Chicago’s Early Skyscrapers Nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Home Insurance Building designed by William LeBaron Jenney and built in 1885 at the corner of LaSalle and Adams was the world’s first skyscraper. Chicago’s developers, architects, and engineers pressed on and the revolutionary steel-framed skyscrapers they innovated became known as The Chicago School. It is hard to overstate the impact of the innovation of “the skyscraper” on architecture and cities around the world.

Despite the extraordinary importance of the Home Insurance Building, it was demolished in 1931. However, many of the early skyscrapers that survive are now hopefully going to be recognized for their achievements and appreciated on the world stage. A list of early skyscrapers has been formally submitted to the UNESCO United States’ World Heritage Tentative List.

Preservation Chicago is honored to have served on the nomination committee alongside many of Chicago’s leading preservation and architecture organizations. While Preservation Chicago would have preferred to see more of Chicago’s Early Skyscrapers included, we are very pleased that Louis Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie, Scott and Auditorium Building were included on the list.

This is a serial proposal of 9 primarily commercial buildings in Chicago’s central business district, the “Loop.” The buildings, built over a period of about 20 years starting in the 1880s, exemplify the first generation of “skyscrapers.” Making use of new technologies of the time, particularly internal metal structural systems instead of load-bearing masonry walls, they were able to rise to heights of near 20 stories with large plate-glass windows, the first elevators (lifts) to reach the high floors, and electric lights to make interior spaces usable. The architects active in designing these buildings, including Louis H. Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Charles Atwood and Martin Roche, simultaneously developed a new aesthetic for the building exteriors suited to this new form, consisting of a vertical, tripartite form derived from classical columns and expressing the internal structure and functions of the buildings. A small number of additional buildings may also be considered for the series in the course of developing a nomination dossier. (from UNESCO.org)

  • Rookery Building, 209 S. LaSalle St., Burnham & Root
  • Auditorium Building, 430 S. Michigan Ave., Adler & Sullivan
  • Monadnock Building, 53 W. Jackson Blvd., Burnham & Root
  • Ludington Building, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., Jenney and Mundie
  • Marquette Building, 140 S. Dearborn St., Holabird & Roche
  • Old Colony Building, 407 S. Dearborn St., Holabird & Roche
  • Carson, Pirie, Scott and Co. Building, 1 S. State St., Louis H. Sullivan
  • Second Leiter Building, 403 S. State St., William LeBaron Jenney
  • Fisher Building, 343 S. Dearborn St., D.H. Burnham & Co.
  • Reliance Building, 32 N. State St., Burnham & Root/D.H. Burnham & Co.*
  • Manhattan Building, 431 S. Dearborn St., William LeBaron Jenney*


“Thanks to the leadership of Stephen Morris, Chief of the National Park Service’s (NPS) Office of International Affairs and Phyllis Ellin, Historian for the World Heritage program at the National Park Service, the opportunity to make a proposal for the Tentative List was brought to the attention of several invested organizations and individuals in early 2016.”

“Since the early days of the program, the pioneering early skyscrapers of Chicago, particularly the early 20th century steel frame structures, have been viewed as prime candidates for the World Heritage List,” commented Morris. “The development and blossoming of the technology and aesthetics that created these buildings was clearly centered here, and had unquestioned worldwide influence.”

“The process of placing buildings on the UNESCO World Heritage List is lengthy. The US Department of Interior is responsible for assembling the Tentative List and authorizing the preparation of nominations from it; those nominations are then submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (Committee) and evaluated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a private organization that advises the Committee on cultural properties; this evaluation process takes over one year to visit and evaluate the nominated sites before making a recommendation. The World Heritage Committee makes the final decision as to whether to add sites to the list.”

From AIA Chicago and City of Chicago.

Additional Reading

Early Chicago Skyscrapers, UNESCO.org

Early Skyscrapers Placed On U.S. World Heritage Tentative List, City of Chicago, June 9, 2017

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