f the many comparisons and contrasts made between the cities of Boston and Chicago, the theme of architecture and planning is recurrent. From Louis Sullivan to SOM: Boston Grads Go to Chicago examines the significant contributions Boston architects, particularly those from MIT, made towards affecting change in architectural design and practice in Chicago during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether tackling the challenges of the tall office building, developing modern, moderate cost homes, or helping to create the visual and technological excitement that made the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 so memorable, MIT students left an indelible mark on the city of Chicago. Within a decade of the Exposition, a rich exchange between Boston and Chicago architects was apparent.
Our investigation begins following the great fires that damaged both cities--Chicago in 1871 and Boston in 1873. The destruction, as devastating as it was, provided unexpected opportunities for both cities to rebuild. While the idea of building tall captivated Chicago, Boston merchants and investors tended to remain conservative. Within Boston's commercial district, the area most heavily affected by the fire, replacement buildings were seldom more than a floor or two taller than their predecessors and frequently built of the same materials. This trend, combined with the later financial panic of 1893, did a great deal to limit Boston's foray into both the tall office building and progressive residential building. In addition, the filling-in of the Back Bay, which had provided Boston with nearly a half century of building opportunity, was nearing completion. In contrast, Chicago was expanding economically and was not faced with the same physical restrictions as peninsular Boston.
MIT had launched the first architecture program in the country in 1868, under the direction of William Robert Ware. Students were taught initially by Ware who, after 1872, was ably assisted by Eugène Létang. Armed with this formal training, students looked for locations where they could ply their trade. Chicago soon surpassed Boston as the primary destination for these young and talented architects.