What is the Chicago School?

The Chicago School is a name used to describe the development of skyscraper architecture in the late 1800s. It was not an organized school, but a label given to the architects who individually and competitively developed a brand of commercial architecture. Activities during this time have also been called "Chicago construction" and "commercial style." The Chicago commercial style became the basis for modern skyscraper design.

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Birthplace of the Skyscraper - Commercial Style from 19th Century Chicago

East side of South Dearborn Street in Chicago, historic skyscrapers including Jenney's Manhattan
Photo © Payton Chung on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Experimentation in construction and design. Iron and steel were new materials used to frame a building, like a birdcage, allowing structures to be tall without the traditional thick walls for stability. It was a time of great experimentation in design, a new way of building by a group of architects keen on finding a defining style for the tall building.


The Architects. William LeBaron Jenney is often cited as using new construction materials to engineer the first "skyscraper," the 1885 Home Insurance Building. Jenney influenced the younger architects around him, many who apprenticed with Jenney. The next generation of builders included:

The architect Henry Hobson Richardson built steel-framed tall buildings in Chicago, too, but is generally not considered part of the Chicago School of experimenters. Romanesque Revival was Richardson's aesthetic.


Late 19th Century. From roughly 1880 until 1910, buildings were constructed with varying degrees of steel skeleton frames and experimentation with exterior design styling.

Why did it happen?

The Industrial Revolution was providing the world with new products, such as iron, steel, wound cables, the elevator, and the light bulb, enabling the pragmatic possibility of creating tall buildings. Industrialization was also expanding the need for commercial architecture; wholesale and retail stores were created with "departments" that sold everything under one roof; and people became office workers, with work-spaces in cities. What became known as the Chicago School happened at the confluence of

  • The Chicago Fire of 1871 established the need for fire-safe buildings.
  • The Industrial Revolution established new construction materials, including fire-safe metals.
  • A group of architects in Chicago determined that a new architecture deserved its own style, a "look" based on the function of the new tall building and not on the architecture of the past.


Chicago, Illinois. Walk down South Dearborn Street in Chicago for a history lesson in 19th-century skyscrapers. Three giants of Chicago construction are shown on this page:

  • The 1891 Manhattan Building (far right in photo), 16 floors by William Le Baron Jenney, showed that the Father of the Skyscraper was also the Father of the Chicago School.
  • The 1894 Old Colony building was built even higher, 17 floors by Holabird & Roche.
  • The first 18 floors of the Fisher Building were completed in 1896 by D.H. Burnham & Company. In 1906 two more stories were added, a common occurrence when people realized the stability of these buildings.
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1888 Experimentation: The Rookery, Burnham & Root

Two photos of the Rookery Building, facade and Light court with Oriel Staircase, Chicago, Illinois
Facade photo by Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images; Light Court photo by Philip Turner, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (cropped)

Early "Chicago School" was a feast of experimentation in engineering and design. The popular architectural style of the day was the work of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838 to 1886), who was transforming American architecture with Romanesque inflections. As Chicago architects struggled with puzzling together steel-framed building in the 1880s, curb-side façades of these very early skyscrapers took on traditional, known forms. The 12-story (180 feet) face of the Rookery Building created an impression of traditional form in 1888.

Other views reveal the revolution taking place.

The Romanesque façade of the Rookery at 209 South LaSalle Street in Chicago belies the wall of glass that rises only feet away. The Rookery's curvaceous "Light Court" was made possible by steel skeleton framework. Window glass walls were a safe experiment in a space not meant to be occupied off the street.

The Chicago Fire of 1871 led to new fire-safety regulations, including mandates about exterior fire escapes. Daniel Burnham and John Root had a clever solution; design a stairway well-hidden from street view, outside the building's exterior wall but inside a curved tube of glass. Made possible by fire-resistant steel framing, one of the most famous fire escapes in the world was designed by John Root, the Rookery's Oriel Staircase.

In 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright created the iconic lobby from the Light Court space. Eventually, glass windows became a building's exterior skin, allowing natural light and ventilation to enter into open interior spaces, a style that shaped both modern skyscraper design and Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture.

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The Pivotal 1889 Auditorium Building, Adler & Sullivan

Auditorium Building on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago
Photo by stevegeer/iStock Unreleased Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Like the Rookery, the style of Louis Sullivan's early skyscrapers was heavily influenced by H.H. Richardson, who had just finished the Romanesque Revival Marshall Field Annex in Chicago. The Chicago firm of Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan built the 1889, multi-use Auditorium building with a combination of brick and stone and steel, iron, and timber. At 238 feet and 17 floors, the structure was the largest building of its day, a combined office building, hotel, and performance venue. In fact, Sullivan moved his staff into the tower, along with a young apprentice named Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sullivan seemed bothered that the Auditorium's exterior style, what has been called Chicago Romanesque, did not define the architectural history being made. Louis Sullivan had to go to St. Louis, Missouri to experiment with style. His 1891 Wainwright Building suggested a visual design form to skyscrapers; the idea that exterior form should change with the function of interior space. Form follows function.

Perhaps it was an idea that germinated with the Auditorium's distinct multiple uses; why can't the outside of a building reflect different activities within the building? Sullivan described three functions of tall commercial buildings, retail areas in the lower floors, office space in the extended mid-region, and the top floors were traditionally attic spaces, and each of the three parts should be distinctly obvious from the outside. This is the design idea proposed for the new engineering.

Sullivan defined the "form follows function" tripartite design in the Wainwright Building, but he documented these principles in his 1896 essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.

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1894: The Old Colony Building, Holabird & Roche

Detail of Corner Windows, Old Colony building Designed by Holabird and Roche, Chicago
Photo by Beth Walsh via Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps taking a competitive cue from Root's Rookery oriel stairwell, Holabird and Roche fit all four corners of the Old Colony with oriel windows. The projecting bays, from the third floor upward, not only allowed more light, ventilation, and city views to interior spaces but also provided additional floor space by hanging beyond the lot lines.

" Holabird and Roche specialized in the careful, logical adaptation of structural means to functional ends...."
(Ada Louise Huxtable)

About the Old Colony Building

  • Location: 407 South Dearborn Street, Chicago
  • Completed: 1894
  • Architects: William Holabird and Martin Roche
  • Floors: 17
  • Height: 212 feet (64.54 meters)
  • Construction Materials: Steel frame with structural columns of wrought iron; exterior cladding of Bedford limestone, gray brick, and terra cotta
  • Architectural Style: Chicago School
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1895: The Marquette Building, Holabird & Roche

The Marquette Building, 1895, by Holabird & Roche, Chicago
Photo by Chicago Architecture Today via Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Like the Rookery Building, the steel-framed Marquette Building designed by Holabird and Roche has an open light-well behind its massive façade. Unlike the Rookery, the Marquette has a tripartite façade influenced by Sullivan's Wainwright Building in St. Louis. The three-part design is augmented with what has become known as Chicago windows, three-part windows combining a fixed glass center with operating windows on either side.

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable has called the Marquette a building "which definitively established the supremacy of the supporting structural frame." She says:

" ...Holabird and Roche laid out the fundamental principles of the new commercial construction. They stressed the provision of light and air, and the importance of the quality of public facilities, like lobbies, elevators, and corridors. Above all, there was to be no second-class space, because it cost as much to build and operate as first-class space."

About the Marquette Building

  • Location: 140 South Dearborn Street, Chicago
  • Completed: 1895
  • Architects: William Holabird and Martin Roche
  • Floors: 17
  • Architectural Height: 205 feet (62.48 meters)
  • Construction Materials: Steel frame with Terra Cotta exterior
  • Architectural Style: Chicago School
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1895: Reliance Building, Burnham & Root & Atwood

Chicago School Reliance Building (1895) and Detail of Curtain Wall Windows
Reliance Building Postcard by Stock Montage/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images and photo HABS ILL,16-CHIG,30--3 by Cervin Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Reliance Building is often cited as the maturation of the Chicago School and a prelude to future glass-clad skyscrapers. It was constructed in stages, around tenants with unexpired leases. The Reliance was begun by Burnham and Root but completed by D.H. Burnham & Company with Charles Atwood. Root designed only the first two floors before he died.

Now called the Hotel Burnham, the building was saved and restored in the 1990s.

About the Reliance Building

  • Location: 32 North State Street, Chicago
  • Completed: 1895
  • Architects: Daniel Burnham, Charles B. Atwood, John Wellborn Root
  • Floors: 15
  • Architectural Height: 202 feet (61.47 meters)
  • Construction Materials: Steel frame, terra cotta, and glass curtain wall
  • Architectural Style: Chicago School
" Chicago's great contributions in the 1880's and 90's were the technological achievements of steel-frame construction and related engineering advances, and the handsome visual expression of that new technology. The Chicago Style became one of the strongest aesthetics of modern times. "
(Ada Louise Huxtable)
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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "What is the Chicago School?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/chicago-school-skyscrapers-with-style-178372. Craven, Jackie. (2023, April 5). What is the Chicago School? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/chicago-school-skyscrapers-with-style-178372 Craven, Jackie. "What is the Chicago School?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/chicago-school-skyscrapers-with-style-178372 (accessed June 10, 2023).