John Wellborn Root, Comparative Study of Five Skyscraper Elevations, 1883-5. From left to right: Insurance Exchange, Phoenix, Rookery, 13-story version of Monadnock, Rialto. (Kyle Campbell)

Root was as adept at architectural improvisation (once again aided by his memory) as he was at the piano, where he could sit down and string together snippets of favorite tunes for hours on end. (I refer you to Section 1.18 and the story of his playing theme and variations on “Shoo-fly” one Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church, but so slowly that no one realized it at the time.)  The architectural equivalent would be to throw on a building intelligent, creative, thoughtful, exquisitely drawn details in interesting locations, drawn with a perfection few could match.  For a house, this would result in a charmingly picturesque visage (he designed over 100 houses in ten years, for a list see Monroe pp. 281-6, for he kept these designs for himself as a personal pleasure/therapy).  However, improvisation is not enough for a large building, especially one that had 10 or more floors, and this was his one, great weakness.  He was too facile with details, made all the more unassailable by his impeccable drawing ability.  He himself self-effacingly admitted as much in an anonymous review of Chicago architects he wrote that was published posthumously in the January 1891 issue of Inland Architect: “Much work by Burnham & Root… is suggestive, and has borne its part in the architectural movement of the day, while much of it reveals crudities begotten of the haste or indifference of the hour.”

And the haste cannot be overstated, for, fortunately Burnham was exceptionally good at getting commissions, so good in fact that Root had the advantage of being able to experiment with “full-sized models.”  Root had little time to spend on the design of one, before he had to switch to the design of another building.  In fact, Root designed more skyscrapers (not to mention those 100+ houses) in the years 1881-1890 than all of Chicago’s other architects combined.

Comparison of the number of 10+ story buildings erected between January 1881-December 1890 by Burnham & Root (18) and the other combined Chicago architects (15). (Author’s collection)

Again, using the musical analogy, improvisation can be witty and charming, and as music is ephemeral, it was gone as quickly as Root had played it.  The listeners can talk about how cute, amusing, witty, or intelligent the improv may have been.  Having the opportunity to experiment with so many full-sized “models” was also to his disadvantage because unlike models, buildings stand in the public realm for a long, long time.  An architect cannot hide his mistakes like many other types of artists. It’s out there for all to see, and, unlike a piece of music, for instance, may never disappear into thin air.

But the supreme irony of Root’s career might just have been the fact, per Monroe, that “Skyscrapers, elevated out of true proportion to their base, were not at all to his liking.”  And this well could be due to the fact that, as opposed to improvising the design of a house, the design of a skyscraper required discipline and experience.  Architecture is reputed to be an “old person’s art”; in other words, it takes years of experience to understand the nuances in the design of a large building.  Root was no exception.  No matter how brilliant a draftsman or scholar Root was in 1880, at the “green” age of 30 he still needed to “pay his dues” in learning “how” to design a large building (as would Louis Sullivan also have to do some five years later).  This task was profoundly difficult for the skyscraper was a truly new building typology, without any precedent for inspiration or direction in how to design one.  For an art that by 1880 had relied upon the traditions and precedents of the past not only as the point of departure in the design of a building, but also as the yardstick against which to measure the quality of the final product, one was literally dumbfounded as to where or how to begin.   No one has better summarized the problem than America’s premiere architectural critic at this moment, Henry Van Brunt:

“A ten-story office and bank building, fire-proof throughout; with swift elevators for passengers and freight, a battery of boilers in the deep sub-basement giving summer heat throughout, and supplying energy for pumps, ventilating fans, and electric dynamos; equipped like a palace with marbles, bronze and glass, flooded with light in every part; with no superfluous weight of steel beam, fire-clay arch, or terra cotta partition; no unnecessary mass of masonry or column; the whole structure nicely adjusted to sustain the calculated strains and to bear with equal stress upon every pier of the deep foundation, so that no one shall yield more than another as it transfers its accumulated burden to the unstable soil beneath—such a problem does not call for the same sort of architectural inspiration of a vaulted cathedral in the Middle Ages, but, surely, for no less of courage and science, and in providing for the safe, swift and harmonious adjustment of every part of its complicated organism, for a wider range of knowledge. The one required a century of deliberate and patient toil to complete it; the other must be finished, equipped, and occupied in a year of strenuous and carefully ordered labor; no part of its complex being overlooked, all the details of its manifold functions being provided for in the laying of the first foundation stone, and the whole satisfying the eye as a work of art as well as a work of convenience and strength.  Whether one compares a modern building of this sort with a cathedral of the first class, with one of the imperial baths or villas of Rome, or with the Flavian Amphitheatre itself, it must hold equal rank as a production of human genius and energy, not only in the skillful economy of its structure and in its defiance of fire and the other vicissitudes of time, but as a work of fine art developed among practical considerations which seem fundamentally opposed to expressions of architectural beauty.”

Burnham & Root, Insurance Exchange Building, Chicago, SW corner of La Salle and Adams, 1884. (Online)

Root honestly echoed these sentiments in 1890:

“the vast edifices which have lifted themselves in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities, until they tower heavenward nine, ten, twelve and sixteen stories, containing sometimes three or four thousand people upon whom depend the support of eight or ten thousand souls.  These buildings, the result of commercial conditions without precedent, are new in every essential element.”…“Looking at the problems presented by these buildings… we may certainly guess that all preexisting architectural forms are inadequate for their solution, and that no logical combination of those forms can be made efficient without changes so great as to be practically destructive.”

Burnham & Root, Proposed 20-story study for the San Francisco Examiner, 1890. (Hoffmann, Root)

Root revealed his sense of frustration with the design of a skyscraper thus:

“Think of the feelings of an Athenian architect of the time of Pericles to whom the problem should have been presented to design a building of fourteen stories, imposing upon him the following conditions: all of the stories except two to be 10 feet 6 inches high, all window sills to be exactly 2 feet from the floor, all lintels to be 6 inches from ceilings, and all windows to be in width not less than 4 and not more than 6 feet, and to be situated at distances apart of not more than 6 feet.  If these conditions did not paralyze the architect, give him a few more: that all windows should have flat lintels, and that he must avoid as much as possible all projecting members on the facade, since these catch dirt and soot; and give him instructions to put on a few ten-story bay windows.

D. H. Burnham (and Root), Ashland Block, Chicago, NE corner of Clark and Randolph, 1891. (Online)

He may have inadvertently admitted his Achilles heel in one of the above quotes: “we may certainly guess that all preexisting architectural forms are inadequate for their solution, and that no logical combination [improvisation] of those forms can be made efficient without changes so great as to be practically destructive.”

A symphony, as opposed to improvisation, must have thematic unity; it must be more than a collection of unrelated quips and melodies, and this was where Root had struggled for a number of years, as we will see, in the ability to bring a thematic discipline to his collection of unrelated details placed over the face of a large building.  This is poignantly manifest in his 1885 design for the Phoenix Building, recognized by historians/critics as both his best detailed entrance (improv) and his least ordered/controlled elevation.  The quality of the entrance speaks for itself.  

Burnham & Root, Phoenix Building. Entrance. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

The building’s elevation was designed as he, as well as his contemporaries in 1885, typically did: they conceived the elevation as a stacking of horizontally articulated layers.  The problem in the Phoenix’s elevation, as it was it his early designs, was the lack of a thematic order. To use a literary analogy, one takes for granted that a novel or poem will be written in one language, giving the work a coherency.  One does not expect to find in a poem some sections written in German (language and typeface) while there are other stanzas interjected written in Chinese (language and typeface), and for good measure, throw in an Arabic phrase or two.  

Burnham & Root, Phoenix Building, Chicago, SW corner of Clark and Jackson, 1884. (Chicagology.com)

Well, this pretty much describes Root’s design process for elevations of the Phoenix Building.  The details are exquisite, unfortunately just not coordinated into a coherent whole.  In order starting with the base: a two-story stone base with flat-headed windows and square columns, third floor that is striped with alternating stone and brick layers in the piers (the columns from below are gone); floors 4-6 are grouped into a three-story arcade (the only use of arches other than the entry) whose location within the composition is totally meaningless; floor seven  is a single story with square-headed windows; Floors 8-9 are grouped by two-story piers capped with a ornamented capital; a cantilevered balcony; and the top floor that is a two-layered rectangular grid, completely alien to the language of the floors below; capped with a tall cornice with a low-relief arcade running around it.  Root needed to develop the discipline to unify the details from his witty, creative improvisations into a full-scale, harmonious composition, and this would come only with practice and thoughtful reflection.


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: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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