Burnham & Root, Grannis Block, Chicago, 21-9 N. Dearborn, 1880. (Chicagology.com)

As part of the Brookses’ longterm development plans for Dearborn, at the southern end of which they were intimately aware of the secret plan to locate the new Grand Trunk railroad station (see Sec. 1.12), Shepherd Brooks had managed to acquire the lot on Dearborn immediately south of the Portland Block, for which he requested Aldis to find someone interested in leasing the site for the purpose of erecting an office building.  Shepherd was more conservative than his older brother and was not the least bit interested in speculating, as was revealed in the final lease agreement.  Aldis located a suitable client in local builder Amos Grannis, who agreed to lease the site for forty years, paying 32 lbs. 3 oz. of gold for the first twenty years.  And then Aldis coincidentally ran into Root at the party and decided to give the commission to Root the next day, overlooking the proven Jenney, who had designed the post-fire Portland Block some six years earlier.

Map of the Loop, 1880. (Author’s collection)

Per Burnham and Root’s design process, let’s start with the plan. Aldis had secured the National Bank of Illinois as the primary client.  The site had a 90’ frontage on Dearborn with a depth of 120.’ Burnham could locate the main banking floor along the street for easy access, but then what to put at the rear of the lot?  Instead, he pushed the bank to the rear of the lot, away from the noise and dirt of the street (and a bank floor doesn’t require views to/from the exterior) and gave the good views and light of the street to the rentable storefronts, lining the street face above these with a slab of single-loaded corridor offices five stories high. 

Burnham & Root, Grannis Block. Ground Floor Plan. (Chicago Inter-Ocean, February 20, 1885)

The five floors of office space above the banking level were designed so that each floor could be either divided into ten individual offices or rented in whole to a single client. This created a bi-nuclear scheme, similar to Richardson’s American Express Building (1873), located only a block to the south.  The leftover space between the two “buildings” was made into a skylighted atrium (17’ x 70’), providing daylight for the front offices and the bank, as well as the opportunity for Root to create the first in his series of spacious, well-detailed atriums, that would also provide an appropriate entrance lobby for the bank.  

Stephen Hatch, Boreel Building. Interior atrium. (Gray, Elevator)

Similar to the entrance of the newly-completed Boreel Building in New York (Sec. 5.14), one entered the main floor of the “front building” by ascending a stairway that was set off from the building’s stone base by flanking columns of dark blue Quincy granite.  The stairs led to a 13′ x 14′ vestibule with marble-lined walls that opened onto a 14′ wide corridor with marble wainscoting.  On either side of the hallway were located the banking offices (35′ x 45′) that occupied the first floor of the “front building.”  Having passed through this tunnel, à la the Boreel, the corridor exploded into the morning sunlight-bathed atrium (it faced east) that contained an elevator and an iron staircase to the upper floors.  The corridors of the upper office floors consisted of lightweight iron-framed galleries that opened onto the atrium to allow “communication” among the various offices surrounding the court as well as to provide extra daylighting via the atrium.

The atrium was apparently flooded with sunlight for the bank’s “rear building” was lower than the “front building.”  This allowed the placement of large clerestory windows above the “rear building” to enclose the atrium up to the skylight.  The “rear building” was a self-contained bank, the 26′ high main floor (50′ x 90′) contained a banking area that was capped by its own skylight (58’ long and 16’ wide).  The teller area was flanked on one side by a row of vaults and on the other by offices for the president and cashier.  Above the vaults and the offices were located another floor of offices, arranged around an ironwork mezzanine that was reached by iron staircases and looked onto the skylighted banking floor, that appears to speak to Root’s knowledge of Post’s interior organization of the Equitable Building.  It is evident by the abundance of multistory, skylighted spaces in the Grannis Block that Root had achieved his goal of “maximum light and ventilation.”

Richard Morris Hunt, New York Tribune Building, 1873. Left: Early scheme; Right: As constructed, except another floor was added to the mansard roof. (Author’s collection)

Root wasted little time as he took the tallest building in New York City, his former place of residence, Hunt’s Tribune Building as the model for the design of his first highrise office building.  In essence, Root blended the body of Hunt’s unbuilt monochromatic Néo-Grec design with the dormered-mansard roof and corbeled tower of the completed building, the primary, among many, indulgences Root got away with this time. (One might argue that it was a “bank building,” but it was primarily a spec office building that didn’t merit such a gratuitous urban celebration.)   

Burnham & Root, Grannis Block, Chicago, 1880. (Chicagology.com)

The building had six stories plus a basement.  Root appears to have been influenced by Hunt’s earlier monochromatic design, as Burnham and Root rejected Jenney’s fashionable, but fading, Queen Anne contrasting color scheme of red brick and light limestone in both the Portland and Leiter Buildings.  They opted instead to place above the blue Bedford stone base an entirely monochromatic body of Philadelphia red pressed brick that was accented by a matching terra cotta, again revealing their knowledge of both Furness’ contemporary work and New York trends, for the previous year Post had tried this same color scheme in the Long Island Historical Society building and Silliman and Farnsworth likewise had used it in the Morse Building. The facade was “crisp”in its detailing in the way that Root treated the wall as a flat, smooth brick wall into which he carved the windows, similar to how Furness had detailed the windows in Philadelphia’s Centennial Bank (that Root would most likely have studied when he visited the 1876 Fair).

Furness and Hewitt, Centennial National Bank, Philadelphia, 1876. (Online)
Left: Grannis Block; Right: Delaware and Hudson Canal Building. Comparison of segmental arcades and window detailing. (Author’s collection)

Above the stone base, Root appears to have used Hunt’s final design of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Building for his inspiration, for he ordered the stories in the upper three layers of the elevation in a one-and-a-half (the two-story banking floor):2:2 rhythm.  The first two layers comprised of arcades within which flatheaded paired windows were set back from the plane of the wall.  These piers set the constant meter of the building’s bays.  His detailing of the paired, flatheaded windows, appears to be the same detail in the second and third floors of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Building.  In the topmost layer he doubled the arched windows, trying to establish a 1:2 vertical rhythm in the windows. (But he didn’t quite succeed, did he? He was either ambivalent or wanted to have both motifs as he stopped the intermediate mullion from continuing past the spandrel that left this layer unresolved: is it a two-storied arched opening or is it a single-storied double arcade?)  The building was topped with a steep mansard roof with gabled dormers that continued the primary bays through the façade. 

Left: Grannis Block; Right: New York Tribune final design. Comparison of the corbelled tower, projected entry, and dormered mansard roof. (Author’s collection)

The detail of the dormered steep mansard roof is too close to Hunt’s final design of the Tribune Building to be accidental.  The five vertical bays of the elevation were treated symmetrically about the center bay that was projected slightly from the wall, from which the 130’ tall tower that sprung from the corbelled hood at the fourth floor.  Both of these details, especially the tower’s steep pyramidal roof, show the influence of the constructed Tribune Building.

Left: Grannis Block; Right: New York Tribune Building. Comparison of the towers’ pyramidal roofs. Also compare the finial at the top of the Tribune with those that Root placed at the top of each of the gabled dormers (see larger image above). (Author’s collection)

The only color contrast was provided by the anchorheads of the building’s tierods and the cast iron mullions, which were given a dark bronze finish.  The monolithic color reinforced the planar nature of each two-story layer (created by the placement of the arches in the same plane with the pilasters, while the red terra cotta spandrels, supported on iron lintels, were recessed behind the wall plane) and gave the Grannis Block a quiet sense of “adequate strength… utmost simplicity and dignity,” that is quite evident when juxtaposed with the Portland Block.  The choice of color was not only an aesthetic decision, but also revealed Root’s creative solution to the pragmatic problem of Chicago’s very serious air pollution at the time, that within a few short years would obscure all but the boldest of carving and color contrast with a uniform coating of grimy soot from the city’s railroads, tugboats, industrial boilers, and residential fireplaces. In summary, how should we describe the “style” of the Grannis Block? Some current historians are now labeling Root’s early buildings as “Gothic Revival.” The only Gothic detail I find I find in this building are the finials atop each of the gables, and the tall steeple, which looks more French Renaissance than Gothic. The building has none of the polychrome we associate with Victorian Gothic Revival. And, of course, there are no pointed arches anywhere to be found. I think the building’s style is not Gothic Revival, but should be labeled Néo-Grec.

Burnham & Root did not stop at the public spaces, as was typical in previous buildings in Chicago, in combining superior materials with pragmatic considerations, for the Grannis Block was to be a state-of-the-art structure in construction, as well as design.  The responsibility for this decision is unclear, but it is known that all of the involved parties had very good reputations and an interest in erecting a first-class structure.  Aldis, for instance, would not have allowed the construction of an inferior project on a Brooks site.  Grannis was known as one of Chicago’s leading builders.  Meanwhile, Burnham and Root with intimate connections to their former employer, Peter B. Wight, were well aware of his latest fireproofing ideas and offered him the opportunity to install his porous terra cotta fireproofing systems in the Grannis Block.  In addition to providing the fireproofing for the structure’s cast iron columns, Wight also installed a product recently developed in response to the problem posed by the formation of dry rot in wood floors when embedded in plaster.  

Peter B. Wight, Porous Terra-Cotta Tile System for Fireproofing Wood Floors. (Inland Architect, February 1885)

As owners had shied away from Johnson’s patented hollow tile, flat-arched floor system because of its cost, builders, as has been seen, continued to rely on wood joist systems to construct floors, as was done in the Leiter Building.  Following the dry-rot disasters of the late 1870s, Wight realized that his porous terra cotta system for fireproofing iron columns could be adapted for protecting wood flooring systems.  He consequently patented a system of porous terra cotta flat tiles that could be applied to the underside of a wood joist floor.  Just such a system was installed in the Grannis Block, making it the first “fireproofed” office building erected in Chicago since Van Osdel’s Kendall Building.  Upon completion of construction, Burnham and Root triumphantly and confidently moved into their new office on the top floor of the fireproof Grannis Block.


Dankmar Adler, Borden Block, Chicago, NW corner of Dearborn and Randolph, 1880. (Chicagology.com)

At the same time that Root was designing the Grannis Block on Dearborn, Dankmar Adler was designing a speculative office building for William Borden, a wealthy businessman who had made his fortune in the Colorado Silver mines, only a block and a half farther north at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Randolph.  Although this project had actually been announced in June 1880, its ultimate size and design were not resolved until construction began in September, paralleling that of the Grannis Building.  The Borden Building revealed that Jenney’s rational expression of structure in the Leiter Building had been accepted in Chicago as an appropriate alternative to the layered wall as an elevational motif for the red brick box. I have traced the lineage of the family tree of the rational elevation back to the Shillito’s Building in Cincinnati, before its New York and Chicago branches split off on their own pursuit.  One can then argue that portions of Adler’s Central Music Hall should be included as next in this lineage, but the building’s overall image appears to be more traditionally wall-oriented.  

James McLaughlin, John Shillito and Co. Store, Cincinnati, 1877. (Cincinnati, The Queen City, 1901.)

Adler resorted to a more conservative structure than Jenney’s for the exterior walls.  Instead of attempting to incorporate the triple-window scheme of Shillito’s Department Store and the Leiter Building, Adler alternated a single cast iron mullion between each masonry pier.  This detail bore a striking resemblance to Post’s design of the Mills Building, especially in the design of the spandrel ornament. 

George B. Post, Mills Building, New York, 1881. Note that all the windows have awnings. (Landau, Post)

Adler also used the still fashionable contrasting palette of dark brick and light stone similar to that of the Leiter Building, although he reserved each of the two materials for only one function: the dominant horizontals of the design were detailed in the light-colored stone, while brick was used only in the piers that supported the continuous horizontals.  

Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture, 1851. The woven fabric as a precedent fro the wall of a building. (Online)

When one studies Adler’s elevation below, one cannot help but think that Adler is following his fellow countryman Gottfried Semper’s theory, first published in his 1851 The Four Elements of Architecture, that the origins of the wall can betrayed back to hung fabrics that had been woven. Adler was quite literal in assigning brick to the warp and the stone to the weft.

Adler, Borden Block. Randolph elevation. (UrbanRemains.com)

Adler attempted to layer the six-story elevation into a 2:2:1:1 sequence, using two-story pilasters to group the first with the second floor and the third with the fourth floor, but this was somewhat negated by making the stone continue through the pilaster.  The upper ranges of pilasters supported underscaled, proportionally anemic sillcourses that was indicative of the entire composition of the elevations.  Except for the frieze at the second floor, the vertical thrust of the pilasters was never resolved by a proportionally-sized horizontal in the same plane of the pilasters.  This imparted a spindly quality to the elevations that was not resolved even at the roofline, which may help to explain the unique, rather unresolved quality of the design of the attic that consisted of stone panels that were inset with semi-circular lunettes.   These were detailed above each column of windows, seemingly as an out-of-character formal attempt to cap their vertical ascent with a false arcade.  This naïve design is often credited to Louis Sullivan, with whom Adler at the time was collaborating with increasing frequency, that if accurate, attests to Sullivan’s youthful inexperience with architectural design issues.


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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