Meanwhile, in the face of Shepherd Brooks’ resistance to steel framing, Burnham & Root had no option but to completely redesign the Monadnock a third time. The exterior would have to be 16-story masonry bearing walls; the resulting settlement of the building would be the cost of the client’s refusal to accept, or even understand, the new technology of iron framing. (The architects had calculated the building would settle 8”; in reality it settled over 20.”) Root now faced the daunting task of designing a 200’ high pile of bricks, and to please the other brother, there could be no carved ornament on the surface of this massive pile.
At least the floor plan seemed agreed upon by all parties. The bay windows were a given, as Aldis had stated earlier, “numerous bays for extra floor space.” With a site width of 68,’ lining both long street fronts with 23’ deep office space, the resulting corridor would have been over 22′ wide. Instead of placing a narrow atrium through the center of the building, as Baumann had done in the Chamber of Commerce, Burnham & Root pulled the exterior walls in from the lotlines some 15,” reducing the width of the corridor to 20.’ They then placed the stairs and elevator shaft for each of the four portions of the building within this central area, keeping the building’s entire perimeter open for rentable office space. This resulted in an unheard of 68% floor space efficiency as noted by Aldis. He compared this with the 50 to 55% in the Rookery and 45% in Home Insurance Building. This design also saved the construction costs of the extra, unusable corridor floor area as well as by reducing the surface area of the exterior wall. I can see Root and George Fuller using this to justify the extra cost of the specially-made curved brick.
Therefore, no rentable area was lost along the building’s perimeter to these functions. Without the interior lightwell, however, the only daylight available for the corridors would be provided by a meager 8’ wide skylight over the open stairways and what could be leeched through the glass panes in the corridor walls.
Root was faced with what to do with the 16-story masonry exterior. Sometime during the period after June 8 (when the Inter Ocean had published the description of the skeleton-framed version) and before July 9, 1889, when Aldis wrote to Brooks complaining about the new “bell-shaped cornice,” Root had completely reworked the exterior into the form of the final design. What were his intensions for this design?
Once again, his looking over his shoulder to what Sullivan’s latest projects could provide as a point of departure. Sullivan had recently completed his takes on the unornamented, smooth-faced pile of masonry with the Walker Warehouse and the Ryerson Tomb. In the Walker Warehouse Sullivan had built a seven-story high box of smooth-faced stone. He took the box as a given and proceeded to carve the windows into each face in a tripartite elevation of a two-story base, four-story arcade, and one-story cornice, that was capped with the conventional parapet. What made this look “modern” was the complete lack of carved ornament on the building’s surface (other than the few pieces I noted in v.4, sec 5.8). Sullivan, respecting the end thrusts of arcades emphasized the corner piers, in essence framing each elevation with a sharp corner. The building was conceived as a collection of planar surfaces that defined the masonry box. I could compare its architectonic concept with those of my elongated version of Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève as being two “traditionally” conceived works of architecture.
Peter Brooks had demanded no ornament to be placed on the Monadnock. Root could have easily designed it as a sixteen-story high rectangular mass of bricks, carved the windows into it in some “artistic” pattern as had Sullivan, and then stuck the bay windows onto the mass, similar to the Tacoma Building and moved onto more interesting projects, leaving Burnham to build it. In fact, this was precisely what many critics claimed had occurred in post-construction reviews, following Root’s death. In fact, some critics, because of the building’s “plainness” even stated that Burnham had to have designed it.
Needing/wanting to transcend “mere building” into the making of architecture, however, Root had risen to this artistic challenge by changing the conceptual method he had typically employed in his past projects. Instead of conventionally applying/integrating carved sculptural elements onto the body of his buildings in an additive method, he would carve out from the original 200’ x 66’ x 202’ high pile of brick a sculptural form, subtracting material from the original block, not unlike what a sculptor does to a block of stone.
In v.3, sec. 11.10, I had compared Root’s detailing of how he had “extracted” the form of the granite columns in the base of the Rookery from its sandstone corner piers to Michelangelo’s statement that all he did in making a piece of sculpture (I paraphrase) “was to release it from within the piece of stone he had chosen to carve.” In the process of redesigning the Monadnock, Root had created a new type of architectural form; instead of a building with carved sculpture on it, the building now became a piece of sculpture. Root had literally carved a 16-story piece of sculpture.
But before we analyze his final form, we need one more variable: Why “Egyptian”? In Sec. 4.4, I echoed Hoffmann’s assertion that Root, in search of “meaning” for his design, had gravitated to Egyptian detailing in the 1884 designs to allude to the similarities between the Nile Delta and the Chicago River’s marshy conditions along the lakefront. Ancient Egyptian buildings were being found to have been very colorful, which may have also piqued his interest in the use of polychromy in his designs. I also want to speculate that Root might have been experimenting (that’s really what he was always doing, wasn’t it: improvisations) with Egyptian architecture because it was a “pre-arch” style, very appropriate as a point of departure to evolve a style for the iron skeleton frame. Later into the design process, Root began to translate, with the assistance of German-born Fritz Wagner, one of the city’s leading terra cotta fabricators, a section from German theorist Gottfried Semper’s 1860 study, Der Stil. Historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury in her book, Chicago: 1890, posited that Semper’s discussion of Egyptian architecture could have easily reinforced Root’s innate curiosity in the potential of Egyptian forms to be a fresh point of departure for the development of an American architecture.
Root’s original designs for the Monadnock had incorporated Egyptian motifs, and so it wasn’t really much of a stretch for him to restudy what the style might offer in this latest effort to use only brick walls. As he had been working over the past four years with the idea of the continuous plane or surface as a mode of expression for the exterior of a skyscraper that expressed the enclosure or boundary surface of the interior’s volume, it would have been logical for him to apply this concept to the new design for Monadnock. After all, when we imagine a “200’ high pile of bricks” over the course of architectural history, the only culture that built with this technique that immediately comes to mind is Egypt, of course.
One significant change Root made from the 1885 Egyptian designs was to shift building precedent types from the columnular Egyptian temples to the continuous, massive planes of masonry in the Egyptian pylon, the gateway walls that flanked the entrances to the temple precincts. The pylon was typically capped with a coved cornice, not unlike the profile he had been experimenting with in the 1885 design. Taking the pylon as his precedent, Root would also try to impart a battered, or slopping profile to the Monadnock’s walls, addressing the reduction of the depth of the office floors above. The pylon, like the Brookses’ program, had two parts that were so arranged as to create a central opening, in line with the axis of the precinct. As Shepherd Brooks was talking about the possibility of building some, if not the entire southern half of the Monadnock at a later date, Root might just have the opportunity to echo the bifurcated nature of the pylon for functional reasons. So Root seems to have simply taken an Egyptian pylon as his point of departure, and added the appropriate number of bay windows:
Here again, we find the added challenge of Sullivan coming into the equation: the Ryerson Tomb. With apologies to Root, there can be no mistaking the curving flare of the tomb’s base as the inspiration for Root’s final design. In fact, if we look carefully at the tomb’s base, we find Root’s exact solution for the first floor of the Monadnock: Sullivan brought the first course of stone out of the ground with a vertical face for a few inches, and then let the curve take-off. Exactly the detail Root used at the second floor of the Monadnock.
While Burnham and Root didn’t want to use the entire 68′ width of the site in the office floors for the reasons I discussed above, it was important to use every inch that could be incorporated in the Ground Floor. Therefore, the 6’4” thick brick walls of the base of the building grew straight out from the lot’s edges, until the second floor, where the function (and space requirements) changed to office floors. (Note below that each of the four “sections” of the building had its own entry along Dearborn.) Thus, we have the base of the Monadnock designed, but from here Root took architecture into the modern period:
1. He then flared the second floor, à la Sullivan, back 15” over a height of 10’ with an elliptical curve to the third floor.
2. At this point the exterior face retained an “economical” verticality until the sixteenth floor, at which point Root reprised the flare of the second floor with the coved cornice, echoing the conventional termination of an Egyptian pylon. In order to compensate for its distance from the sidewalk, Root somewhat exaggerated the curve for it bows out 24” over a height of 6’8.”
3. He then carved out each of the openings in the wall where the bay windows would be located, running from the third floor to the fifteenth. In essence, the Monadnock was not a bearing wall, but a series of masonry piers with openings between these.
4. These openings in the “wall” were then infilled with a lightweight steel framework that held the bay windows. The steel was covered with a thin layer of exterior brick that Root simply continued from the surface of adjacent brick pier with a fluidity that contained no sharp corners. The brick seems simply to organically grow as a skin over the volume of the building. In in the final design of the building’s elevation, Root has finally admitted that a skyscraper could be “vertical”: he has scrapped all dominant horizontal projections. This leaves the vertical lines of the unbroken bay windows to soar to the sky (over a year before Sullivan is credited with having been the first to do so in the seven-story unbroken piers in the Wainwright Building. And just to set the record straight: Root had designed the 12-story unbroken piers in the Masonic Temple at least six months prior to Sullivan’s Wainwright Building).
5. He then communicated to the onlooker the inherent contrast between the two structural systems with the location of the glass. In the skeleton-framed bay windows, the glass is pushed as close to the surface of the exterior brick as possible, creating a sense of a taut, thin surface that is being blown out, away from the building by the air pressure inside. The windows that are located in the bearing walls, on the other hand, have been crisply carved into the wall and the glass pulled as far back as possible, revealing the immense thickness of the brick wall for all to see. (this is most effective in the curved second floor window openings: see image above) (Author’s image)
And lastly, the best of his details: still wanting to evoke the precedent of the pylons with their battered, sloping walls, while he could not literally afford to make the walls slope inward, (even though as the wall’s thickness had to increase as the wall approached the ground, it would have been easy to keep the same inside dimensions, but this would have cost space and money in sloped brick) he struck upon a truly ingenious visual illusion that is effective, and yet so subtle that many viewers aren’t even aware of its presence until someone points it out.
He detailed the corners of the buildings with a progressively increasing chamfer, starting rather imperceptibly at the third floor, until it reached a three-foot radius at the cornice. Physically, it actually reduces the dimension from the last window jamb to the building’s corner as one moves up to the top of the building. When one is standing obliquely to the long elevations this resulting angle does create the illusion that the wall is sloping inward. This illusion is reinforced on a sunny day when the shade around the chamfer reinforces the visual angle at the wall’s edge.
I do not label the Monadnock Block as a modern, Chicago School building because of its absence of ornament, but because of the manner in which Root conceptualized its design: by synthesizing its various determinants he arrived at a new form that he then enriched by sheathing it with a fluid, undulating skin of brick. In this respect, Root was contemporary with the emerging Belgian Art Nouveau movement (as I earlier have noted Sullivan’s ornament was likewise) and twenty years ahead of the German Expressionists. He had achieved a true Vitruvian synthesis of commodity, firmness, and delight.
As far as Root’s search for a modern ornament, I have already identified his contemporary experiment with that he placed in the base of the Reliance Building.
The only variable I have yet to address is Root’s contemporary interest in the use of polychromy in his buildings. Root had carried his original 1884 color scheme that he had planned for the Rialto Building over to the Monadnock, The Economist reported this on August 17, 1889:
“A uniform material is everywhere employed, brick… no two parts of the building will have the same color value… There is no cornice to the building only a bell-shaped coping. There is no base, the entire building swelling outward at the bottom, to insure the expression of perfect stability.”
Fortunately, it is Summer and I will return around August 16. Meanwhile, have fun! I leave you this as a tease…. (Do you think Paul Scheerbart or Hans Poelzig would approve?)
Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.
Merwood-Salisbury, Joanna. Chicago 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2009.
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: email@example.com)