Mark Twain wrote in 1883, “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago.” Throughout its almost 200-year lifetime, Chicago’s fascinating and ever-evolving history — shaped by its immigrant communities and the movers and shakers who have made it a world-class city — can be told through the study of the city’s architecture. Skyscrapers dot the city, while visual treasures and hidden secrets lie waiting to be discovered closer to earth. From its rich history of development to the variety of modern examples of incredible buildings that make up its skyline, Chicago serves as an amazing classroom for students of architecture — read on to learn more!
The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city including over 17,000 structures. But from that devastation emerged an architectural rebirth. Over the next decade, some of the world’s greatest architects would rebuild the city, supported by Chicago’s business leaders. Within less than a decade after the fire, the skyline had undergone a complete reimagining. The geographic limitations of the city and new building techniques pushed the city’s skyline up with sleeker and more sophisticated styles. By midcentury, the iconic steel-and-glass masterpieces by architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other visionaries helped coin the term the International Style or “Second Chicago School” of architecture.
Born in Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Chicago in 1887, working closely with mentor Louis Sullivan. Wright’s Prairie-style home and studio are located just 20 minutes away from the city center, and many of his other works can be found within driving distance in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Frank Lloyd Wright said of Chicago, "[modern architecture] all started here..."
You literally cannot miss the skyscrapers of Chicago — these impressive buildings mark the city’s skyline, and many also mark a place in history. For example, the Home Insurance Building was built in 1885 and is known as the world’s first skyscraper! You’ve also probably heard of the Willis Tower (previously known as the Sears Tower), which stands as the third-tallest building in the world. A view from its observation deck on the 103rd floor is a must! But it’s not only skyscrapers that forged the architectural identity of Chicago. Details and features around the city emerged to give it a unique atmosphere. For example, debris from the great fire created the base of Grant Park. Chicago also has more movable bridges than any city in the world, including an engineering wonder, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, one of the city’s foremost thoroughfares.
A vast range of diverse architecture styles can be seen within a fairly compact area of the city center, making the city perfect for visitors who love architecture. The best place to start is a central area known as ”the Loop.” This neighborhood boasts architecture styles ranging from the Beaux-Arts colonnaded cupola of the London Guarantee and Accident Building (now a luxury hotel) to the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower to the Art Deco Chicago Board of Trade Building. Pop into the Chicago Cultural Center to visit the largest Tiffany stained-glass dome in the world. Visit Millennium Park, recipient of the 2009 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, to visit the renowned sculpture Cloud Gate (known popularly as “the Bean”) and see the results of an amazing transformation from industrial wasteland to world-class public park. And visit the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago, with its 300,000-piece permanent collection, and an architectural icon itself — it was originally built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Architecture and sports nuts should also take in a game or a tour at the second-oldest major league baseball park, Wrigley Field, built in 1914 and designed by architect Zachary Taylor Davis, known as Chicago's own “Frank Lloyd Wright of Baseball.” And take some free time to stop in for a tour at the Chicago Athletic Association, an 1890s Gothic building that once housed an exclusive sportsmen's club and is now a boutique hotel with a sports theme.
A great way to view Chicago’s architecture is during a learning adventure to the city with Road Scholar. Whether you enroll in a program specifically designed around architecture, like this one on Frank Lloyd Wright, or embark on an overall city experience, there will be plenty of amazing architecture to marvel at along the way!
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