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11 Beautiful Buildings That Show Off Chicago's Architecture

Iconic structures, architecturally significant residential buildings, fun facts and more grace our list of architecture that you have to see in the Windy City.

Chicago was a burgeoning big city when it suffered the devastating setback of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. But instead of licking its wounds, Chicago dusted itself off and went to work. The result: one of the most architecturally significant cities in the world. Check out some of the top buildings, architecture tours, places to live and more.

In a city as architecturally endowed as Chicago, it’s hard to pick just a few buildings as favorites, but we narrowed them down and came up with 11 that wow us.

Reliance Building

We’ve got a soft spot for this office building-turned-National Historic Landmark-turned-hotel (now the Staypineapple, An Iconic Hotel, The Loop) and it's 19th century flair. We’ve stayed here a few times and we know how lovingly it was restored, preserved and reconstructed in 1999, saving it from near-demolition and instead saving details like original mail slots in some guestroom doors.

At the corner of State and Washington streets, the steel-frame Reliance Building glimmers in white terra-cotta and tall stretches of windows that signaled a departure from blockier construction before it and a precursor to skyscrapers that came after.

Reliance Building, Chicago
Reliance Building (Hotel Burnham), Chicago (©Anne Evans)

Board of Trade

The walk from the Metra commuter rail station takes us past this National Historic Landmark, soaring relic of Art Deco greatness.

Perfectly situated at the end of LaSalle Street, nothing in the way of its grand image, this 1930 Holabird & Root masterpiece has all the right Art Deco touches—strong vertical lines and set-backs up its 45 stories, and geometric ornamentation. Even its decorative topper is stylized, a solid aluminum version of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, chosen to represent the trading activities within. Fun fact: The model for artist John Storrs’ statue was a 14-year-old girl from the west side of Chicago. 141 W. Jackson Blvd.

Chicago Board of Trade
(©Felix Lipov/Shutterstock)

Chicago Water Tower

Who can resist the charm of this Gothic revival sandcastle tower in the middle of the Mag Mile? Add to that its history and use, and this structure always gets a vote in our best-of lists.

Built in 1869, following completion of the Pumping Station across the street, the Tower now houses a city-run art gallery. It originally hid a standpipe to regulate water pressure from the pumping station that pulled lake water through two miles of underwater piping. Architect William Boyington used this castellated Gothic style and the yellow Joliet limestone in many of his structures, including the now-abandoned Joliet Prison—made famous in “The Blues Brothers” movie. 806 N. Michigan Ave.

Historic Water Tower, Chicago
Historic Water Tower, Chicago (Cortney Martin/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Poetry Foundation

We love this sophisticated home of Poetry magazine for its underplayed elegance and hushed presence among bustling River North. It’s not shouting, “Look at me!” in any way or trying to be the biggest or tallest; it’s just quietly doing its job.

The 22,000-square-foot sunlit center—one of only a few devoted to poetry in the country—was designed by Chicago architect John Ronan in 2011, after the magazine received an unexpected $200 million endowment in 2002 from late pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly. Like a poem can often do, the structure tends to change with each new look, depending on the light. 61 W. Superior St.

Poetry Foundation
Poetry Foundation building, Chicago (Courtesy Poetry Foundation)

Marina City

One such building is the iconic Marina City. Completed in 1964 and lovingly referred to as the Corn Cobs, these 65-story twin structures along the river were the brainchild of Bertrand Goldberg, who hoped to keep post-World War II city dwellers from retreating to the suburbs by creating a city-within-a-city, complete with parking lot, restaurant, grocery store, dry cleaner, bowling alley, theater, bank and more. Each condo unit is wedge-shaped with rounded balconies. 300 N. State St.

Marina City Towers, Chicago

Lake Point Tower

Another curvaceous condo building, Lake Point Tower lies just north of the river, the only skyscraper in downtown Chicago east of Lake Shore Drive. Built in 1968 by two students of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it was the world’s tallest apartment building at the time. Famous residents have included Scottie Pippen, Goldie Hawn and Alice Cooper. 505 N. Lake Shore Drive

Lake Point Tower, Chicago

860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive

To live in an original Mies home, there are plenty of options in his adopted home of Chicago, in particular the 1951-completed duo of 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive, models of modern architecture with open plans, huge expanses of windows and minimalism at its best. It was Mies, after all, credited with saying “less is more.”

Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive buildings
Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 N. (Courtesy Lake Shore Drive Buildings)

Field Building

If given the chance, who wouldn’t want to live life as a supermodel—tall, sleek and impossibly sophisticated? That’s why I would want to be the Field Building—aka Bank of America, 135 S. LaSalle St. Completed in 1934, the Field Building is the ultimate expression of Art Deco luxe. —Constance Rajala, Chicago Architecture Foundation docent

Auditorium Theatre

If I were a building, I would be the Auditorium Theatre. As one of Chicago's oldest buildings—and the city's tallest upon completion in 1889—it had a front row seat to the amazing growth of the 19th and 20th centuries. It has hosted presidential conventions, rock concerts, ballets, and the NFL Draft. Just imagine the stories I’d be able to share. —Dillon Goodson, Chicago Architecture Foundation docent

Auditorium Theatre
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University (©James Steinkamp)

Rothchild Building

I’d choose to be the Rothchild Building (333 S. State St.), now the DePaul Center. It’s one of my favorite buildings in Chicago, designed by Holabird & Roche in 1912. In addition to feeling beautiful on the outside and modern on the inside, I'd watch the “real” Chicago every day: students going to school, lawyers scurrying over to Federal court, parades, performers, the El and music that drifts out of the planters along State Street. —Kathleen Carpenter, Chicago Architecture Foundation docent

Railway Exchange Building
Railway Exchange Building (Courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation)

Railway Exchange Building

Where Chicago happens to be housed in a historic structure. Here are some stats on our beautiful Railway Exchange building:

  • Built in 1904 by D.H. Burnham & Co.
  • The Original “Santa Fe” sign atop the building was given to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Ill., in 2012 when Motorola bought the rights to the sign.
  • Daniel Burnham produced the 1909 Plan of Chicago on the penthouse floor of the Railway Exchange building.
  • The glazed white terracotta of the building echoes the famed White City of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, led by Daniel Burnham.
  • The entire building wraps around a central light well, with a glass atrium capping a grand two-story lobby.

11 Examples of Chicago Architecture