Chicago’s First Courthouse, southwest corner of Clark (left) and Randolph (right), 1835. The courthouse was probably the first building in Chicago with any architectural pretensions, for its design echoed the then prevalent Greek Revival style, even though its overall massing was based on that of a Roman Temple. At the right midground is located the jail and enginehouse erected in 1833. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

The overwhelming success of the initial land sales and the exploding rate of newcomers entering the city seemed to signal that Chicago was going to survive as a western settlement.  Appropriately, it was now time to start constructing buildings not as just quick, expedient shelter, but as buildings in a material more suitable for such architectural aspirations that spoke of a secured and long-lasting future: masonry.  In the fall of 1835, construction began on the Public Square of the County Courthouse at the southwest corner of Randolph and Clark, establishing Randolph Street, one block south of busy, commercial Lake Street, as a quieter location for offices.  A log blockhouse erected in 1833 that was used as a jail was already standing on the Square at the southeast corner of Randolph and La Salle, opposite the site of the planned structure.  The Courthouse was probably the first building in Chicago with any architectural pretensions, for its design echoed the then prevalent Greek Revival style, even though its overall massing was based on that of a Roman Temple.  A courtroom that seated 200 was elevated above a basement in the brick body of the 30′ by 60′ building.  Office space was located in the basement for the county government.  To enter the courtroom, one mounted a flight of stairs and passed under a wooden portico of four Doric columns that faced onto Clark Street.

The Saloon Building, southeast corner of Lake (left) and Clark (right), 1836. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

While the county was provided office space in the basement of the Courthouse, the town’s government, such as it was in 1836, had to look elsewhere for space.  This was admirably provided in 1836 with the erection of the three-story Saloon Building by J.B.F. Russell and G. W. Doan, one block north of the Courthouse on Clark Street at the southeast corner of Lake Street.  Once again, an air of permanence was sought with the use of masonry on its exterior.  Stores were located on the ground floor, while the second floor contained offices.  It was the third floor that contained a large hall from which the building derived its name.  ‘Saloon’ originally had nothing to do with our current conception of a western tavern, but came from the French term, salon, interpreted by the building’s owners as a spacious and grand room.  Many of early Chicago’s important political meetings and famous social events took place in the Saloon’s hall until even larger and more commodious facilities were constructed in the 1850s.


In addition to these two governmental institutions, the first major private building type that demanded the increased architectural attention of masonry was the hotel.  With the onslaught of newcomers arriving in Chicago during 1835 and 1836, demand for temporary shelter constantly outpaced the city’s inventory of rooms for rent.  Prior to 1835, the two leading suppliers of nightly accommodations were the landmark Sauganash Inn at the southeast corner of Lake and Market and the first Tremont House, erected in 1833 at the northwest corner of Lake and Dearborn by Alanson Sweet.  He had named it after the Tremont House in Boston that was famous for being the first American hotel to have both running water and indoor plumbing. (This was designed by Isaiah Rogers in 1829.)  Neither of these early local structures could legitimately claim to be “hotels,” however, because of their diminutive size and rustic service.  A more accurate description for all of Chicago’s similar buildings at this time would be rooming house or “inn.”  In the fall of 1835, however, construction began on what Chicago could justly call a hotel, the four-story Lake House.

The Lake House Hotel, southeast corner of Rush and (old) Michigan, 1835. The Rush Street swing bridge is in the foreground. (Karamanski, Rally ‘Round the Flag)

Built by a group that included John H. Kinzie and Gurdon Hubbard, in the more fashionable North Division now accessible with the completion of the Dearborn Street drawbridge, it was located across from the fort where the river took a southern dogleg at the southeast corner of Hubbard (then Michigan) and Rush Streets, and was thus located to look directly downriver to the lake at the new cut in the sandbar that allowed the river to run straight into Lake Michigan.  Hence, the Lake House was positioned to take immediate advantage of new visitors arriving from lake schooners, as well as farmers who parked their prairie schooners across the river on the fort’s reservation.  Constructed with an exterior of brick, the Lake House was touted when it opened in the fall of 1836 as the “best hotel in the West,” having brought to Chicago such extravagances as napkins and printed menus. 

The year 1836 also saw the start of construction of a second brick hotel: the three-story City Hotel.  It was owned and operated by Francis Cornwall Sherman, a local brick manufacturer who had moved to Chicago in April 1834.  He wisely located the hotel on the northwest corner of Randolph and Clark, right in the middle of the city’s emerging governmental district: directly across Randolph from the Courthouse and only a half block down Clark from the Saloon Building. Sherman, who had started out as a brickmaker, would rise within the ranks of the Democratic Party to be elected Mayor in 1841, and again in 1862.  Just north of the City Hotel on Clark Street the city’s first post office was erected.


With government and private owners starting to utilize masonry construction in 1835-36, it was only a matter of time (and money) until a local congregation would incorporate brick in the erection of a new church.  This occurred in 1836-37 with the construction of St. James Episcopal Church on a lot, in the North Division, donated by John H. Kinzie that was located on the southwest corner of Wabash (then Cass) and Illinois, between Hubbard (then Michigan) Streets.  Kinzie apparently also footed much of the cost of construction, that permitted the use of the more ostentatious (and expensive) brick for the exterior of the 44′ by 64′ building.  In contrast to the Greco-Roman Courthouse, St. James was given a more appropriate English “Gothick” Revival (as this predated by a few years the writings by British architect Augustus Welby Pugin that identified the architectural qualities of an authentic Gothic Revival: exterior, including pointed arched windows, crenellations, finials, and a square, flat-roofed bell tower.  “The English church authorities labored to counteract the growth of the national Renaissance and built after the forms obtained in England during the seventeenth century, so that in 1837 Chicago’s villagers had a grotesque Doric house on one side of the river, and a grim, perpendicular Gothic house on the other, telling in wood and brick that architectural ideas were alive and would some day grow and flourish here.”

St. James Episcopal Church, on Cass (now Wabash), just south of Illinois, 1836. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Industrial Chicago.  Vols. 1 and 2, The Building Interests. Chicago: Godspeed, 1891-1896.

Karamanski, Theodore J. Rally ‘Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War, Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.

Masters, Edgar Lee. The Tale of Chicago. New York: Putnam, 1933.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf. 1940.Stoddard, Francis Hovey. The Life and Letters of Charles Butler. New York: Scribner: 1903.

Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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