Map of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad, 1891. (Online)

The event that finally brought confidence and investment back to downtown Chicago was the arrival of the Atkinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railroad. This was not an act of inconsequential significance, for the railroad would spend over $13 million on Chicago real estate and construction.  The Santa Fe was originally built to link Kansas City (Atchinson) to Santa Fe, NM, following the old Santa Fe Trail, that traders had used since 1821 to link Mexico’s northern territory to the Missouri River (and then onto St. Louis). This portion had been completed to the Colorado state line by 1872 and the road had continued to expand southwestward to connect with ports on the Pacific coast. In 1886, then company president William Barstow Strong, decided to expand the line eastward to make its own route into Chicago, that when completed had made the Santa Fe the longest road in the U.S. (and meant that the British, who had provided the bulk of the financing, had completed a route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, via the British funded Grand Trunk, that no longer relied on any American-controlled roads).

The company had been very successful in keeping its expansion plans secret as it assembled the land it needed for its new rail yards.  As property around 20th and State Street continued to be bought by a number of relatively unknown personalities during the spring of 1887, speculation mounted in the real estate and construction press as to identification of the ultimate buyer and their plans.  Finally, on June 9, 1887, the Inter-Ocean announced that it was, indeed, the Atkinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe that was buying the property as part of its expansion into the Chicago market.  Chicago was to have a second direct transcontinental railroad route to the Pacific.  

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

In fact, it wasn’t until the Santa Fe completed the construction of its tracks to Chicago in 1888 and daily passenger service had begun on April 29, that speculative office construction returned to Chicago. The buildings erected in Chicago during this second boom would be of unprecedented height, for during the two-year lull in Chicago office construction, the detailing needed to employ the iron skeleton frame in skyscraper construction had been ironed out in cities other than Chicago.  In March 1888, the building industry was shocked by Buffington’s proposal to build his twenty-eight-story “Cloudscraper,” employing his soon-to-be patented system of iron framing. 

Bradford Gilbert, Tower Building, 1888. Note the five-story continuous piers in the arcade at the middle of the façade; Right: Diagram of diagonal bracing. (Landau/Condit, New York)

And then the following month, Bradford Gilbert had received a building permit to use only iron framing to support his 11-story Tower Building in New York.  All Chicago architects needed to do from this point was to fully resolve all the problems that these pioneering structures had run into, in order to be able to actually construct what Buffington had been the first to propose, a twenty-plus story, iron framed skyscraper.

Buffington’s proposal had only poured salt into the wounds that Chicago’s collective ego had recently sustained with the completion of Minneapolis’ recent skyscrapers.  The announcement that followed almost immediately after the published report of Buffington’s project, that both Minneapolis and St. Paul would be constructing 13-story buildings was apparently the last straw that produced an intense rivalry that challenged Chicago to regain its momentum with the skyscraper.  But there first had to be a demand for such buildings in Chicago, which meant that someone or something would have to revive Chicago’s stagnant real estate market, and that spark would be the massive financial investment made by the Santa Fe.  

Map of the Grand Trunk Railroad’s new track to Chicago, 1879-80. (Online)

As the Santa Fe was heavily financed by British capital, as had been the Grand Trunk Railroad, (Baring Brothers: see v. 3, sec. 1.14) it logically joined forces with the Dearborn Street interests. Its arrival at the C. & W. I. Station marked the beginning of the resurrection of the development plans for Dearborn Street that had been shelved in late 1885.   

As the new Board of Trade and LaSalle Street had been the center of the earlier boom during 1881-1885, Dearborn Street, especially adjacent to the Post Office Square, where the post-fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House had finally been completed, would be the center for this second construction boom.  The Inter-Ocean quoted the Post Office Square as “the new office building quarter, and is particularly suited to the purpose because of the wide ground about the Government Building opposite, insuring plenty of light.” 

William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

As William Potter’s design of the new Federal Building did not extend between lotlines but was a building whose width was less than the site so that it “looked” like an important, institutional building placed on a common green, the Post Office Square was now the only open space in the entire southern portion of downtown. This square, that already enjoyed the presence of Boyington’s grande dame Grand Pacific Hotel, Jenney’s Union League Club, and Burnham & Root’s Phoenix Building at its southwest corner, would see the erection of some of Chicago’s finest buildings in the coming three years.

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


U.S. Post Office and Custom House Square, c.1889. The Post Office is in the right, center, immediately to its left is Jenney’s Union Club with its domed turret), and to the left of it is the Phoenix Building, just to the right of the Board of Trade’S tower. The Rookery is just above the Post Office, with Burnham and Root’s office on the top floor, in the southeast corner, closest to the viewer. Note that construction on the Monadnock Block, nor its sister, the Chicago Hotel, has not yet started. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

The urban pattern of Chicago’s business district (I am now going to refer to it as downtown as “The Loop” didn’t come into fashion until the mid-1890’s) had undergone significant changes from its post-fire rebuilding during the period 1880-86.


James J. Egan, Post-Fire City Hall and Cook County Courthouse, 1878-85. (Online)

1. The City Hall had moved in 1885 from its post-fire “temporary” building that had been erected around the surviving water reservoir at the southeast corner of La Salle and Adams back to its new building on its pre-fire location on the Courthouse Square. One drawback of the new design was that it took up the entire, square, removing the green, open space that the Square used to offer. 

The only remaining open space on the “north side” of downtown was Dearborn Park, across Michigan Avenue from Lake Park. Meanwhile, the offices and businesses that had sprung up on the south side around the temporary City Hall, for the most part, chose to remain where they were, farther from the pollution and congestion of the Main Branch. The result was that there were now two centers of “urban business”: the original, older section of the downtown closer to the riverbank, centered around the City Hall, and the much newer section centered around the new Board of Trade that opened in May 1885. These buildings were primarily located along the first two blocks of La Salle north of the Board’s building.  This new “Wall Street” included the new Insurance Exchange, the Home Insurance Building, and the city’s largest office building, The Rookery, erected on the site of the old temporary City Hall, on the southeast corner of La Salle and Adams.  Burnham & Root moved its office to the southeast corner of the top floor, overlooking the lake.

Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking north. At the left is the Insurance Exchange; opposite is the Rookery, with the Home Insurance on the other side of Adams. (Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890)
Left: Burnham and Root in the Library. (Online); Right: Plan of the office of Burnham & Root. The left arrow points to the view of the drafting room, the right arrow is the library view. (Hoffmann, Root)

2. The construction of the Auditorium had extended the southern edge of the downtown by two blocks, from Jackson to Congress.  This opened up new real estate for development, and pulled the centroid of the downtown even farther south than had the move of the Board of Trade.

The Auditorium. (khanacademy.org)
View down Adams Street from the Bridge over the South branch to the dome of the Exposition Building. The Farwell Wholesale store is across the river at the left center. The site for the Walker Warehouse on the opposite side of Adams and immediately to the right of the bridge has just been cleared. (Andreas-vol. III)

3. One of the results of this continued southward extension of the district was the emergence of Adams Street as the southern east-west corridor.  (Some historians credit the horsecar line along Adams for this occurrence. While its presence surely added to the attractiveness of property along Adams, the fact was that every other east-west street in the downtown by 1888 had such a line, i.e., Madison to the north and Van Buren to the south.)

Public Transit Lines in 1890. The black lines are cable car lines, and the gray lines are horse car lines. Note that east/west horse car lines were located every two blocks: Lake, Randolph, Madison, Adams, Van Buren, and Harrison. (The Encyclopedia of Chicago)

While the bookends of the corridor, Union Station on the west bank of the river and the Exposition Center on the lakefront, were post-fire stalwarts, the last ten years had seen Adams Street filled in block by block until it sported most of the city’s better examples of architecture. Pullman’s Building sat across Michigan Avenue from the Exposition center. Three new wholesale buildings, Farwell’s, Walker’s, and Field’s, anchored the new wholesale district opposite the river from Union Station. 

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. (Digital image by David Burwinkel)
Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking north. At the right is the Insurance Exchange; opposite is the Rookery, with the Home Insurance on the other side of Adams at the far left. (Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890)

At La Salle Street, the new Rookery anchored Chicago’s “Wall Street.” In the middle of the corridor now sat the U.S. Post Office Square, containing the only open green space within the entire southern half of downtown.

William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

4. The eastern edge of the Post Office Square was the recently constructed and paved portion of Dearborn that finally extended south to the Dearborn Street (C.& W.I.) Station, located so far back at Polk Street that, for all practical purposes, it seemed as if it sat at the Indiana border.  

View looking south down Dearborn Street from the Post Office Square (right) to the Dearborn Street Station. The Monadnock Block is at the right, and the curved bay windows of the Northern Hotel are at the left side. Note at the far right that the Post Office has been replaced with Henry Cobb’s Federal Building of 1896. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

As I reviewed in vol. 3, sec 6.5, the C. & W.I. Railroad had been forced to build this far south by those in City Hall who were connected with La Salle Street.  Although Boston’s Brooks brothers had planned to continue their development of Dearborn farther south after the completion of the Montauk Block, their plan to build the Monadnock Block in 1884 at the southwest corner of Jackson had been stymied by the city’s inaction on the extension of Dearborn.  During the past four years, Root had designed and redesigned the building so many times that I am sure he must have had nightmares over it.  Things in Chicago, however, were finally, after over two years of stagnation, about to change…

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block, Chicago, 1884. Preliminary study of the Jackson Street elevation (12 stories plus basement). It still bears the original name for the building, Quamquisset. Root is slowly come to grips with verticality: here he has incorporated 7-story continuous piers. (Saliga, The Sky’s the Limit)

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


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

Precisely at this moment, however, Eastern American architects had also consciously diverged from the American omnipresent Romanesque Revival (Richardson had died on April 27, 1886, only a week before the Haymarket Square bombing, a very eventful week for Chicago’ architecture, indeed!). However, rather than looking to the problem for the solution, these architects chose to repurpose (positive)/ imitate (negative) the Classical architecture from the past. The best example of this sea change in Eastern architectural style was the new Boston Public Library designed in 1887 by McKim, Mead, and White, that poignantly sat facing the great Richardson’s Trinity Church. I will (need to) discuss the reasons for this change of style in depth prior to discussing the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition and will do so in Chapter 8.  For now, it must  suffice to state that as Chicago’s architects, led by Burnham and Root, had diverged from their East Coast contemporaries in terms of professional practice with the formation of the W.A.A. in November 1884, it should not surprise us that they would also take their own architectural path into the future.  These divergent paths will collide in January 1891…

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


As I first did in V.3 Sec. 4.9, let me recapitulate a number of different approaches to a “modern” skyscraper design that the Chicago School employed, that all fit within my definition:

Louis H. Sullivan, Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store (Carson, Pirie, Scott. (Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture)

1. Express the building’s structure, be it a bearing wall or a grid of columns and beams.

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple, Chicago, northeast corner of State and Randolph, 1890. (Hoffmann, Root)

2. Express the building’s reliance on the columns. The columns were the dominant structural element (lose a beam, you lose a floor; lose a column, you lose everything supported above it). This was accomplished by recessing the spandrels in relation to the front of the columns so the columns were continuous from the ground.

Burnham & Root, Great Northern Hotel, Chicago, northeast corner of Dearborn and Jackson, 1890. (Hoffmann, Root)

3. Express the fact that the skyscraper was simply a large, rectangular volume of space. The exterior was no longer structural, but merely a uniform skin/veil/curtain that enclosed the interior space, therefore, the facade should be detailed so that it would be read as one continuous surface or enclosure of the interior volume (as if it was wrapped in cellophane). This skin could be all brick with glass windows or entirely made with only plates of glass.  In either instance, the visual result would be a continuous material of uniform thickness applied to the exterior of the building’s structure.

These first three methods are “honest” expressions of the building’s “constructional” function.  One could also choose to express the “building’s program’s” functions:

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

4. Express the fact that the skyscraper was an accumulation of identical floors, stacked one on top of the next.  Therefore, the facade should consist of a repetition of horizontals, alternating between the spandrel beams of each floor, and the glass infill between these.  This concept would only be possible using the iron frame, by cantilevering the floors beyond the face of the columns, allowing the horizontal lines of each floor to be the dominant elevational element. 

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

5. If there were different types of uses contained with the building, i.e., rental floors, commercial floors, office space, residential space, public floors (restaurant or observatory), and mechanical floor, one could easily differentiate each function within the design of the elevation by giving it its own, distinctive elevational/window treatment and/or floor height.

Or an architect could see his/her problem as the creation of a building whose function was to be architecturally artistic or meaningful.

Adler & Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1891. (Online)

6. The best example of this idea, in my opinion was Sullivan’s Wainwright Building.  Sullivan thought that the skyscraper’s proportions were overwhelmingly vertical, so why not reinforce the skyscraper’s overall massing by accentuating its verticality through emphasizing the continuity of its columns. The skyscraper’s function was to soar, as he stated in his 1896 essay, “The Tall Building Artistically Considered:”

“What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building?  And at once we answer, it is lofty…  It must be tall, every inch of it tall… It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.

So inspired, he detailed his first towers with repetitive vertical elements that gave their exteriors a “soaring” expression such as his design for the Wainwright Building.  This was not an “honest” solution because every other “column” in its façade is not a structural column but a mechanical run, even though they are detailed to look the same. The word “express” in architecture has an artistic or poetic side that allows for the architect to blur the literal meaning of the word “express” in the employment of his/her “artistic license,” such as Sullivan was prone to do.  For Sullivan, this building’s “function” was to soar, which he expressed in his designs. Therefore, having expressed the building’s function, Sullivan’s designs do qualify to be called Chicago School.

What was slowly evolving, (that is the precise meaning of the word, isn’t it?) initially, in Chicago by July 1888 was an approach to the design of skyscrapers that did not imitate traditional architectural design parameters/styles/details, but synthesized the functional, logical and/or lyrical determinates of a given architectural problem into a new architectural aesthetic that also sported a corresponding new ornamental language. In a number of public talks, both Root and Sullivan agreed that a new architectural style could not be invented, but would have to evolve over time.  Sullivan, and to a lesser extent, Root, were, at the same time, evolving their own ornamental language free from historical precedents. These two issues would slowly evolve during 1888-1891, in a slow, but rather methodical process until Root and Sullivan had synthesized both issues into a new language: the Chicago School. One could call it a “thoroughly modern” style of architecture. (Note I called it “a modern style” and not “the modern style”, for I maintain that there were and still are a number of modern styles of architecture, as there are a number of “Classical,” “Romanesque,” and “Gothic” styles of architecture. I also did not call it nor attempt to make any connection with the term “modernistic”, the word used by those historians who only recognize the “International Style” of the 1950s as the only attempt to evolve a modern architecture, either in a supportive or in a critical manner.)

As early as August 1891, America’s leading critic, Montgomery Schuyler in an article for Harper’s New Monthly, “Glimpses of Western Architecture: Chicago” had recognized and identified the difference that these architects were achieving with their new methodology:

 “These buildings…  not merely attest the skill of their architects, but reward their self-denial in making the design for a commercial building out of its elements, however unpromising these may seem; in permitting the building, in a word, to impose its design upon them, and in following its indications, rather than in imposing upon the building a design derived from anything but a considerations of its own requirements. Hence it is that, without showing anywhere any strain after originality, these structures are more original than structures in which such a strain is evident. “The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.” The designer did not permit himself to be diverted from the problem in hand by a consideration of the irrelevant beauties of Roman theatres, or Florentine palaces, or Flemish town-halls, and accordingly the work is not reminiscent of these nor of any previous architectural types, [my emphasis] of which so many contemporary buildings have the air of being adaptations under extreme difficulties.  It is to the same directness and sincerity in the attempt to solve a novel problem that these buildings owe what is not their least attraction, in the sense that they convey of a reserved power.  The architect of a commercial palace seems often to be discharging his architectural vocabulary and wreaking his entire faculty of expression upon that contradiction in terms… There is something especially grateful and welcome in turning from one of them to a building like one of those now in question, which suggests by comparison that, after he had completed the design of it, the architect might still had something left–in his portfolios and in his intellect.”


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

Schuyler, Montgomery. American Architecture-Studies, Harper & Bros: New York, 1892.

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


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)