Sandy Felsenthal/Corbis
Amy Tara Koch
August 12, 2014

After the Great Fire of 1871 ravaged most of Chicago’s antiquity, the Windy City’s raw skyline became an open invitiation to the country’s most progressive architects. Everyone from Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, John Root, and Dankmar Adler came to reimagine this major metropolis. The “Chicago School” began to regenerate the city from its ashes, first with ornate, neoclassical buildings that echoed Euroepan Beaux Arts structures. As the design boom continued, Chicago started looking up. Literally. The Home Insurance Building, the world’s first skyscraper, was built in Chicago, and its arrival initiated an entirely new urban vernacular that emphasized industrial materials and minimalism. Visionaries like Mies Van Der Rohe flocked to the City of Broad Shoulders to partake in what was seen as the birth of modern architecture. Today, contemporary architects continue to embelish Chicago’s bold façade: instead of compulsively utilizing brick and stone to build a fire-resistant city, they have turned to the lakefront and now iconic horizon for inspiration. Whether you’re touring the city by foot or by bike, be sure to stop at a base of these prominent Chicago properties—and look up.

Sullivan Center

Louis Sullivan is often deemed the most important pioneer in American commercial architecture, and this historic city center is one of his capstones. Formerly the Carson Pirie Scott building, it’s iron and steel framework and mixed-use interior, makes this building (erected in 1899) a near-perfect example of the architect’s “form follows function” concept. The intricate lace-like ironwork exterior is a hallmark of Sullivan’s decorative style.

860 and 880 LSD

Known for statements like “less is more” and “God is in the details,” the minimalist residential buildings at 860 and 880 LSD are exemplary industrial steel and plate-glass structures that define the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s commitment to expressing the spirit of  the modern era. These adjacent towers influenced archietects around to produce more stripped-down, streamlined structures. 

The Rookery Building Daniel Burnham + John Root

Tucked deep in the financial district is a stunning example of one of America’s first commercial skyscrapers. Here, architects Daniel Burnham and John Root introduced innovations like elevators, metal framing, and the spiraling Oriel Staircase that opens dramatically into the light court. Erected in 1886, this eleven story structure is Chicago’s oldest-standing highrise.

Frederick C Robie House

This Hyde Park home ushered in the Prairie School and changed the face of modern architecture. Uniquely American, the design by Frank Lloyd Wright features sleek horizontal lines, a low-pitched roof, and wide open living areas to express freedom and the expansive plains of the Midwest. Art glass windows within the house became the architect’s signature.

Wrigley Building

Often referred to as “Chicago’s Big Ben,” this gleaming white terra cotta “wedding cake” became the city’s first landmark skyscraper north of the Chicago River. Since 1921, the building—designed by Charles Beersman—has been floodlighted at night to emphasize its architectural role as a beacon to Chicago. The clock tower is inspired by Giralda Tower in Sevilla, Spain.

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