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The Architectural Legacy of Illinois' First 200 Years

Illinois could use a reminder of what we are capable of and gives us something to look forward to. The bicentennial birthday of December 3, 2018 is the perfect occasion to find perspective and purpose. From an architectural point of view, there’s a lot to be proud of, because some of the world’s greatest projects and the people who designed them are rooted here.


Architecture practice as we know it today was first written into law by the state legislature in 1897. Illinois is where world renowned architects Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Mies van der Rohe and Buckminster Fuller lived and produced their best work. Chicago firms like Holabird and Root, Perkins and Will, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill grew to have a global presence from a handful of founding partners.


“We have so much to be proud of in Illinois,” notes Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, a statewide nonprofit preservation organization. “The Bicentennial is an opportunity to spotlight the extraordinary achievements made in architecture, the arts, and history by generations of people in this state. We are world class in so many ways that can be celebrated.”


From past to present, there’s an incredible Illinois legacy of impact on the built environment. Abraham Lincoln said, “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” As we close out the year-long bicentennial celebration, we will be taking stock of projects we are most proud of and the people whose work makes their communities proud of them.


To celebrate 200 years of statehood, we gathered architects, historians and community leaders to identify 200 great places. We encourage you to see those selections at Illinoisgreatplaces.com. The point isn’t to simply remember where we’ve been, but to shape where we want to go.


According to President of the American Institute of Architects, Carl Elefante, “You can’t imagine the modern American city without the influence of Chicago. What started with the Columbian Exposition showcasing the vision of architects for the 20th century turned into the 'city beautiful' movement. We are living in a moment when the challenges of a new century require an even bigger movement and a more comprehensive vision. Putting the well-being of people first, our cities must more than beautiful; they must also be sustainable, resilient, equitable, affordable and accessible.”


The architecture profession in Illinois today is broad, diverse and strong. Today’s projects are every bit as innovative and exciting as their predecessors. Over 5,600 architects work in 1,000 firms of all sizes. They are currently designing 45 million square feet of space with a value exceeding $14 billion. And their work is influenced by what we ask of them.

According to Thomas Vonier, President of the International Union of Architects, “The way we build reflects our values as a culture. If we invest for the long term, and for durability, that is reflected in the cities and towns around us. They show our faith in the future.”


In every town from the top of the state to the bottom, AIA is asking “What will be our blueprint for better? What makes our communities vibrant and attainable?” That’s the agenda for the 21st century and we hope you will ask those questions too.


When you find buildings that elevate the community, thank the architect, engineer, builder and developer who brought them to life along with the maintenance and custodial staff who keep them vibrant. If you can’t find examples, then let’s encourage mayors, planners, realtors and investors to raise the standard. That’s the only way to keep building places worthy of remembering at the next centennial.

Did you know that Illinois is where you could find the:


First graduate of an architecture school in the United States: Nathan Clifford Ricker from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 1873.


First woman graduate of an architecture school: Mary Louisa Page from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 1879.


First African-American graduate of an architecture school: Walter T. Bailey from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 1904.


First African-American woman licensed as an architect in the United States: Beverly Greene in 1942.


Most ambitious company town: Pullman named for the railroad car magnate who developed 4,000 acres on the south side of Chicago in 1880.


First skyscraper: the Home Insurance Building by William Le Baron Jenney who pioneered a steel frame in 1884.


Tallest load-bearing brick building in the world: the Monadnock Building by Burnham and Root in 1891.


First Architecture Practice Act, licensing board and examination process: passed by the Illinois Legislature in 1897. The first licensed architect anywhere was a state representative named Charles Nothnagel who had worked for Louis Sullivan.


Founder of American architecture: Louis Sullivan who turned America’s attention away from classical European styles at the dawning of a new century with the motto of “form follows function.”


Creator of the Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright who formed his own firm in 1893 and went on to design iconic houses and offices around the world, making Illinois home to more Wright masterpieces than any other state.


Comprehensive requirements for safer building exits: fire codes were reformed nationwide after the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903.


Most popular mail order homes: over 70,000 sold by Sears Roebuck and Company between 1908 and 1940.


Father of modern city planning: Daniel Burnham who authored the 1909 Plan of Chicago and urged citizens to, “make no little plans.”

The largest commercial building in the world: All 4 million square feet of The Merchandise Mart, erected in 1930.


Leader of the International Style: Mies van der Rohe who came to America from Germany in 1937 to head the architecture school at the Illinois Institute of Technology and whose modern designs represented the concept of “less is more”.


Prolific architect-inventor R. Buckminster Fuller who came to Carbondale in 1956 to teach architecture at Southern Illinois University.


First use of a bundled tube structure: Sears Tower which held the record for world’s tallest building for 25 years starting in 1973.


First building code for accessibility: The Illinois Environmental Barriers Act of 1985 was a precursor to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act five years later.


First state to promote the 2030 Challenge: The Illinois General Assembly set a goal to make new buildings carbon-neutral by 2030, via legislation in 2007, and followed it up with early adoption of energy-efficient codes and measurement tools.