Caroline Seaver Tamposi
The American Renaissance:
The Emergence of Chicago’s Skyscraper
and the Italian Renaissance
The skyscraper today is undeniably a bona fide American style of architecture; however, it is important to recall that it did not emerge upon the scene in its postmodern form as an austere tower of glass and steel, soaring a thousand feet or so in the air. In fact, the original skyscraper, which came about in the late nineteenth century, has very little in common aesthetically to the contemporary skyscraper. Chicago’s Auditorium Building, designed and constructed by the architect Louis Sullivan and his partner, Dankmar Adler in 1887, exemplifies the stark difference between the modern and postmodern skyscraper. The Auditorium was not only the tallest building in Chicago, standing two-hundred-seventy feet high, but was also the largest and heaviest building in the world, due to the fact that it was one of the first edifices to include multiple functions under one roof. In other words, the Auditorium is a three-in-one complex, in which the concert hall itself lay at the center and is flanked by a luxury hotel and commercial office tower. With its rusticated brick façade, rounded windows, and three tiered, box-like form, supporting a slightly off-set tower, the building does not immediately suggest an American style of architecture, but instead an Italian one, particularly Florence’s Palazzo Medici. America, nevertheless, was not merely borrowing a style in order to replicate a foreign past, but rather experimenting with and searching for its own style. By examining the architecture of Chicago in its nineteenth century context, it is evident that America was experiencing its own type of Renaissance, similar to Quattrocento Florence.
The events and circumstances that brought about the Renaissance in Chicago can be seen comparably to the rise of Florence in the fifteenth century. Like Florence, Chicago’s business district was a sharply constricted area, bound by the Chicago River on the north and west sides, Lake Michigan on the east, and a nexus of railroads occupying the south. Skyscrapers not only helped solve the city’s spatial dilemma, but also caught the attention of capital-driven businessmen. By stacking multiple floors on a single lot, real-estate owners were able to gain multiple incomes many times over. The skyscraper efficiently solved the problem of limited space, broke ground for an American style, and was an instrument of profit that revolutionized the business sphere of Chicago and later New York among other great American cities.
While the skyscraper stands as a symbol of America’s power and status, its origins similarly show how America became what it is today. The city of Chicago and its architects were confronted with the issue of space and the devastation of the Great Fire in 1871, which in the end yielded the opportunity for America to find its own architectural identity. In this thesis, I not only intend to analyze and compare Chicago’s late nineteenth century skyscrapers with Quattrocento Florentine architecture, but will also specifically focus on the architectural works and theories of Louis Sullivan and Michelangelo Buonarotti. Louis Sullivan, commonly known as “the father of modern architecture” who was based primarily in Chicago, was deeply inspired by the ingenuity of the Florentine-born architect, Michelangelo. I also intend on analyzing Sullivan’s works outside of Chicago, in areas such as Buffalo, New York and St. Louis, Missouri, as well as Michelangelo’s works in Rome. This analysis and comparison will allow me to observe the ways in which Sullivan and Michelangelo configured and revolutionized architectural space as well as establish a structural design that emerged from ruins to serve as unique faces for both Italy and America.