ARC 331: Skyscrapers

field trip

Saturday, March 16

Morning (10:30 AM) and afternoon tours (1:30 PM) meet Dr. Amundson at Daley Plaza, home of the (untitled) Chicago Picasso. In case of unforeseen civic action on Daley Plaza, try the intersection of Randolph & Dearborn. In case of emergency, text 630.940.8186.

Review morning and afternoon schedules, as well as group members and choice of buildings here.

Take heed: the annual St. Patrick's Day parade coincides with our field trip, so the city will be extra festive on Saturday. Public transportation (e.g., Metra) will also be busier than usual. For details on the parade and the annual dyeing of the River (etc.), read this article in the Trib.


To what extent has Chicago been a locus for innovation of tall building design, and has that been intentional among the profession of architecture or is it rather a happy accident of history and economics?

If one refers to "Chicago Rising" in the decades following the Civil War, they may be talking about the growing height of the first tall buildings of the nineteenth century. But perhaps we should consider, more likely and more primarily, the emergence of this northern city, positioned strategically along several trade networks, and its soaring real estate values that encouraged clients to buy small urban plots and ask their architects to grow their buildings upwards of four or five stories--not to mention the character of the profession that, differing in some important ways along with the nature of Midwestern life, was rather distinct from customs on the East Coast, where we tend to see a parallel development in tall building design.*

  • Read: Gelernter,  chap. 7
  • Read: Colquhoun: chap. 2

*Although New York and Chicago are the regular stars of this story, it's worth noting the overlooked Jayne Building in Philadelphia. Started by a builder named William Johnston but largely designed and built by Thomas U. Walter around 1849, it was a very early, very tall building, that made use of conventional lifts for goods and made people climb the steps. Visitors were rewarded for a sweeping view of the city from its observation deck--perhaps the first one ever constructed in a commercial building.

learning objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify important skyscrapers by name, date, designer/client and location (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Describe integration of technology (material and non-material) in individual skyscrapers (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Explain stylistic/technical changes in skyscraper design as they relate to cultural context (COMPREHENSION)
  • Summarize the main concepts in Sullivan's "Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" (COMPREHENSION)
  • Explain the development of the profession of building designers in relationship to the history of skyscrapers (comprehension)
  • Visually analyze skyscrapers to suggest date, place, and designer (ANALYSIS)
  • Recognize change in architectural styles by comparing their formal and technical characteristic (ANALYSIS)
  • Critique the agency of people and technology w/in the process of skyscraper design (EVALUATE)

part 1

The Technology

Most conversations about building technology and tall buildings are about the structure (even more particularly, steel structure). But many more technologies were required to make living in tall buildings feasible, from lighting and cooling/heating them, to making them fireproof and accessible. (In Chicago, there is also the history of the lowly, humble, but very necessary and rather extraordinary foundations; link here if you want to go there.)

Although building at such height was feasible earlier, there was no real reason to build with tall, stacked stories for human occupation, and the mass of stone required would have been inconvenient, to say the least. There was also the matter of the inconvenience of climbing such heights and public skepticism about mechanical lifting devices but that was solved as of the 1850s. Watch this video for a brief history of the Otis Safety Elevator and also demonstrations with models, which are pretty great.  Also, listen carefully for all of the developments made possible by the elevator--and think how they had a resultant impact on architectural design.


  • What did the elevator allow, and how did that pose new challenges and opportunities for architects?
  • What kinds of functions were housed in tall buildings, and what did their clients ask of architects in formal terms?

part 2

The Nineteenth Century: Birth of the Chicago School

Cities throughout the Midwest, including Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Minneapolis, started building taller than 3-4 stories pretty consistently in the 1860s. Chicago might look a lot like them were it not for a devastating event in October, 1871, and its unstoppable economy through the next decades.

By the way, do you know what stands on the site of the infamous O'Leary farm today? (Because it's the funniest architectural response to a manmade disaster that you'll ever see)

After the great fire, skyscraper construction took off dramatically, allowing Chicago to move into prominence as a place for structural and architectural invention. Key here was a recent arrival, Massachusetts-born William Le Baron Jenney, who had studied in Paris--at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (significantly, not the École des Beaux-Arts). After designing parks for a time, he opened an architecture office, invented the fireproof steel frame, developed curtain wall technology, et voilà, the Chicago School was born. Jenney's office was quite the place; through the years, Daniel H. Burnham, Louis Sullivan, William Mundie, William Holabird and Martin Roche paid their dues as apprentices here. As a group, the alumni of Jenney's office are often grouped as the main participants in the Chicago School--a term that suggests much more cohesion than we sometimes see in the actual built evidence of the city. Of everything that was generated from that office, here is the one pile to rule them all: the Home Insurance Building.

By the way, the use of the term "deconstructed" is a nice way to say that by 1930, the Home Insurance Building was seen as too ugly and old-fashioned, and torn down to make room for something new (and that appears on the list below).


Among the alumni of Jenney's office, Sullivan is maybe even the most profound member of this profound group, in part because he wrote about what he was doing when he was designing great tall buildings.

Click the image below to enter into a website that addresses the many facets of Sullivan's ornamental designs. For extra credit, complete the assignment included in one of its tabs and bring it to class on Thursday.

part 3

Skyscrapers: Client Needs and Public Consumption

Unlike other art forms to which they are often compared, buildings rely (almost always and entirely) on an outside client for funding and their raison d'être. Click to enter the website linked below and consider the motives of clients from at least three different points on the timeline.


  • Are there very many reasons for tall buildings to be constructed?
  • Do the clients of tall buildings differ fundamentally from patrons we see elsewhere in the history of architecture?
  • Rate this project

While their funcational, economic, and formal identities are profound in the history of architecture, the fact that skyscrapers became subject matter for artists in various media shows their popular and cultural value as well. Click the image below to launch into a website on this subject.


  • From the evidence provided here, what kinds, styles, or periods of skyscraper construction have been most popular for artists?
  • Do artists of different media or audience prefer one kind of skyscraper over another?
  • Rate this project 

part 4

A Brief History of Tall Buildings in Chicago

The following history is the result of a collaborative effort among students in ARC 331 in spring, 2019: Grant Bradman, Connor Brown, Chloe Burkhart, Adaliz Carballo, Gabe David, Parker Done, David Filipowski, Aaron Foster, Monica Medina, Brooke Nickell, Emma Okesson, Jarod Pletcher, Abacuc Rodriguez, Andrew Rogers, Caleb Rutter, Max Starcevich, Jordan Taylor, Elizabeth Van Bruggen, Desmond Wahlfeld, Tim White, Taylor Wills, and Adam Wise.

Chicago's first skyscrapers represent the technology and concerns of their era with aesthetic solutions that differed from trends in New York, where architects were more likely to design steel-framed confections swaddled in historical ornament. Let's look at buildings constructed through the first decades following the Great Fire, and that may or may not help us come to terms with a single definition of "Chicago School" (and may even challenge our common understanding of what a "skyscraper" is).

Studebaker Building (1885 & 1898)

The Studebaker Building, now known as the Fine Arts Building, was originally commissioned to be built in 1885 as an eight-story building by the Studebaker family. Solon Spencer Beman, a student of Robert Upjohn, was hired as the architect.  It was originally a horse-drawn carriage showroom on the first floor with industrial space on the floors above. By 1898, business had expanded enough that Beman was hired to remodel the building, removing the top floor and adding three more, making the building 10 stories high.

The design of this building is typical of the Chicago School during this time. Its facade is similar to the Auditorium Building by Sullivan, built in 1889, and the Rookery, built in 1888. The strong masonry construction with large round arches helped both fireproof the building and give the structure an expression of strength. In fact, on the first floor of this building are the two largest monolithic stone columns in the United States, at least at the time of the building’s construction. The ornament on the building is similar to other buildings of the time, with heavy limestone bands ornamented with creeping greenery and interweaving plant life. The column capitals are similar to basket capitals with acanthus leaves, similar to Sullivan’s column capitals in the Carson Building (1899).

The building was declared a Chicago Landmark in 1978. Today, it houses fine art studios, artists’ lofts, dance and music studios, and a theater. As a result, it is now called the Fine Arts Building, and is recognized as a local hub of fine and performance arts. (Emma, Gabe & Connor)

Second Leiter Building (1891)

Leiter was one of the largest property owners in Chicago.  He commissioned William Le Baron Jenny to design both the first Leiter building and his second.  The second Leiter building was built in 1891. This building is one of the first commercial buildings built with a steel skeletal frame. This was used because structural steel was now available, and they were looking for a more fireproof building material.  The Chicago fire happened just 20 years prior to the design of the building, so fireproofing is at the front of their minds.  In addition to fireproofing, the skeletal frame was also used because it allowed the fullest use unobstructed interior space. This eventually became the model for the modern department store.  The Leiter building includes eight floors and takes up an entire block of State Street between Ida B. Wells Drive and Vanburen Street. Each floor has a sixteen-foot ceiling height and is fifty thousand square feet. The façade facing State Street is nine bays wide while the façade facing Ida B. Wells drive and Vanburen Street are three bays wide and each bay is separated by thick pilasters.  The pilasters have simple capitals and the building has a simple cornice.  The exterior columns and spandrels used white Maine granite.  It appears smooth because they intentionally did not add detail. One of Jenny's main goals was to provide an immense amount of natural light.  This is accomplished with the collaboration of the thin skeletal frame which allowed for four vertically aligned windows within each forty-seven-foot bay. (Andrew & Abacuc)

Railway Exchange/Santa Fe Building (1904)

On corner of Michigan and Jackson stands the Railway Exchange Building. Frederick P Dinkelberg, designer for Burnham and Company, took inspiration for this building from the Worlds Colombian Exposition 11 years earlier as it echoes the "White City" façade. The building, designed in a steel frame to allow for greater air and light flow, was completed in 1904. It stands 17 stories tall grounded with a heavy base and elevated with a vertically organized white terra cotta façade. The cornice of the building is intricately ornamented with dentils and other details. Just below the cornice there is a row of portal windows that depict the 17th floor. The plan of the building is symmetrical around an open central atrium all designed after Beaux-Arts principles. The formal entrance to the building stands on Jackson Boulevard and leads to a central atrium with a main staircase up to the second floor, reserved for shops and retail. The interior lightwell is also clad in white terra cotta, with Classical dentils, balusters, and column capitals . The interior atrium is similar to the design of other Burnham and Company buildings, specifically the Rookery. The original intent of the building was to house several rail companies, but the Santa Fe eventually became its only owner. At the time of its completion the Burnham and Co. architecture firm was located on the 17th story in the corner penthouse and remained there until 1952. Today several other architecture firms follow in the legacy of Burnham and Co. and are located here, such as SOM. (Elizabeth, Monica, & Taylor)

The history of the skyscraper in the twentieth century took a similar path in Chicago and New York, among other American cities. By the 1920s architects were divided by increasingly Gothic or Art Deco expressions.

Chicago Board of Trade (1930)

The Chicago Board of Trade is a forty-five-story building completed in 1930.  The skyscraper was designed by architects William Holabird and John W. Root.  Located at the end of LaSalle Street in Chicago’s financial district, this building embraces the stylings of the Art-Deco movement.  Some of the features of this building that align it with this Art Deco style embodied by the Roaring Twenties are found in its form as well as its ornament.  In contrast to its neighboring Neo-Classical buildings, the Board of Trade uses blockish geometric forms that highlight its streamlined verticality.  This aspect of verticality is a featured characteristic in skyscrapers of this movement, and is emphasized in this building particularly by the Indiana limestone piers that are slightly extrude from the façade.  Standing at 605 feet tall, the use of steel frame construction made this massing possible.  The building was also designed with numerous setbacks at increasing heights, typical among skyscrapers in this era to allow light to reach the streets below these massive structures and as a result of new step-back codes.  The streamlined Art Deco ornament implemented in this building serves to tell the story of the building’s use and function.  As a financial building at this time in Chicago, much of the trade and industry dealt with in this building was related to farming and agriculture.  Reflective of this is the statue residing at the building’s peak.  This is a depiction of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.  Also used in this nature is the iconography on the façade depicting bovine faces. (Jacob, Parker & Tim)

Field Building (1930)

The Field Building is the last true Art Deco skyscraper built in Chicago's Loop district and is really the last major building in Chicago before construction stopped because of the Great Depression. The exterior of the first story is faced in polished black granite and the entrances on the east and west facades rise the entire height of the base and are also framed in black granite with five pilasters made of white yule marble, a high-quality marble from Colorado; the upper stories use limestone for the facade. The windows are framed with polished aluminum the windows are vertically emphasized to make the building appear taller and part of what makes this an Art Deco building. However, it is the interior that really emphasizes this building’s character as Art Deco. Many of the latest innovations such as high-speed the double unit elevators and air conditioning were incorporated into the building’s design. Additionally, the building featured escalators to the second floor, alternating electric current, and was originally planned to accommodate the ability of a subway entrance before Chicago even had one.

The Field Building is also built the site of the world's first skyscraper, the 1884 Home Insurance Company Building, by William LeBaron Jenney. The Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Field Building.

The Field Building has a labeled 45th floor, however as a last minute change the thirteenth floor was omitted due to superstition, so really the building has 44 floors. The smaller corner towers are 22 floors in height. (Aaron, Desmond & Adam)

University Club of Chicago (1909)

The University Club of Chicago was built in 1909 by Martin Roche of Holabird & Roche for a group of college graduates who wanted to continue their academic adventures. These graduates came from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and wanted to promote art and literature. The club would expand to become a place for athletic camaraderie and general fellowship.

The building that houses the club today was not the first. The club was held at two other buildings before they commissioned Roche to design one that would fit the nature of their club. Roche took precedent from prestigious schools such as the ones the members came from. Drawing from rich Gothic precedent, Roche produced something unique—a Gothic skyscraper. It is argued to be the first of its time. Not only does the style fit because the Gothic style was associated with important schools, but also because the club needed a unique design in order to be recognized as something new, different, important, and because of the heritage of American higher education stemming from English colleges like Oxford and Cambridge, known for their Gothic architecture.

Just as the building still stands today, the membership of the club is still alive and growing. To become a member, one must be a four-year college graduate and have three recommendation letters from club members. Involvement in athletics is important, and the club’s squash tournaments have helped the sport become recognized throughout Chicago. Although the University Club seems to be exclusive, they still enjoy a bit of fun such as athletics while (most importantly) bonding over scholarly pursuits, all while enjoying the building’s unique architecture that further pushes the clubs ideals.

Holabird and Roche’s office was a descendant of William Le Baron Jenney firm, so this building is part of the Chicago School legacy. The building is 11-12 stories tall and is built with a steel frame under its stone cladding. Although the building is structurally similar to other Chicago School buildings, its stylistic departure from Classical precedent speaks to its clients associationist preference for the Gothic language. However, the use of stained glass to tell a secular story departs from its past liturgical use. (Chloe & Max)

The Great Depression brought construction of tall buildings to a halt, signifying the reduction in business nationwide, which would last until the end of the Second World War. After the war, mid-century architects drew from the industrial framework built up during the war effort and inspiration from European modernists with the development of what we tend to call the International Style; a later generation responded to its perceived shortcomings with Post-Modernism.

Inland Steel Building (1954-58)

The Inland Steel building began construction in 1954 and was completed in 1958. At the time of its completion it was the first skyscraper to be built in Chicago after the Great Depression. This building was built as the headquarters for the Inland Steel Company. Founded in 1893, The Inland Steel Company grew to be the eighth largest steel producer in the United States by the 1950s. Their growth is what led them to need a large office building. The architects Walter Netsch and Bruce Graham of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill used innovative features for the aquamarine tinted glass, which was made possible by adding more iron to the chemical mixture, and brushed stainless steel cladding to pay homage to the company’s namesake. This design followed Louis Sullivan’s “form follows function” principle by placing all the structural columns on the perimeter of the building and consolidating all of the buildings service functions in a removed tower. With the structure on the perimeter and the services removed it allowed for an open floorplan of office space. Each level contains 177 feet by 58 feet of unobstructed column free useable space which follows the Miesian design concept of universal space. This was made possible by the 14 exterior supporting columns, and 60 foot girders. In addition to the way the steel was emphasizing the structure in a way that was inspired by Mies, this building also stood out in its time because most buildings were greatly ornamented with brick or terracotta this building is devoid of any ornamentation on its façade. This concept stressed Mies' concept "less is more," and allowed the Inland Steel Building to stand out and showcase its company.

The Inland Steel Building was named a Chicago landmark on October 7th 1998. The Inland Steel Building was able to accomplish many firsts in Chicago. Some of them being the first fully air-conditioned building. The first indoor underground parking facility. The first to use two-inch thick dual glazed glass to help with climate control. The first building constructed on steel pilings. Finally the first building with automated window washing and mail distribution systems. (Grant & Caleb)

State of Illinois Building/Thompson Center (1985)

The Thompson Center was constructed by Murphy/Jahn in 1985  with Postmodern inspiration. This building is 308 feet tall and its constructed with steel and glass. Postmodernism uses bright colors, bold decoration and, sometimes, irony-laced versions of Classical details. The Thompson Center has colorful details and a shape that references the dome of the state’s capitol. Also, its design is intended to communicate a message which is openness and transparency to symbolize the state’s commitment to serving the people.

During the 1970s, Chicago commissioned the North Loop Redevelopment Plan to protect and enhance the downtown core. The site of what became the State of Illinois Building (now the Thompson Center) was designated as part of an urban renewal zone. Since then the Thompson Center served as a secondary capitol for Illinois. Now, According to projections introduced in the Illinois Fiscal Policy Report, the state has removed the sale of the Thompson Center from the list of planned sources of revenue for 2019. The report estimates the value of the potential sale to the state to be $300 million. In the actuality, this building has problems controlling the temperature inside the building because of all the glass that it has (the glass has no glass treatment). That’s why they have to spend a lot of money in air conditioning system because in the winter, the inside of the building gets too cold and during the summer it gets too hot.

The Thompson Center appeared in "Music Box" 1990, "Miracle on 34th Street" 1994, "Switching Channels" 1988, tv series Arrow as “Chicago City Hall”, “The Dark Night” as the Richard J. Daley Center, among other films. In “Music Box” the building serves as the setting for the offices of federal prosecutors in the trial of a Nazi war criminal. In "Miracle on 34th Street" the building is turned into "a Christmas-festooned department store. (Adaliz & David)

Harold Washington Library (1991)

After the Great Fire of 1871, England donated over 8,000 books to the City of Chicago in order to begin to replace the collection. The books were kept in the Water Tower, one of only two surviving structures from the fire. They were then moved to what is now the Chicago Cultural Center. After the building was repurposed, the books were kept mostly in storage until the realization of the Harold Washington Library in 1991.

The design of the Harold Washington Library utilizes a planning scheme similar to that taught at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts with a two main axis which meet in a central, double-story reception space, and to the left and right of the main entrance hall are escalators that give access to the floors above. The building also borrows architectural elements from surrounding buildings that allow it to fit in its historical context. These include the tall, arched windows, rusticated base, red brick, and glass roof with ornamental iron work, which are specific quotations from individual buildings.

The ornamentation of this library is chock full of symbolism. Two years after the completion of the library, Kent Bloomer’s design for the owl acroterias were completed by artist Raymond Kaskey and installed. These painted aluminum owls themselves are made to resemble patinated copper and recall the wisdom of Athena, surely a desirable feature of a library. The medallions and vertical friezes of the elevation are composed of corn, seed pods and Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, a tribute to the Midwest’s agricultural fertility. (Jarod, Brooke & Jordan)

additional resources

Additional Resources

Application (assignment for the collaborative history above)

In your groups, write a brief history of one tall building in Chicago. Your work will complete this "Brief History."

  • Investigate your building's history before the field trip. If we pass your building, you will be asked for its history! Also find as old an image as possible to show what the original context of your building was like. Have it with you in Chicago.
  • After the conclusion of the walking tour, return to your building with your group and document it. Sketch the plan of its public/entry spaces (as possible), elevations, section of lobby or other public area (if relevant), and details. Photos are acceptable but hand-drawn images will be given special consideration.
  • As part of your documentation, record yourself and/or your colleagues with your building: admiring, studying, and/or drawing it. Send a single square-format image to Dr. Amundson by midnight. The best ones will be posted to the Department Instagram account. Include a brief description and whatever hashtags you deem relevant. Due: Saturday, midnight
  • Write a history and analysis of your building that takes on the most relevant of the following points (and thus summarize the main points of this lesson and bring them to bear on your case study):
    • data about height and materials that explain technological achievements
    • description of style considerations
    • economic and/or cultural factors that weighed in the client's decision to build it
    • whichever of the learning objectives seem most relevant
    • is this somehow a specifically Chicago building?
    • later cultural relevance, inclusion in movies etc.?
  • Entires shall be 250-350 words in length.  Send your text, including building name, architect, client and date, to Dr. Amundson as a Word doc attachment. Include the images (JPEGs) that you think are necessary to tell your story. Send everything by attachment; no dropboxes etc. Due: Monday, 1 PM


An interesting pair came out of the same office at about the same time: Burnham and Root's Monadnock () and Reliance () Buildings. They're a great comparison for thinking about how architects considered the formal design problem for tall buildings, and also technical considerations. (Note also in the Reliance video, which has a lot of footage from the 1980s, that you can see just how bad things can go when terra cotta is not maintained well.)

Finally, Sullivan's Schlessinger & Meyer Store, a.k.a., Carson's.

A new approach to the type was popularized and perfected by Raymond Hood, who completed a whole gaggle of elegant skyscrapers that typified the Jazz Age in New York:

  • Daily News Building: 1929
  • McGraw-Hill Building: 1931
  • Rockefeller Center: 1939

Related, but even jazzier, are the Art Deco skyscrapers that rose in all major American cities:

  • William Van Alen.  Chrysler Building, New York: 1928-30
  • Holabird & Root.  Chicago Board of Trade: 1929 (with Ceres by John H. Storrs; Grain Bearer (Egyptian) & Corn Bearer (Native American) by Alvin Meyer)