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A History of Chicago’s Skyscrapers

An old photo of the Chicago Home Insurance Building, one of the world's first skyscrapers.

An old photo of the Chicago Home Insurance Building, one of the world's first skyscrapers.

Chicago is famous for its expansive architecture and rich history, but it also holds the esteemed title of the birthplace of the modern skyscraper. With so many towering buildings defining the downtown skyline, you can’t help but wonder how they all came to be. Today, we dive into a brief history of Chicago’s skyscrapers. 

Rising Up from the Ashes

A definitive date in Chicago’s history, the great fire of October 1871 destroyed most of the city. Chicago started over with a new grid system, and a resolve to make things bigger and better. Access to affordable steel ensured structures were more fireproof and also allowed buildings to grow in height. Until the mid-19th century, the maximum height of commercial and residential buildings was only five stories. By 1885, a new building would redefine those standards. 

The Home Insurance Building

Designed by architect William LeBaron Jenney, the Home Insurance Building was a revolutionary advancement in architecture and construction. Located at the corner of Adams and LaSalle, its steel beams and build were strikingly different from past designs with masonry. Due to the lightweight nature of steel, the building could be taller without collapsing in on itself. The final structure stood at 10 stories high; as small as that seems today, it was unheard of in 1885. 

Skyscrapers in Chicago

Although skyscrapers took off in other cities around the world, Chicago retained its unique claim on the word. The Home Insurance Building inspired and paved the way for a group of architects, designers and engineers that would eventually be named the Chicago School. Notable members included Daniel Burnham, John Root, Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Their work would earn Chicago the title of the “birthplace of modern architecture,” and many of their designs are still around today. 

Today, Chicago is home to both landmark buildings and incredible new feats. Although Jenney’s Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931, its legacy survives and tells the story of a city full of innovation, passion and determination to rise above.