A modern gem, the Reliance Building

John Wellborn Root (basement and first floor) and Charles B. Atwood (upper floors) for Burnham and Root, Reliance Building (32 N. State, 1 W. Washington, Chicago), 1895

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Reliance Building

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Key points

  • The 14-story Reliance Building is a prime example of the technical and stylistic advancements in urban architecture pursued by the First Chicago School during the late 19th century. The structure of this early skyscraper consists of only a steel interior frame with a thin exterior curtain wall of large windows and decorated terracotta tiles.
  • Steel became more widely available and affordable at this time and was tapped by architects as the core material for designing taller and taller buildings. This shift away from the height restrictions imposed by construction with load-bearing walls of brick or stone allowed Chicago firms to meet increased demand for public and commercial space in the quickly growing city.

Go deeper

Learn more about the Reliance Building from the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Read newspaper accounts about the initial construction and evolution of the Reliance Building from 1883 to the present. 

See how the Reliance Building was carefully restored. 

Learn about the firm of Burnham and Root from the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Read more about the First Chicago School of Architecture from the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Learn more about the transition from load-bearing walls to steel frame construction from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. 

Compare the Reliance Building to the Monadnock Building, designed in two parts by Burnham and Root (1891) and Holabird and Roche (1893)

Compare the Reliance Building with the Bayard-Condict Building (1897-97), an early skyscraper in New York City designed by the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.

More to think about

The Reliance Building was considered to be the height of modernity in 1895. Think about the buildings in your community today, especially any public or commercial buildings you visit. Consider the materials they are made from, the experience of light in the space, the decoration, or other features. Which of these elements can you link to the First Chicago School and which ones feel distinct? How much can you see the impact of the First Chicago School in the built environment today? 

Which structural and design features in architecture are most compelling to you and why? See how your ideas align (or not) with your classmates.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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