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The built environment of Illinois has been shaped largely by transportation routes and the land itself. Rivers were the first drivers of civilization, with the largest prehistoric city in North America growing up around smaller and earlier settlements along the east bank of the Mississippi River across from present-day St. Louis, Missouri. The Mississippi also provided the transportation core for the earliest historic buildings, starting with those built by fur traders and the French in the seventeenth century. Only a handful of French buildings survive in this part of the Mississippi River Valley but they are different in both construction and style from any of the English-influenced buildings that followed.

Illinois was acquired from the French as part of the Northwest Territory in 1787 and settlements rapidly began to spread up and down the Mississippi, along the Ohio River and into the interior via the Illinois River. Pioneers came primarily overland from the mid-Atlantic or up the Mississippi as immigrants, especially from German-speaking countries. These early settlers favored log construction: both upright and horizontal were common throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. A surprising number of log buildings survive from this period, with a wide variety of forms and plans. Log construction was succeeded by timber fame and then balloon frame construction.

Several forces joined to create explosive growth in the early nineteenth century, with the population more than tripling every decade between 1800 and 1840. Soldiers who came west with George Rogers Clark (and others) in the 1780s first saw the rich potential of the prairies, rivers, and woodlands. That same decade, the Northwest Ordinance Survey worked throughout the state, marking out lands for settlement, schools, and other civic uses and, ultimately, awarding some of these lands as payment for military duty. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the northern part of the state became more accessible to migrants from New England and upstate New York. Following statehood in 1818, this period saw the construction of the first significant public buildings as counties began to form. Thanks to an abundance of clay throughout most of the state, these early public buildings were primarily red brick; following prevailing eastern tastes, they were generally Greek Revival in style. Yet the largest towns and settlements were still clustered in the southern half of the state, particularly along the bordering rivers on the east and west.

The railroad arrived in Illinois in 1848, coinciding with the completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal connecting Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and the Mississippi. Together these two transportation networks transformed the state, although the railroad soon superseded the canal in infrastructural and economic importance. The railroad quickly became a vast web, running through the state in every direction, eventually crossing the rivers into adjacent states and beyond. Railroads, like the rivers before them, were to drive commerce, immigration, and settlement patterns for the next hundred years.

During the second half of the nineteenth-century, Illinois grew from 850,000 to 4.8 million residents, with the newly formed city of Chicago (1837) providing much of this expansion. In addition to those still coming across the central Appalachians or up the Mississippi, new residents arriving from New England via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes gave the northern half of the state an entirely different character from the southern half. Thanks to these New England transplants, Greek Revival and other Classical Revival styles persisted—in residential architecture built up to the Civil War, and continuing well past it in public buildings.

Following the Civil War, a variety of architecture styles exploded in Illinois, as they did elsewhere, thanks to the availability of design magazines and books and the increasing number of formally trained architects. The University of Illinois was one of the earliest schools in the country to offer an architecture degree (1867). In the aftermath of the 1871 Chicago fire, this ready local supply of architects was joined by an eager stream from the East. By the 1870s and 1880s, even small farm towns sported extravagant banks and rows of fancy commercial buildings around their central squares, along their main streets, and next to the train tracks. The first generation of public buildings began to be replaced by larger, more ornate designs. In addition, a band of suburbs began to grow around the edge of Chicago, each with its own commercial district (both planned and unplanned), residential areas, and parks. By the 1890s most of the suburbs that exist today were well underway.

Chicago became a major railroad hub connecting the east with the west through the interior of the country. Added to the railroad activity was commerce around the Great Lakes, supported by lumber, minerals, and farm products that were arriving in Chicago to support both burgeoning industries and inland trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago had far eclipsed in size and commercial activity any other Illinois city, a change well represented by the immense planned community that George Pullman built in the 1880s on the far southern edge of the city to house workers in his railroad car factory. In Chicago, city leaders were proud of what had been accomplished since the destruction wrought by the 1871 fire. Their civic pride was more than satisfied by the immense popularity of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an event that effectively introduced Chicago to the world. The city’s elites soon set to work with Daniel Burnham, the Exposition’s manager, and architect Edward H. Bennett to create the Plan of Chicago (1909), a document that was to lay the groundwork for the city’s growth in the twentieth century.

Chicago’s continued rapid growth drew some of America’s best architects. In the 1870s a series of extraordinary talents began the work of combining cutting-edge engineering, rational design, and lush, organic ornament. Through the expanding architectural press and with the publication of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio in 1910, ideas and plans coming from Chicago were distributed worldwide and would inspire and influence several generations in Europe. It was members of these later generations—some of them refugees from Nazi Germany and World War II—who cemented the reputation of Illinois for exceptional architecture, bringing the beautifully detailed curtain wall and the simple glass box to their peak expressions.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the rise of the automobile led Illinois to create an extensive network of paved highways. U.S. Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, and many important radial roads leading from Chicago into the hinterlands were laid out and/or paved at this time. These roads not only improved access between farmers and small rural industries and their markets, they also fed the tremendous expansion of suburbia that was to take place in the 1920s.

Chicago had been a destination for immigrants for decades—with especially large populations of eastern Europeans, Germans, and Swedes—and it soon became a magnet for migrants as well. The wave of African Americans arriving from southern United States would change, in just a single generation, the face and character of the city and its neighborhoods. The labor shortages of World War I forced industrialists to hire African Americans, something they had previously resisted. The roads and the railroads provided the route for what has come to be known as the Great Migration, with over 500,000 African Americans seeking a new life far from the Jim Crow South. Over the course of thirty years, the African American population in Chicago rose from 2 percent to 33 percent.

While Chicago continued to add to its dense housing stock with courtyard apartment buildings, limestone two-flats, and thousands of brick bungalows, in the suburbs, the freestanding house remained the ideal. In the 1920s it became a sort of blank canvas on which to paint a range of revival styles, with Classical, French, and Tudor all well represented. The rapid expansion of suburbia also provided enormous opportunities for new public buildings, schools, housing (including multi-family), and commercial areas. Engineering achievements, already begun with the early skyscrapers in Chicago and elsewhere, continued to play an important role. Land-use planning also became crucial in the growth and development of the state’s numerous metropolitan areas, with even secondary cities and suburbs adopting zoning codes to manage growth.

Like all Midwestern states, Illinois experienced a steady decline in its rural population and small rural industries throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Chicago and its surrounding “collar” counties became the dominant force in new construction, especially after World War II. Public housing first appeared in the interwar years, with some interesting early experiments still standing from that period and from the post–World War II rush of urban renewal. Although Chicago dominated the state’s architecture scene in the second half of the twentieth century, new construction could be found throughout Illinois. The work of important regional architects intermingles with that of nationally and internationally known firms to create many extraordinary pockets of good design and planning. In the twenty-first century, Illinois boasts a depth of history, a wealth of interesting buildings and communities, and thanks to Chicago, an international reputation as a center for exception architectural design.

Writing Credits

Jean A. Follett

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