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Architecture in Chicago, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin Dells, Madison

Things to do / Travel Guide

The architecture of Chicago and southern Wisconsin changed the way the world saw buildings, both residential, like houses and churches, and downtown, like skyscrapers and commercial buildings. The phenomena of Chicago has been famous ever since the fire of 1871; but even in the smaller cities like Madison, old masters like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, and new masters like Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava, have still been knee-deep in the trade.

When Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan were the architects that built your city, you know you're going to stand out. But of course it wasn't only due to these two. Chicago has nurtured many crops of architects, and the innovations of these are felt on every block in each of the region's major cities.

Chicago is proud of its edifices, and you can tell: For every major architectural (and historical) location, there's a marker explaining who, what, when, where, and why. Take your own self-guided tour.

Chicago Architecture - Pre-Sullivan

A word of introduction: Why does Chicago boast such great architecture? There's no one reason, but a lot can be attributed to the Great Fire in 1871. Chicago was a bustling city before the fire, and the fire provided the impetus for a fresh start. Just imagine - you're a young city with an overflowing amount of zeal and energy, and you get the chance to completely start over. You jump at the opportunity.

One thing Chicago is known for aside from skyscrapers is its residential neighborhoods. Some of the greatest U.S. architects built houses in the city. One such neighborhood is the Prairie Avenue District, in Near South Side, which has absorbed other buildings from nearby neighborhoods. Prairie Avenue was known as one of the most fashionable addresses in the late 19th century, but pollution starting in the 1880s sent many of its residents packing to the Gold Coast.
Many of the fantastic houses, built as French Renaissance-style chateaus, were torn down in the 1950s, but some mansions remain. Among these, two stand out and have been given landmark status in their own right:
  • Clarke House is one of Chicago's oldest buildings, built in the 1830s. It had been built on South Wabash, and while it survived the Fire, it was nearly destroyed during Prairie Avenue's lowest ebb. In the 1970s it was moved to its present location, on Indiana Avenue. The house is an excellent representation of the Greek Revival style, with its stately columns and porch, large front-façade windows, and gable roof.
  • Glessner House is the only remaining building designed by renowned architect H.H. Richardson, and this is a fascinating example of his hallmark Romanesque Revival style. The façade is of grey granite, and there are traces in the design of castles and farmhouses. The house was built in the 1880s, at the twilight of Prairie Avenue's eminence.
The Chicago Cultural Center was originally constructed in 1897 as the Chicago Public Library by the Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge architectural firm. A great showcase of beaux-arts style of architecture with long columns reminiscent of buildings in France, it was used to house over 8,000 books sent over by Great Britain after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Chicago Architecture - Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan is the architect credited with coining the motto “form follows function,” and his principle contribution is in his expressive interpretation of what the modern skyscraper's potential. He was active in the latter decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.

The Auditorium Building was built in 1889 by Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Set mostly in granite and limestone, the acoustics in the theater are amazing. Sullivan went wild in the interior, and many of the flower designs on cornices and columns are his. The building is now used mostly by Roosevelt University. It's located in a prominent position right off Grant Park, in a straight line with Buckingham Fountain, on South Michigan Avenue.

Chicago Architecture - Early Skyscrapers

You will not leave disappointed! A visit to the Loop is like a panoramic class picture of some of the greatest, most jaw-dropping ‘scrapers in the world. A walk up and down the streets, especially West Jackson Boulevard, South Michigan Boulevard, Wacker Drive, and North Michigan Avenue (the Magnificent Mile, across the river), will showcase these wonders of modern architecture and confirm Chicago as, indeed, one of the world's ultimate skyscraper capitals. In fact, the modern skyscraper was invented in Chicago, with the Home Insurance Buiding, built in 1885 but since demolished.

The skyscraper was made possible in the late 19th century on account of the invention of the steel framework, which could carry upward much more weight than traditional building designs, in which the walls bore the load of the building. Chicago architects, such as William LeBaron Jenney, Louis Sullivan, and Charles Atwood, were instrumental in making this advance in building technology. Land was always scarce in Chicago's Loop, so developers were always looking for ways to increase office and commercial space - the natural solution was to build up when you had run out of room building out. Chicago's Great Fire literally provided the grounds to try new building techniques.

One benefit the young skyscraper-builders quickly found was that they could now discard the heavy outside walls previously used for large buildings, as the steel supported the weight. Thanks to their innovation, the modern look of the skyscraper is largely typified by large plate glass windows making up the façade. Thus, the first truly modern-looking skyscraper is in Chicago; this is the Reliance Building, finished in 1895, and located in the Loop. For your convenience, the building today houses the Hotel Burnham, an acclaimed luxury hotel.

Chicago's early skyscrapers are characterized by their use of Gothic and Art Deco motifs, often in an original way. Now architects could experiment in building styles to take advantage of the new heights they were permitted by technology. Here are some significant pre-1940 skyscrapers in Chicago:
  • The Monadnock Building (West Jackson Boulevard) - Built in 1893, this was the last tall building in Chicago not built around a steel frame, and the tallest masonry load bearing-wall structure in the world. It's 17 floors tall. The walls taper in at the bottom, but at the building's base, they are six feet thick!
  • The Carson, Pirie, Scott, and Company Building - This one, built in 1899 by Louis Sullivan, was an astounding (for the period) 12 stories. This early skyscraper's ornament pulls the viewers sight ever-upward. It's on State and Madison.
  • Wrigley Building (bottom of North Michigan Avenue) - This building was built in 1922 by none other than the owner of the Wrigley chewing gum empire, William Wrigley Jr., to be his company's headquarters. It rises 27 floors, and is styled to be reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral.
  • The Tribune Tower (North Michigan Avenue) - The Chicago Tribune held a competition for the “most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world.” Its height has since been eclipsed several times over, but in terms of design, it's undoubtedly a sight to behold. Built in the neo-Gothic style in 1922, similarly to New York's Woolworth Building. In the lower levels of the building stones are embedded taken from famous buildings from all over the world.
  • Chicago Board of Trade (West Jackson Boulevard) - This Art-Deco masterpiece, featured in the 2005 film “Batman Begins,” was built in 1930. At 44 floors, the best way to witness the grandeur is from South LaSalle Street.
  • Merchandise Mart (viewable from Wacker Drive) - Is this Art Deco beauty, one of the largest commercial buildings in the world, really a skyscraper? Built in 1930 at 25 floors, it was never one of the tallest - but the design is just so massive, we had to include it in the list. It even has its own zip code!
  • LaSalle Bank Building (formerly Field Building, South LaSalle Street) - Built in a sparse Art-Deco style, this skyscraper's relative simplicity reflects the year in which it was built: 1934, the depths of the Great Depression. It was the last skyscraper built in the city for 20 years, until several years after the conclusion of World War II.

Chicago Architecture - The Post-War Skyscrapers

Starting in the 1950s, Chicago's skyscrapers took on a much simpler, International-style look, which accentuated the sleek, and allowed them to bask in the sunlight. These bad boys are aesthetic in their simplicity - they acknowledge that they've been built for height alone, and they don't need any other frills to distract you from this one truth.
  • The first skyscraper built after the World War II lull was One Prudential Plaza, finished in 1955. It sits at Millennium Park at 601 feet - a wide, slender box. Just next door to One is Two Prudential Plaza, built in 1990 at 995 feet. Its design is much sleeker, peaking in a multi-faced pyramid.
  • The Aon Center is an international-style skyscraper built in 1972, and at 1,136 feet, its second only to the Sears Tower in height. It's right next to Prudential Plaza. Of all the modern Chicago super-skyscrapers, it's the most stark, a huge rectangular prism.
  • The John Hancock Center, nicknamed Big John, is one of Chicago's most notable, and recognizable high rises. Built in 1969, its form is structural impressionist style. The X-bracing on its four faces increases its strength, and has made it a cultural icon on the Chicago skyline. The building stands at 1,127 feet tall, hosts 700 condominium, the highest indoor pool, and a skydeck at 1,030 feet. It's not in the Loop, rather at the top of the Magnificent Mile.
  • Standing at 1454 feet tall, the Sears Tower is Chicago's tallest building, and the world's third-tallest. Completed in 1974, the Sears Tower boasts two amazing sky decks with a view of over 40 miles, and four states. The first deck is on the 103rd floor standing at 1,353 feet in the air, but if this sky deck is closed, the second is on the 99th floor. You can't miss it on West Adams Street.
  • Breaking standard tradition of box-like shapes, Bertrand Goldberg designed Marina City, which was built in 1964. The corncob-looking towers were designed to entice Chicago residents from moving to the suburbs. With its unusual circular shape, the identical towers span 61 floors in height and its apartments are triangular in shape, so every apartment has a balcony.
  • William E. Petersen utilized the strange triangular site from the curve in the Chicago River, when he built 333 Wacker Drive, which was completed in 1983. If you watch the mirrored glass windows, you'll see a kaleidoscope of shapes, and colors coming from the sky, and water. It's one of the most famous glass-façade skyscrapers in the world.
  • In the past 25 years the skyscrapers going up have returned to a more classical look, as exemplified by 1990's 311 South Wacker Drive and 2000's Park Tower. The former reaches a height of 961 feet.

Chicago Architecture to the Present

Obviously, modern architecture flourishes in this city in more than just the form of the skyscraper. Some of the greatest architects of our day have contributed to the steel and concrete playground that is Chicago.

International style is powerfully reflected in the suburban Chicago area and was made famous by architect Ludwig Mies von der Rohe. He is responsible for the design behind the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Bronzeville, where he was given free reign to design and built in the 1930s and 40s; and 860-880 Lake Shore Drive. The apartments on Lake Shore Drive were dubbed “glass house apartments” by residents because the pair of buildings consisted mostly of glass and steel in its esthetics.

The Master himself, Frank Gehry, is the mind behind Millennium Park, a new civic center located in a renovated portion of Grant Park, with a great view of Lake Michigan. The park includes the Pritkzer Pavilion, which hosts a 4,000 seat auditorium, and 7,000 lawn chair seats; and Cloud Gate - a three story 110-ton steel sculpture that has been affectionately, and famously, dubbed “the bean.”

Chicago Architecture - Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright has been called the greatest and most well-known American architect of the 20th century. His fancifully-shaped domiciles have forever influenced the American suburban landscape, especially from his early years forming and advocating the Prairie School look. Over 300 original Frank Lloyd Wright buildings still exist, 100 of them in Chicago and another 45 in all of Wisconsin. Whole districts are famous for their Frank Lloyd Wright offerings.

The Prairie School was Frank Lloyd Wright's envisioning of a residential, democratic, and sound America. The ideas might seem quaint today, but his architectural philosophy still resonates. Prairie style is punctuated by an abundance of horizontal lines and geometric designs; there's also an emphasis on sound craftsmanship. While the entrance is often hidden from pedestrians and commuters, the many windows allow those inside ample light and opportunities to look outward. Wright was known for manipulating spaces and creating open floor plans. In these the style was conceived as similar to Louis Sullivan's motto that form must always follow function.

Frank Lloyd Wright lived in Chicago, and the city is where he primarily developed his architectural style; therefore, a good way to tour the city is to trace his development, from the more traditional works early on to his most daring and influential later offerings. Here's a selection of the best Frank Lloyd Wright Chicago has to offer:
  • Roloson Houses - These are Frank Lloyd Wright's only rowhouses, and built in 1891, they are strikingly modern with their large window space and steep triangular façades.
  • Heller House - This 1897 offering perfectly conveys Frank Lloyd Wright conviction that geometric ornament should replace the traditional means of embellishment. It's in Washington Park.
  • Foster House and Stable - This Japanese-style house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1900 in West Pullman. It shows the architect making the transition from more traditional styles to his Prairie School style.
  • Robie House - This 1909 residence, in Washington Park, is the culmination of Frank Lloyd Wright's development. It's acclaimed as his masterpiece in the city, with its low roof and overhanging eaves.
  • Bach House - This 1915 example is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's last single-family urban residences. In a change from the long horizontal roof, this house is as tall as it is wide; nevertheless it brims with rectangles and parallel lines. It's in Rogers Park.
Some of these are private and some are public. Many, but not all, of the private ones can be toured by appointment. The problem is that many change status, whether private/public or tour-able/not tour-able; so you might have to do some research beforehand.

Oak Park Architecture - Frank Lloyd Wright

In 1889, Frank Lloyd Wright moved his family to Oak Park, just west of Chicago, and opened up his architecture practice. He would live in this suburb until 1913, and while there, he built 25 houses or otherwise - Oak Park therefore claims more Frank Lloyd Wright originals than anywhere else in the world.

In Oak Park you'll see the architect's development from the traditional to the purely Prairie School. Check out the Gale House and the Parker House, both built in 1892, and admire his geometric interpretation of the conventional Queen Anne-style house. Then move on to the George Furbeck House and Rollin Furbeck House, where Frank Lloyd Wright truly moves away from the traditional to produce original geometric pieces.

If your friend asks you what the earliest Prairie Style house is in Oak Park, you can have this answer handy: The Thomas House, from 1901, that earth-hugging, all-stucco house, with the arched entrance and the L-shaped floor plan.

A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, not a house, is Oak Park's Unity Temple. This cubist representation of the church was sensational when it was built in 1905, and its means of construction were also fresh: Reinforced concrete was poured into wooden forms. It was in the design of this temple that Frank Lloyd Wright experienced the revelation that a building's heart is in its inner space, not in the walls enclosing the space.

Southern Wisconsin Architecture - Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright

Don't think that Sullivan's and Frank Lloyd Wright's activity in the region is limited to just Chicago. Sullivan in his later career designed primarily banks, and one such example is the Farmers' and Merchants' Union Bank, built in 1919 in Columbus, Wisconsin. This square red-brick building bears the Sullivan signature in the form of the terracotta trim and high-placed windows. It's a beauty of a building.

Traveling up the coast reveals a treasure trove of beauties by Wright starting in Racine, where you'll see the S. C. Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower. He's known for two churches in the area: the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, near Milwaukee, and the Unitarian Church in Shorewood Hills, right outside Madison. The former of these was one of Frank Lloyd Wright's last buildings, finished in 1961; it's in the shape of a flying saucer, with a turquoise-shell hull. The latter is according has the recurring theme of a triangle, expressing a unity that he thought a traditional steeple couldn't convey.

Six decades of petitioning finally got Frank Lloyd Wright's dream realized. The Monona Terrace was first proposed for Madison's isthmus in the 1930s, but it was only constructed in the 1990s, fully 30 years after the master craftsman's death. With its large floor plans and flat roof, it gives way to beautiful views of the city of Madison.

Southern Wisconsin Architecture to the Present

The Golden Rondelle Theater is a globe-shaped dome on the south side of Racine. First unveiled at the New York World's Fair in 1964, it features 90-foot columns arching over the top. Soon after the fair it was brought to Racine, and redesigned to compliment the Frank Lloyd Wright's S.C. Johnson Administration Building.

Milwaukee's City Hall is one of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, and once stood as the nation's third-tallest. The German Renaissance-design building, famously featured in the hit television show “Laverne and Shirley,” was built by Henry Koch. The Pabst Mansion was completed in 1893, for the family of Captain Fredrick Pabst. The Flemish Renaissance mansion was designed by George Bowman Ferry, and later housed the Archbishops of Milwaukee.

The latest arrival to Milwaukee's architectural scene was the U.S. debut of Santiago Calatrava. His design of the Quadracci Pavilion for the Milwaukee Art Museum was unveiled in 2001, and it includes a “brise soleil” or a moving sunscreen that fans out like the wings of a bird.

The Wisconsin State Capitol Building, in Madison, is a sight to be seen. It's the second largest capitol building in the country, next to the United States Capitol Building in Washington D.C., which it resembles. However, Wisconsin's state capitol building is greater in volume. Tours are available, with the chance to see government in action. The state building also has an observation deck, great for seeing the city of Madison as a whole.

Chicago Bridges and Buckingham Fountain

Chicago has 37 movable bridges, most of which are built in the bascule trunnion fashion; this type of bridge features a large weight at a pivot point that counterbalances the bridge leaf, allowing the bridge to open and close more effortlessly. A stunning view for office workers is to look from their windows along Wacker Drive on either side of the Chicago River at the array of skyscrapers and fantastic buildings, and bridges criss-crossing the water.

The Michigan Avenue Bridge is Chicago's most notable bascule trunnion bridge. This bridge was built in the beaux-arts style in 1920 by Edward Bennett. The bridge house's exterior, i.e. the legs of the bridge, was completed in 1928 by sculptors J.E. Fraser and Henry Hering, who created scenes from Chicago's history in bas relief. Illustrated are “The Discovers,” which documents the arrival of Louis Jolliet and Father Marquette; “The Pioneers,” featuring early settlers like John Kinzie; “Defense,” which controversially illustrates the Fort Dearborn Massacre; and “Regeneration,” celebrating Chicago's amazing recovery from the tragic 1871 fire.

The fountain featured in the opening credits of Chicago-based TV show “Married… with Children” was NOT a stage prop: It's Buckingham Fountain, located in Grant Park. It's been flowing since 1927, every day from April through October, from 8 in the morning until 11 at night. One of the largest such fountains in the world, it's designed in the Beaux-Arts style. There are four Classical statues in the fount, each representing another state bordered by Lake Michigan - Michigan, of course, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.