If you looked up “skyscraper” in the dictionary during the late 1800s, you would have likely found a reference to the towering buildings of Chicago. There seemed to be no better word—or city—for these exciting new buildings that stretched to the sky.
Chicago Skyscraper History
The first Chicago Skyscraper and in fact the world’s first skyscraper was erected in Chicago in 1884. Ten stories high, the Home Insurance Building used a steel frame as its support system – an innovation that became known as the “Chicago skeleton.” This advance allowed architects to build bigger and taller. The sky literally became the limit. Although the first skyscraper is no more – it was demolished in 1931 – it’s still possible to see the evolution of skyscrapers in Chicago.
Start your tour of skyscraper history at the Monadnock (53 W. Jackson). The Monadnock (a word meaning “freestanding mountain surrounded by plain”) consists of two halves – a northern half (1891, Burnham & Root), and a southern half (1893, Holabird & Roche). The northern half was built using load-bearing wall construction, making it the last Chicago skyscraper built without a steel skeleton and the tallest masonry commercial building in the world. In order to support its extraordinary weight, the walls at the base are six feet thick. The southern half of the Monadnock was built with steel frame construction. Its two distinct halves make the Monadnock a historically significant building—the transition from one era of technology to another is documented in a single building.
The Reliance Building
With its wide, expansive windows, the Reliance Building (20 N. State) foreshadowed the look of modern all-glass skyscrapers. Originally designed by Burnham and Root in 1891 and finished after Root’s death by Charles B. Atwood it was completed in 1895. The skyscraper gets its light, creamy color from its terra cotta cladding, which, combined with its dual flat and projecting bay windows—known as “Chicago windows”—create a delicate, airy façade.
Art Deco Skyscrapers
Chicago is home to several wonderful Art Deco skyscrapers, including the Board of Trade (141 W. Jackson) and the Carbide and Carbon Building (230 N. Michigan). Both feature classic Art Deco styling and are designed with setbacks—the tallest parts are off street level, allowing more sunlight into the street.
The Board of Trade
The Chicago Board of Trade (1930, Holabird & Root) owes much of its striking look to its topper, a 31-foot aluminum statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
Carbide and Carbon Building
With its dark green terra cotta cladding and gold detailing, legend has it the Carbide and Carbon Building (1929, Daniel and Hubert Burnham) was designed to look like a champagne bottle.
Inland Steel Building
The Inland Steel Building (30 W. Monroe) was Chicago’s first skyscraper after World War II, and is very much ahead of its time. Finished in 1957 and designed by Walter Netsch and Bruce Graham, it defies its age with stainless steel cladding (a nod to its landlord, Inland Steel) and green-tinted glass windows – people often, in fact, think it was recently built.
Located on the north bank of the Chicago River, the iconic Marina City towers (300 N. State) are referred to around town as the “corncob buildings.” These two towers—known for their cylindrical design and petal-shaped balconies—are part of a mixed-use complex of buildings designed by Bertrand Goldberg and completed in 1964. At that time they were the tallest reinforced concrete structures and the tallest residential buildings in the world. Intended to draw people back to downtown Chicago with the conveniences of a city-within-a-city, Marina City is credited with kick-starting the American downtown renaissance.
Willis Tower (Sears Tower) and John Hancock Center
The modern powerhouses Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower, 233 S. Wacker) and John Hancock Center (875 N. Michigan) share many similarities. They were both built around the same time – 1974 and 1970, respectively – and by the same engineer, Fazlur Kahn. Both the Willis Tower and John hancock Center are made of black steel and glass, and are even topped with nearly identical white antennas.
They both feature observatories with breathtaking views (Willis Tower even offers The Ledge, an all-glass observatory for the strong-stomached). But both buildings are uniquely different. At 1,451 feet, Willis Tower is the tallest building in the Western hemisphere (it was the tallest in the world from 1974 until 1998.) The Hancock—Chicago’s fourth tallest—derives its unmistakable look from its X-bracing exterior, which serves double duty as the building’s chief esthetic feature and as its support spine. The John Hancock Center has won several awards for its distinctive style, and is considered an architectural icon.
Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago
End your tour of Chicago skyscrapers with a visit to one of its newest – the Trump Tower, currently the city’s second tallest building.
Designed by Adrian Smith and completed in 2009, the Trump is a sleek, modern glass-and-steel masterpiece – one of many that are sure to follow in this city of skyscrapers. Three setbacks each match the height of one or more nearby structures integrating the tall building with the neighborhood. One way to experience the Trump Tower is to visit the terrace lounge on the sixteenth floor.
Next: Willis Tower (Sears Tower)
by Marla Caceres