3.10. WIGHT BRINGS ROOT TO CHICAGO

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 (poignantly, Root coincidently had been in Liverpool when construction on the Lime Street Station shed had begun, that had the exact same 200’ span as did the project he was to supervise). 

John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. Construction of the Trainshed. John W. Root was Snook’s construction superintedent for this project. (Online)
William Baker and Francis Sherman, Lime Street Station, Liverpool, 1867. Root was studying in Liverpool during its construction. (Online)

The New York Depot was scheduled to open on October 8, 1871, what would be the first day of the Chicago fire, the event that would set the course of Root’s future professional career.  With the end of the building’s construction in sight and needing to secure future employment, the young Root, reflecting his earlier British educational experience and inspired by the Ruskinian Gothic employed in Wight’s recently completed National Academy of Design, had pursued not the French-trained Richard Morris Hunt, as had George Post and Frank Furness, but the British-inspired Peter B. Wight, who at that time was also a nationally known figure as the secretary of the A.I.A., to seek a position with the avant-garde architect with whom he shared many theoretical positions.

Peter Bonnett Wight, National Academy of Design, New York, 1863. (Online)

Wight was quite impressed with Root but at that moment had no position to offer.  Once the Chicago fire had occurred, the rest of Root’s life fell into place, like a play by Shakespeare.  Upon Wight’s return from Chicago after the fire to prepare his move to Chicago, he offered Root a position in his Chicago office and in January 1872, Wight sent a telegram from Chicago to come.  Root boarded a train in New York (more than likely in the shed he had just finished supervising its construction only a few weeks earlier) and detrained near the ruins of the La Salle Street station. Wight installed the twenty-two year-old as the foreman of the office, becoming responsible for supervising a portion of the post-fire replacement of Chicago’s building stock.  Later that same year, as a favor for a friend, Wight also hired his friend’s peripatetic twenty-six year-old adult son, Daniel H. Burnham as a draftsman. 

3.11. ROOT TEAMS WITH DANIEL  H.  BURNHAM 

Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root in their office, top floor of the Rookery. (Online)

Daniel Hudson Burnham had been born in Henderson, New York, in 1846, four years before Root.  His father had moved to Chicago in 1855 and built a successful wholesale drug business. Daniel attended Central High School, becoming known for his athletic prowess as well as his drawing abilities, and his lackadaisical approach to his studies.  One of his closest friends was Edward C. Waller, who would later provide many important commissions for his good friend.  In contrast to Root, Burnham failed the exams for both Harvard and Yale when he was sent to the East Coast to prepare for college, which may have left an inferiority complex in his psychological profile when it came to academic matters and towards those who had succeeded in this area.    Upon his return to Chicago in late 1867, he had obtained a drafting position, without any prior preparation other than a “knack” for freehand drawing, with Loring & Jenney, where Loring looked after his development.  This brought a brief, but important shift in his focus on his long-term prospects as he informed his mother in a letter dated May 11, 1868:

“A year’s experience among businessmen makes me feel quite differently from my former self.  I long to study now, and look back on the years that are gone… But I shall try to become the greatest architect in the city or country.  Nothing else will be near the mark I have set for myself.  And I am not afraid that I can become so.  There needs but one thing.  A determined and persistent effort.”

Not being able or interested in staying in one place for very long, however, Burnham succumbed to wanderlust once again and followed his friend Waller off to Nevada in 1869 in search of the Comstock Lode’s silver.  This adventure also failed to pan out and Burnham returned to Chicago, working for short periods in the offices of Van Osdel, Otis Wheelock and then Gustav Laureau.  He eventually tried his hand at being a druggist (his father’s profession), and then selling plate glass, until his father, finally frustrated with his son’s lack of direction and discipline, arranged the drafting job in Wight’s office late in 1872, where Daniel serendipitously met his future partner.  The younger Root seems to have had a maturing influence on the older Burnham, and the two young men quickly became good friends, moonlighting together on small jobs that Burnham was a natural at procuring (he was a “hustler” in the true sense of the word). With the economy in full bloom and a promised commission to plan a new suburb procured by Burnham, the two left Wight with his blessing and started their partnership on July 5, 1873. Their first designed house was erected on the southeast corner of Harrison and Ashland.  However, ten weeks into the partnership, the roof caved in on “Black Friday,” September 19 with the stock market crash.  The projects on their boards dried up, as happened with almost all of America’s architects, leaving them to fend as best they could during the winter of 1873-74 as the Panic slowly turned into the Great Depression of the 1870s.

(Louis Sullivan fans are probably pulling their hair out over why we aren’t talking about him.  Louis Sullivan had been born in Boston in 1856 and had attended the first three of the four-year curriculum at Boston’s English High School.  He applied for early admission to MIT, passed the entrance exams, and then also passed the exams required to skip the first two years of college, which allowed him to enter college in the fall of 1872, as a third year student in William Ware’s new Building and Architecture program, at the ripe age of sixteen.  The classes did not live up to his expectations and after a year, he decided to find a job with an architect.  After attempting unsuccessfully to procure a position with Ware’s former mentor, Richard Morris Hunt in New York, Sullivan then moved onto Philadelphia where he could live with his maternal grandfather and uncle, and eventually secured a job in the summer of 1873 with Frank Furness and George Hewitt.  Well, on Black Friday, the recently-turned seventeen-year old drafts-”boy” was still working for Frank Furness in Philadelphia, after having left William Ware’s MIT’s architecture program having attended only one year 1872-3, (albeit he had entered at the third-year level).  The nascent depression would eventually force Furness to furlough the young Sullivan, in mid-November 1873.  The unemployed teenager, with no one or nowhere else to turn to, moved back into his parents’ house for free room-and-board.  Serendipitously, his parents had moved from his native Boston in 1868 to eventually settle in Chicago by 1871.  Contrary to many histories of Chicago architecture, therefore, Louis Sullivan’s arrival had nothing  to do with the 1871 fire, or with the post-fire reconstruction (his Autobiography of An Idea notwithstanding) because by November the snowballing recession had stopped all new construction in its tracks.  Sullivan had no alternative but to move back in with Mom and Dad, and they now lived in Chicago.  Had the Panic of 1873 not intervened, Sullivan more than likely would have continued working with Furness in Philadelphia, especially with the preparations for the 1876 World’s Fair then being underway, until he could afford to travel to Paris and enroll at the École des Beaux-arts.)

Therefore, with the arrival of Peter B. Wight in November 1871, Chicago had gained not only one of New York’s leading professionally-trained architects who was well-versed in the British design reform movement, but also one of the country’s leading experts on building fire issues.  Wight was then responsible for bringing John Wellborn Root to Chicago, the person who would be the leading architectural figure during the pioneering decade of the 1880s.  From the standpoint of the future of Chicago’s architectural history, therefore, I repeat my earlier assertion that the relocation of Wight and Root from New York to Chicago may have been the most important result of the 1871 Fire.

FURTHER READING:

Hines, Thomas S. Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner. New York: Oxford University Press,   1974.

Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University    Press, 1973.

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

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