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Chicago Architecture: Foundational Facts About the Windy City

June 5, 2023 By CityPASS

When Chicago was first settled in the early 19th Century, few could have imagined just how high it would one day grow. The first skyscraper in the world — for the Home Insurance Company — was built in Chicago, setting the bar literally quite high. What followed was a century of opportunity, innovation, and ambition. Today, the Chicago skyline is one of the most unique sights in the world.

Whether you live in the Windy City or are planning your trip there, you might enjoy having a little bit of context. We encourage you to visit the Chicago Architecture Center during your time there, but for some pre-visit insight, we're here to help. Once you understand how Chicago's world-famous architecture came to be, it becomes much easier to appreciate.

Chicago Is a Major City for Architectural Enthusiasts

Once you understand how Chicago's world-famous architecture came to be, it becomes much easier to appreciate.

1. Chicago is Brimming With Historic Buildings From the 20th Century

Chicago is a mecca of 20th Century American architecture. After the Great Fire of 1871, the city turned a tragedy into opportunity, deciding to rebuild itself greater than it could've ever been before. The World's Fair in 1893 bolstered the city's confidence, and what followed was an exchange of ideas about how to create one of the most famous skylines in the world.

Chicago is by no means past its prime. Even in the 21st Century, the city is full of modern projects that have already surpassed expectations. However, given the challenges of the time, what it accomplished in the 20th Century is truly impressive. From the revolutionary John Hancock Center to the iconic Tribute Tower, the Windy City is full of notable designs that have defined the times.

2. The Chicago Fire of 1871 Allowed for Buildings With New Architectural Styles

When Chicago was founded in 1830, wood was the standard building material. This, combined with Chicago's rapid growth, proved to be deadly. In 1871, a fire swept through the city. The inferno killed 300, left 100,000 homeless, and destroyed 18,000 buildings in historic neighborhoods.

While this was a great tragedy, it's likely to have drastically changed Chicago's destiny. Since the city was still growing, Chicago architects had the chance to develop tall buildings that would stand the test of time. The fire left plenty of space, which is why there was so much opportunity to test out new architectural ideas. Chicago is a city that keeps moving forward, and its modern skyline is proof of that.

3. Willis Tower and the John Hancock Center Are the Most Famous Buildings Dotting Chicago's Famous Skyline

Though Chicago is full of historic skyscrapers, there are two that every architecture buff needs to check out. The first of these titans is the John Hancock Center, completed in 1969. At 100 stories tall, it was the tallest skyscraper in Chicago at the time of its completion.

This accolade didn't last because the title of tallest was soon passed to the Willis Tower — formerly the Sears Tower. This 110-story icon was started in 1970 and completed in 1973. It was the tallest building in not just the United States, but the entire world. While it has since lost this world title, it still towers above the rest of Chicago.

Both of these structures were crafted by the same people. Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill worked with structural engineer Fazlur Khan to safely bring these towers to life. These visionaries played a large part in creating the Chicago of today.

4. River Cruises Along the Chicago Riverwalk Are a Great Way To Take in the Architecture of the City

You can talk about Chicago's architecture for hours, but if you truly want to experience it, you have to see it for yourself. The city's architecture cruises are the top way of seeing what the Windy City has to offer. The Chicago River goes by some of the most notable sights in the city, and some companies offer cruises on the river. This gives you the chance to enjoy Chicago architecture firsthand with a guide who will tell you about the city's history.

If you'd like a recommendation, you can't go wrong with Shoreline Sightseeing. Kick back on a comfortable boat and see some of the best American architecture while knowledgeable guides provide details. It's worth the money, but you can save even more with CityPASS® tickets, making the trip undoubtedly worthwhile.

5. Frank Lloyd Wright Designed Many Buildings and Homes in the Chicago Area

For architecture geeks, Frank Lloyd Wright needs no introduction. This world-renowned architect arrived in Chicago in 1877 and spent the first two decades of his career there. He was involved in the creation of 147 buildings in Chicago alone, and many of his architectural ideas were used in the city's residential design.

Chicago is where Wright developed his signature building design: the Prairie House. These homes are long, low, and open — much like the land in the American West. Prairie-style houses are all over Chicago, so you're sure to run into a few.

6. Walking Along Lake Michigan Allows You To Take in the Skyline With Sand Between Your Toes

Chicago is not only home to skyscrapers but several nearby beaches. On a clear day, it's possible to take in the skyline from a relaxing beach. Some of the tallest buildings in the world are found in Chicago, so it's easy to see them from a distance. In fact, the unique backdrop creates an experience you can find in few other places. Now, imagine the view at sunset!

Experience the Magic of the Windy City's Spectacular Buildings

Every architecture buff needs to visit Chicago. Besides the skyscrapers, the city is full of interesting sights, and there's no shortage of things to do. Why not save on your next Chicago vacation with CityPASS® tickets? You can save up to on some of the Windy City's top attractions, including the Willis Tower's Skydeck and the John Hancock Center's 360 Observation Deck. For another way to experience Chicago, check out the Shoreline Sightseeing Architecture River Tour.

Chicago's history is calling your name, so start planning your trip with CityPASS® tickets today!

Chicago Lodging

To get the most out of your stay in Chicago, we recommend finding lodging near Chicago's top attractions. Use this map to find the right lodging for you:

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