8.4. ROOT’S EARLY EXPERIMENTS WITH THE MEDIEVAL REVIVAL: THE RIALTO VS. THE INSURANCE EXCHANGE

H.H. Richardson: Left: Trinity Church, Boston, 1872; Right: All Saints Cathedral, Albany, 1883. (Van Rensselaer, Richardson)

Root’s design for the Santa Fe Building in Topeka (see last post) revealed that he was closely studying the latest “Romanesque Revival” designs from the East.  In addition to Peabody & Stearns’ R.H. White store, he would have seen H.H. Richardson’s latest designs published in American Architect during the second half of 1883.  I believe the project that had the most impact on him was Richardson’s competition entry for the Albany Cathedral.  The detail that got his attention, I believe, was the attached turrets that Richardson had placed on all four corners of the central tower. These reappeared on Richardson’s competition entry for the Allegheny County Courthouse that was named the winner on January 31, 1884. 

H.H. Richardson, Allegheny County Courthouse, Pittsburgh, 1883. (Van Rensselaer, Richardson)

This detail accomplished two design ideas. First, by rounding the corner, it emphasized the building’s three-dimensional mass, rather than how a sharp corner accentuated the surface plane of the wall. Second, as especially evident in the Pittsburgh tower, it imparted a distinctly vertical accent to the building, something that would greatly assist the design of this growing typology.  I do not know whether or not Root had seen the Courthouse drawings prior to March 1884 when Burnham & Root received the commission for a 10-story office building for the southwest corner of La Salle and Adams, but this building, the Insurance Exchange, would start a series of skyscrapers by Root that would sprout such turrets at the corners of their roofs. (Root would continue to use rounded elements to turn his corners such as in the Women’s Temple and the Ashland Block.)

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. On the left are the designs in which Root experimented with the wall and single windows; on the right are the designs in which he experimented with piers and paired windows. The Rookery is best understood as Root’s synthesizing the best of each: a wall building with paired windows. (Kyle Campbell)

Let’s recall that when they received the commission for the Insurance Exchange in March 1884, Burnham & Root were already working on the Rialto Building, where Root had chosen the theme of the Rialto Bridge for the building with a corresponding Venetian Gothic concept that honored the work of John Ruskin.  The plan concept of the Rialto had been revised to where it finally comprised of two parallel double-loaded corridors linked by the elevator core forming an H-plan.  

Map of Loop, 1884. (Author’s collection)

With the Insurance Exchange (originally known by the name of its owner, Col. J. Mason Loomis), Burnham & Root were presented with the design of a long (165′) street front along La Salle at THE intersection of THE two most important streets in downtown Chicago during the 1880s, and, of course, directly opposite from “The Rookery,” the post-fire temporary City Hall. 

Burnham & Root. Left: Insurance Exchange; Right: Rialto Building. Note that both buildings have a projected oriel bay from the circulation corridor, in which, I assume, was located a circular stair similar to The Rookery. (Rand-McNally Views)

 The lot was very narrow (60′), leaving them no alternative but to line La Salle with a single-loaded office corridor, that turned the two corners with a double-loaded corridor, creating a shallow U-plan that left a small void in the center at the back of the lot as an exterior lightwell.  As he was redesigning the Rialto at this same time, Root also projected an oriel window once again into the lightwell of the Insurance Exchange to accommodate a circular stairway extending unbroken to the top of the building that would become the centerpiece of the building’s spatial experience. 

Cathedral of St. Cecelia, Albi, France, 1282-1480) (Online)

In contrast to the Venetian Gothic theme in the Rialto, however, it appears to me that Root found his inspiration in what was then the largest all-brick building in the world, the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Albi, a large city in south central France. (This influence had been first suggested by Boston architect C.H. Blackall in an article he wrote on Chicago architecture published in the February 1888 issue of American Architect.) Although the church is made solely of bricks, its arches are both pointed and round, so its style is generally said to be “Southern” French Gothic with a hall church plan.  As both of these early skyscrapers by Root were inspired more by the Gothic than by the Romanesque, although he had deployed the round arch in the Insurance Exchange, I therefore chose the more inclusive term “Medieval Revival” to describe these two contemporary designs by Root.

Burnham and Root, Insurance Exchange Building, Chicago, 1884. (Hoffmann, Root)

In contrast to how he had designed the Rialto as a series of free-standing, sharp edged piers with a paired-window spacing, in the Insurance Exchange Root appears to have decided to show the many faces possible in a brick building.  There are no free-standing piers, however, it is one, solid box of brick within its surface he has either cut single (not paired) windows or placed mutistoried piers.  While the lower two-thirds of its body have sharp, angled corners, the upper two-plus stories were designed without a “corner”: he has located a turret at each corner, thereby allowing the brick surface to wrap around the corner without a crease, emphasizing this portion of the building’s plastic mass.  In essence, he appears to have been experimenting with these two diametrically-opposed methods of structuring and expressing a building in an exploration to discover which was most appropriate for this new building type.

Burnham & Root. Left: Rialto Building; Right: Insurance Exchange. They have the same overall composition except that the Insurance Exchange has the extra floor detailed as a “belt floor.” (Hoffmann, Root)

Nonetheless, he still used the same overall elevational concepts for both buildings. Horizontally, a centrally-positioned triumphal arched entry was marked with widened piers that extended to the roof; these were restated at each corner to frame the elevation.  In addition, these were needed to visually buttress the thrusts of the arcade in the Insurance Exchange, while the wider corner piers would also have been necessary to “cover” the thickness of the intersecting piers at each corner in the Rialto. Vertically, he reused the Rialto’s layering sequence of 2-2-4-1, except that he inserted the additional floor of the Insurance Exchange as a belt layer of segmental arches under the layer that contained the continuous four-story high piers (albeit these were halved by the unfortunate application of a floating capital at mid-height, seemingly a leftover form the Burlington Building).   This transitional layer appeared to be added by Root to serve both as a cornice to terminate the two-story colonnade in floors 3-4, and as a base for the four-story arcade in floors 6-9.  This transitional layer was detailed not as a series of piers, but a plane with the windows cut into it, thereby it read as a horizontal datum that interrupted the piers, preventing them from being read as being seven stories in height.  The transitional layer also reinforced the dominant horizontal accent of the elevation, emphatically restated in the buildings unbroken horizontal cornice.  The top floor was defined with a continuous line of brick corbelling as well as with a change in the spacing of its windows, similar to how he had detailed the top floor of the Rialto, so as to disrupt the potential reading of the continuous piers continuing into the top floor, so that this layer was a distinct horizontal layer, as was the belt layer.  In summary, in early 1884, Root was not yet ready to make his tall buildings “vertical.”

The first and second floors were grouped as a two-story arcade that Root used to make a transition between the ground floor’s Bedford stone piers and the cherry red St. Louis pressed brick walls above.  Instead of detailing this two-story base entirely in stone, however, Root allowed the brick to invade the base into the second story.  While this may have softened what had traditionally been a severe disjunction of materials in the exteriors of buildings of the period, the triumphal arch suffered from a split personality.  The large, two-story arched entrance portal was surmounted by twin three-story turrets from which a balcony was supported.  Root then used the upward insertion of the great arch to dislodge the central three bays of the belt layer up one story, thereby shortening the two central piers of the arcade by one story. A subtle, but very sophisticated detail.  Hindsight is 20-20, so this armchair architect thinks that if Root had made only the two stories of the arch in stone, not only would he have avoided the split materials of the entrance arch but would have also visually reinforced the upward thrust of the stories above the arch.

Burnham & Root, Insurance Exchange. Entrance. (Hoffman, Meanings)

His virtuosity in detailing brick and terra cotta produced a variety of techniques that were skillfully blended into a richly-textured whole, that once again spoke of a knowledge of Furness’ detailing in Philadelphia (as had Root’s designs for the entrance gate of the Union Stockyards and the Grannis Block).  The arches in the second floor were silhouetted by a gridded infill, detailed not unlike that used by Richardson in similar locations.  While the windows in the “belt” layer were detailed with sharp edges, making the openings appear to have been chiseled into the brick, the edges of the other openings were plastically molded by details such as engaged ribs and quarter-rounded brick.  Root reserved his best brick detailing for the top floors with their continuous articulated courses of bricks with raked or recessed horizontal joints to once again silhouette the arches in these two floors. (A detail that is often mistakenly credited to having been developed by Wright.)   

One of the few compositional differences between the Rialto and the Insurance Exchange was Root’s elimination of the Rialto’s central roof pavilions, giving the Insurance Exchange a crisper, straight cornice that accentuated the building’s box-like form.  He did, however, restate the three-story tall turrets at the corners of the roof, that projected a full story above the cornice.  These turrets allowed the lines of brick in the cornice to wrap around the corner without a sharp edge, achieving a surface continuity that was strikingly in opposition to the surfaces of the rest of the building that were defined with a sharp edge at the corners.  In truth, here was Root at his finest in exploiting brick’s inherent androgynous quality operating between surface versus mass: it was a “both/and” building.  As a postscript to the question of Root’s finding inspiration in the Albi Cathedral, I made the pilgrimage there in 2010 and brought back these photos. You can make your own decision. (We will see Root mine this building’s details in a number of his later designs, such as the First Regiment’s Armory and the Monadnock Block.)

Left: Burnham & Root, Insurance Exchange; Right: Albi Cathedral complex, out building. (Left: Monroe, Root; Right: Author’s collection)

FURTHER READING:

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

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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

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