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Early Chicago Skyscrapers

Date of Submission: 12/04/2017
Criteria: (i)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
United States Department of the Interior
State, Province or Region:
Ref.: 6235

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


This is a serial proposal of 9 primarily commercial buildings in Chicago’s central business district, the “Loop.”  The buildings, built over a period of about 20 years starting in the 1880s, exemplify the first generation of “skyscrapers.” Making use of new technologies of the time, particularly internal metal structural systems instead of load-bearing masonry walls, they were able to rise to heights of near 20 stories with large plate-glass windows, the first elevators (lifts) to reach the high floors, and electric lights to make interior spaces usable.  The architects active in designing these buildings, including Louis H. Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Charles Atwood and Martin Roche, simultaneously developed a new aesthetic for the building exteriors suited to this new form, consisting of a vertical, tripartite form derived from classical columns and expresing the internal structure and functions of the buildings.

The buildings are:

Auditorium Building                                        16TN  448139  4636208

Second Leiter Building                                     16TN  447952  4636279

Marquette Building                                          16TN  447752  4636621

Rookery Building                                            16TN  447571  4636545

Monadnock Building                                       16TN  447761  4636420

Old Colony Building                                        16TN  447808  4636280

Fisher Building                                                16TN  447818  4636325

Schlesinger & Mayer Building                         16TN  447950  4636824
[later Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department store]                   

Ludington Building                                          16TN  448020  4635421

A small number of additional buildings may also be considered for the series in the course of developing a nomination dossier.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

This group of buildings includes very early, technically innovative, and architecturally expressive examples of a new typology of construction, the modern tall buildings, or “skyscraper.”  The form’s emergence in significant numbers in Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th century was spurred by a fortuitous convergence of the availability of new materials and technologies, rapid urban growth, and the opportunity to rebuild Chicago’s downtown following the Great Fire of 1871.  The form and style that emerged in these buildings, known initially as the Commercial Style and later as the Chicago Style, or the Chicago School of Architecture, exhibit an exceptional synthesis of technical and design inventiveness, a decisive innovation in modern architecture that has forever changed the form of commercial buildings and the cities they make up.  The concentration of a large number of these buildings in the Loop, the result of an intense period of construction, illustrates the first emergence of the 20th-century city, with a city center quite novel in form and scale.  The buildings that remain from this period form an important group unified by location, time and innovators and also make Chicago distinct, in the coherence in this form, from other American cities of the same period that are home to some individually important buildings of this type.

Criterion (i):  These pioneering Chicago commercial and office skyscrapers demonstrate the rapid and successful application of new technologies – especially steel fabrication and construction – to achieve unprecedented height, efficiency of construction and use in urban architecture, and show a remarkable integration of art and technology.  Replacing brick and stone structures with iron and steel posed a suite of new problems, especially fire resistance and wind bracing.  These were solved with brilliant engineering solutions such as the rigid frame, cutting-edge contruction techniques such as riveted connections, innovations in foundations, and terra cotta fireproofing.  As these problems were being solved by engineers and builders, architects found inspiration in the new proportions and forms suggested by narrow steel columns and beams, leading to dramatically new building forms through an approach that sought architectural beauty in the discipline and rigor of engineering and construction efficiencies.  In the hands of creative designers such as Louis H. Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Martin Roche and Charles Atwood, the first modern skyscrapers in Chicago emerged as a novel engineering and architectural form. 

Criterion (iv):  Chicago’s pioneering tall buildings from the turn of the 20th century form an outstanding architectural and technological ensemble of artifacts of the “second industrial revolution,” which saw new production techniques, engineering methods, and power sources combine to create new functional types in many fields.  The new form of the skyscraper exemplifies a significant stage in human history, when rising urban economic values and increases in the scale of land use and development converged with the development of the technique of skeletal structural framing, the concurrent perfection of elevators and technologies such as electric lights, plumbing and heating.  These factors made tall buildings both practical and possible.  

This genuinely new architectural form was fostered by the particular challenges faced by commercial developers and architects working in Chicago’s Loop in the late 19th century, where soil conditions, geographic constraints both natural and manmade, and a highly active real estate market came together.  As land values increased in downtown Chicago in the 1870s and 1880s, natural and man-made barriers discouraged the outward spread of the city’s downtown and encouraged greater density.  At the same time, the abundant construction in Chicago in the wake of the Great Fire of 1871 had attracted many architects and engineers to the city.  Since the new commercial building types had no aesthetic antecedents, new compositional forms were accepted and became established.  The success and practicality of such buildings led to the metropolises of the 20th century with vertical downtowns.  

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The buildings comprising the series were chosen, in part, to include those whose innovative features have been well preserved on an individual basis.   The other basis for the selection of components for the series was to include buildings that demonstrate a full range of the technical advances critical to the creation of the skyscraper, as well as the most original exteriors fashioned to complement the new building type. The result is a series that shows the best and earliest examples of each phase of technical and aesthetic development of the form.  Buildings constructed later, when the new form was well established, those that have lost integrity of critical structural material, or those whose exteriors do not as clearly express their structural basis, have not been included.  To be entirely complete, the full series should ideally include the Reliance Building and the Manhattan Building as well, and if circumstances permit, these may be added to either an initial nomination or nominated as an extension.   The setting of the buildings, which are found throughout Chicago’s Loop, reflects the enormous success of the new form; the Loop has continued to develop with a variety of building types, many showcasing a variety of important architecture of the later 20th and 21st centuries, and many much taller than the first generation skyscrapers of 20 stories or less.  City planning controls, including historic districts, zoning and viewshed protection, ensure that this vibrant mixture stays in balance.

The attributes of authenticity applicable to this series are location, evidence of technical innovation in materials and form, interior spaces that reflect original function, and design and workmanship of both structural and exterior elements, including both windows and decorative elements.  The buildings in the series are all in their original locations.  They preserve clear evidence of the structural innovations that enabled their construction, though of course electrical and elevator systems have been modernized.  Most of the buildings remain in their original commercial or mixed uses.  Some, such as the Old Colony Building and Fisher Buildings, are now in residential use, and the Second Leiter Building is now in educational use; however federal and local legal controls ensured that any changes made for these purposes preserved the essential character and features of the buildings.  All the buildings retain original exterior features.  In the relatively minor instances where features have been repaired or replaced, work has been based on thorough research, and reviewed and approved by qualified professionals at local, state, and federal levels of government.

Comparison with other similar properties

The structural innovations in early skyscrapers have technical antecedents beyond the United States.  Particularly in Europe, iron and steel structures such as the Iron Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Crystal Palace, and a number of industrial structures explored the possibilities of these materials.  The Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus in Germany is a recently inscribed group of warehouse structures that is contemporary with this proposal.  In general, however, these examples were created for special purposes or located in industrial sectors.  The buildings of the Chicago School capitalized on newly available technologies to create specifically vertical forms, specifically to enable concentrated commercial activity in the central district of a city.  The designers working in Chicago clothed their new skyscrapers using an elegant decorative language suitable for the central district of a rising city, emphasizing that it was the equal of any.

Although examples of this type of tall commercial building were also built in other cities in the United States in the late 19th century, particularly in New York (such as the Flatiron Building), and individually important buildings, such as the Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings, are found in other cities (St. Louis and Buffalo, respectively), Chicago’s compact downtown was where opportunities for investment, local land-use pressures, and economic values combined to encourage the architectural and technological advances that can be clearly seen in a significant cluster of such tall buildings.  From early “elevator buildings” of bearing masonry to riveted steel frames, Chicago’s Loop is a living museum of early skyscraper design and technology.