W.W. Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago, 1882. View of the SE corner of Jackson and Sherman. Immediately behind the Trading Floor is the office building, To the left is Burnham & Root’s Phoenix Building, and to the right is their Rialto Building. The view is from Boyington’s Royal Insurance Building. (Online)

Boyington employed Burnham & Root’s original scheme of placing the 170′ x 160′ Trading Floor in front, running the entire length of the Jackson Street façade, with the 170′ x 65′ ten-story office building placed immediately in back of the trading portion.  In order to maximize the daylighting of the Trading Floor, he encased its exterior along the three street fronts in a cage of Fox Island granite that was infilled with four-story tall plate glass windows topped with stained-glass transoms  designed by John La Farge.  The fourth wall along the south side of the room was blank as it separated the Trading Hall from the office building.  

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Taken after the removal of the tower in 1894. Note how much taller the office building at the rear is compared to Burnham & Root’s 9-story Rialto Building. (Chicagology.com)

Boyington encircled the 80′ high Trading Floor with 26 freestanding marble columns that supported a grid of iron trusses that clear spanned the 161′ x 152′ central hall that was covered with a flat paneled ceiling and supported the hall’s stained-glass skylight that was also designed by La Farge.   An arcade that supported the paneled ceiling ran between the columns, in which were placed the coats of arms of each state in the Union.  Finalizing the interior design of the Trading Floor were twenty-six allegorical paintings located above each of the four-story windows.  (If there was a question of whether or not Chicago viewed this as a competition with New York, one has only to compare the dimensions of the two trading halls: New York: 215’ long x 134’ wide by 64’ high; Chicago: 161’ long x 152’ wide by 80’ high.)

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Interior of the Trading Floor. Top: Looking towards the entrance lobby on Jackson, showing the double staircase. Bottom: Looking toward the blank wall at the south side of the room, that separated the Trading Floor from the office building. (Chicagology.com)

Boyington elevated the Trading Floor eighteen feet above the sidewalk in order to slide under it a story of revenue-generating storefronts. The Trading Floor was approached from the main entrance on La Salle Street that was flanked by two twenty-ton solid granite square pillars that sprouted monumental statues representing Commerce (left) and Agriculture (right) that were located at the base of the building’s most prominent feature, its central tower.  Staircases to either side of the entrance took visitors up to the Trading Floor.

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Jackson Street façade. At the entrance portico stand the two square granite pillars, upon which sit the mammoth statues of Commerce and Agriculture. (Chicagology.com)
Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Entrance. To the immediate left is Burnham & Root’s Phoenix Building, and their Monadnock stands tall at the end of the vista. (Online)
Board of Trade. Statues of Commerce (left) and Agriculture (right). In 2005 they were installed as part of the La Salle Street plaza. (Author’s collection)

The truly controversial aspect of the building was the heavy, highly-ornamented masonry attic and mansard roof which rose to a height of 140,’ that enclosed the office floors that Boyington had positioned ringing the hall’s skylight, in a manner similar to how Post had designed the New York Produce Exchange.  These office floors appear to be single-loaded around the lightwell as a second skylight is visible in the drawing below.  

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Note the second skylight over the atrium above the Trading Floor. (Rand McNally, View #1)

The building’s exterior image was brought to a climax in the 303’ tall central tower, that not only surpassed the height of Boyington’s two previous record holders, the 183’ tall Water Tower and the 160’ high dome of the Exposition Building, (there are claims that St. Michaels’ church in Old Town sported a 300′ tower, but the congregation’s own website states that its pre-fire spire was 200′ tall, and it wasn’t replaced with its 290′ high tower until 1888) but also bested the record of the spire of New York’s Trinity Church (281’) by some twenty-two feet, to become the second tallest structure in the U.S., after the recently-topped off 555’ tall Washington Monument. Competition with New York, what competition?  

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. NW corner of Jackson and Sherman. The glazing/skylight in the roof over the atrium is visible. To the far left is Burnham & Root’s Phoenix Building. (Lowe, Lost Chicago)

Although the tower was 32’ square in plan, the thickness of its walls was not nearly as thick as those in the tower of the Philadelphia City Hall.  This was not because Philadelphia’s tower was planned to be another 200’ taller, but because Boyington used iron columns to support the upper 90′ of the tower, thereby reducing the total weight the walls had to support. These columns were 12-sectioned Phoenix wrought iron columns 3 feet, 3 inches in diameter, 90′ high, fabricated by N.S. Bouton’s Union Foundry and Pullman Car-Wheel Works (Bouton had gone into business with George Pullman, more on this later) and fireproofed with Peter B. Wight’s patented terra-cotta casings.

Peter B. Wight, Fireproofed wrought iron Phoenix columns in the Chicago Board of Trade Tower, 1883. (Brickbuilder, August 1897)

Here was a monument to Bouton (who had commissioned Wight to find such a system) and Wight’s efforts to save the iron column for erecting buildings after the 1874 fire, that directly led to Wight’s development of terra cotta fireproofing.  Boyington also employed large wrought iron columns to support the iron trusses that spanned the Trading Floor as reported by the December 1882 issue of The Sanitary News: “the outside walls will be surrounded with large, full columns placed between the windows, and they will largely support the upper stories.” Here is another early example of a Chicago architect using iron framing (this time protected by the granite casings) in the exterior of a post-fire building.

Boyington’s exterior was an amalgam of stylistic features that defied categorization, so typical of the 1870s’ prevalent eclecticism. (The Inter Ocean boasted that the building’s design was “a combination of various schools of architecture, the better elements of each being preserved.”)  I have included images of a number of designs from this period as evidence that other Chicago architects beyond only Boyington were trying to grapple with the end of the Second Empire as the fashion in search of a new dominant style: many, obviously were tried…..

Above: Otto Matz, First Design for Post-fire Cook County/City Hall Building, 1872. (Chicagology.com) Below: Alfred B. Mullet, First Design for post-fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, 1873. (J.M. Wing, Chicago Illustrated)
Entries in County/City Hall Competition, 1873. Above: W.W. Boyington; Below: Gordon P. Randall. (Chicagology.com)

The awkwardness of this portion of the building was compounded by the way Boyington rammed the ten-story, 160′ high office block (the tallest “skyscraper” in Chicago at this moment, a fact overlooked) up against the rear of the trading hall without sufficient articulation (a joint that Root had apparently appreciated by physically separating the two masses).

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Detail of how the Jackson Street building ran into the Office Building. Note how much shorter Burnham & Root’s 9-story Rialto Building (at far right) is. (Chicagology.com)

The office building apparently had a single-loaded corridor arranged around the exterior perimeter forming a U-plan with an interior atrium divided into two by an elevator core in the middle with a corridor to the Trading Floor.  

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Roof plan showing location of the elevator core and the two skylights in the Office Building and the narrow 30’ alley between it and the Rialto Building that necessitated the use of white glazed bricks on the south wall to reflect more daylight to the Rialto. (Chicagology.com)

Although Boyington extended the “eclectic language” of the elevation of the Trading Floor along the lower sidewalls of the office block, its upper four stories had little in common with the exotic roof of the front building.  The relationship between the two parts of the building only grew more confused as one turned the corner and then viewed the rear of the office building that was sheathed in 90,000 white-enameled bricks. 

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Rear elevation of Office Building. Note the brightness of the white glazed bricks used on the south elevation (far left) even stands out, compared to the stone used in the south side of the building’s tower, in this old black and white photograph. (Chicagology.com))
Boyington, Board of Trade. South facade of the office building. Here is how Boyington detailed the transition from the building’s stone facade to the white glazed brick. You can just make it out before it is blocked by the Rialto Building. (Leslie, Chicago)

Undoubtedly, this was a device that Bensley required to be installed in anticipation of the erection of the Rialto Building immediately to the rear or south of the Board of Trade building that would need the reflected light from the south wall of the Board of Trade to supplement what little daylight could penetrate the narrow alley between the two buildings. 

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

Although Boyington’s design has usually been chastised for being designed in an outmoded style because of the type and diversity of ornament, the interior of the trading hall was generally praised and no one could say that it didn’t provide an imposing, exhilarating termination of the southern vista down La Salle Street, Chicago’s Wall Street-to be.

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade.  La Salle Street south from Adams Street.  The Rookery is in the foreground with the Grand Pacific Hotel in the middle.  (IChi-00253, Chicago Historical Society)

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


Burnham & Root, Calumet Club House, Chicago, NE corner of Michigan Ave. and 20th St.,1881. The retreat for the wealthy men who lived along Prairie Avenue. (Lowe, Chicago Interiors)

The territorial battle that was erupting between the real estate interests of Dearborn Street and those of La Salle Street was of little concern to Burnham and Root, for their respective marriages had established blood relations with both camps.  As they sat back in their office at the top of the Grannis Block in November 1881 and watched their three large commissions begin to rise out of the ground (the Montauk Block, the Burlington Building, and the Calumet Club), Root was adding the finishing touches to the firm’s largest project to-date, his submission for the  Board of Trade competition.  Although Brooks’ Montauk Block was the third most expensive building erected in Chicago that year, it paled in comparison to the $1 million budget for the new Board of Trade.  Even in terms of the sprawling Burlington Building, the proposed structure was to be gargantuan, because its site was 50% larger than the Burlington’s.

Privately Burnham and Root must have somewhat smugly believed that they had the commission all but wrapped up.  Not only being confident about their designs (they submitted three while each of the other architects produced only one), they were also well connected with the leaders of the project.  John R. Bensley, a former president of the Board and chairman of the Board of Real-Estate Managers (that was established by the Board of Trade to oversee the construction of the new building), was at that moment also collaborating with Philip D. Armour and Sidney A. Kent, two of John Sherman’s very close associates with the Union Stockyards, in a plan to develop the southern part of the lot (the site of the future Rialto Building) just vacated by the city, immediately in back of the proposed Board of Trade building and directly across Van Buren from the La Salle Street Station.  In fact, once Bensley was privately assured that Council was going to approve the vacating of this entire block of La Salle, he bought the remaining parcels of land, during the week before the vote was taken, needed to build not only the Board of Trade, but also his planned speculative office building, the Rialto that would be designed by Burnham & Root. Charles C. Counselman, a grain broker on the Board, was also in on the real estate boodle scheme.  He had bought the northwest corner of La Salle and Jackson, directly across the street from the main entrance of the new building and would be among the first to erect one of the new office buildings in the area.  Again, this building, the Counselman Building, would be designed by Burnham & Root.

Burnham & Root submitted three designs, two of which were intended to placate the traditional tastes of some of the Board.  (Unfortunately, the drawings for these, as well as most of Root’s drawings up to this moment, were lost in the fire of the Grannis block in February 1885.) The first incorporated Chicago’s ever-present quest for a dome, while the second seemed to be a “Gothic” interpretation of Post’s New York Produce Exchange, having a tower and a central court with offices arranged above it.  The third design, the one favored by the architects, was quite innovative in concept in that it resulted not from precedent, but from the architects’ careful study of the problem from a functional standpoint, as the Real Estate and Building Journal reported in late 1881:

“This is a Board of Trade building proper with a hall exhibiting a great deal of beauty and room very imposing in its design.  Back of this hall is another very large room of less grandeur for the Call board.  The offices of the board are also located back of this hall.  An office building ten stories in height [note that the Montauk Block, the first ten story office building in Chicago, was only two stories out of the ground at this time] is located back of this building, harmonizing inside and out with the other giving a very fine effect of an immense structure [the office building was connected to the Hall building with a public corridor].  The architects believe grouping all of the offices in a separate building instead of arranging them around and over the hall will be more convenient and appropriate.”

Burnham & Root had proposed a radical departure from the precedents set by Adler’s Central Musical Hall and Post’s Produce Exchange.  Rather than either Adler’s wrapping the Trading Hall with offices or Post’s placing the offices over the Trading Hall, Root had employed a bi-nuclear scheme in which he placed the Trading Hall in the front half of the building and the offices in the back half, linking the two with a corridor: a binuclear scheme similar to his Grannis Block.  We are told by Monroe that the committee was simply awed by the boldness of the scheme and was in general agreement on awarding Burnham & Root the commission. Meanwhile, it took the Illinois Supreme Court another four months to rule on the issue, voting in late March 1882, to allow the project to proceed.  Finally, after a year and a half of politicking and infighting, everything was ready to proceed, or so it must have seemed to Burnham & Root.

J.J. Egan and L.D. Cleveland, Cook County and City Hall Complex, Chicago, 1878. (Online)

As was the case in the design and construction of the post-fire Cook County-City Hall complex, however, the design of a public building in Chicago is not this straightforward.  Following the public presentation of the competition drawings, while the legal process ground to its conclusion in the spring of 1882, the building committee received an increasing number of complaints from the other competing architects about the choice of Burnham & Root’s design.  Apparently, it was felt that because Burnham & Root had so radically departed from the traditional plan of such a project, it was not fair for their project to be selected.  The committee eventually leaned on the winners hard enough to make them accept another competition, this time requiring all the submissions to use Burnham & Root’s new massing scheme of locating the offices in a separate building, located in back of the trading hall.  Confident in their own ability, as well as in their inside connections, Burnham & Root eventually agreed and took to the task, refining their design that now included a tower over the connecting corridor.

During all of this maneuvering, something had taken place to change the minds of the building committee, for it voted 4-1 in favor of a design by another architect.  Only Counselman had stood resolutely for Burnham & Root’s design.  It may have been the committee’s uneasiness over the non-traditional quality of Root’s plans, but more likely than not, as had been with the County-City Building, some sort of inside deal had been made with the four members of the building committee who voted against the Burnham & Root scheme.  Quite simply, it was the Spring of 1882, and it was very presumptuous on the part of Burnham and Root because they had not yet risen to the forefront of the city’s architectural community.  Although they had begun to show their talents, their three new, big projects were only just coming out-of-the ground.  Chicago’s premiere architect in 1882 was still W.W. Boyington, who, as events will reveal, had his own friends on the inside of this deal.  This seems more than just plausible, since in an apparent effort to hide their true choice for the architect of the project, the four originally voted for a design described by Monroe as “a hocus-pocus sort of whispering-gallery affair, suggestive of the Mormon Temple at Salt Lake City, which was designed by a local creator of abominations.”  Some later historians would assign this description erroneously to Boyington’s design.

Agitation among the Board’s members against this design was such that a petition was signed and duly forwarded to the building committee.  In what seemed on the surface to be a fair compromise, the committee finally decided to accept neither of the two extreme designs and settled in late April on a mainline design by Boyington.  The loss of such a prestigious commission, especially when during the entire previous eighteen months it had seemed that the job was “in the bag,” left a very bitter taste in the mouths of Burnham and Root.  Even though they would eventually benefit greatly from the move of the Board of Trade by designing the majority of the new office buildings in the La Salle Street corridor, they had let the “big one” get away.  Never again would Burnham submit to such rules in a competition; he became committed (and would succeed) to affect a reform in the competition method of selection of architects in the U.S.

W.W. Boyington, Post-fire Grand Pacific Hotel, NW corner of Jackson and Clark, 1872. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)

The choice of Boyington to design the Board of Trade has somewhat surprisingly mystified historians, but that is because Boyington’s true position within Chicago has been marginalized and misrepresented by the early Chicago School historians, as his aesthetic didn’t support their narrative of the Chicago skyscraper as one of the precedents for the European International Style. He had surpassed Van Osdel after the 1871 fire to be first among Chicago’s long-established architects and was not without his own connections within Chicago’s power structure.  After all, the two major buildings adjacent to the proposed site for the Board of Trade, the Grand Pacific Hotel to the north and the La Salle Street Station to the south, had been designed by him.  In addition, he had designed the Water Works as well as the Interstate Exposition Center, and had just finished designing two of Chicago’s post-fire railroad stations: in addition to the La Salle Street Station rebuilt immediately after the fire, he also had designed the Union Station and the Chicago & NorthWestern Station (as mentioned earlier, the IC did not rebuild in an effort to leverage Council to allow it to purchase more of the lakefront). 

W.W. Boyington, Central Union Terminal, Cincinnati, 1881. (Online)

At this time Boyington also had the $400,000 Central Union Terminal under construction in Cincinnati.  Therefore, the total value of buildings designed by Boyington in 1881 was easily greater than that by Burnham & Root.  Lastly, he would also win the competition in the coming year for the prestigious Royal Insurance Building, built across the street from the Board of Trade.  So within the five blocks that faced his Board of Trade, Boyington was also responsible for the three most expensive buildings that fronted it.  He was no ‘dark horse’ in the Board of Trade competition, his victory was no fluke, and his design merits at least a modicum of understanding and respect.

W.W. Boyington, Royal Insurance Building, Chicago, 1883. Jackson Street elevation. (Gilbert and Bryson, Chicago and Its Makers)

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


La Salle Street Extension to the La Salle Street Station, 1874. La Salle has been extended to the Michigan Southern Station. Note the post-fire City Hall with its domed skylight providing light for the library located within the old cylindrical water tank, in the lower lefthand corner, above which is shown the Grand Pacific Hotel. The Board of Trade asked for the city to vacate this land for their new building. (The Land Owner, July 1873)

In the previous chapter, I referred to the problems the C&WI was running into with the city with regards to where the railroad could build its new station.  The railroad was hoping to erect it at the foot of an extended Dearborn Street that would stop at Harrison, where the company had purchased the property on the southside, directly across from the property on the northside that the Brookses had purchased for a planned office building in the near future.  Unfortunately for these plans, City Council was under the sway of the Vanderbilt Stations interests along La Salle Street, who had their own development plans that were in direct competition with the plans of the Dearborn Street developers.  The final location of the Dearborn Street station at the foot of Polk Street tells history who won this battle.  But there were other involved financial interests as well that also lost in this battle of urban development over the relocation of the city’s financial district from the river city’s Washington Street location to the railroad city’s La Salle Street location.


The La Salle Street Corridor, from Washington Street, looking south, ca. 1871. Buildings from left to right: 1. Chamber of Comerce; 2. Major Block; 5. Nixon Building; 7. Michigan Southern Station; 12. Oriental Building; 13. Merchantile Building; 14. Union National Bank. (Online)

Washington Street had gained in significance in August 1865 with the completion of construction of the Chamber of Commerce, designed by Edward Burling, on the south side of Washington, directly across from City Hall, that had been the former site of the old First Baptist Church.  Since its founding in 1848, the Board of Trade had continued to grow in size and importance until it was decided in 1864 to erect a larger building to house its expanding functions. The charter of the Board of Trade did not stipulate that the organization could own real estate, so a group of Board members had petitioned the legislature to charter a new organization, the Chamber of Commerce, that could own real estate and construct a building in which space could be leased to the Board of Trade.  The Chamber had purchased the very strategically-located site and commissioned Burling to design the new building, designed around the greatly expanded Exchange Floor that was 87’ wide, 143’ long, and 45’ high.  The 1871 fire had destroyed the building and as the City and County began to debate the rebuilding of the City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, being a private entity, wasted little time in rebuilding its building, albeit to the design of Cochrane & Miller.  While the Chamber’s Directors had, indeed, tried their best to quickly replace their destroyed building so that they could resume business as usual, the relocation of the Municipal offices to the “temporary” City Hall at La Salle and Adams would over time erode the reconstructed Chamber of Commerce’s value as it was just too far away from the city’s “seat of power.”  

E. Townsend Mix, Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce Building (the Mackey Building), Milwaukee, southwest corner of E. Michigan and N. Broadway Streets, 1879. (Online)

Initially under the pressure of Milwaukee’s nearly-completed Chamber of Commerce with its large and up-to-date trading pit, Chicago’s board was forced to examine its overcrowded and antiquated space in the Chamber of Commerce Building.  In the summer of 1880, Real Estate and Building Journal reported that Cochrane & Miller, the architects of the existing building, were developing plans to extend the Chamber of Commerce to an adjacent lot immediately to the East.  In October 1880, with only a month to go before Milwaukee’s Board moved into its new home, Chicago’s Board of Trade attempted to steal the thunder from its northern neighbor by making public Cochrane’s design for a new Chicago Chamber of Commerce. But by this date, Chicago wasn’t just feeling pressure from Milwaukee for that same month New York unveiled George Post’s competition-winning design for the New York Produce Exchange, with its 300’ x 150’ overall dimensions, including a 225’ high tower.  (Its Trading Room was to measure 215’ x 134’ x 64’ high.)

George B. Post, Produce Exchange, New York, 1880. (Online)
Post, Produce Exchange, Interior of Trading Room. (Online)

Prudently deciding to stay at its present location in the Washington Street office corridor, the Board had Cochrane design a nine-story building to occupy the entire half block along the south side of Washington Street, between La Salle and Clark Streets.  Central to Cochrane’s Corinthian-columned design was Chicago’s recurring dream to erect a monumental tall dome.  This time, Cochrane planned a 60′ diameter dome that rose to a height of 256′, the tallest proposed structure in the city.  This was to be flanked by two smaller domes that surmounted secondary entrances on the side streets.

Instead of gathering civic interest and generating support for the proposal, however, the announcement revealed a split within the ranks of the Board of Trade’s own membership.  A faction of the Board led by John R. Bensley had other ideas pertaining to a new home for the Board of Trade, rather than simply moving into the proposed new Chamber of Commerce building.  They apparently realized, as did Aldis and the Brookses, that Chicago’s urban pattern was slowly rotating to respond to the trains coming in from the south of the city.  (Their plan was further strengthened by the southern location of the temporary City Hall at Adams and La Salle.) La Salle Street, unlike Dearborn, had an existing and fully-operational railroad station that was also conveniently located relatively much closer to the business district than was the temporary depot of the C. & W. I., located on the unconstructed right-of-way of Dearborn, some four blocks farther south at Polk Street.  If a major civic institution were to be located in the immediate area of the La Salle Street station, while employing various road blocks and legislative postponements to force the C. & W. I. station to remain at its current location, the success of La Salle Street in becoming Chicago’s financial and office corridor, replacing the Washington Street corridor, should be assured.

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

Before announcing their scheme, this group of Board members and their associates quietly secured options on the lots in the immediate area of the La Salle Street station, anticipating the erection of office buildings that would be required to complement the activities of the Board of Trade.  Their plan to relocate the Board of Trade in order to be closer to the train depots and the temporary City Hall (but far removed from existing office space, as well as from construction site of the new, post-fire city hall) was made public in October 1880, at the same time as the presentation of Cochrane’s design, in an attempt to blunt it.  Incredibly, the group proposed to locate the new building in front of the La Salle Street station, in a portion of La Salle Street that the city had just recently bought from the same group of investors in order to extend the street to the station, so that it would have a direct connection to the city.  These speculators were now asking that the city voluntarily vacate this newly constructed block of La Salle for the betterment of their collective pockets, a second time.  (They had proposed that the city take the two blocks bounded by Jackson, Clark, Van Buren, and Wells, fill in the portion of La Salle and divide this parcel with two new streets, to be named Sherman on the west and Pacific on the east, that would run to either side of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern’s train shed. This would divide this parcel into three equal blocks, the center block, inline with La Salle Street to be given to the Board of Trade for the planned new building.)

Within two months, the plan to move to La Salle Street had gained sufficient support among the membership that the Board officially voted on December 30, 1880, to approve the action.  Not so surprisingly, the Michigan Southern agreed within a week to allow the city to reroute traffic and close its direct connection with La Salle Street, something for which it had fought long and hard just a few years earlier. It took six months to “secure” the votes of City Council, but on June 23, 1881, it voted unanimously to vacate the block of La Salle that the Board of Trade wanted.  (At the same time, Council was not only stalling on the C. & W. I.’s proposal to locate its station north of Harrison, but also had completely stopped the construction of the extension of Dearborn Street to the planned location of the new station.)

At this point, the move of the Board’s threat to the property owners around the Chamber of Commerce Building became real, with their only recourse being legal action.  Uniting under the name of the Union Building Association, they succeeded in getting an injunction against the move a week later, on July 2.  While this represented a minor postponement to the plan, the Board’s leaders apparently had confidence that the “fix was in,” and that their cronies on the Illinois Supreme Court would ultimately approve the plan for they virtually ignored the injunction and in August 1881, the board conveyed the transfer of the property.  That November they engaged six of Chicago’s leading architects in a competition to design the new building, descriptions of which were published the following month in Real Estate and Building Journal.

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


Burnham & Root, Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad Building, Chicago, NE corner of Adams and Franklin, 1881. (chicagology.com)

Some of the Bostonian financiers involved with the construction of the C&WI tracks into Chicago in the battle against Vanderbilt were also invested with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy.  The CB&Q had originally been constructed as the next line west of Chicago for the Boston-owned Michigan Central consortium.  But then Cornelius Vanderbilt had cleverly taken over control of the MC, forcing the CB&Q to find a new line to the East.  While the CB&Q’s Boston investors still were involved with the new C&WI as it laid its racks to Chicago, the CB&Q had joined with Thomas Scott’s Pennsylvania as its new route to the East.  On April 7, 1874, the CB&Q and the PRR joined with Timothy Blackstone’s Chicago & Alton, and Alexander Mitchell’s Milwaukee Road to finally build the grand station that Ogden had originally tried to build along the west bank of the South Branch prior to the start of the Civil War, to replace the small station that Ogden had helped to build for his Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railroad (that was eventually merged into the PRR) located along the west bank of the South Branch of the river, on the south side of Adams.  While the station had survived the 1871 fire, the only station to have done so, it was badly in need of repair and undersized to serve these four major roads.  Although Ogden had built the original station, he had also made mortal enemies of Mitchell’s Milwaukee (see Vol. I) as well as the CB&Q (that had been forced by Ogden’s Chicago & NorthWestern in 1864 to build their own tracks into Chicago) and both harbored a deep-seated distrust of the C&NW.

W.W. Boyington, Chicago & Northwestern Station, Wells Street, 1880. (Chicagology.com)

 By 1874, however, Ogden was out of the management of the C&NW and while some political realignments had occurred, neither the Milwaukee nor the Burlington had any interest in using the NorthWestern’s station (that had been destroyed by the fire) and so joined forces with the PRR and the Alton to build the Union Station on the east side Canal Street, between Monroe and Adams (directly north of the existing PFW&C station so as not to disrupt operations). 

W. W. Boyington, Union Station, Canal at Adams Streets, 1880. (Online)

The new station was actually two stations built back-to-back: the CB&Q and the Milwaukee coming in from the north, while the Alton and the PRR came in from the south.  Somewhat revealing, both these lines as well as the C&NW had chosen Boyington to design their post-fire stations, testifying to his professional reputation as Chicago’s premiere architect at the time.  When Union Station opened in 1880, it made the western bookend for the emerging Adams Street corridor whose eastern bookend was the Interstate Exposition Building (that had also been designed by Boyington). 

Union Station surrounding area. (Rand McNally #15)
View down Adams Street from the Adams Street bridge, looking east to the Exposition Center. (Andreas, Chicago)
View east down Adams, from State Street, showing the central dome of the Expo Building terminating the vista, c. 1886. (Gilbert, Chicago)

During the construction of Union Station, Root had fallen in love and married Mary (Minnie) Louise Walker on January 15, 1880 (see Sec. 1.18). Minnie was the daughter of James Monroe Walker who at the time had been the president of the Stockyards since 1873 (by this time Burnham’s father-in-law, John B. Sherman was its vice-president).  In 1855 Walker had become the General Solicitor for the Burlington, becoming its president between 1871 and 1876, and then having returned to being its General Solicitor by the time Root met his daughter.  Although Minnie had contracted tuberculosis after the engagement and died on February 22, only six weeks after the wedding, Root had continued to live with his in-laws for a while. 

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

With the completion of the new Union Station in late 1880, the Burlington’s management had decided to move their headquarters closer to their new station from their pre-fire location at 2 S. Water Street to the northeast corner of Adams and Franklin Streets, only two blocks east of the Adams Street bridge.  Root’s father-in-law, in good Bostonian tradition, made sure that business stayed “in the family” by having the design of the new headquarters awarded to Burnham & Root.  Therefore, while Root was being forced to economize at every detail by Boston’s Peter Brooks, his obvious frustration was being more than compensated with the design during the same period of what was to be one of Chicago’s larger and more expensive buildings for another of the firm’s Boston’s connections. (What is intriguing to me is the relations between the Bostonian Brookses and the CB&Q’s John Murray Forbes that go back to the early China trade.)

As opposed to Burnham & Root’s previous two office projects that were interior slices of a Chicago block, the Burlington handed them an entire free-standing corner site: 122′ on Adams and an extremely long 176′ frontage on Franklin Street.  The size of the site was large enough that even after Root had wrapped the perimeter of the site on all four sides with single-loaded office space, an internal volume with the dimensions of 55′ x 75′ x 120′ high (for comparison, the Rookery’s atrium measures 62′ by 71′) still remained in the center of the lot, a situation similar to what Stephen Hatch had faced in the Boreel Building in New York two years earlier and what George Post was then designing in the Produce Exchange.  This allowed Root to continue his development of the interior spatial composition within office buildings that he had initiated with the Grannis Block.  The size of Root’s atrium overtook that of the six-story atrium in Marshall Field’s store (38′ x 68′). One entered the massive, rather dark exterior ascending a stairway flanked by polished red granite square columns.  Proceeding past the building’s famous wrought iron gates (that echoed Post’s Mills Building gate), one entered a single-story vestibule whose vertical compression heightened the sense of explosion into the light-filled, airy six-story high courtyard.

W. W. Boyington, Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, 1872. Section through Lobby and Lightcourt above. (The Landowner, April 1870)

Unlike the relatively narrow interior lightwells of the Grannis Block or the Grand Pacific Hotel’s lobby that was of a similar size but its skylight had to be brought down to the second level because Boyington had surrounded it with a double-loaded corridor of hotel rooms above that required daylight and fresh air, the Burlington’s atrium was actually a large, interior room unto itself, very much like the six-story atrium in the Boreel Building or the seven-story atrium in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel.  A glass and iron skylight enclosed the atrium above the sixth floor, allowing daylight not only to flood into the courtyard, but also to assist in lighting the floor space immediately adjacent to the atrium’s bearing walls via glass in the office doors and transoms, that permitted a greater depth from the exterior wall in the design of the offices than was typical for the period. 

John P. Gaynor, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1871. The Grand Court. (Lewis, Bonanza Inn)

Root’s design of the Burlington’s atrium was the first attempt in Chicago to match the grandeur of the Palace Hotel’s Grand Court designed over ten years earlier.  When we compare the dimensions of the two spaces, the Grand Court was 84′ by 144′ (vs. 55′ x 75′) by seven stories tall, almost twice as long as the Burlington’s, and at least one floor higher, we find that Chicago still had a long ways to go to match what San Francisco had enjoyed for the past decade while Chicago had fought to rebuild after the fire.  (I also need to include Post’s Produce Exchange although it did not sport the numerous balconies of these other courts, its 64’ height does put it in the same league, especially when its dimensions of 134’ x 215’ dwarfed either of the other spaces.) No photos of the Burlington’s atrium have survived, so in order to get a better feel for what Root had accomplished in the Burlington’s atrium, the photos of the Grand Court must suffice.

Post, Produce Exchange. Photo of construction showing the iron framing employed in the interior and skylight. (Landau, George Post)

However, if it was height one was looking for, the tallest atrium in the U.S. at this time I believe was the 120 feet tall central atrium in James McLaughlin’s Shillito’s Store in Cincinnati. In fact, its 58′ diameter was larger than the width of the Burlington’s atrium (55′ x 75′).

James McLaughlin, Shillito’s Department Store, Cincinnati, 1878. Atrium. (Author’s collection)

The theme of light, reflections, and openness pervaded Root’s detailing of the atrium.  The walls were painted white, echoing the white marble used to pave the floor.  The gallery-corridors were cantilevered from the bearing walls, appearing to float effortlessly within the space.  The effect was heightened by a lightweight wrought iron railing supported on uprights of polished Georgian pine and butternut.  The entire space was activated by the movement of three elevators, designed to thrill even the most hardened businessman.  The cabs had no shafts but were walled in plate glass and mirrors, their sense of vertical movement culminating Root’s symphony of space.  As opposed to the frugal planning and pragmatic image of the Montauk Block, the Burlington Building in its totality was, indeed, a “suitable architectural expression of a great and stable railway corporation,” appropriate for one of the leading companies in an industry founded on movement and technical evolution.  Root’s ability to integrate a building’s technical systems within his compositional scheme also saw the potential of the atrium to aid in the heating of the Burlington Building.  He used it as a large pressurized plenum to supply warmed air to all of the offices.  Fans were used to draw outside air past radiators where it was warmed and then ducted to the court.  As the warmed air naturally rose, it was forced into the offices by the positive pressure provided by the fans.

The site not only contained four times the area of the Montauk and was over twice the size of the Grannis Block, but, more importantly, also offered the opportunity for the design of two street fronts with a combined length almost 300.’  Root was not bound by Brooks’ tight-fisted budget, and as such, the Burlington Building would be Root’s first, unrestricted design of a large, commercial building.  Root continued his exploration of the aesthetics of the red brick box, and although he designed both the Montauk and the Burlington during the same year, he was much more successful in the overall composition of the Burlington Building.  Instead of being forced to merely “decorate” Brooks’ “building” in an attempt to make it look architectural, Root had the opportunity to design a building that would be appropriately symbolic as the headquarters for a very important company. Commerce, in an urban setting, was the idea. And historically, what better precedent was there for such building than the Florentine palazzo?!  

As the Burlington Building was intended only for the use of the company, there was no need for two “ground” floors for rentable occupancies, so the bush-hammered Bedford limestone base was relegated to housing the smaller upper windows of the basement.  The six stories of the building were again wrapped in a red St. Louis pressed brick body placed on the battered stone base. As opposed to the Montauk Block, Root’s use of the multistory arcade this time was given dominance over the expression of each floor, as continuous sillcourses were located only where they reinforced the 1:2:2:1 horizontal layering of the arcades.  The ground floor was expressed as an independent entity, including the use of the only semicircular arches in the facade), while the repetitive floors from two through five were articulated as two, two-story layers (the only difference between them being a different pattern in the intermediate terra cotta spandrels) with the multistory arcade and sillcourse devices.  Nonetheless, Root still felt compelled to express the existence of each floor on the exterior, so while he had eliminated the sillcourse at the intermediate third and fifth floors, he replaced these with their “shadows,”  terra cotta bands within the plane of the brickwork at the floor locations (echoing how Stephen Hatch had detailed this location in the Boreel Building). 

Comparison of Root’s detailing at the intermediate floors with that of Stephen Hatch in the Boreel Building, New York, 1879. Also note the similarities in the Entrance design. (Author’s collection)

The sixth floor capped the composition with its smaller windows (that were not related to the spacing of the inline windows beneath, thereby giving this layer a distinct horizontal cap to the elevation) worked into a bracketed cornice that was topped with a tall parapet wall that allowed a comparison of the design of the Burlington Building to that of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.  A more likely precedent, however, much closer to Chicago would have been the crisp box-like form and monochrome palette of Post’s Produce Exchange.  The bottomline is: as opposed to the Montauk Block where Root had been forced into a flat-roofed box, in the Burlington Building he consciously had chosen the more reposeful flat roof of the brick box, rather than continuing to blithely design picturesque roofs as he had done with the Grannis Block.

Completely opposite of Post’s elevations that employed a repetitive bay within each dominant horizontal layer, however, Root articulated both of his elevations vertically into thirds: the Adams front having its three central bays projected to emphasize the entrance, as well as to express on the exterior the building’s interior section that comprised a central atrium flanked on both sides by the tiers of single-loaded office corridors. He reinforced the center’s visual dominance with paired windows to either side of the entrance bay. The Franklin Street facade, without an entrance, was detailed as one continuous plane, its articulation in thirds being achieved by an inversion of the Adams façade: ‘negative’ corner pavilions were formed by combining the end three windows at both corners into arcades.  The inversion between the two facades was even carried into how each elevation read: while the projected central pavilion of the Adams elevation gave it a vertical accent, the unbroken plane of the Franklin elevation read horizontally. A neat trick attesting to his ability to synthesize elementally opposing forces/ideas.

Root’s concern for the building to be perceived as a volume or mass, as opposed to an assembly of planes, was evident in the detailing of the end piers that turned the corner without a vertical terminating edge (quarter-rounded bricks were probably used at this point to achieve surface continuity).  The mass of the walls was further expressed by the deep recess of the windows and the corresponding detailing of their jambs (that also most likely incorporated the rounded brick). As opposed to the strong, horizontal accent of the Produce Exchange’s elevations, Root’s elevations had resulted in a successful synthesis of horizontal and vertical elements.

And once I again, I look for the reported Gothic Revival in this building and find none. Quite frankly, I believe I have shown the thesis that Root’s early buildings were Gothic Revival to be an erroneous, rather simplistic construction. It is also a stretch to label the building “Romanesque Revival” for only the first floor has semicircular windows. (So one might honestly say that it is 16% Romanesque.) What we have here in the Burlington Building is Root beginning to gain his confidence with the design of a large building. If we need to give its style an historical label, probably “Renaissance Revival” would be the most accurate, in at least its overall massing and bracketed cornice that speak to Florence in the 15th century. But the segmental arches and monochromatic palette still speak of the Néo-Grec. However, Root has not carved the openings into the plane of bricks as he had done in the Grannis Block. Instead, he has softened the edges of the openings, beginning to express the plasticity of the building’s mass. No, this is not Gothic Revival nor Néo-Grec nor Renaissance Revival; this is the synthesis of details with design and materials that we could call Root.


Burnham and Root, Calumet Club House, Chicago, NE corner of Michigan Ave. and 20th St., 1881. (Lowe, Chicago Interiors)

Root was not a slave to the cubic aesthetic of the contemporary red brick box, however, for his primary concern was not the imposition of a uniform language in all or even in each of his buildings, but in finding an appropriate (symbolic) architectural expression for a given project.  This is quite evident in the design of the Calumet Club, the third major commission Burnham & Root received in early 1881, that paralleled the design of the Montauk and Burlington Buildings.  In fact, one can measure Burnham & Root’s ascendency to the top tier of Chicago’s architectural community at this time, for these three buildings represented three of the four most expensive buildings erected in Chicago in 1881 (only the First National Bank escaped their boards).  Root chose to give the Club, located at the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and 20th Street, a more picturesque massing, i.e., Queen Anne massing, to impart to it a domestic appearance appropriate for its use as well as its location in an upper-class, residential neighborhood.  He even oversized the windows and details in an attempt to retain the residential image for the large (82′ x 160′) building.  Although he had eschewed the polychrome of the Queen Anne, retained the red pressed brick body and stone base language of his other two buildings for the lower three floors, the fourth floor was worked into a steep slate hip roof that was punctured by a variety of dormers and chimneys.  The tourelle that Root placed on the corner of the building again reveals his attention to current events in New York, especially to the designs by Hunt: an homage to Hunt’s the William K. Vanderbilt (the middle son of the “Commodore”) house in Vanderbilt Row along Fifth Avenue, the most expensive house ever constructed in America, then well on its way to completion. Completed in late 1882 with a final price tag of over $3 million (Potter Palmer had spent $3.2 million only eight years earlier building the entire Palmer House), it was renowned as being the most expensive house ever built in the U.S. up to this time.

Richard Morris Hunt, William K. Vanderbilt residence, New York, 1879. (Online)

What I stated at the beginning of this section bears repeating: summarizing the design of Root’s first four major projects in the new decade, it is quite obvious that Root’s primary concern was not the imposition of a uniform language (i.e., neither the Gothic nor the Romanesque Revival) in all or even in each of his buildings, but in finding either an appropriate (symbolic) or a thematic architectural expression for a given project.  This was the primary artistic challenge (his plot, if you will) that he would set for himself in each of his works.


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)


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. Left: Typical Plan. (Leslie, Chicago); Right: Note the skylights in the Montauk (left) and the First National Bank (right). (Rand McNally Views)

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 the windows in the party wall 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.  

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

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.

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.  This was simply the result of the width of the site: after having wrapped the front and alley with the single-loaded corridor scheme, there was not enough dimension of the party wall side to locate the entry on axis; it had to be located one bay off-center.  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)


Map of the Grand Trunk Railroad’s new track to Chicago, 1879. (Online)

In Sec. 1.15, I introduced the emergence of a new railroad player in Chicago’s real estate community, the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad.  Commodore Vanderbilt’s son and successor, William H., in an attempt to “corner the market” on meat shipments (and all freight) to the East coast in early 1879, had raised the user fees that his MC charged the Canadian Grand Trunk to use its route into Chicago.  Such a monopoly was simply unacceptable to the GT’s president, Sir Henry Tyler as well as to Boston’s railroad interests, who had built the MC but lost it to the older Vanderbilt’s cagey stock manipulations, but still ran the very profitable CB&Q that needed a corresponding link back to the East.  To compound the gravity of the situation, Vanderbilt had come into direct conflict with the investments of one of the world’s largest financial institutions, the House of Baring in London, who were quietly financing, in league with Boston financial interests, their own transcontinental route from the Pacific and the China trade back to East in the form of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

Tyler had announced that he would build a new route from Detroit into Chicago, and on June 5, 1879, the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad was formally incorporated, destined to become the Chicago entrance for all of Vanderbilt’s embittered rivals: Tyler’s Grand Trunk Western; the Baring’s and Bostonians’ Santa Fe; and even the New York Central’s perennial enemy, the Erie.  The most logical location for the company’s new station would be to the east of Vanderbilt’s station on Van Buren, and so the Bostonians had influenced the decision to bring the tracks in line with Dearborn.  This was a well-guarded secret, however, in order not to encourage the current owners of the needed property to drastically inflate their selling price so that all of the property could be obtained at relatively lower prices.  And I don’t mean only the property for the station, but all of the property immediately adjacent to the station for this would naturally be the location for new buildings (office, shopping, and hotels) that would sprout up around the station.

Map of the Loop, 1881. (Author’s collection)

The original plan was to locate the C&WI station at Harrison, only two blocks south of the La Salle Street Station.  Obviously, it was to the C&WI’s advantage to be as close to the business district as possible in order to compete with Vanderbilt’s station.  This location would have also been only three blocks away from the relocated post-fire Post Office/Custom House then under construction.  In 1880, however, there was no corner of Harrison and Dearborn, it was “out in the sticks” because Dearborn had been constructed only as far south as Monroe that was the southside of the old Post Office; nothing much existed farther to the south.  The Brookses had already obtained the land at the future corner of Harrison and Dearborn secretly through Shepherd’s wife, Clara G. Brooks, who had made the purchases under the name of “D,” before the railroad had showed its hand by starting construction of its tracks into the business district.

Although the first Grand Trunk train had arrived on the C. & W. I. tracks on February 9, 1880, the tracks had been stopped by the city at Polk Street, four blocks south of the La Salle Street station, under the pretext that the new tracks would only compound the existing traffic congestion. Of course, as Dearborn still remained unopened some seven blocks to the north, there was no “existing traffic” to compound.   Common Council was evidently under the influence of the La Salle Street interests, for they would eventually succeed in preventing the C. & W. I. tracks from crossing Polk Street.  This issue was compounded by the fact that Council would not even approve the extension of Dearborn beyond Jackson, the southern edge of the new Post Office then under construction, until, as we will see, those who had plans for La Salle Street had “all of their ducks in a row” (the city would, of course, eventually construct the five new blocks of Dearborn).  But this was still some two years into the future, and meanwhile, the Brookses continued to optimistically albeit naively, move forward with their plans in hopes of success and profit.


Ammi B. Young, U.S. Post Office and Custom House, Chicago, 1857, center left (photo c. 1867). NW corner of Dearborn and Monroe, looking south down Dearborn. Note that at this time, Dearborn was opened and paved only to Monroe Street. (Gilbert, Chicago)

I stated that one of the more significant effects of the 1871 fire had been the total destruction of the Post Office and Custom House that stood at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe (Vol. II, Sec. 3.6).  We have seen that the Federal Government demanded a larger site than the old one in order to build a much bigger replacement, and I had stated that suspicion was rampart about who had made a killing with the sale to the Feds of the block bounded by Adams, Dearborn, Jackson, and Clark.  The important point here is that the new Federal institution was to be remain on Dearborn.

Therefore, the intersection of Dearborn and Monroe was prime for development since the northwest corner had been vacated with the relocation of the Post Office.  The importance of the vacated corner and its ruins, occupied since the fire by Haverly’s Theater, was underscored in 1881 by the construction of a new building for the First National Bank of Chicago.  The bank’s move from its post-fire building (redesigned by its original architect, Edward Burling) at the southwest corner of Washington and State signaled the opening blow to the preeminence of Washington Street as Chicago’s financial district, and gave further evidence that the city’s business district was being pulled to the south, away from the river and closer to the railroads.

We last mentioned Burling (whose oeuvre ranked third among the city’s architects, following those of Boyington and Van Osdel) in connection with the design of the new Central Music Hall two years earlier (see Sec 1.7).  He had been selected, along with his junior partner, Dankmar Adler, to be awarded the commission, when he was indicted for malpractice, costing him the chance to design the building, that was given to Adler, who then had started his own firm.  Meanwhile, Burling had been found innocent of the charge and had replaced Adler with Francis M. Whitehouse.  The bank continued to have faith in Burling and once again returned to Burling for the design of its new headquarters, that was to be the most expensive private building erected in Chicago since the Palmer House.  

Burling and Whitehouse, First National Bank, Chicago, NW corner of Dearborn and Monroe, 1881. The Montauk Block is to the left. (Chicagology.com)

For the corner lot that had frontages on Dearborn of 192′ and on Monroe of 96,’ and alleys on the other two sides, the architects designed a 100′ high building containing six floors and a basement that was served by three elevators.   The 96’ width allowed Burling to line the site with a single-loaded corridor scheme in the upper five office floors in which the offices were arranged around galleries that overlooked the skylighted atrium.  The basement contained safe deposit vaults while the banking floor, with its entrance on Dearborn, occupied the entire first floor that was completely free of any walls.  As was the case in George Post’s Equitable Building and the then under-construction Produce Exchange, the center of the banking floor was highlighted with a 16′ x 100′ glass and iron skylight.  Burling’s solution to the banking floor also used the detailing Post had used in the Produce Exchange in his use of cantilevers from the interior columns from which the skylight was supported.  

Burling and Whitehouse, First National Bank. Banking floor. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago); Below: The Banking Floor in operation. (Chicagology.com)

One can assume by the advertising names on the windows in the upper floors that these offices, were, at least in the beginning, rental floors.  Obviously for security and noise issues, the bank would not want the banking floor opened to the atrium above, therefore, it had Burling close off the bottom of the upper atrium with the otherwise unneeded skylight over the banking floor. 

Left: Montauk Block; Right: First National Bank (note the skylight).(Rand-McNally, View #5)

In order to gain a maximum of daylight for the offices, Burling employed a masonry pier-and-spandrel system, like that of Jenney’s First Leiter Building and Adler’s recently-completed Borden Block (rather than a wall with holes: compare the bank’s exterior to the walls in the Montauk Block in the upper image). In comparing Burling’s elevation to that by Adler in the Borden Block, Buring’s maturity as a designer is quite evident in the compositional repose he achieved.

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

Burling’s design of the exterior was quite traditional compared to Root’s experiment in the Grannis Block, in that colossal Ionic and Corinthian pilasters were employed to group the floors in an ascending 1:2:3 sequence.  This was the same rhythm that Silliman and Farnsworth had used in the Boreel Building in New York three years earlier.  As Real Estate and Building Journal described, its “style will be Renaissance, without flippery ornament and depending for its effectiveness upon its simplicity.”  Repose…

Stephen Hatch, Boreel Building, New York, 1878. (Online)

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


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)


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)


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: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)