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Review> Ever Higher
Gwendolyn Purdom on the new book, Chicago Skyscrapers 1871-1934.
Chicago's Merchandise Mart.
Courtesy Thomas Leslie

Chicago Skyscrapers 1871–1934
By Thomas Leslie
University of Illinois Press, $40

The steel-and-glass giants that populate Chicago’s storied skyline have long been synonymous with giants of the architectural world. Our collective conscience, for the most part, recalls a litany of revered one-name wonders—Sullivan, Burnham, Holabird and Roche—whom we credit with delivering our soaring structural legacy to us on a neatly drafted platter. But, of course, the evolution of Chicago skyscrapers wasn’t nearly so simple.

The penchant for building skyward in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the result not only of innovative designers, but of strong currents of technological, economic, and social change. It seems a pretty obvious and practical thesis. But as Iowa State architecture professor Thomas Leslie demonstrates in his exhaustive new historical survey, Chicago Skyscrapers 1871–1934, it is actually a fact that has been traditionally left under-examined with the most influential authorities preferring instead to focus on the larger-than-life visionaries behind the buildings. Accordingly, Leslie’s study looks to fill in the holes his predecessors, like scholar Carl Condit, left gaping—from reconstruction following the Great Fire of 1871 to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Left to right: Wrigley Building; Chicago Stock Exchange; the Chicago Civic Opera.

It is a meticulous effort. Leslie fills his deceptively dense pages with the reverberating impact developments like iron-reinforced skeletal framing, increasingly efficient elevators, electric lighting, fireproofing, and a volatile economy had on the city architecturally. Iconic structures from Burnham & Root’s 1882 Montauk Block to Howells and Hood’s gothic 1925 Tribune Tower sprang forth in a trial-and-error manner, Leslie shows, as the building climate, available materials, and current technological advances aligned. When massive brick skyscrapers, for example, gave way to hybrids of skeletal metal and brick, as in Holabird & Roche’s 1889 Tacoma building, the Tribune reported that Chicagoans had “an idea that it is a mere shell set up on pins, and that if two wide-awake blizzards should ever happen to meet in Chicago it would come down with a great flop from its high perch.” That led the architects to create more substantive-looking buildings for their next projects. Illustrative instances like this are numerous in the book, likely too numerous for a casual reader, but they accomplish the author’s goal of presenting a nuanced and collaborative Chicago architectural environment throughout these crucial decades.

Leslie’s thorough and well-cited work, however, gets problematic in places where solid arguments are diluted with excessive supporting detail. Chapters, organized by periods of development, which might have been sharp and concise feel tedious when weighed down with long lists of building names and surface level details as opposed to deeper analysis of a handful of projects per topic. The detours taken from anchor example A to anchor example B, while indeed illustrative of Leslie’s points, make for a tiresome and unfortunately less effective journey.

While parts of the book could benefit from some streamlining, as a whole, Leslie presents a fascinating story, fleshed out by diagrams and historic photographs of a startling number of demolished-too-soon buildings that paved the way for the strong and eclectic skyline we know today. Chicago architects, Leslie writes, “changed their design approaches both incrementally and radically as improvements were tested and proven, and they were agile in adapting their sense of style to new materials or techniques.” What emerged, and what Leslie offers here, was an approach “whose influence spread globally as a conceptual and aesthetic ideal.”

Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom is a writer and producer for the Chicago Tribune.