1.18. BURNHAM AND ROOT: IN THE BEGINNING

Burnham and Root, John B. Sherman House, Chicago, 1874. Southwest corner of Prairie. (Online)

In Volume Two, we saw that Peter B. Wight, after he had moved to Chicago following the 1871 fire to join Asher Carter and William Drake in Carter, Drake and Wight, had brought the twenty-two year old John Root to Chicago in early 1872 and made him the foreman of the office.  Later that same year, as a favor for a friend, Wight had also hired his friend’s peripatetic twenty-six year-old adult son, Daniel H. Burnham as a draftsman.  The younger Root seems to have had a maturing influence on Burnham, and the two young men quickly became good friends, moonlighting together on small jobs. 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.  However, ten weeks into the partnership, the roof caved in on September 19 with the stock market crash.  The projects on their boards dried up, leaving them to fend as best they could during the winter of 1873-74. Root gained some income by playing the organ in Boyington’s First Presbyterian Church, attesting to his innate musical abilities. (Harriet Monroe in her biography of Root related a tale that on one Sunday morning, the impish Root played a theme and variations on ”Shoo-fly” so slowly that nobody had recognized it.) They used their “down time” wisely to sharpen their knowledge of architectural history, by copying details from books and magazines and then quizzed each other until both could identify a detail from which country it was from within ten years of its design.

They survived with a few small house designs until their first major commission proved eventually to be responsible for much of the enormous success of the firm.  In 1874, George Chambers, a mutual friend of both Root and John B. Sherman, who had by then become the general superintendent of the Union Stockyards, had recommended them to Sherman who was looking for an architect to design a new house for his family at 2100 Prairie Avenue.  Root’s design reflected the latest architectural stylings: the Néo-Grec of Hunt and Furness, the English “picturesque” Queen Anne in its overall form, details inspired by Viollet-le-Duc’s just published Second volume of his Discourses, and Ruskin’s constructional polychromy: red pressed brick, beige sandstone, black slate, columns of dark blue granite, black slate roof tiles, and red and beige terra cotta chimney pots. Root added his own residential touch, a steeply-sloped gable roof, for he believed in snow-plagued Chicago, that “in this climate no house standing alone can be good without a visible roof.”

Burnham and Root, Entry Gate to Union Stockyards, 1876. The influence of Frank Furness, following Root’s trip to the 1876 World’s Fair is evident in the corbelled window frame to the left, and the framed segmental arched portals to either side of the main gate. (Online)

During the design and construction of the house, Burnham fell in love with Sherman’s daughter, Margaret, whom he married on January 20, 1876.  The marriage into the Sherman family not only immediately established connections with the stockyards (for which Burnham and Root designed the buildings erected after 1874, allowing the young firm to stay in business during the depression), but more importantly would also establish contacts through Sherman with all of the power brokers of Chicago’s railroads and the Board of Trade.  With Burnham’s marriage, Burnham and Root had moved onto the fast track to success.  

But then Root did Burnham one better, for on January 15, 1880, he married Mary (Minnie) Louise Walker, the daughter of Sherman’s boss, James Monroe Walker who at the time had been the president of the Stockyards since 1873 (by this time Sherman was its vice-president).  After James Walker (1820-1881) had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1849, he joined the Michigan bar and soon became the General Solicitor for the Michigan Central.  This required him to move to Chicago in 1853 where he in addition to his work for the MC, he established a private practice, eventually taking on Wirt Dexter as his junior partner.  In 1855 he also became the General Solicitor for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroads, becoming its president between 1871 and 1876, when he returned to being its General Solicitor.  Root’s joy was tinged with great sadness, however, as Minnie had contracted tuberculosis after the engagement but before the wedding and died on February 22, only six weeks after the wedding.

Nonetheless, Root continued to live with his in-laws for a while. Therefore, Burnham and Root had, by 1880 consummated their relations with Chicago’s upper crust (both young men had rich and powerful fathers-in-law who lived on THE STREET: Prairie Avenue. Walker at 1720 Prairie, just north of where the Glessners will build, and Sherman three blocks farther south at the southwest corner of Prairie and 21st).  They now had intimate connections with both the Board of Trade (whose directors were at this moment secretly planning to vacate the Chamber of Commerce building for a new building they were planning to build opposite the La Salle Street Station) soon to be on S. La Salle Street and Boston’s railroads to Chicago for which the Bostonians were planning the construction of the C. & W. I. station and the corresponding development of Dearborn Street.  They were about to have their cake on La Salle Street and eat it on Dearborn.  As they had married into Chicago’s elite, they were undoubtably invited to the same functions that Owen Aldis attended, where that one fateful Summer evening Root and Aldis found themselves at the same house and the fortunes of Root and Burnham took a quick turn to greatness. Personally, the recently bereaved Root needed just such a challenge that Aldis had presented to him the next day to help him through the grieving process over the loss of Minnie.   There was only one problem as Aldis walked out of Burnham & Root’s office the next day, however: none of these three men knew much about designing a seven-story office building. 

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

FURTHER READING:

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

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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