Chicago Skyline

The architecture of Chicago is engrained in both its culture and its history. 

There have been many great architects who have designed and contributed to the city including William Le Baron Jenney, Louis Sullivan, Fazlur Rahman Khan, and perhaps one of the most famous: Frank Lloyd Wright . These architects not only (literally) shaped the architectural history of Chicago, but also the history of America.

Architecture & City Tour

On my third visit to Chicago, I took a free city and architecture tour during my stay at Hostelling International Chicago, where I learned about the history of the city and how the city’s architecture plays a huge role in its culture.

After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, there was a great urge for Chicago to be rebuilt quickly (and it was later named ‘The Great Rebuilding’). The fire contributed to the loss of 300 lives, 17,000 buildings, and left over 10,000 people homeless. The aftermath of the fire resulted in numerous architects being drawn to the city to help with the rebuilding process and thus modern architecture was born.Building codes were created, ideas were thought out, and Chicago became home to the first steel skyscraper.

Due to the fact that the Home Insurance Building (which was the oldest skyscraper in the world) is no longer standing, my free walking tour tour took us to The Manhattan Building (1888) which is now the world’s oldest (and possibly shortest) skyscraper.

Manhattan Building Chicago

My tour continued by taking us to the front of the stunning Harold Washington Library (1991), which was named after the first African-American mayor of the city.

My favorite part of the Harold Washington Library was seeing the owls perched on the exterior corners of the building peering down at the onlookers below.

Harold Washington Library

Located in the very heart of the city and very near to both the Library and the Manhattan Building stands a very unique structure: The Metropolitan Correctional Center.

From outward appearances, you would have no idea that the correctional center (pictured below) houses inmates and people awaiting trial. In fact, I actually thought that it looked a lot like a recently-built art museum, when in fact it is a building that was created in 1975 by forward-thinking architect Harry Weiss. If the name of the building sounds familiar to you, it might be because there was a (briefly) successful inmate escape in 2012 (cue music from Prison Break).

Metropolitan Correctional Center Chicago

The tour continued by brining us to the Marquette Building, which was designed by architects Holabird & Roche in 1895.

The Marquette Building is now a National Historic Landmark and draws many tourists and architects alike to see its magnificent and ornate interior, its large Chicago windows, and its terra cotta exterior.

Marquette Building Chicago

Frank Lloyd Wright

A discussion of architecture prompts me to speak about one of the most innovative architectural geniuses of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright did not simply regard buildings as just being structures, but places that provided shelter to those who inhabited their spaces.

Inspired by nature, Wright was very intentional in his designs and the purposes for which the buildings he created would be used. He created numerous homes and several public buildings such as the famous Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Florida Southern College, and the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium.

In 1991, Frank was named the ‘Greatest American Architect of All Time’ by the American Institute of Architects, and his legacy will live on forever not only in the work he created, but also in the aspirations of future architects who will go on to design some of America’s greatest works. 

The architectural tour took us to see some of Wright’s work at the Light Court of the Rookery Building in the financial district, which is Wrights only piece of work in downtown Chicago. In true Wright fashion, the building uses elements of natural lighting to create a masterpiece that brings the building to life.

Rookery Building Light Court Chicago

Rookery Building Light Court

*Side note: If you visit the Rookery Building and notice that the exterior looks familiar, it is because it was ‘Duncan’s Toy Chest’, a filming location used in the movie Home Alone 2: Lost in New York*

Architecture around Chicago

Outside of the tour, I noticed a lot of unique and beautiful architecture around the city. Some of my favorite places included: Marina City, Union Station, and the Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Marina City buildings Chicago

The view from below the Marina City buildings, constructed in 1964 by architect Bertrand Goldberg

Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center

Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center

Have you ever seen Chicago architecture before? What are your favorite places?