The city of Chicago boasts a fascinating history. It is located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan and the Chicago and Calument Rivers traverse it, while the Des Plaines River runs west of it. Chicago links the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, and transportation venues utilizing steamboats, canals and eventually railroads quickly ensued. The geography of the land upon which the city was built, as well as population growth and advances in building technology, all played a part in the type of architecture used in Chicago and influenced both early and modern city layout.
Chicago was founded in 1833 by a group of canal commissioners. They planned to divert trade going through St. Louis ports to Chicago, so they put one end of their canal at the mouth of the Chicago River. They quickly created a grid for the area, so that the land could be sold to speculators to bolster expansion of the area as the center of mid-western trade (“History of Chicago”). Early buildings were situated around the mouth of the Chicago River, based on the work being done on the river and the resulting profits being made.
Although the city started with only 350 people, by 1890 it was home to one million. This was due to the industrial focus of Chicago. The city offered a way for people living in rural areas to make money, and they came to work in manufacturing and retail, most notably meat packing (Conlin 468). With the population growth came the need for buildings, and construction started around the water and spread outward. From 1833 until 1871, most buildings were fashioned from wood and were low buildings. This worked until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned 18,000 buildings and devastated the city.
This destruction led to some creative new ideas in terms of how to construct buildings that offered better fire protection and space yet did not have a huge footprint. Between 1871 and 1885 designers worked on masonry buildings, but found they did not function well in Chicago’s boggy soft land. This limited the load to no more than 4,000 pounds per square foot in order to avoid the settling of the building. (For comparison, many modern buildings must sustain up to two million pounds on each column. ) However, beneath this is a layer of hardpan that extends approximately 90 to 125 feet down, and under this is limestone bedrock (Simmons, 26).
At the time these early skyscrapers were built, the problem of driving down to the bedrock had not yet been solved. The initial solution – used in construction of the Montauk Building, and early high-rise completed in 1883 – was to cover an entire lot with a single steel-reinforced concrete “raft” upon which the structure above would rest. In theory, the building would settle uniformly. While the Montauk was a technological marvel for its time, it’s interior design was flawed and lacked the kind of flexibility that business demanded..
The Montauk was obsolete within twenty years and demolished in 1903 (Simmons, 31). In 1885 Chicago became home to the world’s first skyscraper. The Home Insurance Building was erected on the corner of LaSalle and Adams (now the site of the western portion of the Field Building). This was accomplished through the first-time use of a metal frame that bore the building’s weight rather than the walls themselves, devised by architect William LeBaron Jenney (Berkin 567). The building initially had nine stories and a basement; two additional stories were added six years later.
Other new technologies were required in order to make these tall buildings successful, including elevators, steel, glass, water pumps, and reinforced concrete (“Skyscrapers”). It nonetheless changed urban life. Instead of growing horizontally, cities could now grow vertically; higher buildings made it possible for greater numbers of people to work and live in places where land space was at a premium. Today Chicago is a world leader in skyscraper construction. Highrises surround the lake, while lower buildings are found farther away. Industrial areas are clustered around the lake, the airport and the Canal.
These modern buildings got their inspiration from topographical considerations, as well as huge population growth and need due to the Chicago Fire, which led to Chicago’s prominence in modern United States architecture.
Berkin, Carol, et al. Making America. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton, 1999. Conlin, Joseph R. The American Past: A Survey of American History. 2nd ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 1987. “History of Chicago. ” Wikipedia. 16 Mar. 2007. <http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Chicago#History_of_Chicago> “Skyscrapers. ” Wikipedia. 16 Mar. 2007. <http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Skyscrapers>