The Birthplace of the Modern Skyscraper
The birthplace of the modern skyscraper, Chicago was home to the first high rise office building, the Home Insurance Building, built in 1885, and widely considered the world's first skyscraper.* Although at 10 stories rising 180 feet (54.9 m) it would not be considered a skyscraper by today's standards, it was the first of its kind. It employed building techniques -"such as light-weight curtain wall facades entirely supported by an internal frame made of fireproof iron and steel"1 - that would lead to the first generation of high-rise, multi-storied, non-ceremonial buildings that in turn, would propel techno-architectural advances making possible the super skyscrapers of the 20th and 21st century. Today, one can find in Chicago high-rise buildings over 100 years old.

By the start of the 20th century, Chicago began to lose its early high-rise building lead to the much larger and richer New York City, and by the end of New York's building boom in the early 1930's, Chicago was left a distant second, which probably reflected the fact that it was also a distant second to New York City among American cities in population. Chicago's population peaked mid-20th century with around 3,620,000 recorded in the city (almost five million in the metropolitan area) in the 1950 census, making it the world's 9th most populous urban area at the time. (To this day, Chicagoans still refer to their city as 'the Second City'.)

Note: Some debate whether the distinction of the Home Insurance Building was clear-cut enough to refer to it as the world's first skyscraper, but most general literature on the subject does so as such. Furthermore, though not called skyscrapers, much taller buildings already existed by 1885, starting with the Great Pyramid of Giza, and then followed by the great cathedrals of Europe, their height not exceeded until the 19th century.)
Note: Some debate whether the distinction of the Home Insurance Building was clear-cut enough to refer to it as the world's first skyscraper, but most general literature on the subject does so as such. Furthermore, though not called skyscrapers, much taller buildings already existed by 1885, starting with the Great Pyramid of Giza, and then followed by the great cathedrals of Europe, their height not exceeded until the 19th century.)
Skyscraper Renaissance Amid Urban Decline
After that, Chicago became afflicted by the same urban decline that struck most major American cities between 1950 and 1990, losing almost a third of its population by 1980, falling back to1930 population levels. Yet, it was halfway through this period of urban decline and middle-class flight to the suburbs that Chicago began its second high-rise building boom. Starting in 1969, with the completion of the 850-foot (259 m) First National Bank building (now Bank One), and then more famously in 1970, with the 100-story, 1,127-foot (344 m) John Hancock Center, Chicago began to break New York's long-held monopoly on the world's ten tallest buildings. (In 1969, New York City possessed all of the world's ten tallest buildings.) In fact, the John Hancock Center was the first building since the Empire State Building was finished in 1931, to breach the 1,000 foot mark. Then by 1974, with the completion of the 110-story, 1,450-foot (442 m) high Sears Tower (renamed Willis Tower in 2009), Chicago once again became the home to the world's tallest building, a distinction it had lost to New York eight decades earlier.
Still, Chicago remained second in the overall height of its skyline, as New York City still had more buildings exceeding 900 feet in height, and in the world's top ten. Through the 1970's and 1980's, as Chicago's population stopped contracting, and began to rebound slightly, Chicago continued to outpace New York in new super-skyscraper building. Between 1969 and 1991, Chicago added nine buildings 850 feet tall or taller - four of them over 1,000 feet. In that same period, New York City added one - the 915-foot (279 m) Citicorp Center in 1977. Then Chicago stopped building, and nothing much changed for the next ten years - until catastrophe struck in 2001.
New Days at Number One
On September 11, 2001, Muslim Arab terrorists flew two passenger-filled planes into New York City's tallest buildings, the World Trade Center Towers, killing almost three-thousand people as both 110-story towers collapsed.

That tragic day, Chicago became once again the World's Tallest City, possessing the world's tallest skyline. It did lose the honor of being home to the world's tallest building in 1996, when the Petrona's Towers were completed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. However, those towers gained on the Sears Tower only with their needle-thin spires, and the Sears Tower still had the highest actual roof-top in the world until 2004 when the Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan put one 19 feet (5.8 m) higher. Nonetheless, Chicago still had the officially tallest collection of massive super tall skyscrapers - up until 2008, when Hong Kong briefly took the top spot. Chicago regained it the start of 2009, with the formal completion of the 1389-foot (423 m) Trump International Hotel & Tower. It gave up the title for good, when the Khalifa Tower was completed in Dubai, including that building's height into CAHTT* calculations that put Dubai at number one (see our World's Tallest City page). Once again, Chicago became the Second City. Later that year, Chicago slipped to third place after Hong Kong.

Chicago might have remained in second place if the Trump International Hotel & Tower had not been scaled back from its original planned height of 2,000 feet ( 610 m) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Hopes for Chicago to at least regain the second spot further and more firmly diminished with the cancellation of the Chicago Spire, also slated two reach 2,000 feet. The terrorist attacks literally have re-shaped America's skylines, not just thru outright destruction, but by also lowering the sights of architects in America.
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For an explanation of CAHTT, please see our
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