Chicago Architecture

As cities grow, they naturally carry forward the design and look of the past. Those new constructions develop alongside the work that existed before, a contrast or complement in design. While not entirely unique in American history due to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane, Chicago’s tragic fire in 1871 allowed architects and city planners to review how they wanted the city to look when they were finished. While the Chicago Water Tower may have been one of the few buildings that survived the fire, little else downtown did. This sad ruin and disaster had the secondary result of feeding into a flurry of construction and pioneering designs that would go on to shape the Chicago skyline we know and love today. While you’re visiting Chicago, you’ll certainly want to take in the architectural wonders that the city has to offer by visiting, where appropriate, getting in plenty of snaps, and uncovering the history of the key structures downtown.

Like the city’s famous beaches, preservations have worked tirelessly to protect these unique Chicago landmarks. Historic buildings, in particular those hosting floundering businesses, have been threatened with demolition to make way for newer constructions. While there have been several losses and exciting new designs are finding a home in the city, there’s plenty of history to visit, including structures that survived the fire.

Neo-classical architecture became popular in the wake of Chicago’s hosting of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, but the city has developed a style all its own. The Chicago School of architecture in the 1880’s and the Second Chicago School in the 1960’s each contributed to the innovative designs found in the city’s skyscrapers. The city competed with New York at times to be home for the country’s tallest structure, in 1974 the Willis Tower (also known as the Sears Tower), took the crown and held onto it until the completion of the One World Trade Center in New York City.

Chicago’s fascinating design isn’t limited to skyscrapers, of course. The homes that dot suburban Chicago and the churches, stores, and museums that make up the downtown are all a part of the city’s architectural tapestry. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more Midwestern city than the Windy City, and the houses and townhouses that make up every day life speak volumes regarding what constitutes a comfortable, four season lifestyle on the lake.

  • Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House: Architectural students will consider this house essential to visit as one of the greatest examples of the Prairie School design.
  • Chicago Cultural Center: One high point of a visit will include the Tiffany glass dome in the Preston Bradley Hall, but there are many incredible features to see.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio: Designed by the famed architect when he was only 22, the attached studio saw the design of many notable Wright structures.
  • Chicago City Hall: Despite being over a hundred years old, this classic revival style City Hall features a green roof with bee hives.
  • Old St. Patrick’s Church: This survivor of the Great Chicago Fire includes a unique pair of ornate spires symbolizing the Eastern and Western Church.
  • Newberry Library: With 1.5 million books and 500,000 maps, this free research library was designed by Henry Ives Cobb and opened in 1887.
  • Tribune Tower: Completed in 1925, the skyscraper may be considered the last example of “American Perpendicular Style” and features neo-Gothic buttresses and sculptures.
  • Chicago Water Tower: One of the few structures spared by the Great Chicago Fire, it’s the second oldest water tower in the country.
  • Orchestra Hall: Designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham and built in 1904, the hall was designed specifically with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in mind.
  • Harold Washington Library: The red brick postmodern Chicago library with its glass, steel, and aluminum pediment design boasts of a rooftop garden penthouse.
  • James R. Thompson Center: The round, hollow-centered state government center includes a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet and is renowned for its massive art collection.
  • Marina City: This mixed-use complex on State Street built between 1964 and 1968 includes 2 towers, high-speed elevators, and apartments without right angles.
  • Chicago Board of Trade Building: Built in 1930, this former board of trade building is notable for its art deco style and frequent use as a background in movies.
  • Richard J. Daley Center: Featured in “The Blues Brothers “ and “The Dark Knight,” the Center features an enormous Pablo Picasso sculpture you can’t miss.
  • Aon Center: At 83 floors, the former Standard Oil Building is slated to have an observatory and thrill ride in the future.
  • Rookery Building: The oldest remaining high-rise in Chicago built in 1891, its lobby was remodeled by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905.