Christopher Dresser.

So my thesis is that while this group of similarly-minded Chicago architects, started by designing in the Romanesque Revival, they evolved during the second half of the 1880s a new architectural language, the “Chicago School.”  So you might wonder why I included the years 1879-1886 (Volume Three) as a “Part One”? The term, “School” is multi-definitional, and I am using it as such: the “Chicago School” is a style of architecture, as well as it denotes the group of architects who produced such buildings. Therefore, it was necessary to understand their designs and ideas prior to 1888 to appreciate their achievement in evolving a new style of architecture beginning with 1888. I think a new ornament is easier to understand than is a new method of architectural expression, so I will address ornament first, than examine expression.


Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. Left: “Proposition Ten.” Jones recommended achieving harmony in a new ornamental system by “the proper balancing , and contrast of, the straight, the angular, and the curved.” (Geometry); Right: “All lines should flow out of a parent stem.” (Nature) (Flores, Owen Jones)
Adler & Sullivan, Walker Warehouse. Detail of impost block along Adams Street. (urbanremainschicago.com)

The evolution of a non-historic ornament would be rather easy, compared to the exterior’s architectonics, simply because a building’s stability remained the priority in the evolution of any exterior language; meanwhile, the ornament had no such functional restraint.  Going back to the work of Owen Jones, an architect had two families of forms to manipulate: the geometrical and the natural.  Throw in color for a third. (In V. 3 Sec. 10.14 I discussed how Jones got his start with his 1841 publication of his study of polychrome in the Alhambra.)

Owen Jones, Plans, Sections, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambraa, “Detail of Mosaic in the Divan, Court of the Fish-pond,” 1841. (Flores, Jones)

During this period, a building’s ornament was of paramount concern to these Chicago architects for it made their designs “modern” and “American.” Truly, any ornament other than accurately copied Classical details qualified, while Classical details were shunned.  I chose Adler’s 1896 (three years after the Columbian Fair) quote that I have put at the top of my home page as proof of this point and as my point of departure for this story in my blog:

“What I have written is intended to be a protest against the dogma that art in architecture ended with the Renaissance.” 

I also would like add to Adler’s protest, a quote from Root’s own daughter from a conversation she had with Root’s biographer, Donald Hoffmann in 1965: “My mother was always so sad about the way the Fair turned – bastard Greek.”

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Detailing of terra cotta ornament. (Author’s image)


Flores, Carol A. Hrvol. Owen Jones. New York: Rizzoli, 2006.

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

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


S.S. Beman, Studebaker Building, 1885. (chicago.designslinger)

Because the round arch was THE defining element of Romanesque, and up to Richardson’s premature death in 1886, Romanesque Revival was THE style favored by many Chicago architects, Chicago’s architects tended to use arches somewhere in their elevations of the early skyscrapers.  Arches were, by no means, needed for structural reasons in these buildings because iron lintels (that can span a window without an arched profile) could be and were used more often than not to span the opening between the masonry piers.

James McLaughlin, John Shillito and Co. Store, Cincinnati, 1877. (Cincinnati, The Queen City, 1901)

We have seen in these earlier buildings, therefore, that the iron frame was not at all necessary to construct a “rectilinear” or gridded (no arches) elevation; McLaughlin’s Shillito’s Building in Cincinnati had no iron columns in its exterior, merely iron lintels. In fact, I have shown numerous buildings with gridded elevations designed by a variety of Chicago architects that did not employ any arches and were constructed with the “composite” system of load bearing masonry piers and iron lintels (also referred to as pier and spandrel).

William Le Baron Jenney, First Leiter Building, Chicago, NW corner of Monroe and Wells, 1879. Perspective by Irving K. Pond, 1879. (Online)
Adler (with Sullivan), Revell Building, Chicago, NE corner of Adams and Wabash, 1881. (Morrison, Louis Sullivan)
John M. Van Osdel, John V. Farwell Wholesale Block, 1886. (Chicagology.com.)

These buildings were erected without arches prior to 1888, and so, how do we label these designs for they aren’t “Romanesque.”  Their ornament was historically derived, and as they also appeared not just in Chicago but throughout the country, “Chicago School” is not applicable. The term “Commercial Style” used by some historians seems to be the most descriptive.  I think this also applies to Adler & Sullivan’s early like-designed buildings, because Sullivan’s ornament in these was historically derivative. We also saw that Root had experimented with both the arcade and the “pier and spandrel” languages in the design of his early skyscrapers.

John Wellborn Root, Comparative Study of Five Skyscraper Elevations, 1883-5. From left to right: Insurance Exchange, Phoenix, Rookery, (arcades); 13-story version of Monadnock, Rialto (pier and spandrels). (Kyle Campbell)

So then what changed in the mid-1880s that merits some buildings being distinguished from either the Romanesque Revival or the Commercial Style with the appellation of their own style that I define as “Chicago School?” The pivotal issue I believe, was that once the iron skeleton frame was placed in a building’s exterior, the arch became an anachronism that raised red flags over the “honesty in construction” issue.

Burnham & Root, Phœnix 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. (urbanremainschicago.com)

While I labeled buildings in Chicago prior to 1885 that had rectilinear elevations as “Commercial Style,” we finally come across the elevations for the Phoenix and the Rookery lightcourt walls, and I believe we have our first true, Chicago School designs. Especially the Rookery courtyard elevations and the ground floor alley elevations. in addition to Root’s historic ornament, merit a new style name.

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Elevation of the exterior walls lining the lightwell. Below: Detailing of terra cotta ornament. (Author’s images)
Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Southeast corner showing the intersection of the two alley facades. One can see how the curtain wall is projected beyond the exterior structure. Some 38 years later, Swiss architect Le Corbusier in his 1923 book Vers une architecture would call this type of construction “the free facade.” Below: Detailing of cast iron ornament. (Author’s images)

In addition to the structural argument against arched windows in an iron-framed building, Root stated that these also reduced the amount of daylight that penetrated into a building’s interior. The best example of this we saw was his alley elevations of the Rookery. So the use of arches in an iron-framed skyscraper had two strikes against it: structural dishonesty and reduced daylight. 

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Comparison of the streetfronts (left) with arches vs. the alley elevations (right) with flatheaded windows. It is obvious that the flathead windows have more glass, i.e. daylight.

Strike three was the extra cost of detailing and fabricating arched windows versus simply using the same rectilinear window throughout the building. Minimizing construction costs through standardization of the dimensions of building elements and structural/spatial bays was necessary to keep construction costs down. This push was led by a newcomer to the construction team, the General Contractor, whose expertise was how to construct a building within a given budget.  The most important Chicago contractor who would play a major role in the upcoming years was George Fuller, contractor for both the Opera House Block and the Rookery.  

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


W.W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station, Chicago, 1867. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)

Starting at the time of the fall of France’s Second Empire, American architects began exploring alternatives for the Second Empire stylings of Paris.  In addition to the contemporary British alternatives of the Queen Anne and the Gothic Revival, they had also experimented with the Romanesque Revival, employing the round arches of ancient Roman buildings but not their classical detailing. 

Upper: Ruins of the Monastery of St. Simeon Stylites, Antakya, Turkey, 475 AD. (Online); Lower: Edmond Duthoit, Ruins of the Monastery of St. Simeon Stylites, Antakya, Turkey, watercolor, 1864. (Middleton, The Beaux-Arts)

Instead, architects employed the medieval details of the Byzantine (that was the continuation of the Roman Empire but also with Greek roots and language) and Romanesque, paralleling some contemporary French architects who had been doing so in an effort to rediscover the “honest” construction of the ancient Greeks (hence, they were known as Néo-Grecs) as opposed to the Roman tradition of using “false” marble veneers applied to their concrete constructions. This style was popularized, but by no means initiated by Richardson, as was exemplified in the first A.I.A. list of “Top Ten Buildings” of which Richardson had designed five (v. 3  sec 4.2) and best represented in his Allegheny County Courthouse. 

H.H. Richardson, Allegheny County Courthouse, Pittsburgh, 1883. (Author’s collection)

I did not award his Field Wholesale Store this honor as it had a flat cornice, the first time he had designed one, and thus, represented a midlife transition in his oeuvre. Romanesque Revival buildings were geographically present in all parts of the country during the 1880s, therefore, it is inaccurate to refer to Chicago’s building so styled, like the Rookery and the Studebaker building as “Chicago School” simply because this style neither originated nor was localized in only Chicago.

Above: Isaac Taylor, St. Louis Merchandise Mart, St. Louis, 1888; Lower: Babb, Cook, & Willard, De Vinne Press Building, New York, 1888. (Online)

The Romanesque had originally evolved in the first two centuries of the millennium from masonry bearing wall construction, employing the conventional Roman semicircular arch (the structure developed to span an opening employing a material weak in tension). The round arch, combined with the non-Classical ornamental details of Byzantine and Romanesque buildings had marked these American contemporary efforts to employ and evolve this style. 

Herni Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. (Online)

One European building that exerted a great influence on Americans was Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (Néo-Grec) in which he had completely avoided the use of any columns (which also freed him from the “rules” of Classical architecture) by employing an arcade that ran across the face of the building to provide window openings for daylight (v.2 sec. 1.7). This style was easily applied to mid-nineteenth century ‘non-elevatored” buildings under six stories in height. 

H.H. Richardson, Cheney Building, Hartford, CT., 1875. (Online)

However, the design of the elevations for a skyscraper with ten floors proved to be a “horse of a different color.”  We saw the favorite solution for an elevation of such a building was to stack or layer multistory arcades one on top of another, typically experimenting with a variety of numeric progressions in the windows of each new building.  

Burnham & Root, The Rookery, Chicago, 1885. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth)

Yet architects, confronted by the unprecedently problem of the design of a 10-story office building began to place arcades in the strangest locations, experimenting to find an appropriate solution.  The worst offender being Root in the meaningless location of the arcade at the sixth floor of the ten-storied Phoenix Building. 

Burnham & Root, The Phoenix Building, Chicago, 1885. (Chicagology.com)

Slowly, but eventually architects arrived at a solution that used arches only in the uppermost floor just below the cornice, simulating a multistoried arcade that supported the building’s cornice (that usually comprised of a story or two for scale). This permitted the windows below to be repetitive (cost efficient) but still stamped the imprimatur of “Romanesque” on the building.

Herni Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. Arcade digitally extruded for effect. (Author’s Collection)
Peabody & Stearns (George A. Fuller), United Bank Building, New York, 1880. (Online)
Burnham and Root, Insurance Exchange Building, Chicago, 1884. (Hoffmann, Root)
Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple, Chicago, northeast corner of State and Randolph, 1890. (Hoffmann, Root)

The one use for an arch that was retained for symbolic reasons was to mark a building’s entrance.

S. S. Beman, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Building, Milwaukee, WI, 1885. (SAH Archipedia)

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


Peter B. Wight, Terra Cotta Fireproofed Iron Columns, Chicago, 1878. (Brickbuilder, August 1897; Inland Architect, July 1892)

During the period 1874-1885, Chicago, led by Peter Wight and Sanford Loring (of Chicago Terra Cotta), had pioneered the development of fireproofing iron structures with lightweight porous terra cotta, hence, this technique was referred to as “Chicago construction” throughout the country. Wight had been forced to initially invent such a system in the face of the threats from the insurance industry to prohibit the use of unprotected iron structural members in buildings following the second Chicago fire of July 1874 (v.2 sec. 4.6).  The use of terra cotta to fabricate fireproofing encasings for iron structures had paralleled the development of fireproof floor structural elements (i.e., the segmental flat arch).  

Pioneer Fire-Proof Construction Company Products, late 1880s. (Jeremy C. Wells, “History of Structural Clay Tile in the United States,” Construction History, Vol. 22, 2007.)

The reason for the development of terra cotta flooring systems was the reduction in the constructional weight of a building. Reducing the weight of construction had been paramount in Chicago because of the weight limitations imposed on construction by Chicago’s relatively weak underlying geology. By 1886 in Chicago, this type of construction had become standard for the interior of the city’s first skyscrapers, while loadbearing brick (and later stone) was still being used for these buildings’ exteriors.  However, the upper limit to the height of these walls was ten stories because taller (heavier) walls exceeded the capacity of Chicago’s geology and the resulting settlement went beyond acceptable limits (the extreme example was the 29” in the Auditorium). 

Burnham & Root, Phœnix 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. (urbanremainschicago.com)

Root had showed the way to one of the solutions to these problems by being the first in Chicago (influenced by New Yorker George Post’s pioneering structures in the Equitable and New York Produce Exchange buildings) to divorce the loadbearing role of the exterior’s masonry by supporting the masonry at each floor on iron shelf angles in the Phoenix Building and the Rookery.  The brick’s function in these walls was solely to fireproof the iron columns, a role that exterior terra cotta quickly assumed in order to further reduce the weight of construction.

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Elevation of the exterior walls lining the lightwell. (Author’s image)


The constructional challenge facing Chicago’s architects in 1888 was how to incorporate the fireproofed iron skeleton frame, i.e., “Chicago construction” into the exterior of skyscrapers over ten stories in height. This problem was rather unique to Chicago (the majority of Manhattan’s soil had no such limits on taller buildings). Replacing the ever-reliable masonry exterior wall with a lightly clad iron frame would be an empirical process for which a new building design team member arose: the structural engineer. Although engineers had cut their teeth on designing iron bridges for the railroad and brought their experience to the problems in engineering a tall building, they truly had no reliable data on how to design a building’s structure to resist the power of the wind (or for that matter, earthquakes, as we saw in Burnham & Root’s recent building for the San Francisco Chronicle).  

Burnham & Root, San Francisco Chronicle. Right:: Typical Floor Plan, showing location of horizontal seismic bracing. (Online; Hoffmann, Root)

Fearing loss of life if they were wrong, architects and engineers would take their time in removing these reliable bulwarks in order replace their rigidity with a correspondingly rigid iron frame. This was done first with iron diagonal bracing and later with rigid (moment-resisting) connections between the beams and columns. 

Left: Diagonal Bracing in Burnham & Root’s Masonic Temple, 1890. Right: Portal Braces (Rigid/Moment connections) in Jules Saulnier and Armand Moisant’s Menier Chocolate Factory, Noisel, FR, 1869. (Online)

We will see this will be a process of replacing one wall in one building at a time, and praying that the building would remain standing.  And then replacing two walls, etc., until eventually, someone will build a skyscraper with only an iron skeleton frame with no masonry bearing walls. In this effort they were aided by technological advances in the design and operation of elevators (Historian Lee Gray has analyzed these in his book, From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. Elevator World, 2002.) and the manufacture of construction materials such as steel, exterior terra cotta, and larger panes of glass. (Historian Thomas Leslie has thoroughly documented these in his recent book, Chicago Skyscrapers: University of Illinois Press, 2012.)

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Left: The Future (the lightcourt elevation); Right: The Past.

They would begin by simply turning the Rookery inside out, that is, putting its courtyard elevations along the exterior perimeter of the building and relocating the solid walls still needed for wind bracing somewhere within the building’s interior. This posed a new problem for the architects: how to appropriately design the elevations within which they had placed the iron frame?  In other words, while the engineers endeavored to stiffen the iron frame against wind loads, the architects were struggling to evolve an architecturally meaningful and aesthetically pleasing elevation for an iron frame and glass skyscraper.


Gray, Lee E. From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. Mobile, AL: Elevator World, 2002.

Larson, Gerald, “The Elevator, the Iron Skeleton Frame, and the Early Skyscrapers: Parts 1 and 2,” International Journal of High-Rise Buildings, March 2020, pp. 1-41.

Larson, Gerald, “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the U.S.,” Zukowski, John (ed.), Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis. Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.

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


Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. 1888 Republican National Convention, June 1888. (urbanremainschicago.com)

I have consciously avoided events in Chicago following the Haymarket Square bombing, with the exception of the construction of the Auditorium (there were few other notable architectural events) with the purpose to create a psychological sense in my readers similar to how this two-plus year hiatus in construction in Chicago was actually experienced by the local architectural community.  In Volume Four, I documented Chicago’s stagnation, hiatus, vacuum, stoppage (call it what you will) in new construction that stretched from the Haymarket Square bombing of May 4, 1886, into the summer of 1888. The bombing and ensuing legal proceedings and protests (four of the accused conspirators were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887) had scared financiers from investing in Chicago for the next two years.  This had only compounded the initial slowdown in construction in early 1886 caused by the flood of new office space that had hit the market on May 1, 1885, the same day that the new Board of Trade opened its doors.

Then the contractor lockout in May 1887 had only continued the lack of construction for the rest of that year.  Through the heroic efforts of Ferdinand Peck, construction of Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium had managed to push onward to completion through the city’s labor and class unrest, sufficiently enough to be able to house the 1888 Republican Presidential Convention during June 19-25, 1888.  I completed the tale of the Auditorium through to its opening night on December 4, 1889, for the sake of continuity to enable one to understand Sullivan’s evolving design abilities and theories, but by the fall of 1888, other buildings were under construction in Chicago, so we need to return to July 1, 1888, with the dust from the Convention settling in order to pick up the history of Chicago’s architecture. There was a “great divide” in Chicago’s architecture during this decade: what was built prior to May 4, 1886, was different in many ways from what was built when the building economy began to rebound in the summer of 1888.  I am using the Republican Presidential Convention held in the Auditorium in June 1888 as the starting point for what I consider to be the second part of the Chicago School during the 1880s.  



Burnham & Root, Kansas City Board of Trade, 1886. (Online)

1. Following the spreading tracks of the railroads, investment continued to march ever westward, passing the corner of State and Madison. Kansas City began to replace Chicago as the leading meat processing center, made possible by the development of the refrigerated meat car. Burnham & Root had kept their office open with four commissions there, including the competition-winning Board of Trade. 

Cartoon published in the St. Paul Globe, December 25, 1886. Mix’s Globe Building is directly in the center of the drawing. Note the 24-story stepback skyscraper annex in the center left and the elevated train supported solely by iron framing in the foreground. I have never seen an equivalent drawing using contemporary Chicago as the background. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

2. With the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad, St. Paul and Minneapolis became important regional centers, focused on the grain trade, challenging another of Chicago’s pioneering industries.  Both cities began erection of skyscrapers, first equaling and then surpassing, albeit briefly, the tallest Chicago slyscrapers. E. T. Mix’s Northwestern Guaranty’s 13-story atrium had no equivalent in Chicago when it was completed in 1889.

E. Townsend Mix, Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building, Minneapolis, 1888. (Online)

3. Minneapolis architect LeRoy Buffington fed on this “skyscraper mania” in his hometown and proposed to erect the first skyscraper over 20 stories high, his 28-story “Cloudscraper;” the first illustration of the 350’ tower was published in the July 1888 issue of Inland Architect. He was able to propose such a radical building because he had employed an all-iron skeleton-framed structure, a system for which he had submitted and was granted a patent on May 22, 1888.

4. Meanwhile, Chicago’s old nemesis, Cincinnati, held its swansong, its 1888 Centennial Exhibition, that opened on July 4, 1888. The “Queen City” was making the most of the comparison between Chicago’s sluggish economy and the robust activity generated by its “Fair.”  Its “Venetian” canal theme would inspire much of the early design for Chicago’s own World’s Fair planned for 1892. 

Above: Boat entrance. (Miller, Cincinnati’s Music Hall); Below; Venetian gondolas being poled by gondoliers. (Online)

5. Speaking of using the iron skeleton frame, on July 14, 1888, Bastille Day in Paris, the French Republican government celebrated the 99th anniversary of the Revolution by shooting fireworks from the Eiffel Tower, launched from the top of construction that had reached the second level, at a height of 380‘, already 30’ taller than Buffington’s Cloudscraper.  Construction (whose published photographic updates would simply goad American builders to solve the problem in the U.S.) would continue through to completion on March 31, 1889, that would top off at 300 M.(984′).

Gustave Eiffel, The Eiffel Tower under Construction, Bastille Day, July 14, 1888. (Online)


James Bogardus, McCullough Shot Tower, New York, 1855. (Silver, Lost New York)

The iron framed skyscraper was not “invented” by one person or in one city, but was an incremental evolution of the development of a series of technologies. (v. 3, sec. 3.1-3.19) By July 1888, the iron-framed skyscraper was on the verge of becoming a reality, some thirty-two years after James Bogardus, who had pioneered the cast iron front prior to the Civil War, had claimed that he could build an iron tower that:

“may be raised to a height vastly greater than by any other known means, without impairing its stability in the least; … and that thereby he would be enabled to erect a tower or building many times the height of any other edifice in the world, which would be perfectly safe to visitors, in the face of storm or tempest, though they filled it throughout every story, to its utmost capacity.” 

George Post, Equitable Building, New York, 1867. Left: Banking Hall as it appeared in 1889, showing the iron columns that support the walls above. (Landau, Post); Right: Interior iron structure exposed after a fire on January 9, 1912. The cast iron column is in the center bottom. Wrought iron girders frame into both sides of the column. Above the cast iron columns stands the built-up wrought iron column that supported the exterior walls lining the lightcourt. (Landau, Rise of New York Skyscraper)

Following the end of the Civil War, George Post had begun America’s development of exterior iron skeleton framing in 1867 with the Equitable Building’s lightcourt (v. 3, sec. 2.12), and followed this with a more refined version of iron framing in the lightcourt of the New York Produce Exchange in 1881. 

George Post, New York Produce Exchange, Photo of Construction showing the iron skeleton framing in the lightcourt walls. (Landau and Condit, New York)

In March 1884, Chicago architect Frederick Baumann had published a paper documenting how one might build a tall office building solely employing iron framing (v.3, sec. 8.15). John Root brought Post’s detailing of exterior iron construction to Chicago in 1885 in the lightcourts of both the Phoenix and the Rookery Buildings. (Note that I did not include Jenney’s use of iron columns in the Home Insurance Building because I have shown (v. 3 sec. 8.17) that his iron structure in the exterior did neither employ iron beams at every floor nor supported the building’s masonry exterior.)  

Burnham & Root, Rookery. Structural detail of the light court curtain walls. Note the bearing shelf and web bracket cast with the column. (Thanks to Kevin Wilson at TGRWA, Nathaniel Parks at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Gunny Harboe for helping me to find this image!)

I then mused that Root may have incorporated iron framing in much of the exterior of the Midland Hotel in Kansas City (as an experiment far from the eyes of the press in case anything went wrong).  I am sure there are other examples of early experiments with exterior iron framing prior to July 1888 (the best potential candidate I have presented being the 1885 Bank of Minneapolis by Hodgson & Son). 

Hodgson & Son, Bank of Minneapolis, Minneapolis, 1885. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

Yet it seems to be a fact that no American architect had designed a tall building employing only iron framing until Buffington had been granted a patent for such a system on May 22, 1888.  I documented (v.4, chap. 4) how I believe that Buffington had been inspired by the structures of Eiffel, first in the Statue of Liberty that was erected in 1885, and then by the first published drawings in 1887 of Eiffel’s proposal to build the 300 M. tower.  

Left: LeRoy S. Buffington, Competition Entry for Sailors’ and Solders’ Monument, Indianoplis, 1887. (American Architect, April 1888); Right: First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885.

But would anyone ever dare to build a real 28-story Cloudscraper, or would owners continue to “believe that such inordinately lofty structures are not likely to prove profitable to their owners.”

LeRoy S. Buffington, 28-story Cloudscraper, Minneapolis, 1888. (Inland Architect, July 1888)

So as I pick up the history of Chicago’s iron-framed skyscrapers in July 1888, we can look at the combination of Eiffel’s successful ongoing construction of the 300 M. tower and the publicity surrounding Buffington’s 28-story “Cloudscraper” as having provided architects and engineers the motivation/challenge to finally solve the problems in designing and building the iron skeleton-famed skyscraper.    These problems can be grouped into one of two strands: first, the technical issues, and second, the architectural design issues of such a building. The technical issues needed to be solved first, after which architects had sufficient examples and time to consider the theoretical issues of just how to design the elevation of such buildings.


Larson, Gerald, “The Elevator, the Iron Skeleton Frame, and the Early Skyscrapers: Parts 1 and 2,” International Journal of High-Rise Buildings, March 2020, pp. 1-41.

Larson, Gerald, “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the U.S.,” Zukowski, John (ed.), Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis. Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

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


For all of the expense in time and treasure spent on designing and constructing the Auditorium, it was truly unfortunate for all involved that the Haymarket Square bombing had occurred in May 1886.  Had it been forestalled for only two years, with the entire timeline of the Auditorium being correspondingly pushed back by the same two years, it would have resulted in an entirely different building, one that might have better withstood the tests of time, for the Auditorium as built, was truly a white elephant in more ways than one.  In August 1886 it had been designed at the end of the era of the masonry bearing wall structure, meaning that Adler had only the masonry bearing wall to support the building’s exterior and tower, whose massive weight was responsible for the building’s excessive differential settlement and corresponding warping of the floor levels throughout.  There would be only one later significant building constructed in Chicago with the masonry bearing wall after the Auditorium, and that would be the sixteen-story Monadnock Block whose anachronistic construction was the result of the conscious rejection of the iron frame by its owner, Shepherd Brooks. The dawn of the iron skeleton frame had just begun (Root had just employed it in a design for the first time in the Rookery only months before the bombing).  If Adler had faced the design of the Auditorium in December 1888-April 1889, he could have employed iron framing in the building’s exterior (as we will see in the following chapters).  One thing is for certain: if Adler had used iron framing, the building’s functioning would not have been impaired by the severe floor slopes that the building has had to endure.  

Second, if the Auditorium had been built two years later, Adler would have used iron-reinforced pad foundations, rather than the antiquated, stepped stone pyramidal foundations that he had used.  While this would not have had any impact on the building’s exterior image, the much-reduced weight of the iron-reinforced pads, as well as the shallower depth required (with a corresponding increase in bearing strength) would have also diminished the amount of settlement the building experienced over time.

Third, within a year of the Hotel’s opening, American tastes in hotels had changed to expecting a private bathroom in their room.  The communal or hallway bathroom that Adler and Sullivan had based the design of the Auditorium’s Hotel plan (it was planned on the European plan of one shared bathroom for every ten rooms) fell out of favor, the result of which was to force the hotel management to lower its rates to attract a lower class of guests to whom this did not matter as much.  As such, the Auditorium’s Hotel never truly achieved the long-term prestige that Peck had envisioned for it.

In fact, from the viewpoint of both Peck and Adler & Sullivan, the Auditorium Building never really achieved much that Peck had hoped for.  It never hosted a national presidential convention once it was completed.  We have already seen that due to the Association’s anti-union stance that the Democrats would never hold a convention in the building.  It was also simply politically naïve of Peck to expect that the Republicans would agree to always hold their convention in Chicago, let alone always in the same building, to the economic and political loss of other cities or owners of other buildings.  And just as Peck, a private citizen, had engineered the construction of the Auditorium, the free market could not prevent another Chicagoan from building an even larger building that might attract the Republican convention if they ever chose to return to Chicago.  This is exactly what occurred, following the 1893 World’s Fair, with the construction of the Chicago Coliseum at 63th and Stony Island that housed the 1896 Convention.  So the Auditorium, planned at its inception to provide a permanent venue for the national conventions of both parties, was able to function in this capacity only once for the Republicans in 1888.

The need to be large enough to house a national convention had forced Adler to maximize the Auditorium’s seating capacity that over time also proved to be counterproductive to both the Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that moved into the facility in October 1891.  Quite simply, there were always too many seats available that resulted in a constant disappointing sale of subscription series tickets, the lifeblood of all musical organizations, because everyone knew that there would almost certainly be the right number of tickets available for purchase on the night of a given performance.  The eventual sloping of the floor levels at the perimeter walls would so warp the building’s floor elevations that the reducing partitions for the two galleries could no longer function and were, thereby, left open, only exacerbating the seat/ticket issue.  

The size of the house to hold such an audience was also detrimental to the orchestral acoustics that only reinforced the CSO’s demand for an improved facility of its own (provided in the design of Orchestra Hall two blocks north on Michigan Avenue by Burnham in 1904).  While Adler had designed the Auditorium’s acoustics for optimum vocal performance, orchestra musicians needed to hear each other constantly during a piece, something the vast auditorium with its open rear did not really provide.  CSO Director Theodore Thomas was once overheard complaining, “Nothing comes back!”

Lastly, the Auditorium’s artistic reputation, of representing one of Sullivan’s best examples of his now maturing ornamental style that was best described by Edward Garczynski, “It is indubitable that there is within these walls an architecture and a decorative art that are truly American, and that owe nothing to any other country or any other time,” would be short-lived and truly under appreciated for many years.  Within three months of the opening of the Hotel’s Banquet Hall, John Root would die, and without the Chicago School’s chief spokesman, the entire search for an American, let alone a Chicago style of architecture, would be pushed to the background of history as the American NeoClassical Style, as best represented by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, quickly gained stylistic preference among the city’s clients and architects.

Tragically, the harsh reality of the Auditorium was that Adler & Sullivan had spent over four years of their lives, sometimes to the detriment of the firm’s short-term profitability as well as to their individual long-term physical well-being, designing and constructing a truly magnificently detailed dinosaur.

I’d like to recognize Bart Swindall (1951-2019), the longtime Archivist and Tour Director for the Auditorium Theatre Council. He was a good friend and kindred spirit. He gave many tours of the Auditorium for my students during my teaching career. He also gave me a fond memory by allowing me to stand on stage alone while my students sat in the third balcony. I dropped a nickel to the stage floor, and yes, its sound rang through the space…


de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

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

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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

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


Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Lobby. Note that the Stair arch is twice as large as the adjacent arches. (Siry, The Auditorium)

While workmen had strained to complete the interior of the Auditorium, Sullivan had moved on to designing the interiors of the various spaces in the Hotel portion of the building. He was gaining confidence in his design abilities and theory with each new challenge he faced, applying the lessons he had learned from the mistakes he found in his earlier designs as they were constructed.  Chief among these, I believe, was his mistake to take a “modular” approach in the forming of the larger public spaces in the theater, i.e., the monotonous repetition of the cubic “boxes” in the Main and Upper Foyer.  I already pointed out that he quickly revised this idea in the Upper Foyer where it met the Grand Stairs by eliminating the curved soffits in the two bays immediately in front of the Grand Stair and by removing the main pier between these two bays at the base of the Stair by replacing it with two columns pushed to either side of the Stair, thereby combining these two bays into one larger space that formed a “lobby” for the Stair at this point.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Lobby. By eliminating all of the curved soffits that he had detailed in the Theater’s Lobby, the structural bays are allowed to be perceived as one grand space, not a collection of modules. (Online)

He employed this detail at a larger scale in the Hotel’s lobby, eliminating all the curved soffits in favor of a more conventional beam and column language, that allowed all of the structural bays to be read as a single, “grand” space. He also repeated the elimination of the column between the two bays within which he had placed the Grand Stair.  This time choosing not to split the column into two minor ones as he had done in the Upper Foyer but using a larger arch to span both bays.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Grand Stair in the Lobby. (Online)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Hotel Entrance on Michigan Avenue. (Author’s collection)

Being dropped off at the triple-arched entry on Michigan Avenue, a hotel guest proceeded through the doors into a two-story lobby similar in scale to the theater’s Vestibule. The reception desk in the Lobby was positioned immediately to the right, from where one then moved left to the Grand Stair that spilled into the space under the 34’ monumental arch (above which Adler had to locate a steel transfer beam to replace the column that supported the nine stories of columns above, that he had to remove to create the span).  This arch was flanked by smaller arches that recapitulated the three-arched entry on the exterior. 

 Unfortunately, Sullivan did not or could not align the two ranks of arches in plan so that they might reinforce each other in a better resolved composition (i.e., the Grand Stair could have and should have been symmetrically aligned with the central arch in the entry. This is readily discernable as one walks into the building through the central entry arch or when descending the stair.).  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Descending the Grand Stair. My point is that the view down the stairs is anti-climatic, missing an opportunity to reinforce the exterior’s theme of triple arches. (Online)

The tightness of the ground floor plan was such, however, that Sullivan had been forced to shift the Grand Stair a full bay to the left (facing the desk), placing it off-center with not only the centerline of the center entry arch, but also with the loggia overlooking Lake Michigan that one approached upon arriving at the last step on the second floor.  I simply don’t understand why Sullivan did not align the three arches along the back wall of the lobby with the same three entry arches in the exterior? (As the Grand Stair arch spans two bays, as do all three of the exterior arches, actually the exterior arches have been fitted into the two bays and are slightly smaller but nonetheless, both ranks of arches could have had common centerlines/alignments.) I think the functions under the two smaller interior arches could have easily been redesigned within the larger diameter arches, and when done, the alignment of the two ranks of arches would have resulted in a more resolved architectural aligned space than what was actually built. To display my theory that there are more than just one solution to an architectural problem, I could also argue to keep the location of the Grand Stair and to rework the Michigan Avenue elevation into an asymmetrical solution that better reflects the reality of the building’s planning. In fact, a third solution would be to rotate the auditorium by 180°, moving the Theater entrance onto Michigan Avenue and the Hotel entrance to Congress. Entering the Theater lobby, one would walk up the stairs and into the Upper Foyer that would have that expansive view of the lakefront, a perfect spot for intermission, à la the Paris Opera House’s view back down the Avenue de l’Opéra. (Yes, indeed I would love to have a go at redesigning this building with a rotated theater, still employing all of Sullivan’s ornament…! But I suppose that Sullivan would have likewise.)

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Lobby and Grand Stair, view from the Ladies Entrance. Your back is to the entry for the Ladies Restaurant.  (Historic American Building Survey, #IL, 16-CHIG, 39—97)-1007-62)

The customs of the period also required the provision for a separate entry for women to avoid unwanted contact with men, as well as to discourage the activities of prostitutes. This entry was located through a separate door located in the southernmost entrance arch that was reserved solely for women.  From the Ladies Entrance, one could either proceed into the lobby or turn left into the Ladies Restaurant. Entrance to the ladies Restaurant was also gained through a corridor off the Grand Stair that also led to the Men’s Bar and the Barber Shop.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Ground Floor Plan. L-Ladies Entrance; LR-Ladies Restaurant; B-Bar (note the local of the three cast iron columns); BS-Barber Shop. These three rooms were demolished in 1950 to make room for the sidewalk when Congress was widened into an expressway.
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Ladies Restaurant. (Online)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Bar. Note how Sullivan detailed the top of the bar continuous into the adjacent column. While these columns were made from solid oak trunks, the barff-processed (bronze-plated with oxidized highlights) cast iron columns that supported the billiard mezzanine located over the bar were designed by Sullivan to display their much greater strength with the much smaller diameter he gave them. Take a close look at the “minimalist” geometric patterns he used on the face of the bar and on the opposite wall employing solid veneers that were cut cross-grained by a whipsaw. Its demolition in 1950 was a tragic loss for the city’s architecture. (Upper: Online; Lower: Historic American Building Survey, #IL-1007-#9843)

Hotel guests and visitors had the choice of either ascending the spatious Grand Stair or summoning a pair of elevators to the upper floors, where the Dining Room was located on the top floor, overlooking the lakefront.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Grand Stair. (Author’s collection)

The Dining Room on the Tenth Floor (linked bridges to the four-storied kitchen built over the stagehouse) allowed Sullivan to create a column-free space that was filled with copious amounts of daylight by inserting skylights between the arches used to span the entire width of the building. This created a space that was bright and cheerful for lunches, and during the summer, for evening suppers as well.  Such ambience without any intervening columns would have been simply impossible had the room been located in any floor below.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Dining Room. (Online)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Dining Room. Note the variety of details and stenciling on the barrel-vaulted ceiling. Here at the north end of the Dining Room, under the flat ceiling, Sullivan located private dining rooms, in which he employed the same abstracted, rectilinear pattern of solid veneers that he had used in the bar. (Historic American Building Survey, #IL-1007-#9802)

At either end of the space, where the ceiling was flat before the first arch initiated the barrel vault. Sullivan created a more intimate dining space for smaller groups. In the North Alcove, he designed a number of private dining rooms, while in the South Alcove, the lower ceiling created a more intimate atmosphere.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Dining Room: South Alcove. As opposed to the North Alcove, where Sullivan created private dining rooms, he used a colonnade at the South Alcove to create a more intimate space under the lower ceiling for smaller parties. (Author’s collection)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Colonnade between the Dining Room and the South Alcove. Note how he detailed the relatively new electric light bulbs as a column capital. (Historic American Building Survey, #IL-1007-#9805)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Dining Room: South Alcove. This gives a sense of the more intimate atmosphere in this space vs. the Dining Room beyond. (Online)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. The Dining Room. Carved wood detailing of the cabinetry. (Author’s collection)

The hotel opened in January 1890, a few weeks after the Opening Night of the Theater. However, there was still much work left to complete the eleventh-hour addition of the Banquet Hall (that Adler had to support over the roof of the theater with a bridge) whose construction extended throughout the summer and into the fall of 1890.  But following the rush to complete the Theater in time for the Grand Opening, Sullivan was thoroughly exhausted, physically as well as creatively. Even though he had not yet completed the details for the Banquet Hall, he desperately needed a vacation.  In his autobiography, Sullivan tells us that:

“Louis’s case was one of utter weariness. He went to central California.  The climate irritated him.  Then he moved to Southern California – the climate irritated him.  This was during January and  February, 1890.  He had friends in San Diego and stayed there awhile…. Then on to New Orleans.  That filthy town, as it then disillusioned him.  Here he met Chicago friends.”

The friends were James and Helen Charnley (for whom he would design their house on Astor Street in 1891) who were among the contingent of wealthy Chicagoans who had just discovered that Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on Biloxi Bay, only 90 miles to the east of New Orleans, was the closest oceanside winter retreat to Chicago, via the Illinois Central (whose General Superintendent at the time just happened to be Louis’ brother Albert).  The Charnleys invited Sullivan to join them in exploring the area, in the process of which all three fell in love with the beachfront and purchased adjacent lots.  Sullivan designed a house for himself and one for his friends, engaged a contractor to build both houses, and departed for Chicago rejuvenated on March 12. (I will pick up with Sullivan’s detailing of the Banquet Hall in a later chapter that will be chronologically more accurate.

Nonetheless, before I move on to other buildings designed in 1888/9, I wanted to give John Root the last word on Sullivan’s design. Within a month of the opening of the Banquet Hall in October 1890, Root penned an article for the Inland Architect in which he “anonymously” (everyone knew his writing style) reviewed all of the city’s leading architects.  Here is his contemporary description of Adler and Sullivan, having just completed their four-year plus Odyssey of the Auditorium:

“Among the highest in all the profession stands Mr. [Dankmar] Adler…Of late Mr. Adler has passed the artistic crayon to Mr. [Louis] Sullivan, but work designed by him in earlier days… shows a strength, simplicity and straightforwardness, together with a certain refinement, which reveal the true architect.  No professional man has pursued a more consistent and dignified course than he, and no man is more respected by his confrères.  The Auditorium, a really wonderful building, stands as a monument to his and Sullivan’s talent…

“One of the most individual personalities, and the author of some of the most characteristic work, is Mr. Sullivan.   Cultivated in many directions, with a bold, alert, vigorous and imaginative mind bending its energies into many channels, self-confident and enthusiastic, ideally supplementing Adler his partner, Sullivan has accomplished much admirable work, and will receive much more… his are the designs for the Auditorium with its decorations, as well as many other buildings, all of which attest the boldness, freshness and ingenuity of his mind.  So Exuberant is he that he sometimes seems to neglect the larger questions of mass, of light and shade, of sky-blotch in his care for delicacy, beauty and significance of detail, and even in this respect at times forgets that this detail should assume different expressions when executed in different materials.”

The master, though apparently impressed with the design of the Auditorium overall, still believed that the apprentice had a few more lessons to be learned…


de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

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

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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

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


Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Opening Night, December 9, 1889. The reducing curtain has been lifted to open up the entire stage. Note the Presidential box in which Peck sat at the right front of the stage. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Dec. 21, 1889)

The theater’s capacity had been increased for the inaugural performance with risers on the stage and temporary seats squeezed in throughout the hall so that over 7000 were in attendance as Peck, Harrison, and others made the pro forma introductory speeches that accompanied such events.  But truthfully, no one really could pay more than a cursory interest in their words for all eyes were focused on Sullivan’s own visual symphony of patterns, colors, and lighting.  (As this was one of the earlier concert spaces lit only by electric light, try to imagine what the audience must have experienced as they looked around the space: they were sitting in the future!) Peck had cleverly prohibited any premature description or photographs of the theater’s vast interior, hoping to add to audience’s sense of wonderment and delight.  The ambiance that Sullivan had successfully created was best summed up by a reporter from The Tribune:

“You could not feel the sense of immensity till you turned from the footlights and looked back under the white and gold-ribbed vault of the body of the Auditorium to the balconies, which flattered the eye and then bewildered it; for, first, there sloped back from the parquet a stretch like a flower garden; then came the curving balcony, black with thousands, as if more people were there than anywhere else; above it the straight line of the second balcony, with banks of sightseers; and last and highest of all the gallery, whose occupants looked like dots.  Now came the triumph of architecture – for, while you felt the largeness, you also felt the compactness of the whole.  Despite the distance, you knew these dots in the gallery were near you, and could hear every word or note uttered on the stage.”

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Opening Night, December 9, 1889. (Scientific American Building Edition, Feb.1, 1890.)

At 8:00 pm, the Presidential party appeared on stage and made its way to its box on the right side (stage left).  Once it was seated, the orchestra accompanied by the new huge (7000 pipes) organ, struck up “Triumphal Fantasia” composed for the occasion by Theodore Dubois.  Then followed Mayor Creiger who opened the festivities by welcoming all in attendance and then introduced Peck.  Peck spoke a few, well-earned remarks, after which he introduced the President.  Following Harrison’s brief remarks, the 500 voices of Chicago’s Apollo Club sung a cantata composed by Frederick Grant Gleason, using a poem specifically written for the occasion by 30-year old poet Harriet Monroe (who just happened to be Root’s sister-in-law).  Peck, again wanting to showcase Chicago’s artistic talent, had personally sought her out to compose the Ode, insisting that she use the word “Auditorium” at some point, which she had obliged in its climax, “My hall of state, thine Auditorium of Liberty.”  Then John S. Runnells, one of the country’s leading Republican orators who had just relocated to Chicago to be George Pullman’s General Counsel, rose and delivered a speech complimenting both the Auditorium Association as well as President Harrison.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Opening Night, December 9, 1889. (chicagohistorytoday.wordpress.com)

As the applause died down following Runnells’ speech, the sense of anticipation was palpable throughout the great space. “Applause, first low and murmuring, but deepening into a loud roar, now marked the event of the evening.  Descending the steps from the right, escorted by Manager Adams, was Mme. Patti, who advanced smilingly, but almost timidly, to the front as the orchestra struck up a triumphal welcome.”   She warmly acknowledged the applause, looked directly at Peck, who was sitting with the President and proceeded to serenade him, accompanied by only a harp and a flute, with the song that she was best known for, “Home, Sweet, Home.”  The audience burst into applause, even the President was standing, and the rest of the evening was a testament to Peck’s confidence in Adler’s ability to produce a space with perfect acoustics.  “The expected cries of ‘Encore!’ followed from the delighted audience, and Mme. Patti responded with the ‘Swiss Echo Song’ that afforded wonderful evidence of the power and flexibility of her marvelous voice.  Repeated attempts were made to elicit another song, but she responded by a smiling bow of acknowledgment and retired to her apartments.” A brief intermission followed.  (For her performance of these two songs, Patti received $4200, an unbelievable 41% of the total paid attendance of $10,235.47 for the night’s event. Let’s remember, Adler & Sullivan’s commission was $50,000 (roughly $4 an hour) that had to pay the salaries of the entire staff for the better part of three and a half years as well as the corresponding office expenses …)

Adelina Patti. Portrait from the Opening Night Program. (online)

The concert continued after the intermission, ending just before midnight with the Apollo Club leading the audience in a rousing rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, that was followed by a thunderous ovation that brought Peck back to center stage for an encore of a closing valedictory.

“This has been done out of a desire to educate and entertain the masses.  This has been done out of the rich man’s largesse and the poor man’s mite for the benefit of all…  [We laud the architects, who] are entitled to a large share of credit.  These men have faced successfully unprecedented problems.  These men should never be forgotten… We must not forget the army of workingmen who have labored with their hands day and night, and have shown a zeal which is without precedent.  They knew that they were erecting an edifice for themselves and their associates as much for any class.  They knew that the Auditorium stood for all.”

Incredibly, no one, not even Peck, during the entire four-hour long ceremony, had thought to bring Adler and Sullivan onstage to receive a well-deserved congratulatory ovation. In fact, none of the introductory speakers, including both of Peck’s appearances, even mentioned the architects by name that night.  While he did thank the architects who “are entitled to a large share of the credit. [Applause] These men have faced successfully unprecedented problems.  These men should never be forgotten.”  But who were they?  Unfortunately, he never stated their actual names or brought them onstage to be recognized.  In fact, their names did not even appear in the evening’s program. As Chairman of the entire project, Peck had to have had the final say in the program for the Opening Night.  Was his failure to publicly recognize the architects a simple oversight, or were architects, even in Chicago, during the end of the Nineteenth Century simply not considered to be in the same social class that merited such appreciation that was granted Adelina Patti that night?

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Opening Night, December 9, 1889. (chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com)

This would never had occurred in Europe.  To offer an example of how architects were appreciated differently in Europe than in America, one can compare Adler and Sullivan’s lack of acknowledgement with how Charles Garnier was recognized during the opening night of the Paris Opera House, January 5, 1875: 

“At the intermission, Charles Garnier stepped out onto the landing of the grand staircase.  The audience filled the floor below him, the foyer level, and the balconies around and above him on all sides.  Applause rose, punctuated by enthusiastic shouts of recognition, as if Garnier himself had just sung the tenor role in La Juive.”

But this was not Europe, it was the United States and the sad fact remains, even up to today, that even in Chicago, Americans, as a rule, do not appreciate architects or their art to the same level that do Europeans.  With, perhaps, the exception of the construction workers. One of the building’s contractors perceived this professional insult to Adler and Sullivan and made note of it in a letter to the editor of The Tribune:

“Workmen employed upon the building know that Mr. Sullivan was the guiding spirit, everywhere and all over, attending to the smallest details, giving up a great deal more time than his health warranted, until, in fact, his nervous force gave way, and he was some weeks in recovering. Had such an event as the opening of this building occurred in Paris or any large city in England the architects would have been among the first called before the people and publicly thanked upon the stage.  It is their due, and I am surprised that the citizens of Chicago should neglect to give the full measure of praise to whom it belongs.”


de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

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

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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

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


Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. “Spring Song” is on the south/right wall; “Autumn Reverie” is on the north/left wall. (National Trust for Historic Preservation: savingplaces.org-photo courtesy John R. Boehm Photography)

Of course, Sullivan would employ his nonhistorical, personal language to ornament the vast surfaces he faced, but what would be his inspiration? What theme or concept should he employ?  Where should he place the ornament, what colors should he use, and how would he provide electrical illumination were just some of the major decisions he faced.  Fortunately, he did not face this immense task alone as Healy & Millet were once again contracted to collaborate with Sullivan, especially in the design and production of much of the building’s interior’s ornamentation.  He then got word in February 1888 of a twenty-year old draftsman working in Joseph Silsbee’s office who might be just the type of assistant capable of doing what he needed.  He sent word to the young man that he would like to interview him.  His name was Frank Wright, he appeared the next day with a set of drawings, the two of them hit it off from the start, and Sullivan had found his righthand man for the Auditorium project and placed him in charge of the drafting room.  The timing of the interview couldn’t have been better for either party.

Sullivan revealed his overarching principles in his design process in an article, “Plastic and Color Decoration of the Auditorium,” that he wrote in 1891 for Industrial Chicago, “The plastic and color decorations are distinctly architectural in conception.  They are everywhere kept subordinate to the general effect of the larger structural masses and subdivisions, while lending to them the enhancement of soft tones and of varied light and shade.”  As a devoted follower of Richard Wagner, the leading composer of the era, Sullivan had employed not only Wagner’s idea of the leitmotif in his use of the spatial module of the arched-paneled box to compose his spaces, but also Wagner’s concept of the gesamtkunstwerk or a “total work of art” in ornamenting the interior of the building.

Thus, the four main elliptical arches that spanned the great hall were given the primary focus by being “treated in a scientific manner.  They are dark at the base and light at the springing of the arch.  This gives atmosphere and lightness to the arch.”  A reporter from the Chicago Herald seemed to have immediately perceived Sullivan’s approach during the opening night, “All of the petty ornamentation and excess of pretentious gingerbread work common to the minor theatres are lacking, and in place thereof there is breadth and dignity of treatment that harmonizes with the massive characteristics of the structure.”

Then Sullivan had to also choose a color, “A single idea or principle is taken as a basis of the color scheme [in each public room], that is to say, use is made of but one color in each instance, and that color is associated with gold.  The color selected varies with each room treated, but the plan of using one color with gold is in no case departed from.  Thus the main Auditorium is in old ivory and gold…in graded tones.”  Sullivan chose a warm, but neutral ivory for the base color for the theater, using an oil paint, and then applied 23-carat gold leaf to create highlights around the room.  “You were not satiated or overpowered by the decorations.  In light there is no satiety; and richness was kept from being overpowering because it was expressed in white and gold.  It was sumptuous and chaste.”  

Peck had approved the increased expense of gold leaf as a good, long-term value as it did not need to be restored periodically, therefore, its maintenance costs over time would be minimal.  Red, the overwhelmingly traditional color for theater interiors, was consciously banned for its obviously political overtone of symbolizing the Communist cause.  The colors in the theater would, instead, vary depending upon the season, as it would be provided by the women’s outfits, which were set off by the black coats of the men: “there sloped back from the parquet a stretch like a flower garden.”

Albert Francis Fleury, “Spring Song,” on the house right wall. “O Soft, Melodious Spring Time! First-Born of Life and Love!” (Photo courtesy Jyoti Srivastava: chicago-architecture-jyoti.blogspot.com)

Here at this point, most designers would have stopped, satisfied with their creation, however, Sullivan truly had yet to begin “to design.”  George Elmslie, an office draftsman at the time may have best stated his boss’s process, “Sullivan creates his designs by ‘communing’ with the problem far away from pencil and paper.  This method he urges upon us all.”  Sullivan chose his theme for the space characteristically not from history, but from nature; the cycles of nature and human life: growth and decadence.  There was, seemingly, no two points in the space that had the same color, as he tinted the color ever darker as one’s eyes moved farther away from the stage.  As the eye also moved across the room from the south of the hall (right side) to the north (left side), he also darkened the color, as a metaphor of the sun’s daily path.  This cyclical theme was reinforced with two murals located at either end of the central skylighted space that were painted by French-trained Alfred Francis Fleury.  On the lighter, southern wall was located “Spring Song,” in which the sky was portrayed at early morning light with a warm, light blue sky: 

“A scene at dawn within a wooded meadow, by a gently running stream.  The poet is abroad to greet the lark; the pale tints of sunrise suffuse the landscape; the early tinge of green is over all; the joy of this awakening life deeply touches the wandering poet, who sings in ecstasy, “O soft melodious springtime, first born of life and love!”

Albert Francis Fleury, “Autumn Reverie,” on the house left wall. “A Great Life Has Passed Into The Tomb And There Awaits the Requiem of Winter’s Snows” (Photo courtesy Jyoti Srivastava: chicago-architecture-jyoti.blogspot.com)

Facing it on the opposite, northern wall was “Autumn Reverie” with its cold gray sky at dusk: 

“The scene is of pathless wilds, in gray, subsiding autumn, where brown leaves settle through the air, descending one by one to join the dead, while winds, adagio, breathe shrill funeral lamentations… Sadly musing, the poet turns to descend into the deep and somber valley, conscious that “a great life has passed into the tomb, and there awaits the requiem of winter’s snows.”

Charles Holloway, The Proscenium Arch Mural. (Photo courtesy Jyoti Srivastava: chicago-architecture-jyoti.blogspot.com)

The two murals and their respective themes were brought together by a third mural painted by Charles Holloway with the theme, ”The utterance of life is a song, the symphony of Nature,” that spanned above the proscenium arch:

Charles Holloway, The Proscenium Arch Mural. ”THE UTTERANCE OF LIFE IS A SONG, THE SYMPHONY OF NATURE.” (Photo courtesy Jyoti Srivastava: chicago-architecture-jyoti.blogspot.com)

“The central painting… expresses in its many minor figures the manifold influence of music on the human mind…while a deeper meaning, conveying the rhythmic significance of life’s song, is embodied in special groups and figures… At the right [spring] is an altar on which burns the lambent flame of life.  Before it poses an exultant figure typifying the dawn of life, the springtime of the race, the early flight of imagination.  At the left [autumn] another altar is seen on which a fire is burning and flickering toward its end; near it the type of twilight, of memory, tenderness and compassion, stands with yearning, outstretched arms.  The central group signifies the present, the future, and the past.  The present, a lyre in her hand, sits enthroned, the embodiment of song, of the utterance of life.  Toward her all the elements of the composition tend, and at this focal point is developed their full significance and power, for the present is the magical moment of life; it is from the present that we take the bearings of the future and of the past.”

To light the space, Adler & Sullivan eliminated the traditional chandelier (the ubiquitous “Sword of Damocles”), replacing it with electric lights that once again followed the lines of the arches (when dimmed, they resembled the stars outside of the roof, ”instead of rafters the hall was roofed with ivory and gold and starred with electricity”).  Sullivan designed the plaster rosettes in which the base of each bulb was placed whose ornate profile was highlighted by the soft glow of the clear incandescent bulb, as Adler so ably described: “The use of richly-modulated plastic surface ornament is an important aid to successful color decoration.  It gives a rare interest to even the simplest scheme of color distribution by the introduction of modulations of light and shade, by the contrast variation of perspective effects, and by the brilliancy of the protuberant points and edges as they catch and reflect the light.”

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. This gives a sense of the scale of the ornament lining each arch. (Online)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Detailing of plaster ornamentation, lightbulbs, and ventilating grills. (chicagodetours.com: Photo by Alex Bean)

Sullivan designed a geometric pattern that lined each of the major ceiling arches in which hexagons (or pentagons depending upon its location within the arch) within which Sullivan had located the electric light bulbs, alternated with diamonds that containing the custom designed semispherical ventilation air grills that supplied the room from air ducts within the arches themselves, with heated or chilled fresh air as required by the outside temperature. Edward Garczynski, who was hired by the Association to write the official publication documenting the history of the building’s design and construction, may have best summed up Sullivan’s response to Peck’s challenge of employing nothing originating from Europe or the past in the design of the Auditorium: “It is indubitable that there is within these walls an architecture and a decorative art that are truly American, and that owe nothing to any other country or any other time.”


de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

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

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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

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