Chicago is one of the most populated cities in the United States and is known for its massive skyscrapers and historic buildings.
Many years ago, the city was nicknamed the “Windy City” and it has gained a reputation for being home to some of the most distinct and historic buildings in the country.
In this article, we will examine 10 of the most famous buildings in Chicago and the architects who designed them, as well as some of the history behind each structure.
Famous Buildings in Chicago
1. Willis Tower
Chicago’s Willis Tower is one of the most famous skyscraper buildings in the world.
It is most commonly known under its former name, the Sears Tower, but the structure was purchased by Willis Group Holdings Ltd, which is a London-based insurance brokerage who has ownership of the tower until 2024. The building is most known for its incredible height as it is one of the tallest buildings in the world.
The Willis Tower was designed by Fazlur Rahman Khan and Bruce Graham, who were both notable architects with a reputation for designing and constructing massive, multi-story buildings.
It stands at a full 108 stories, but the Willis Tower also includes a basement level and another two stories at the top, which essentially makes the structure 111 stories in all.
The building was planned and designed in 1969 and construction began later the next year in 1970. Work crews erected the building in relatively quick fashion compared to most other skyscrapers of similar height and the Willis Tower was finished in 1974.
It stood as the tallest building in the world until it was surpassed in height in 1998 by the Petronas Twin Towers, which were built in Malaysia.
2. Tribune Tower
Another one of Chicago’s tallest structures is the Tribune Tower, which sits in the heart of the city’s downtown area.
The tower is one of the most historic buildings in Chicago and was originally named after the city’s most prominent newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, which was owned by Tribune Media and Tribune Publishing.
The building was designed by Raymond Hood, a prolific American architect who was known to have worked in the Art Deco and Neo-Gothic architectural style.
Hood worked alongside John Mead Howells, who was a well-known architect and designer during the early 20th century. The pair worked under the firm that bore both their names, Howells & Hood and construction on the building began in 1923.
Crews worked tirelessly to complete the massive project, which was one of the largest in size and scale that the city of Chicago had ever seen up until the 1920’s.
The Tribune Tower was completed just two years later in 1925 and opened that same year. The tower stands at a height of 496 feet to the tip of the antenna spire on the top floor and the building has undergone multiple renovation projects over the decades since it was first built.
3. Aqua Tower
One of the most eye-catching buildings in the city of Chicago is the Aqua Tower, which is located in the city’s Lakeshore East development near the downtown area.
This aptly-named structure appears to have water collecting along the sides, especially when viewing the Aqua Tower from a distance on a bright, sunny day.
The Aqua Tower was designed by Jeanne Gang, who is known as one of the most accomplished female architects in the world and is a native of the Chicago area.
Construction began on the tower in 2007 and it was fully completed two years later in 2009. Since opening in that same year, the Aqua Tower has become one of the city’s most iconic landmarks in the 21st century due to its incredible design and appearance.
Gang and the other architects working alongside her were able to accomplish a feat of illusionary architecture that is quite unlike any other building in the world.
Her use of specially-placed tempered glass and perfectly-positioned partitions help to create the visual appearance of water dripping down the sides of the building.
4. Merchandise Mart
Located along the banks of the Chicago River is one of the city’s most historic buildings that has long stood as an architectural masterpiece that was done according to the Art Deco style.
The Merchandise Mart is another one of the Windy City’s most famous buildings and sits near the junction of the river’s two branches that meet near the heart of Chicago.
It was designed by Alfred P. Shaw, who is remembered as one of the most notable architects in the United States in the early 20th century who was also a native of Chicago.
Shaw worked alongside other architects that made up the Graham, Anderson, Probst and White architectural firm to create the Merchandise Mart. Construction on the building began in 1928 and it took just two years before the project was finished in 1930.
The Merchandise Mart is one of the country’s largest retail and wholesale locations that is visited by more than 20,000 shoppers and buyers per day at times. Today, the historic building is home to a number of different businesses and retail stores within its 4,000,000 square feet of floor space.
5. John Hancock Center
One of the most easily-recognized buildings in Chicago is the John Hancock Center, which is located in the city’s Magnificent Mile section that is known for the most aesthetically beautiful skyscrapers and other buildings in Chicago.
The building was constructed in the mid-1960s and was originally named the John Hancock Center as it was financed in part by the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.
The building was designed by Fazlur Rahman Khan, who is known to have designed some of Chicago’s other famous buildings, as well as various skyscrapers across cities in America during the mid-20thc century. Work began on the project in 1965 and it was finished just 3 years later in the summer of 1968.
The John Hancock Center was purchased by a company in 2013 who chose to name the structure the 875 North Michigan Avenue, yet the moniker that it had held for more than 40 years would still be used by locals and others throughout Chicago.
Today, the building is still known as the John Hancock Center and its distinct Structural Expressionism architectural style is what makes it stand out among the city’s many skyscrapers.
6. Chicago Water Tower
The city of Chicago is filled with as many different ‘tower’ structures as any metropolitan area in the United States, but the Chicago Water Tower is perhaps the most iconic tower in the area.
This structure may seem slightly out-of-place among the towering skyscrapers with their metallic exteriors and large glass windows, but it is another one of the Windy City’s most well-known buildings.
The Chicago Water Tower was designed by William W. Boyington, who is remembered as one of the most accomplished architects in American history.
Boyington worked to create a massive water tower that would serve much of the bustling city of Chicago in the late 19th century, but it was the tower’s architectural design that would become most famous.
The exterior of the Chicago Water Tower was built in 1869 to enclose the large water pump within, which was used to draw massive amounts of water from nearby Lake MIchigan.
It stands today as the second-oldest water tower in the United States and its elaborate design and architectural beauty set the Chicago Water Tower apart from all other such structures in the country.
7. Rookery Building
Another one of Chicago’s most historic buildings is the Rookery Building, which sits in the Chicago Loop section of the city.
It is considered to be one of the greatest architectural masterpieces from the Windy City’s early years as it was built in the late 19th century by Daniel Burnham and William Root, two of the most well-known architects in America during this time period.
Construction on the Rookery Building began in 1886 and it was completed later that same year. The building would become heavily damaged by the Great Chicago Fire that took place in 1871 and killed more than 300 people before leaving much of the city in ruins.
Following the fire, the Rookery Building was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright, who is regarded as one of the most famous architects in United States history.
Today, the Rookery Building still has much of its former glory that it was originally designed with. The interior and exterior feature various styles of architecture that include Moorish, Byzantine, Romanesque and Venetian style workings.
8. Civic Opera House
Many of the world’s most famous opera houses are located across the Atlantic in Europe, but Chicago is home to one that is regarded as the most iconic and famous opera house in the country.
The Civic Opera House is located in the heart of Chicago near the shores of Lake Michigan and features a distinctly elegant and historic appearance compared to many of the city’s modern structures.
The Civic Opera House was designed according to plans that were compiled by famous American businessman Samuel Insull, who hired the architectural firm known as Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to complete the project. The building was constructed in 1929 and it quickly became one of the most popular destinations in the Windy City.
The massive building is often compared to a giant chair or throne, which was jokingly referred to as “Insull’s Throne” in the years following its construction.
The massive auditorium inside the Civic Opera House is the second-largest opera house in the North American continent and is capable of seating more than 3,500 people at a time.
9. James R. Thompson Center
There are a number of unique buildings in Chicago, but one of the city’s most distinct is the James R. Thompson Center. This structure sits along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chigaco’s Loop district and features a postmodern architectural style that sets it apart from many of the city’s newer buildings.
The James R. Thompson Center was designed by Helmut Jahn, a German-born architect who is known for constructing some of the most well-known postmodern buildings in the United States’ largest cities.
The James R. Thompson Center was built on the site of the majestic Sherman House Hotel, which was long considered one of Chicago’s most notable structures. Construction began on the building in 1980 and the building was finished in the spring of 1985.
Today, the James R. Thompson Center’s 17 floors are teeming with various businesses and organizations that fill the many different rooms inside.
The massive center atrium is artistically-designed in such a way that features a colorful postmodern appearance, as well as a distinct view looking upward from the bottom floor toward the top of the atrium.
The James R. Thompson Center is filled with a variety of different sculptures and paintings that are all mostly funded by the State of Illinois Art-in-Architecture Program.
10. Chicago Architecture Center
Chicago is home to some of the most architecturally-impressive structures in the United States, but the Windy City’s main attraction for those interested in building styles and designs is the Chicago Architecture Center.
This sprawling, 20,000-square-foot building is filled with various models and designs from some of the world’s most impressive architectural works.
It was established in 1966 and has since become one of the most prominent destinations in the world for those interested in architecture, as well as students of structural design and even sculpture.
It was originally built by the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation to preserve H. H. Richardson’s Glessner House, which was one of the city’s oldest residences.
Chicago is known for being one of the most architecturally-diverse cities in the world and the Chicago Architecture Center offers visitors the opportunity to experience 85 different tours throughout the city streets, as well as the Chicago River.
These tours allow participants to view some of the city’s most prestigious structures and to explore the most famous buildings in Chicago in the process.