Architecture and History of the Marquette Building

The Marquette Building, a landmark Chicago skyscraper from 1895, is a stunner. Right in the heart of the Loop, it’s one of the best extant examples of the Chicago School of architecture. Like many of Chicago’s architectural marvels, it fell into a state of neglect in the 20th century. Today, meticulous work has restored the Marquette Building to its original luster, both inside and out. Its jaw-dropping lobby makes it a perfect starting point for the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour, which runs 7 days a week and is available for private group tours as well. Having spent the past few months admiring it with tour guests, I felt compelled to share its history with our readers.

Marquette Building bronze relief sculptures front entrance
The bronze relief sculptures above the Dearborn entrance tell the story of Father Marquette’s life. Photo by Alex Bean.

Connecting to Chicago’s Roots

The name itself tells you that the builders of the Marquette Building were dreaming big. Father Jacques Marquette was a French Jesuit missionary and explorer, one of the first trailblazing Europeans to travel through the Great Lakes region. He headed the first European expedition down the mighty Mississippi in 1673. Marquette’s Native guides took him back to the Great Lakes through the Chicago Portage, and he returned the following winter to camp on the South Branch of the Chicago River. Subsequently, some have called him the first European resident of Chicago.

Marquette Building bronze bust
The bronze sculpted bust of Father Marquette inside the lobby. Photo by Alex Bean.

Father Marquette’s story was inspiring to the Marquette’s builders, and they saw their own efforts as a part of his pioneering legacy. They broke ground on the tower in 1893, the same year the Columbian Exposition brought 27 million visitors to Chicago. The World’s Fair created a new image for Chicago, hitherto considered a ghastly boomtown nightmare of a city. Burnham’s grand vision for the White City tied Chicago to the longer thread of “Western civilization” through its architecture and cultural achievements.

The Marquette Building echoed that idea by explicitly connecting the modern skyscraper to the era of European exploration. Bronze relief sculptures above the entrance romantically portray dramatic events in Marquette’s life. Glittering, colorful Tiffany mosaics and more bronze sculptures inside the dazzling lobby continue the mythic story of the French expedition. The effect, even today, is magical and transporting. Entering the Marquette in the late 19th century made it clear that though Chicago may feel like a young cowtown, it was tied to an epic legacy.

Marquette building lobby tiffany mosaic
The grand lobby of the Marquette Building is bejeweled with Tiffany mosaics. Photo by Alex Bean.

Architecture of the Marquette Building

Beyond its myth-making references to history, the Marquette Building is a masterpiece of Chicago architecture. No surprise, since the names behind its construction are an all-star team of 1890s Chicago buildings. The Marquette Building is among a handful of sterling survivors from the “Chicago School” of skyscraper design. From the 1880s to the 1920s, Chicago architects and engineers threw all their genius into the design and style of a whole new type of building– the world’s first skyscrapers. Towers by the likes of Burnham and Root, Adler and Sullivan, Holabird and Roche, and William Le Baron Jenney soared above the Loop.

Chicago School skyscrapers are typified by a few key architectural elements:

  • Steel frame construction, which is “expressed” in the building’s exterior form.
  • Exterior “curtain walls” made of brick, terra cotta, and large windows.
  • Tripartite design – an ornamented base, simple and expressive middle, and decorative cornice.
  • Chicago windows – double-hung on the sides, with large fixed center panes; allowing maximal air and light.

The Marquette Building, designed by Holabird and Roche, ornamented by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and constructed by the Brooks Brothers, includes all of these features. Consequently, it’s one of Chicago’s best ties to its turn-of-the-century architectural glory days.

Marquette Building historic facade
The historic Dearborn facade of the Marquette Building is a textbook example of Chicago School architecture. Photo by Alex Bean.

Expressing the Zeitgeist

The Marquette Building’s dynamic engineering and elaborate design fused two very divergent trends. On the one hand, industrialization was driving huge innovations in building materials and engineering techniques. Subsequently, buildings became bigger and taller than ever before, while also being cheaper and faster to build. T’was industrial efficiency which drove our buildings into the skies.

Conversely, the Gilded Age saw a nationwide revival of Neo-classical architecture in the Beaux Arts style. All buildings and monuments that aspired to grandeur had to ape the faux Greco-Roman look of Paris. So despite the cutting-edge technology in its design, the Marquette is clad in terra cotta designs that mimic ancient Rome. The Classical design elements lend the Marquette Building a stately and timeless grace, but there’s still a mismatch between structure and form. The Modernists would ride into town and blow that mismatch apart a few generations later.

Marquette Building alley view
Peeking at the Marquette’s unadorned alley-facing walls shows the tower’s steel skeleton. Photo by Alex Bean.

Restored to its Original Glory

Due to wear and tear, the Marquette fell into a neglected and mangled state by mid-century. A similar fate befell many other early skyscrapers. Neglect by management often lead to these early marvels untimely destruction. Thankfully, the Marquette survived, albeit in truncated form. The original terra cotta cornice was removed in the 1950s. The building looked cheaply circumcised, for lack of a better word. Happily, the Marquette Building’s current owner, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, meticulously restored the building in the early 2000s.

The MacArthur Foundation repaired the facade, re-installed the cornice, and cleaned the interior. Today, when I start the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour in the lobby, it’s impossible not to be transported back in time. All that’s missing is my overcoat, top hat, and cravat.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

 

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

be a
curious
person!

SIGN UP FOR OCCASIONAL UPDATES FROM CHICAGO DETOURS.

Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
Robert
GetYourGuide

Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
Heather
TripAdvisor

Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
Lorit
TripAdvisor

Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K
TripAdvisor

Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K
Yelp

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F
Yelp

Book a virtual tour

Fill in your details below