Illustrated Architecture Dictionary  ........................ Styles of Architecture - Table of Contents

Chicago School Commercial Style

Last quarter of the Nineteenth Century


Chicago style:  Curtiss Building, 204 Franklin St.

Chicago Style

  • Commercial and office form that developed in the late nineteenth century, primarily in response to the new technologies that permitted greater physical height and larger expanses of open floor space.
  • Sometimes termed the "Chicago Style" because experimentation with the form flourished in that city after the 1871 fire.
  • Metal skeleton framing, first in cast and wrought iron, later in steel, was foremost among the new technological developments.
  • Typically five or more stories in height, the Commercial Style's character derives from its fenestration. Whereas load-bearing masonry walls admitted relatively few windows, the new structural skeleton permitted maximum light and ventilation. The fenestration pattern is usually regular with large divided rectangular windows.
  • A common window type is the "Chicago window," a three-part window with a large rectangular fixed central light flanked by two narrow, double-hung sashes.
  • Includes TALL BUILDINGS and EARLY SKYSCRAPERS
Chicago School Commercial Style

Approaching the turn of the century, as partial steel framing gave way to structures with entirely fireproof steel frames and curtain walls, buildings could be taller than ever before. Another technological advancement, the passenger elevator, solved the practical issue of getting rents beyond the fifth floor.

Since steel skeletons lack the inflection of masonry structures, this technology provided a new opportunity for facade design. While facades of masonry buildings are load bearing and necessarily functional, curtain walls are independent of the structure, freed from the restraints embodied in historical building design.

The Chicago Fire of 1871 and its aftermath provided peculiar impetus to builders in Chicago to rebuild the city with fireproof structures. In addition, rising property values added the economic appeal of taller buildings, which offered more square footage and rentable space per parcel, and patrons increasingly demanded larger and more flexible workspaces.

The Commercial Style is a common term for the aesthetic that characterized much of early skyscraper design with steel and beam construction, large storefront windows, classical detailing, decorative cornices, and flat roofs. Some of the most prominent architects of the era - William Jenney, Sullivan & Adler, and Burnham & Root - worked in Chicago and developed a particular brand of design that became synonymous with that city.

In addition to the features of other Commercial Style buildings, the Chicago School was known for its distinctive windows, composed of two narrow casements flanking a larger central pane.

Early experimenters in steel framing continued to rely on historical ornamentation, which stretched uneasily to new proportions. Although they signaled a new era in American architecture, tall buildings also posed an artistic challenge, requiring a new aesthetic mode than their load bearing, shorter predecessors.

Chicago based designer William Le Baron Jenney, who was trained as an engineer, is credited with designing the first all metal frame building, the Home Insurance Building (1885), but despite its engineering achievement, the building remains “blocky and ill-proportioned [and] marred by an awkward overlay of ornament.”

By contrast, Adler & Sullivan’s Wainwright Building, completed in St. Louis in 1891, represents an early departure from over reliance upon historical detail for tall buildings. The ten-story red brick office building maintained the traditional tripartite vertical organization but relied on restrained ornamentation to achieve an unprecedented communication of the structure on the facade. The unbroken piers of the middle seven floors, which frame recessed spandrels between the windows, highlight the verticality of the building.
- Caitlin Moriarty, Esenwein & Johnson - Commercial Design
Chicago School style

Chicago is the site associated with development of the tall commercial building. Although Chicago commercial architecture built on advances made elsewhere, most notably in Philadelphia and New York City, it was in that Midwestern city in the last quarter of the l9th century that new technology and materials were exploited by innovative architects and engineers to produce the skeleton-framed skyscraper that would transform cities around the world.

The commercial architecture of the Chicago school was the result of important advances in construction technology.  Building height had been limited by the massiveness of masonry walls needed for support, even after the invention of the passenger elevator made upper stories easily accessible. Numerous architects experimented with the use of cast- and wrought-iron members to carry the weight of interior floors, but it was not until construction began on the Home Life Building (1883-85, William Le Baron Jenney), that a complete iron and steel skeleton was first used. Combined with improvements in fireproofing, wind bracing and foundation technology, the skeleton frame made tall buildings possible.

A commercial building in the Chicago School style was tall in comparison to its predecessors – usually more than 6 stories but fewer than 20. It was rectangular with a flat roof and terminating cornice. Ornamentation was usually minimal and subordinated to the functional expression of the internal skeleton that appeared as a grid of intersecting piers and horizontal spandrels. Because the exterior walls of a skeleton-framed structure do not have to bear tremendous weights, they can have large areas of glass, terra cotta or other nonsupporting materials.

Windows filled a great proportion of the wall space. Two types of windows were particularly characteristic of the commercial style. One was the projecting bay or oriel that ran the full height of the building, emphasizing the verticality. The other was the so-called Chicago window, composed of a large fixed central pane flanked by two narrow casements that opened to provide ventilation. Large display windows usually occupied the ground-floor level. Above were floors of identical office space.

Facades were organized in a number of ways. Some borrowed minor elements of Richardsonian Romanesque or Gothic Revival ornament. The buildings that were more stark and devoid of ornament appear the most modern, for they presaged the mid-20th-century development of glass and steel skyscrapers.

The architect who developed the best-known and most distinctive architectural treatment for tall commercial buildings was Louis Sullivan. His buildings, like a
classical column, had a base consisting of the lower two stories, a main shaft in which verticality was emphasized by piers between the windows (occasionally joined by arcading at the top) and - the crowning glory - an elaborate and boldly projecting terra-cotta cornice. Besides this basic organization, Sullivan's buildings can easily be identified by their distinctive low-relief ornament of intricately interwoven foliate designs. this remarkably creative ornamentation usually appeared at the entrance (often an arch), on the spandrels and on the cornice. ...

Although the structural techniques of the Chicago School spread throughout the country, its stripped, no-nonsense exterior design - in many cases, an extremely personal architectural expression - succumbed to the triumphant academicism of the Beaux-Arts-trained eastern architects who were largely responsible for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. ...

- John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers, Jr., What Style Is It: A Guide to American Architecture, p. 101  (online Sept. 2018)


Sullivan's 3-section Guaranty Building skyscraper design mimics a classical column - perhaps the result of his L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts training in Paris.
Photo 2018 Chuck LaChiusa

Early Twentieth Century Commercial (1900-1930)

In the early 1900s a new commercial style developed as a reaction to the ornate Victorian architectural styles of the late nineteenth century. This style became popular because of its adaptability to a variety of building types, especially the new one-story, flat roofed commercial building, which appeared in the City of Buffalo in the early 1900s.

The character of the Early Twentieth Century Commercial buildings is determined by the use of patterned masonry wall surfaces, shaped parapets at the roofline that were often uninterrupted by a project cornice and large rectangular windows arranged in groups. The “Chicago window,” a three-part window with a wide, fixed central light flanked by two narrower double-hung sashes, is a common feature.

Identifying features of this style include a plain, flat appearance that is relieved by the use of panels of brick laid in patterns and sparingly used inset accents of tile, concrete, limestone or terra cotta.

The Early Twentieth Century Commercial style is well represented on Broadway, where buildings are typically two-part commercial blocks, ranging from two to five stories.


Examples in Buffalo:

Examples out of Buffalo:


Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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