Burnham & Root, Montauk Block, Chicago, 1881. (Andreas, Chicago)

Owen Aldis had quickly learned his new business, and undoubtedly knew of the bank’s decision to move to the new site prior to the public announcement of the news, and had informed Peter Brooks of the potential of acquiring the lot on Monroe Street immediately to the west of Chicago’s largest bank and most expensive private new building (that was also located on Dearborn).  Brooks concurred with Aldis’ evaluation of the site’s potential and replied on February 5, 1881:

“Having thought over a building on the 891/2-foot lot on Monroe Street next west of the First National Bank, I think, by utilizing all of the space on the main floor and by building up eight stories with also a basement–if the earth can support it in the opinion of the architects–that it may be large enough to support an elevator.  If you can get this lot for $100,000 cash I am rather inclined to purchase it.”

Adjacent to the new First National Bank of Chicago, Brooks wisely decided to build Chicago’s first skyscraper, the ten-story Montauk Block, because, as he had informed Aldis on March 22, “Tall buildings will pay well in Chicago hereafter, and sooner or later a way be found to erect them.”  (Undoubtedly, he had been influenced by the success of Equitable’s new skyscraper in Boston: see Vol. II, Sec. 3.3.)  Almost ten years had passed since the 1871 fire had blunted Chicago’s first attempt to exploit the elevator, before the city was once again ready to join New York in erecting skyscrapers.  Aldis trusted the design and method of construction of this historic structure, however, not to Van Osdel, who had designed Chicago’s first attempt at a “tall building” ten years early, nor to Jenney, who was quietly falling into commercial obscurity, nor to the city’s leading architect, W.W. Boyington, but to Burnham & Root in February 1881, following their successful design of the Grannis Block. The architectural baton of Chicago had been passed on to the leaders of the next generation of the city’s designers, and they owed this elevation of their professional prospects to Owen Aldis.

In the design and construction of the Grannis Block, Shepherd Brooks was merely in the background, the silent owner of only the property.  Root, having enjoyed a relatively “blank check” in the design of his first tall building, especially with Aldis still under the spell of Root’s “genius,” was in for a swift and rude awakening if he expected a similar experience with older brother Peter.  Peter was a “bean counter” and was in control of his project from the moment he decided to go ahead with the project.  Brooks wasn’t interested in a piece of “designed” architecture, he wanted a building that generated maximum profit.  To say that Burnham & Root designed the Montauk Block, however, may be using the term rather loosely, for Brooks had his own ideas about what the building should look like, as well as how it should be constructed.  These he had communicated to Aldis in a letter dated March 25, 1881 (that we are indebted to Chicago’s pioneer historian, Carl Condit, for unearthing the entire collection of correspondence between Brooks and Aldis in the Aldis Company files):

“Enclosed are rough plans but sufficient to express my idea of the ground floor of a building for the lot on Monroe Street.  The architect can improve on them or submit better, giving also an idea of cost.  Let his preliminary plans be on a small scale and not expensive.

I prefer to have a plain structure of face brick, eight stories and also a basement, with a flat roof to be as the architect chooses and well braced with iron rods if needed.  The building throughout is to be for use and not for ornament.  Its beauty will be in its all-adaptation to its use.

 Windows as well as doors should be all worked in brick with as little stone and terra cotta to be introduced as possible consistent with not absolute plainness.  No projections on the front (which catch dirt).  The brick arch over the main entrance might be carried in several feet over the vestibule and inside steps to show in face brick and to convey the idea of strength. Indeed all the entries [Brooks’ term for corridors] might be of face brick with red or black mortar (if as cheap as plaster) which would convey the idea of “fireproof” to the whole structure–a valuable idea in a building of eight stories.  The first floor entry ought to be of tile.  For all the other entries there is no better and cheaper flooring than good face brick.”

Silliman and Farnsworth, Morse Building, New York, 1878. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper)

Brooks’ ideas bear a remarkable similarity not only to the writings of Edward Atkinson and Peter B. Wight being published in American Architect at this time, but also to the Morse Building in New York, that had also just been published in the magazine.  The use of brick, exclusion of stone, flat roof, no projections on the exterior, minimum ornament, as well as such fire protection concerns as fire escapes, stand pipes and the proper construction of an elevator shaft, had all recently been thoroughly discussed in the pages of the Boston publication which just six days before Brooks wrote his letter, had credited Boston’s own Edward Atkinson (who, like Brooks and Richardson, also lived in Brookline) with providing “more enlightened and convincing arguments than [one] is ever likely to hear.”

Root’s resistance to such spartan aesthetics was quite natural for the time and evident in his original design that was submitted to Brooks in July, as reflected in the tone of his reply to Aldis on July 23, 1881:

“The most is certainly made of the lot, to the credit of the architects, but I have no idea it can be built well for the sum proposed.  The building is a much more extravagant one than my original design although much on the same plan.  The architects are of course indifferent to the future cost of repairs and care, an item worthy of much consideration.  Tile is expensive and bothersome to keep clean, it is good on the first floor only–nowhere else.  A cast iron floor is the thing for the galleries with holes in it to keep it rough, no noisier than tile, indestructible and simply requires sweeping to clean it.

There is a needless amount of plate glass and the panes should be divided horizontally in halves.  In the size of the sashes I regret to say, as usual, the architect has had his own way.  For use and comfort I regard this as the chief defect of the building.  Colored glass is mere nonsense, a passing fashion, inappropriate in a mercantile building and worse than all, it obstructs the light.  Strike it all out.

I notice all the wash bowls are to be boarded up with a door underneath, a good receptacle for dirt, mice, too.  Expose the pipes below, traps and all, they do not look badly and ought not to leak.  This covering up of pipes is all a mistake, they should be exposed everywhere, if necessary painted well and handsomely….”

Burnham & Root, Montauk Block. (Leslie, Chicago)

The lot had the same frontage (90’) as that of the Grannis Block, while its depth was 50% longer (180’).  Brooks apparently realized that it would be more profitable to construct a tower at the front of the lot, the depth of which was determined by running a line of single-loaded corridor offices in a U-plan placed up against the Monroe Street front, around the alley and back along the northern face, that would remain open for windows because he owned the rest of the lot beyond. This resulted in a 90′ x 68′ footprint that still had a skylighted 8′ x 20′ atrium to provide daylight for the corridor. The remaining land at the rear of the site provided space for an annex for the mechanical equipment.

Burnham & Root, Montauk Block, West Elevation. Next to it on the right is the First National Bank. Note these windows all have fire shutters on the exterior. (Randall, Chicago)

The extra rent that might have been gained from the extra floor space created along the east alley by pushing the rear line of offices farther to the back of the lot, more than likely would not have offset the additional cost of construction plus an additional elevator, as well as the possibility in the future of the northern line of offices losing their access to daylight from the construction of an adjacent building.

It took the architects less than a month to revise the design within Brooks’ requirements and a permit was obtained on August 20, 1881.  Even though the building succeeded in reaching 130’ with ten stories, the final design was far from extravagant that is readily evident when compared to either the Grannis Block, the First National Bank or even a contemporary ten-story building, Peabody & Stearns’ United Bank Building in New York.

Peabody & Stearns, United Bank Building, New York, 1880. (Online)

The exterior echoed the interior order as a stack of repetitive floors.  A one-story, battered stone base contained the ground floor, whose floor was located three feet below the level of the sidewalk.  Above the base was placed the red St. Louis pressed brick body of the building that contained the second “ground” floor and the upper eight repetitive plans.  Root’s dilemma in being confronted with a repetitive order, while desiring to impart a lyrical (artistic) accent to the composition, is evident in the restless irresolution of these two forces in the elevation of the Montauk.  Root’s final solution for the elevation can be understood as using the single-window/structural pier language from Peabody & Stearns United Bank Building and the compositional form and horizontal layered rhythm of the Morse Building.  As was the case with Root’s inspiration for the Grannis Block being the New York example of Hunt’s New York Tribune Building, Root again had mined buildings in his former city of residence, New York, for his precedents.  He had no alternative, as there were no ten-story buildings in Chicago, or anywhere else for that matter, at this time for him to study. And again, we are told to consider this early design by Root to fall under the rubric “Gothic Revival.” But again, there are no pointed arches or polychromy of the Victorian Gothic. The arches are neither pointed nor the semicircular arches of the Romanesque, which is the other style typically associated with Root’s early designs. I’m not sure this building’s “design” merits a term, but if one had to, the monochromatic palette and the segmental arches again speak to Hunt’s version of the Néo-Grec.

Each story in the Montauk was expressed as a horizontal entity by a continuous terra cotta sillcourse that established a constant one-story rhythm to the top.  This, in and of itself, would have been sufficient, albeit probably very static.  In an attempt to overcome this potential monotony, Root detailed the window heads in the 5th, 8th and 10th floors as arches in the same plane as the piers, creating three tiers of multistoried arcades in a vertical sequence of Base:1:3:3:2. (The inverse could also be said: he recessed the spandrels in floors 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 to allow the piers to read as continuous for three stories).  The multistoried groupings were reinforced by the placement of the only ornament, the building’s anchorheads, at the same floors at where the arcades were located.  Had Root eliminated the continuous horizontal banding except to reinforce the multistoried layers, as he had done with the Grannis Block, the Montauk’s elevations would have more successfully resolved the struggle between the two languages, although the 1:3:3:2 sequence would still have appeared random.  As was the case with his ambivalence in the double arches in upper layer of the Grannis Block, Root’s inexperience had led to the lack of repose in the Montauk’s elevation.

Burnham & Root, Montauk Block, Chicago, 1881. (Andreas, Chicago)

Even though the Montauk’s Monroe Street elevation was as long as the Grannis’ street front, the Montauk had nine piers to the Grannis’ six.  The proportion of glass to brick in the newer building was drastically reduced, imparting to it a sense of what a true, red brick box would look like.  This extremely conservative design may have been dictated by Brooks’ overconcern for the structural stability of such an experimental building, or by his appreciation of economics that understood that plate glass was more expensive than brick.  Nonetheless, there was not much for Root to do compositionally with such elementary concerns.  Although he correctly ended the arcades at both corners with a heavier pier, that also tended to frame the elevation, he was forced to locate the entry and its projected, central bay off-center.  More likely than not, this was caused by the offset location of the elevator to the west wall and the tightness of the plan.  The asymmetrical placement of the entrance’s triumphal arch only compounded the uneasiness in the elevation’s design.  Although profitable from its start, the Montauk Block as Chicago’s first skyscraper, in comparison to its older siblings in New York, was an ugly little duckling.  (Monroe related one lesson Root took away from the Montauk: as one looked up, perspective made the walls look as if they were leaning out, over the base.  In future tall buildings, Root tried to reduce the thickness of the walls from the lotlines by an inch or two wherever possible as the building rose from its base.  This might explain his reluctance to completely eliminate the horizontal stringcourses from the elevations in his future designs, for these would naturally hide such a reduction in the wall’s thickness at that point.)

The nature of the construction of the exterior walls was very conservative, again when compared to the Grannis, or for that matter, the Shillito/Leiter Buildings’ triple window motif.  Root placed only a single, double-hung window between each brick pier.  Curiously, every window was topped with a segmental brick arch; there were no flat-headed windows.  This speaks to the possibility that no iron was used as a lintel in the project.  Two reasons come to mind: first, iron would have been more expensive, and second, the masonry arches would have tended to tie the brick piers into a 130’ tall monolithic brick box with holes rather than individual masonry piers standing by themselves, a bow to the perceived need for stronger structural resistance in such a tall building?  If so, this was a perfect example of “boxed” construction, i.e., a masonry box within which was erected an iron skeleton frame.

The significant technical feat of the Montauk Block was that it represented the culmination of the efforts over the past ten years, begun by George Johnson in 1871 and continued with the unceasing efforts of Peter B. Wight and Sanford Loring to develop a terra cotta flooring system and a fireproofing method for the iron skeleton frame.  Originally it had been planned to build the Montauk’s floors better than those of the Grannis Block, using iron rails and concrete similar to a system used in the Southern Hotel in St. Louis.  This was abandoned, because of the impact of the system’s accumulated weight that would have only further increased the weight of the building and correspondingly, the size of the foundations, in favor of the much lighter system of hollow tile flat arches, now manufactured by Wight and exhibited in Peter Brooks’ home town of Boston at just this moment.  As with the Grannis Block, Burnham & Root were to provide their mentor with another opportunity to showcase his latest product.

Burnham & Root, Montauk Block, Hollow Tile Floor Arches by Peter B. Wight. (Inland Architect, April 1892)

Wight had refined George Johnson’s original patented flat arch system by decreasing its weight to only 25 p.s.f.  This was accomplished by reducing the thickness of the tile’s fireclay walls to only 1/2″, made possible by pressure extrusion on a vertical sewer pipe press.  These tile arches spanned between either 6″ or 8″ deep wrought iron joists that were in turn supported on wrought iron beams.  The beams were supported either at the perimeter by the bearing walls or in the interior by cast iron columns that were protected by Wight’s terra cotta casings.  As such, the Montauk Block represented the next step in the structural evolution of the modern skyscraper, for it was the first tall building to have a completely fireproofed iron skeleton frame with fireclay flat-arched floors without the use of any wood or interior masonry bearing walls.

In fact, the size of the fireproofing contract for the Montauk forced Wight to retire from architectural consultation in order to concentrate on his responsibilities as the general manager of the Wight Fireproofing Company.  This contract coincided in the latter half of 1881 with Wight’s display in the great Boston fireproofing exhibition during September 1881 that culminated on November 15 with his successful performance in the contest with Atkinson’s heavy timber system.  In fact, it may have been Wight’s display in Boston that September (see Sec. 3.19) that had convinced Brooks to use the hollow tile arches in the Montauk Block. 

The second technical innovation in the building’s construction occurred in its foundation.   Because of the decision to have two “ground” floors with the lower floor located three feet below grade, the basement had to be squeezed in between the twelve-foot depth limit of Chicago’s soil, in which there was sufficient bearing capacity, and the underside of the lower ground floor.  The resulting shallow height of the basement had two profound ramifications.  First, due to the large weight of the masonry building, the required size of the cut stone pyramidal foundations occupied a significant portion of the basement.  The low ceiling height only compounded the problem of attempting to locate the mechanical equipment in the basement, the combination of which forced the relocation of the equipment to an annex constructed in back of the office tower.

The second, and historically more important result of the low basement was the fact that the size of the pyramidal stone foundations required to support the weight of ten stories of fireproof vaults would have been such that the height of the foundation under these would have penetrated into the ground floor.  Needing to reduce the vertical dimension of these stone pyramids to fit within the height of the basement, Root had to eliminate the lowest course of stone in the pyramid.  This would have also made it smaller in plan, but he still needed the original area of the pad footing to avoid increasing the bearing stress on the soil (the same weight, spread over a smaller area results in a larger stress!).   He correspondingly reinforced the 18″ thick concrete footing with steel t-sections (railroad rails) so that the larger offset cantilever in the concrete footing would not crack off from the increased bending stress.  The success of this detail would eventually lead to his invention of the modern iron reinforced concrete pad footing some four years later.

The problem of supporting on Chicago’s weak soil such a heavy building (due to its height) was compounded in this case by the existence of the Crozer Building, adjacent to the west of the lot.  Root calculated that the Montauk would eventually settle about two inches over the course of its erection.  As it was planned to push the Montauk’s walls out to the edge of the lot, the East wall of the Crozer Building would also be subjected to this settlement, which would not only severely slope its floors, but also result in major cracking throughout the adjacent building.  To safely account for the new settlement prior to the start of construction of the Montauk Block in late August, the Crozer’s foundations were replaced with screw jacks that were inserted between the existing walls of the building and its new footings.  As the settlement increased with the construction of each additional floor of the Montauk, the screws were adjusted to compensate for the difference, keeping the Crozer Building at its original level.  Upon completion of the Montauk and the last adjustment of the screws, the gap between the Crozer Building and its new footings was filled in with masonry.

Although Root was rather unhappy with the building’s final design (he once referred to it as his “sugar factory”), the building was a money maker for Peter Brooks who was very satisfied with the final building:

“I am well pleased with the construction of [the] Montauk Block in comparison with the New York buildings–from your description; for its situation it could not be better…  For the future I should never build but of brick and terra cotta with iron and wood covered with fireproof tile–but I think hereafter I should, like the New York people, build ten stories high–the Chicago foundations with care will stand it, if broad enough–but there must be a limit to the cost of foundations beyond which it will not pay to go.


Condit, Carl W. The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875-1925. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

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

Schultz, Earle. Offices in the Sky. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1959.

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

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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