3.8. WIGHT INTERVIEWS JOHN WELLBORN ROOT

Following his talk to the A.I.A. in November, Wight packed up his belongings and moved to Chicago to begin his long and successful career in Chicago.  Once settled, he sent a telegram to a young draftsman in New York who had impressed him in an earlier interview and invited him to come out to Chicago and work in the office of Carter, Drake & Wight.  A week later, twenty-two year-old John Wellborn Root boarded a train in New York bound for Chicago in search of his adult calling.  Root had been born in 1850 in Lumpkin, Georgia, where during the Civil War his father had been a blockade-runner, until Gen. Sherman had taken Atlanta (with the aid of Jenney) and on Sept. 7, 1864, ordered the complete evacuation of the city.  In order to avoid his fourteen-year old son from being drafted into the Confederate army, his father had put John on a blockade runner that took him to one of his father’s business associates in Liverpool, England.  There, the young Root found inspiration, as evidenced by the growing passion for architecture revealed in his letters back home, for Liverpool can be viewed as the British parallel of Chicago with regards to commerce (grain and meat shipped from Chicago would land in Liverpool) and architectural innovation (such as the first British building to incorporate iron columns, St. Anne’s Church, 1770, to the city’s latest achievement, the erection of the train shed for the Lime Street Station.  With a clear span of 200’ it was designed by William Baker and Francis Stevenson to be the second longest clear span in the world, only surpassed by Birmingham’s (1854) New Street Station’s shed with its span of 211.’ (see Vol. 1).  

William Baker and Francis Sherman, Lime Street Station, Liverpool, 1867. When completed, its 200’ clearspan would be the second largest span in the world. (Online)

Root’s letters revealed his awakening interest in architecture, perhaps sparked by two very forward-looking buildings in Liverpool designed by local architect Peter Ellis: the Oriel Chambers of 1864, with its oriel windows and glass/sheet iron curtain wall in its light court, and the recently completed 16 Cook Street of 1866 with its cantilevered spiral staircase.  

Peter Ellis, Liverpool, Left: Oriel Chambers, 1864; Right: 16 Cook Street, 1866. (Online)
Peter Ellis, Oriel Chambers. Influences on Root: Left: Bay or Oriel windows; Right: Glass and sheet iron curtain wall lining the Lightcourt. (Online)
Peter Ellis, 16 Cook Street. Influences on Root: The cantilevered, glass-enclosed spiral stair that Root would employ as his signature in such buildings as the Rialto (that had two of these), the Insurance Exchange, the Midland Hotel in Kansas City, and of course, the only surviving example, The Rookery. (Online)

It is also quite conceivable that during his time in Liverpool, Root could have been introduced to some of the writings of the great British theorists Jones, Pugin, and Ruskin.  Therefore, as opposed to New Yorker Richard Morris Hunt, who had studied and worked in France during the Second Empire and had developed a distinctly French approach to architecture, Root, with his British background, would correspondingly develop a philosophy grounded in the theories of the British design reform movement.  He stayed in Liverpool for two years while he attended high school and took the entrance exams for Oxford, that he passed.

He was called back to the U.S. in September 1866 after his family had moved to New York after the war.  He was enrolled in New York University from where he graduated in Civil Engineering (as had George Post some 12 hears earlier) in 1869, and quite naturally, was the Commencement speaker for his class.  Unlike Post, however, who had then moved into the office of the French-trained Hunt, it should come as no surprise that Root’s first full-time employment was with New York’s leading Gothic Revivalist, James Renwick, who had earlier designed Chicago’s Second Presbyterian Church, the famous “spotted church.”  After a year in Renwick’s office (without Renwick’s presence as he was touring Europe), Root went to work for John B. Snook, another British émigré, who, at the time was designing Cornelius Vanderbilt’s new Grand Central Depot that was simply nothing more than a bigger and more ornate version of Vanderbilt’s recently-acquired Michigan Southern Station in Chicago that W.W. Boyington had designed three years earlier.  

W.W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station, Chicago, 1867. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)
John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. (Stern, New York-1880)

Root, at the age of twenty, became Snook’s superintendent of construction for the trainshed, and thus, had cut his professional teeth supervising the erection of the country’s longest clear span iron construction to date. (At 200,’ its span would match that of the Lime Street Station in Liverpool.)

John B. Snook, Construction of Grand Central Depot, New York, 1870-1. Trainshed. Twenty-year old John W. Root was Snook’s construction superintendent for this project. (Online)

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

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