7.6. BURNHAM AND ROOT IN 1882: THE CALUMET BUILDING

Burnham & Root, Calumet Building, Chicago, 111. S. La Salle, 1882. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

As opposed to Boyington, who was now at the top of his game, and surely must have thoroughly enjoyed 1882 with the design of two of Chicago’s largest, and tallest buildings, Burnham & Root’s loss of the Board of Trade commission was a large blow to their short-term profitability.  Even though they would design seven buildings within a block and a half of the Board of Trade by 1886 (four of these would form the bulk of the seven new buildings that would be built along the two blocks of La Salle Street immediately north of the Board of Trade that would create the “Wall Street” effect), these projects had to wait until the Board of Trade was well under way.  Although they could sit back and smugly watch the cost of its construction mount, without the Board of Trade project in the office, 1882 proved to be a rather lean year for the ambitious duo, especially coming after a year as auspicious as had been 1881.  The one bright spot for Root, as I mentioned earlier, was his marriage to his late wife’s best friend, Dora Louise Monroe on December 12, 1882.

Fortunately for them, the contractors of the Montauk Block, George Mortimer and William Tapper, owned a small parcel of land on La Salle Street just south of Monroe Street. Once the last hurdle in the Illinois Supreme Court to the move of the Board of Trade had been cleared in March 1882, property owners along La Salle Street licked their chops and began to make improvements, anticipating the movement to the south.  As with the recent construction along Dearborn, Monroe Street, that was exactly halfway between the old financial district along Washington and the new area centered at Jackson, was the first site of activity.  During the summer of 1882, two stories were added to the Nixon Building on the northeast corner of the intersection, while across the street on the southeast corner, a six-story addition was made to the Hammond Building.  The parcel owned by Mortimer and Tapper was adjacent to the Hammond Building and the timing couldn’t have been better for the two builders to personally profit from what they had learned in constructing the city’s first skyscraper.  Not only had excavation begun on the Board of Trade two blocks away, convincing potential renters that the future of La Salle was assured, but work on the Montauk Block was winding down and it was very efficient to keep an experienced crew on site by simply transferring them and their equipment only a block further down the street to start the excavation for a new building.

Map of the Loop, 1882. (Author’s collection)

Mortimer and Tapper were also responsible for building a few of Chicago’s other important, recently-completed buildings: the Kendall Block, the Grand Pacific Hotel, the La Salle Street Station, the First National Bank and the Grannis Block.  In fact, they teamed up with Amos Grannis to erect on their La Salle Street lot an office building for which they hired Burnham & Root to design.  As such, the Calumet Building at 111 S. La Salle can be viewed as the Montauk’s height wrapped in a Grannis-like elevation.  As discussed earlier, the Montauk’s elevation was a product more of Peter Brooks frugality than of Root’s imagination, so the Calumet offered Root the opportunity to return to his ideas for the tall office building where he had left off with the Grannis Block.  

Burnham & Root, Calumet Building. View from the north. Beyond is the Home Insurance Building (after it has had two floors added, and then at the far right is the Rookery. (Chicagology.com)

It appears that in these early tall buildings (ignoring the Montauk simply because of its prosaic nature), Root based the architectonic concept for these buildings on what type of site the building was to be designed for: an interior site presented simply a two-dimensional surface or plane (Grannis, Calumet), while a corner lot allowed the building to be perceived as a three-dimensional volume (Burlington, Counselman). The two most obvious departures from the elevation of the Montauk was, first, the jettison of the articulation of every floor with a continuous sill course (although Root still marked the lines of the intermediate floors with a terra-cotta band as he had in the Burlington Building) in favor of returning to the Grannis’ grouping of two floors vertically with two-story arches.  Second, the change from the Montauk’s single windows between the piers back to the Grannis’ double windows, again grouped within the arches, resulted in an increased proportion of glass to brick.  

The Calumet’s site was even smaller than the Montauk’s, only 78′ x 51′ deep, which meant that every inch of depth counted, and forced Root to abandon the projected entrance bay that he had used in his last three office buildings to enliven their massing.  Root was left with a simple plane of masonry to work with.  In the Calumet he still tried to emphasize the center or entrance bay by thickening its piers and placing only a single window in it.  At the base, the center piers were thinned to the same dimension of the other piers to accommodate a larger arched opening for the entrance.  Speaking of arches, Root reserved their use only in the windows of floors five and eight, and instead used the more practical rectilinear window in seven of the nine stories (the lowered ends of an arch reduced the amount of daylight that entered through the opening). 

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

Faced with composing the elevation, Root chose to copy the 2:1:2:1:2:1 sequence of the Morse Building, to orchestrate the elevation of the nine floors.  This arbitrary layering was not well-resolved in terms of the implied vertical continuity of the windows and their flanking masonry piers, that were broken by the sillcourses needed to create the layered effect (that Root also used to hide the ventilation grates for each office as well as the reduction in the wall thickness to account for perspective).  Root’s emphasis seemed to favor the horizontal, yet a restlessness was present, for one’s eyes could not ignore the vertical thrust of the stacked windows.  Root appears to have wanted a more “vertical” emphasis, albeit still secondary, to create a balance (repose) between horizontal and vertical.  

Burnham & Root, Comparison between Grannis Block and Calumet Building. (Author’s collection)

In the Calumet, he detailed the intermediate mullion between the two windows under each arch as a continuous two-story vertical (rather than stopping the mullion at a horizontal to allow the horizontal to dominate.  When I look at the comparison between the detailing in the two buildings, I prefer the Grannis for its horizontal repose, yet I can see Root trying to experiment with a more vertical accent for this taller building, as well as those he anticipates that will come.   Note that in both elevations he did not increase the thickness of the corner piers, signaling that the arches were not structural but simply cut into the brick surface (i.e., honesty”). 

Apparently, the owners thought that the lowered first floor (basement) was not a highly marketable feature, for the Calumet had no raised basement: the ground floor’s two offices were a mere two feet above the sidewalk.  The upper eight floors were the same in plan: seven offices so arranged that all of their doors were in view from the elevator shaft.  In its construction, the Calumet was also more like the less extensive Grannis Block.  Wood joist floors were supported by the exterior brick walls and an interior fireproofed iron frame.  The wood joists were “fireproofed” with terra-cotta tiles that were supplied by Wight’s new competitor, E.V. Johnson’s Pioneer Fireproofing Company.  

Advertisement for the Pioneer Fireproof Company, Inland Architect, April 1885. (Darling, Chicago)

Ernest V. Johnson was the son of George H. Johnson, the holder of the original patent for fireclay flat arches, an evolved design of which was first used in the Kendall Block in 1872 (see Vol. I). The 1873 Panic had forced George Johnson to retreat to New York, leaving Peter B. Wight and Sanford Loring to continue work on the use of fireclay to protect floors and iron structures.  Johnson had returned in 1877 and apparently there was some bad blood between Wight and Johnson (patent infringements? hence, the name of the new company), so Johnson had set up a competing company with George M. Moulton in Ottawa, Il, where there were extensive fireclay beds nearby. Following the death of his father in August 1879 Ernest became partners with Moulton and changed the name to the Pioneer Fireproof Company.) Johnson evidently also manufactured the hollow tile wall partitions (that his father had originally patented in 1869) that allowed the arrangement of each floor to be easily changed.  

In keeping with the objective of minimum cost, the builders were experienced enough to eliminate the cost of furring and plastering the terra-cotta walls and ceiling by simply finishing all five surfaces in each room with wallpaper.  The building was renowned for having a different wallpaper pattern in each of the 58 offices. The only notable departure in the construction of the Calumet seems to have been the fact that the builders had laid the foundations in the fall of 1882 and allowed them to settle during the winter of 1882-83 (traditionally a time of little or no construction activity anyway), before they began the erection of the superstructure in the spring of 1883.  This may have been a response on the builders’ part to their experience with the construction of the Montauk and its foundations.

FURTHER READING:

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

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

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