Burnham and Root, The Rookery, 1885. Preliminary Elevation Study. (Zukowski, Chicago)

Summarizing the last four chapters, the vertically-stacked bay window (such as in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel), the unbroken, continuously-vertical pier and recessed spandrel, the triple window, the multistoried arcade, the stacked or layered arcades in a geometric progression, the flat-roofed palazzo brick box form, the tripartite elevation, the multistoried iron skeleton frame, terra cotta fireproofing, and the multistoried interior atrium, all the elements of the famed “Chicago skyscraper” had been developed and used by 1880.  There is only one problem from an historical perspective: only one of these, Peter B. Wight and Sanford Loring’s systems of terra cotta and terra cotta fireproofing, had initially been developed or erected in Chicago.  It had been New Yorker George Post, who had continued to push the technological envelope in the design of his buildings, who had led the development of the American skyscraper during the 1870s and into the early 1880s.


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

We last left Burnham and Root on that day in summer 1880 that Owen Aldis had brought them the commission to design their first large office building, the seven-story Grannis Block. I ended the chapter with the following: “There was only one problem as Aldis walked out of Burnham & Root’s office that day, however: none of these three men knew much about designing a seven-story office building.”  While thirty-year old John Root had been “in the field” for the past ten years, including having been the architectural supervisor for the construction of the country’s longest span roof (Grand Central Terminal), he had never designed a multistoried building.  Twenty-seven-year old Owen Aldis had even less experience with this typology, as he had only just been hired by Peter Brooks to manage the Portland Block less than a year earlier.  In such a situation, one can rely on only two things: first, an objective study of the problem/s to be solved, and second, precedents, that is, what had people done in the past to solve these problems.

Burnham & Root, House for Sidney A. Kent, Chicago, 2944 S. Michigan Avenue, 1883. (Online)

I spent so much time in the last two chapters discussing Hunt’s, and particularly Post’s early buildings in New York because they would provide precedents that Root will employ in his early skyscrapers, so I wanted you to have them In your memory, as did Root.  (Speaking of Root’s memory, it appears that he had some level of an eidetic memory, as we will explore in a few moments.)  Root will be very influenced by these buildings in New York for he knew them very well.  Remember, he had finished his professional education in the civil engineering department (with little in the way of architectural training, however) of NYU, graduating in 1869, eleven years after Post had completed the same curriculum.  (As opposed to Post, however, who had then entered Hunt’s atelier for an education in architecture, Root, the polymath, would simply teach himself architecture as he worked his way into the profession.)  He had then worked in architectural offices in New York for the next two and a half years, a period that roughly paralleled the construction of Post’s Equitable Building (there is no way any self-respecting young architect would not have watched in wonder at its construction whenever one had the chance). 

In addition, his mentor Peter B. Wight, along with Wight’s professional sidekick, Sanford Loring of Chicago Terra Cotta, had been intimately involved in the construction of many of these New York pioneering skyscrapers, and there can be little doubt that Root would have been discussing these buildings with Wight in the late 1870s and early 1880s, trying to glean every little detail he could about these buildings’ design and construction.  So we can simply not ignore the fact that Root was looking with both eyes and his memory at what New York was building.  It might offend those Chicagoans with thin skins but it is evident to me that one can find a George Post precedent for most of Root’s ideas and designs, as I shall layout as we proceed.  And if the precedent isn’t by George Post, it will still be from a New York building (best example I can cite is the Dakota Apartment Building in New York being the model for the overall massing for the Masonic Temple).

I am spending this time on Root’s abilities and personality because he was the central figure in the Chicago School; he was its heart, soul, theoretician, political leader, and toastmaster (the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club, the city’s association of draftsmen had its own drinking song dedicated to him).  I do not make such claims lightly, as I hope you will agree with my assessment after reading this book/blog.

Burnham & Root, House for Edward E. Ayer, Chicago, Northeast corner of State and Banks, 1885. Demolished. (Hoffmann, Root)

After Aldis had left their office, one would assume that the general office procedure Burnham and Root would evolve over the next few years for the design of a new building would have been similar to how they approached the design of their first large, multistoried office building. Harriet Monroe, Root’s sister-in-law and one of his two biographers had recorded the following process:

“When a building came into the office, Mr. Burnham, as a rule, laid out more or less roughly ground and floor plans… Mr. Burnham was skillful in laying out a building.  Root did not enjoy this part of the work, and rarely assumed it, except in the case of buildings which presented novel problems, on in which he felt a special loving interest… [Burnham would make] many such studies, the partners deciding together upon the best one, which Root would use as the first element of his problem in designing the exterior.  The senior partner influenced strongly Root’s exuberant imagination both as a stimulus and a check.  Root often felt a certain reluctance in initiative.”  Mrs. Henry D. Lloyd, daughter of real estate mogul William Bross had grown up in a Root-designed house and offered this colorful description of the two partners’ relationship: “Root was the sweetest, most loyal and lovable young creature in those days… the most sparkling, iridescent, radiant thing in the world.  One would exhaust the adjectives of light in describing him—he seemed like a flame for brilliancy and color and swiftness.  When he and Mr. Burnham were together I used to think of some big strong tree with lightning playing around it.  He did not seem to belong to this world exactly.”

Monroe continued: “Root’s mind was of the Shakespearean type: it could build temples, towers and palaces upon a hint; but it craved the hint, as Shakespeare craved his plot, for the starting-point of his dream.  Usually this hint came from one or more conditions inherent in the problem: such as the shape of ground, proportions of the building, kind of material to be used, amount to be expended or some other element of the equation.  Sometimes the suggestive word came from the client, oftener from his partner, or perhaps the latter would embody it in a sketch drawn in a few rough lines.  And from a such a seed the plant would grow and flower in Root’s brain so swiftly as a magical mango-tree…”

Burnham & Root, House for Reginald De Koven, Chicago, 104 East Bellevue, 1888. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

One of the firm’s architects related: “When Root had a new job in his mind he would sit and think it over quietly; and then perhaps he would pull down a book of photographs in the style he wanted; and he would give just a glance to each picture—never stopping (evidence of his eidetic memory)— go through the whole book in five minutes, turning the leaves just as fast as he could with his funny chubby fingers.  And then he would shut it up and say, “demmit!” under his breath (…it was his only profanity) still turning the thing over and over in his mind.  And in a day or two he would see that building in front of him, and throw it down on paper like lightning.” Perhaps the best example of his talent that I can offer occurred on Nov. 19-21, 1890, when he, Burnham,  Frederick Law Olmsted and his assistant, Henry Codman, were tasked by Congress’ Commission for the 1893 Fair to produce “plans and specifications” for the Fair’s buildings within twenty-four hours.  They were directed to place four buildings on the Lake Front (the Electric Display, the Music Palace, the Decorative Arts, and the Water Palace) and all other buildings in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance (this was still during the period when all three sites were planned to be used).  As there was not an approved list of buildings at this point that would have identified the buildings or their size to be sited in Jackson Park, which Burnham clearly stated later in his report, they had been handed what might be considered to have been “the ultimate all-nighter:”

“the crude plan on a large scale of the whole was rapidly drawn on brown paper, mostly with a pencil in the hands of Mr. Root, whose architectural prescience and coordinating talent was of invaluable service to the result… ”

Fortunately for the fortunes of Chicago, as an architect in the office once related: “Mr. Root was the swiftest and most accurate draughtsman I ever saw; he could make, did make constantly, quarter-inch-to-the-foot scale drawings [freehand].”  “He drew usually on large sheets of heavy light-brown paper spread out on a wide table… He drew with incredible rapidity; never in a tentative, fumbling way, as though searching for an idea, but boldly, as though he were sketching a completed edifice.  He had the rare power of seeing the finished building with his mind’s eye before he put pencil to paper- a complete architectural prevision.”  [I am reminded of the scene in the movie Amadeus in which Salieri is looking for his first time at some of Mozart’s handwritten scores and he asks Constanza, Mozart’s wife if these are final scores and she replies, oh no, sir, those are all originals… meaning, of course, that Mozart just wrote finished pieces from his head, without any drafts.]… 

Burnham & Root, House for Edward E. Ayer, Fireplace and stairs.  (Hoffmann, Root)

“A word, a hint, a sudden thought, would send a great structure shooting upward in his imagination, and a rush of swift, exact strokes on brown paper would make it a reality. ‘He could really see it,’ says Mr. Burnham; ‘I have never seen any one like him in this respect.  He would grow abstracted and silent, and a faraway look would come into his eyes, and the building was there before him—every stone of it.’ ”  And because he was so adept at drawing, he would draw every stone.  One of employees once tried to encourage him to lighten his workload by delegating the full drawings to the draftsmen, to which Root replied: “Who will dot the i’s and cross the t’s of my buildings when they get the drawings in the draughting-room?”  This statement not only speaks to his being “anal,” but also the term “my buildings” speaks to control issues as well.

Burnham & Root, House for W.E. Hale, Chicago, 4545 Drexel, 1885. Entrance. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

His former mentor, Peter B. Wight summarized his experience with Root: “ ‘the key-note of his great versatility in design lay in the fact that he was quick in seizing on the capacity of all building materials for architectural expression, that he designed for the materials, and did not have to find materials for carrying out his designs… Root was consistent in his ideas from the time that he first put pencil to paper, and continued to develop them to the end. In other words, he was constructively [his engineering degree from NYU], as well as artistically, an architect.  His feeling for design was always based upon a profound sense of structure.  He built up a design from its bones, felt the anatomy of his buildings in every stroke of his pencil. [This reminds me of Michelangelo’s ability to see a sculpture within a block of stone: “All I do is release it from its bondage.”] To a man so constituted, architecture could never be defined as a decorative envelope applied irrelevantly to the structure of a building’ on the contrary, every lightest ornament must grow out of structural conditions as naturally and inevitably as a flower from a plant.”

Burnham & Root, House for Edward A. Burdett, Chicago, 60 Bellevue, 1885. Demolished. Note the proto-Art Nouveau window mullions. (Hoffmann, Root)

“The secret of both his versatility and his consistency was his love of truth, his feeling that beauty can be attained only through truth… His desire for truth, however, was wholly free from that conscious striving for originality which comes from the egotistical thrust of self into the equation.  He felt the necessity for thorough scholarship: ‘No lasting success comes to an artist who is not grounded in classics. Life is not long enough for one to discover for himself those laws of beauty which thousands of years have evolved for architecture.’ ”  But as Owen Jones had clearly stated in The Grammar of Ornament, Root was talking principles, not forms.  Paraphrasing Jones Root clearly stated: “The object of all this study must therefore be to acquire from the former times the spirit in which his predecessors worked; not to copy what they did… The great styles of architecture are of infinite value, but they are to be vitally imitated, not servilely copied.” (The exact opposite of what Eastern École des Beaux-arts trained architects will promulgate in the coming mid-decade.)

Burnham & Root, House for James L. Lombard, Kansas City, MO, 1805 Jefferson, 1887. Demolished. (Hoffmann, Root)

After studying his work for over 40 years, and teaching design to some 2000 students at the University of Cincinnati, I summarize Root is as follows:  As I had earlier reviewed Root’s upbringing and education, he was a polymath, equipped to understand most subjects spanning the range from math (“But I rather like to make them [his buildings] stand up.”) to aesthetics.  This was reinforced, no doubt, by his eidetic memory.  He was a gifted, natural musician and piano player.  Monroe remembered, “He used to play a great deal, rambling along over the wide range of his musical memories, or improvising with charming directness, for to him music was a more natural utterance than speech.”  In regards to architecture, I believe his strengths were his massing of a building (I find his buildings to speak of three-dimensional plastic mass, for example, the number of times he used rounded corners to reveal a pier’s thickness; in contrast I view Louis Sullivan’s architectonic approach to be planar with sharp corners.  One is not better than the other.); his sense of space and movement through space; his interest in color, color theory and its relation to music (I believe he also had a touch of synesthesia, similar to Wassily Kandinsky: my proof is in his proposal to develop a keyboard instrument that would send out pure colors (shades of Walt Disney’s Fantasia)); and, of course, his technical genius, and I mean genius.   Just to list a few of his inventions: the steel reinforced foundation, the cantilevered foundation, the first all-terra cotta-clad elevation on a skyscraper (the Rand-McNally Building), and heated construction sites in the winter.

Burnham & Root, House for J. L. Houghteling, (Root lived here at the end of 1890 until he died.) Chicago, 1310 Astor Street, 1883. An example of his rounded corners. (Online)


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.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s