The year 1884 had been, indeed, a banner year for Chicago. The Board of Trade’s tower had topped off at 303,’ finally dethroning New York (Trinity Church’s 281’ steeple) from its “higher than thou” attitude of having the tallest building in the country. Chicago’s collection of skyscrapers was quickly catching up to New York’s. And most impressive, Chicago’s population was the fastest growing in the country, and expected by many to surpass New York’s by 1900:
1. New York 1,2060,299 1. New York 1,515,301 (+309,011)
2. Philadelphia 847,170 2. Chicago 1,099,850 (+596,665)
3. Brooklyn 566,663 3. Philadelphia 1,046,964
4. Chicago 503,185 4. Brooklyn 806,343
In fact, the “West” was growing like a proverbial wildfire, shifting the nation’s population centroid, aided by the railroads, farther away from the Atlantic Coast each year. In the world of American architecture, it seemed to architects in the West that they no longer needed the Atlantic Coast.
9.1. THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE A.I.A.
The American Institute of Architects was originally chartered as a scientific society in the state of New York on April 13, 1857, by a group by nine architects from New York City. The organization slowly grew in size and geographic distribution (a three-year hiatus due to the Civil War notwithstanding) so that in its tenth year, 1867, the need was recognized for a more local focus for those members residing in cities other than New York. The A.I.A. constitution and by-laws were, therefore, so amended to permit the formation of local chapters when so deemed appropriate by a city’s architects. At the height of this organization’s activity during the mid-1870s, there were eight active local chapters: New York (1867), Philadelphia and Chicago (1869), Cincinnati and Boston (1870), Baltimore (1871), Albany (1873), and Rhode Island (1875).
The depression of the middle 1870s, however, had exacted a toll on many of the country’s architects who were forced to justify the cost of A.I.A. membership in the face of economic hardship. Interest and support for the organization began to wane toward the end of the decade. This decline was only compounded in the western chapters of Cincinnati and Chicago by a sense of growing isolation and disaffection with the A.I.A.’s increasing East Coast focus, in addition to major philosophic differences on a number of issues. (An opinion shared by even the architects in Western New York state.) By 1879, neither chapter was a viable unit of the Institute; the Cincinnati Chapter having failed to submit a report to the annual convention in New York City that viewed the action as an outright secession. Western apathy was met by the A.I.A. Committee on Membership with a proposal at the convention “that the relation now existing between the Institute and the Chapters should be changed, or rather abolished, making the Chapters completely independent,” in favor of a more honorary and literary (academic-oriented) organization modelled after the Royal Institute of British Architects. The Boston Chapter led the push for “the dissolution of all organic connections between the A.I.A. and local chapters,” with the Boston-published American Architect, the magazine the A.I.A. had chosen to report its business, looking forward to the act as “a momentous event in the history of architecture in the United States.” The 1880 convention, held in Philadelphia on November 17, approved the dissolution proposal, leaving the only operative connection between the national organization and the local societies as the requirement that the president of each chapter should be a Fellow of the A.I.A., that would entitle each local president to sit of the A.I.A. Board of Trustees. Three years later, the divorce from the local chapters was completed by abolishing the rule that made members of local chapters automatic Associates in the A.I.A.
The A.I.A.’s elitist decision to cast off its chapters, more specifically the inactive groups in the West, was quite ill-timed, for by 1883, as has been seen, the construction boom in the West was giving western architects the opportunity to design buildings that were not only comparable in size and cost to those in the East but were also many times more significant with regards to the technology employed in them. Quite simply, western expansion had begun to mature to the point that the earlier economic and cultural inferiority of the West seemed to many of its residents as unwarranted. Midwestern architects, many of whom had actually grown up in the East, no longer saw any reason to hold the “dandies” on the East Coast in such high esteem. Nowhere was this general attitude of indifference to the East more pervasive than in Chicago, the emerging capital of the West.
The loss of the Grannis Block by the Brookses may have been a blessing in disguise, for it freed up the capital they had invested in it at a very opportune time. The new City Hall had finally been completed and occupied in November 1884. In an attempt to raise money to cover the cost overruns of its new building, the city planned to lease the site of the old “Rookery” to a developer who would promise to erect a fireproof building with a value of not less than $800,000. There were three offers, of which the one chosen, that of Henry. S. Everhart’s was suspiciously the lowest. While the other two had offered to start paying rent and taxes immediately, Everhart had asked to be exempt from rent and taxes from March 1885 to May 1886, a reduction to the city of $30,000 in rent and $6,000 in taxes. Nevertheless, Everhart’s offer was chosen the week before the Grannis fire by a majority of City Council (who surely had been promised considerably less than the $36,000 for their vote). Mayor Harrison wisely responded to the public outcry over the scandal by vetoing the council vote, coincidentally following the Grannis fire, and recommended that further bids be sought. Three months of quiet negotiating resulted in an announcement on May 12, 1885, that the site would be leased to a group of investors led by Edward C. Waller for 99 years at an annual rent of $35,000. In return, the group promised to erect the city’s largest office building, estimated to cost $1 million (for which it was reported that sketches for a 10-story structure had already been made) and would begin paying rent as of May 1, 1886. Waller, born in Maysville, Kentucky, had moved with his family prior to the Civil War to Chicago where his father had settled on the West Side, in the heart of Chicago’s affluent colony of former Kentuckians centered around the intersection of Ashland (the name of the home of Kentucky’s favorite son, Henry Clay) and Jackson. The Waller children became close friends with the family across the street who had moved here from Louisville. The father of the friends’ family was Carter Harrison who, long before he was elected mayor, had become like an uncle to the young Waller and his siblings. A new insider deal had simply supplanted the earlier boodle scheme.
Twelve days before the signing of the “Rookery” deal, the new Board of Trade, as well as the Insurance Exchange and the Home Insurance Building, had opened their doors for business on May 1. The proposed largest office building in the city, to be built on the site of the old “Rookery” destined to also be named the “Rookery,” would not only cement the reputation of La Salle Street directly in front of the new Board of Trade as the city’s premiere financial district, but also reinforce the new Adams Street corridor, that began to read as a “who’s who in Chicago architecture” (from east to west: Interstate Exposition Building, Pullman Building, Post Office/Custom House, Rookery, Home Insurance Building, Insurance Exchange, the Burlington Building, and Union Station).
As the new building would sit only one block north of the Board of Trade, across La Salle Street from the Insurance Exchange and immediately south of the Home Insurance Building, it would make the intersection of La Salle and Adams one of Chicago’s most architecturally significant locations. Among the stockholders of the company, the Central Safety Deposit Company, represented by Waller were the names of Peter C. Brooks, Owen F. Aldis, Norman B. Ream, William E. Hale, and Waller’s long-time friend, Daniel H. Burnham. Evidently, Brooks and Aldis had seized the opportunity to gain a prime site in the heart of the emerging La Salle Street financial district that was also in the Adams Street corridor, by once again acquiring vacated public property (as they had done with the Montauk Block on the old Customs House site) to build another large office building designed by Burnham & Root. If Aldis and Brooks couldn’t beat City Hall in their effort to develop Dearborn, they, at least, now had the “clout” to buy City Hall…
The work on extending Dearborn Street, first promised in January 1882, was postponed to the Fall of 1884, then to the Spring of 1885. Actually, it wasn’t until construction on the new C. & W. I. terminal was completed in September 1885, four months after the opening of the new Board of Trade and, more importantly, five and a half years after the first train had arrived in Chicago on the C. & W. I. tracks, that the extension of Dearborn from Jackson to Polk was completed. It was obvious that La Salle Street had won the battle, and the Brookses shelved their grand plans for Dearborn during the next five years. Instead, within two weeks of Aldis’ initial confession to Brooks of the defeat of the Monadnock, the Brookses first shored up their existing investment along the built-up portion of Dearborn by purchasing the Grannis Block for $175,000 (they already owned the land under it). A month later in December 1884 they purchased the southeast corner of Clark and Van Buren, diagonally opposite the new Open Board of Trade and only two blocks east of the La Salle Street Station. Within a month they had obtained a building permit for the site for a 103′ x 103′, 12-story, 160′ high office building designed by Burnham & Root. As the old adage goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Then the roof literally fell in, for on February 19, 1885, only three months after Shepherd Brooks had purchased the Grannis Block as a safe investment, it was destroyed by fire. Although never confirmed, the consensus of the fire’s origin was friction caused by the elevator’s counterweights on their wooden guiderails. The fire had quickly spread through the open elevator shaft and into the building’s wood floor structure, disproving the effectiveness of Wight’s porous terra cotta tile system’s ability to protect wood floor structures. Apparently both Burnham and Root, whose office was located on the top floor, were the first to discover the fire and were able to escape with their lives, although the firm’s records and drawings were completely destroyed (that proved to be a great loss for architectural historians).
“At times, when the wind blew aside the dense clouds of smoke and steam, and the flames showed through the great icicles that hung from every window and capital and ledge, the scene was beautiful and grand. On either side of the street the buildings were enveloped in a white shroud, from which the flames reflected as from a mirror. The men themselves look [sic] like moving icicles, so completely were they covered with ice.”
Because of the severity of the winter, the ice-encrusted ruin of a supposedly fireproof building stood for weeks as a sober reminder that even though over thirteen years had passed since the great conflagration of October 8, 1871, Chicago had not yet learned not to build with wood:
“The burning of the Grannis Block has occasioned more comment than any similar event in years. The building, though of timber construction, was so well built as to be supposed to be fireproof, and the sentiment in favor of fireproofing has set so strong that it is doubtful if in the future any office building will be constructed otherwise. This should be carefully watched by the citizens’ committee, and if not a sufficient warning to owners who wish to build cheaply at the expense of the lives of their tenants, they should see that a law compelling the fireproofing of buildings of certain classes should be passed. This law should apply not only to office buildings but all factories and apartment houses. Another point in the construction of buildings that must be abandoned – and it is found in the designs of all architects – is the placing of wooden stairs around open elevator shafts. In the Grannis Block fire, the architect who planned the building had a forcible example of the “disadvantage” of this system as he escaped down the burning stairway. The stairs should be of iron and fireproofed, and the elevator shaft should be of fireproof material and open at the top, not among a mass of wooden joists and rafters, but like a chimney above the roof, and all doors should be iron and close automatically.”
Although wood floor joists would no longer be used in large commercial buildings in Chicago after the Grannis fire, heavy timber framing would still not disappear for a number of years to come. While the city still refused to enact stricter building ordinances, Burnham and Root had learned this lesson the hard way: the offices of Burnham & Root were temporarily relocated next door to the Portland Block, until more permanent space could be rented in the Montauk Block, the first office building constructed with fireproof hollow tile floor arches. Conservative Shepherd Brooks had learned a lesson too. Instead of rebuilding the Grannis Block, he leased the site to Wilson Nixon, who rebuilt the building generally along the same lines of the Grannis Block, drawn up by Burnham & Root in their new, safer office.
Root took the opportunity to update the design of the facade for the new client, the National Bank of Illinois. The outdated mansard roof and tower were removed and replaced with an extra floor that gave the building its up-to-date palazzo form. He combined the top two floors into a third horizontal layer above the base in which he detailed triple windows between the structural piers, imparting a 1:2:3 progression of windows in the layered arcades as they marched up the elevation. Root reinforced the center bay that originally had supported the tower, by replacing the triple-arched motif of the outer bays of the top floor with one large, semicircular arch. Then he topped the composition with a flat cornice that not only updated the building’s design, but also visually tied it better to the recent two-story addition in the Portland Block next door (and leads one to wonder if Aldis had also earlier assigned the design of the Portland’s addition to Burnham & Root).
Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
The question of the origin of the Monadnock’s Egyptian detailing was moot in late October 1884, however, for Aldis had recommended on October 20 that the project could be postponed for at least two and half years, until May 1, 1887. Although Root continued to work feverishly on the project, the Monadnock was destined to suffer a fate similar to that of Field’s office building. Both of the 13-story projects announced during the threatened height limit of 1884 failed to materialize for similar reasons: Field’s building was doomed by the fight with his former partner; Monadnock was a casualty of the battle between the real estate interests of La Salle and those of Dearborn Streets. Even though the city had seemed to have promised to complete Dearborn through to the C. & W. I. station during the summer of 1884, no construction activity on Dearborn materialized, and it was postponed again to the Fall of 1884. Aldis may have actually been trying to leverage the city into action by revealing the plans for the Monadnock at the end of April. Three months later on July 19, it was revealed that the Brookses were also ready to erect office buildings on both of the corners of the north side of Dearborn and Harrison (the eventual site of the Pontiac Building) that would have been directly across the street from the station’s originally-planned location. (Had the station been built at Harrison, these new buildings would have formed a more visually coherent complex that could have better competed with the Board of Trade area for dominance in the business district.) Aldis’ apparent public relations campaign was for naught, however, as the right-of-way of Dearborn continued to languish untouched throughout 1884.
By the fall of 1884, even Aldis had to admit defeat to La Salle Street and decided to bide his time. The construction on La Salle Street would flood the rental market in May of 1885, just as the business community expected the country to experience an economic decline if Grover Cleveland succeeded in November by becoming the first Democrat to be elected President since 1856. There would be little to be gained by adding to the glut of office space during a recession with an even taller structure on an unfinished street that wouldn’t be ready for occupancy until long after the leases had been signed for the La Salle Street buildings. Finally, after more than a year and a half of indecision, Brooks would shelve the project with a letter to Aldis on March 16, 1886, stating “There is little chance of the Monadnock Block being begun before three years.” As had been done with the Rialto Building, rumors of its impending construction would be released periodically in the coming years to bolster interest in the surrounding area, but to no avail. Monadnock would have to wait.
With construction of the C & W I station finally underway in October 1883, surely the city would now act on its promise to open up the five remaining blocks of Dearborn Street from the Post Office Square, where the construction of Dearborn had been stalled since January 1882, through to the station at Polk Street. Even in the face of the stiff competition from the construction of the new buildings along La Salle Street, the emerging boom of 1884 seemed to hold the fulfillment of the dreams of the Dearborn Street investors. Savoring a moment of hope with the city’s promise to open Dearborn to the station by the fall of 1884, the Brooks brothers’ frustrations were only reignited by the proposed height limit in March which had forced them to prematurely reveal their plans for their lot on the south side of the Post Office Square at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Jackson, thus, the mighty Monadnock Block had been conceived. At the time of its conception, however, no one would have believed that it would have a gestation period of more than five years.
Understanding the need for haste, Peter Brooks apparently contacted Owen Aldis, as well as Burnham & Root in late March 1884, and ordered plans for a 12-story office building to be drawn up to a level of detail sufficient to secure a building permit before such legislation was enacted. On March 31, Aldis wrote to Burnham and Root: “For what price will you make such carefully prepared and studied plans for a 12-story and basement building 68 x 100, S. W. corner of Jackson and Dearborn… I mean all plans essential and necessary to get out [a] permit to build…?
At this time, Burnham & Root were deeply engaged in the design of the Rialto and Insurance Exchange with the same objective of beating the height limit. The addition of an even taller project undoubtedly began to tax the resources of their already overburdened staff and Brooks was made to wait. His impatient concern was quite evident in a letter to Aldis two weeks later, where he complained that he had not yet received any drawings for the project that in the interim he had given the Indian name, Quamquisset. As with the Montauk Block, Brooks had a preconceived aesthetic for the project: “I would request an avoidance of ornamentation… rely upon the effect of solidity and strength, or a design that will produce that effect, rather than ornament for a notable appearance.”
It took another two weeks before Brooks received Root’s first ideas for the building. Although he was “not disappointed” by the elevation, Brooks characteristically reasserted his control over Root’s ornamental proclivity in a letter to Aldis on May 6, revealing a functionalist theory that echoed Peter B. Wight’s call for a modern, Chicago aesthetic that he had articulated in his 1880 article in American Art Review (that was published in Boston):
“My notion is to have no projecting surfaces or indentations, but to have everything flush, or flat and smooth with the walls with the exception of bosses, and ornamentation of that nature in low relief, on the red terra cotta… So tall and narrow a building must have some ornament in so conspicuous a situation… [but] projections mean dirt, nor do they add strength to the building… one great nuisance [is] the lodgment of pigeons and sparrows… “
Root worked on the project during the busy summer of 1884, but judging from a letter of Aldis to Brooks written on September 16, he had once again deviated from Brooks’ prescribed aesthetic:
“I have suggested to Mr. Root that Mr. Richardson, Mr. Root and some other architects have given up in despair the problem of architectural beauty and effect, under the conditions of the modern office building, viz., great height, straight thrusts and bearings, flat surfaces, all the light attainable, low stories, and economy… Mr. Root, however, refuses to give up the problem and vows that he is back on the right track with the sketch sent you some time ago. His head is now deep in Egyptian like effects, and he declares that if he fails to make a harmonious and massive and artistic building this time, he will never build another Office Building.”
The long-awaited opening of Dearborn Street had proven to be a two-edged sword for Brooks. While it promised to increase the accessibility and traffic to his properties along Dearborn, the needed dimension for the width of the street had reduced the east/west dimension of the Quamquisset’s corner site (directly east of Jenney’s planned Union League Club) from 100′ to 66.’ With the length of the site eventually increasing to 125′ with a further purchase, Root was again confronted with the design of another thin slab office building. As Burnham & Root had also obtained the commission to design the Phœnix Building in the summer of 1884, there were actually four (including the Rialto and Insurance Exchange) such tall slab structures in various stages of design in the office at this time. A comparison among the four allows an intimate view into Root’s evolving aesthetic for the ever-increasingly taller building type.
The Insurance Exchange and Phœnix Buildings have been discussed as if they were siblings, i.e., a wall with single windows versus the pier-and-spandrel language of the Rialto Building and Root’s early designs for the Monadnock Block, the new name for the Quamquisset chosen by Brooks in early 1885 in honor of the mountain in New Hampshire that was the highest mountain within easy reach of Boston. Root once again used paired windows separated by continuous piers and emphasized the corner piers to frame the elevation. He even carried over the Rialto’s original graded polychromatic scheme into the design of the Monadnock Block. Faced with four more floors than the Rialto had, Root placed an additional story in the “capital” or top layer, appropriately due to the increased vertical proportions of the taller building. The remaining three extra floors were placed in the unbroken range of pilasters that comprised the “shaft” or middle grouping of floors. This elongated the Rialto’s four-story continuous piers to seven floors in the Monadnock, including the pilasters’ lotus capitals that encompassed the eleventh floor, the tallest unbroken piers he had designed up to this point. The only significant departure from the other three slab buildings in the Monadnock’s design, outside of the obvious stylistic choices, was the location of the major entrance. Instead of placing it on the long side, Root located an entry on the short face that fronted Jackson Street and the Post Office Square.
Using the “capital” or top layer of the elevation to impart a majority of the “style” to his buildings, Root simply switched the gothic crown of the Rialto to an Egyptian cornice for the Monadnock. This he detailed by subtly flaring the machicolated brickwork in the top floor to recall the capital of an Egyptian abstracted papyrus column. Donald Hoffmann has speculated the reason for Root’s choice of Egyptian detailing, specifically the papyrus plant, for the design of the Monadnock as being consistent with his desire to impart symbolic content to his buildings. As he was led to the Venetian Gothic for the Rialto because of the bridge between it and the Board of Trade, Hoffmann suggested that Root had equated Chicago’s marshy conditions with those of the Nile, as well as the origin of Chicago’s name, “wild onion place,” with a similar Egyptian plant, the papyrus.
Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
While the Phœnix Building’s Jackson Street elevation didn’t score big marks for consistency, the never seen rear elevation was a prophesy of one of the options available to rationally design the elevation of a skyscraper based solely upon expressing its iron skeleton construction (there was no need of arches with the iron frame). Having studied the history of the early skyscrapers over the past forty years, I think that there was a greater interdependency than heretofore understood upon the two technologies that are always cited as having been responsible for the birth of the tall office building. Some historians, like myself, claim it was the elevator that allowed the “skyscraper principle” to blossom, while others still maintain that a skyscraper needed to be iron skeleton-framed. I am stating that it was the interdependency of these two technologies that manifested the first examples of exterior iron framing, at lease this seems to have been the case in Chicago.
Once again, I have already shown that it was George Post who was the first to use the iron skeleton frame in the exterior walls of post-fire buildings. This occurred in the light courts in the Mills Building and New York Produce Exchange (and most likely even the pre-fire Equitable Building: see Vol. 3, Sec. 2.12). This was simply logical because these exterior walls were not at the building’s perimeter, and therefore, were not subject to the city’s building code pertaining to thickness or construction. Therefore, Post was free to make these walls as thin and lightweight as possible. This was possible because he could still rely on the heavy exterior masonry walls to provide the necessary lateral stiffness. As these walls were not visible to the public (the Mills Building being somewhat the exception), Post had enclosed these walls with a minimum of effort and material, that also provided a maximum of daylighting.
Elevator historian Lee Gray’s research has impressed upon me the importance of providing light in pre-electricity elevators, especially daylight. Although coal gas could be provided with a flexible tube, this was rarely chosen as the solution. The alternative was simply daylight, usually provided from a skylight at the roof in conjunction with light borrowed through glass placed in corridor doors and walls. This method required that the elevator cab consist of a metal gridwork that minimized the obstruction of this light. A more effective solution that was developed in Chicago was to build an exterior “window wall” at the back of the elevators. This provided immediate daylight to the cabs at each floor. Coupling this with the need of a rigid iron structure within which the elevator cab could ascend and descend with minimum vibration, all the pieces were in place for the birth of the exterior iron frame. This may also have been the case in New York, but among Chicago buildings this solution first emerged in 1884 and continued as a favorite, at least with Root through the 20-story Masonic Temple (imagine that elevator ride!).
I have not focused on which architect was the first to construct this detail, and I’m not really interested in who it might have been, simply because George Post had already perfected exterior iron construction in the Mills Building and the Produce Exchange before any Chicago architect would attempt it (and it’s past the time to give him due credit!). The two top contenders are Root and Jenney. Root has the more established claim with the Phœnix Building, but I think Jenney can also be credited with this detail in the Home Insurance Building. As both buildings were on the drawing boards at the same time, priority is hard to establish, and meaningless. Let’s first look at Root’s details in the Phoenix Building. Donald Hoffmann had quoted Peter B. Wight’s 1895 statement about Root having been the first to use such detailing:
“[Jenney’s] Home Insurance Building is not an example of skeleton construction as now understood… The first building in which a complete skeleton wall was built, that I am aware of, was the Phenix Insurance Building… in which the rear wall, or about one hundred linear feet of it, is a complete skeleton construction, with enamelled (sic) brick on the outside, and a hollow tile wall on the inside. Each is supported on its own system of horizontal beams. This… was the prototype of the court construction of the Rookery.”
I have traced Root’s use of a semicircular bay to contain a staircase (à la Peter Ellis’ design in 16 Cook Street, Liverpool) beginning with the Rialto in 1883/4. The Rand-McNally artist who drew these images was quite consistent and he drew the Rialto’s oriel as having a skeleton framed construction (which makes sense to me because Root appears to have copied the idea from Post’s Mills Building (see image above). One could speculate that Normand Patton may have been responsible for the use of iron framing in this portion of the building. The second version of this detail appeared in the Insurance Exchange of February 1884. The only image I have found of this design is from the Rand-McNally Guidebook of 1893 that, while it shows the semicircular oriel bay projecting into the light court, it is rendered as a bearing wall (compare it to the Grand Pacific’s light court) and not as an iron frame (compare it to those in the Rookery and the Rand-McNally Building below that are rendered as being iron-framed).
The shallow depth of the Phœnix’s site, a mere 46’ resulted in, once the depth of the single-loaded corridor office lightwell was subtracted, only a ten-foot depth for the lightwell. This apparently posed a subtle challenge to Root in where to locate in plan the elevators and the building’s main stairway. His, by then trademark projected oriel bay into a lightwell, in which he housed the central stair, was not repeated in the Phœnix Building. Was it just too tight to try to push the oriel into the 10′ shallow space, or that an unsatisfactory daylighting performance would result from the over-stuffed lightwell as in the Insurance Exchange?
Nonetheless, when confronted with where to put the elevators, and still be able to use the lightwell as a location for windows to allow the daylight to actually penetrate into the interior of the building and elevators, Root responded with a unique design. He lined the elevators up against the lightwell’s long wall and put lightwell windows directly in back of the elevators, thereby allowing the daylight from the lightwell to penetrate through the elevator shafts and flood the interior corridor of each floor. The shallow depth of the lightwell obviously did not require a skylighted atrium at the ground floor, but as one ascended in an elevator up through the alternating layers of masonry and views to the outside through the glass, who needed the choreographed sequence of an atrium?
This decision tasked his engineering intuition to solve a delicate problem: the wall that he had just opened up to the maximum with windows, would also have to support the dynamic loads of the elevators moving up and down. He solved the problem with employing the iron skeleton frame for the first time in a complete exterior wall in Chicago since the 1871 fire. Earlier in the year, Cobb and Frost had used iron columns and beams in the first two floors of the Opera House, and Jenney had placed iron sections within the masonry piers in the upper floors of the Home Insurance Building, but no one had yet to construct a portion of an entire exterior wall from the foundation to the roof using only an iron frame. Root would be the first to do so, and in doing so, would change the history of construction and architectural design.
The columns were cast iron that were made with two projecting bearing shelf/web brackets (similar to how the Rookery was detailed as shown): one on the exterior face to support a line of I-beam spandrels, and a similar one on the interior face to support a second line of I-beams. The exterior beams supported a kneewall of 41/2” thick white enameled bricks at each floor, and the interior beams supported a kneewall of 4″ hollow tiles at each floor. The two layers of masonry were probably tied together at the window frame. The existing photographs show that the exterior brick kneewall was continued vertically in front of each column. As this elevation was merely the “back” of the building, little effort went into its design: it was detailed as a brick wall with square openings in it. I will jump ahead a year or so and compare its design to how Root detailed the same situation in the Rookery. In the Phœnix, Root had detailed a continuous band of trim at the heads of the windows at each floor. One could assume that he had wanted to express the iron construction that held the masonry at each floor. Whether this was his intension or not, he did consciously design the Rookery’s lightcourt walls, as they would be visible to the building’s occupants, to express its construction: he added a sillcourse that interrupted the column covering from the spandrel panel, denoting that the masonry spandrel was the dominant feature that was continuously supported not on the columns, but at each floor.
Now let’s return to Jenney and the Home Insurance Building. Its plan shows the same arrangement of elevators and iron framing. I have searched for a photograph or an elevation of the building’s east (rear) façade to no avail. Fortunately, the Art Institute of Chicago has a good set of original drawings from which we can deduce the construction of this wall.
The only image I have located is this Rand-McNally view in which the nature of the light court walls is unfortunately hidden. I was lucky enough to find one of the floor plans that showed the actual cross-section of the piers in this façade. This dovetails perfectly with a drawing of this detail contained in the 1931 Field Report.
The detail in the Field Report clearly identifies the exact same type of cast iron spandrel pan that Jenney had specified for the street fronts. Even the cast iron column is the same, including its being filled with concrete. The sole difference in the light court piers is the masonry covering is only 4” thick front and back versus in the street fronts it increased in thickness per the building code. The light court was not at the building’s lotline and, therefore, was not subject to this code requirement.
I was also able to find in the Art Institute’s collection a wall section of the later addition of two floors, in which was shown the section of the spandrels in the light court. This mirrors the exterior spandrel at the far left, meaning that the elevation of the elevator wall was very similar to the exterior elevations. Because the construction of the elevator wall, as I have just laid out, used the exact same structural detailing, we cannot make a claim, for the same reason I rule out the claim for the exterior, that the elevator wall was a true iron skeleton frame. The final nail in the coffin of the legend of the Home Insurance Building for me, after studying it for the past 35+ years is this: no where in the Field Report is there any mention of spandrel beams in the framing of the light court. While the supporters of the Home Insurance Building claim that the intermittent transfer beams in the two street fronts could have been conceived by Jenney as spandrel beams, the fact that there are no such beams in the light court reveals that Jenney had not conceived of his iron framing as a frame. Case closed?!
For what it’s worth, the above discussion leads me to conclude that John Wellborn Root was, indeed, the inventor of the Chicago iron skeleton frame in the elevator wall of the Phœnix Building, recognizing, once again, that his “mentor,” George Post had been the first to use iron skeleton framing in a skyscraper. So can we all try to put the urban legend of Jenney and the Home Insurance Building to rest, once and for all? Please! It was in New York, and not Chicago where the iron skeleton frame and the skyscraper were invented.
What I will document in the coming sections is the process of Chicago’s architects slowly and carefully replacing parts of exterior masonry walls with iron framing, one wall at a time, one building at a time, so as not to weaken the lateral rigidity of the building, until a building could be erected solely with iron framing. While Chicago’s architects were madly rushing in the spring of 1885 to complete these new buildings in time for the start of the new rental year, May 1, the French were exporting Gustave Eiffel’s example of just such a system of advanced iron technology in 214 wooden crates aboard the French frigate Isère directly to New York. Eiffel’s structure arrived in the U.S. on June 17, 1885, but its erection had to wait until the pedestal, designed by Richard Morris Hunt was completed almost a year later.
Gray, Lee E. From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators:A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. Mobile, AL: Elevator World, 2002.
Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
I stated that in 1884 Root was still uncomfortable with the vertical scale of a skyscraper’s elevation, a sentiment shared by many historians who have critiqued the Phoenix Building. On the other hand, given a shorter building, Root could show his growing command with the horizontal. Such was the case with a building for the estate of the late Cyrus H. McCormick that Burnham & Root were hired In September 1884 to design for the southwest corner of Jackson and Market (Wacker) Streets, especially when it is compared with his earlier effort with such a program in the Santa Fe Building in Topeka.
Originally designed with seven floors, Root had layered the elevation in a 1:2:3:1 sequence. Before construction began in December 1884, the owners had eliminated a floor, allowing Root to revise the building’s elevation into a tripartite scheme of base, four-story arcade, and top. Because of the similarities in massing, there can be no doubt that Root used Peabody & Stearns’ R. H. White warehouse as a model for the McCormick Building.
Root employed the “boxed” construction of the masonry wall and detailed its five-storied arcade into a perfect expression of masonry skeletal construction. Like the Insurance Exchange, the McCormick Building’s arcade extended for four stories, but his understated horizontal between the base and the upper body in the McCormick Building still allowed the piers to be read as extending to the foundation rather than sitting on the base, imparting a truly skeletal nature to the elevation. Also, as he had detailed in the Insurance Exchange, Root had “ghosted,” or silhouetted the arches with alternating bands of masonry. Whereas in the Insurance Exchange he had raked the horizontal joints in the brickwork to create the horizontal banding, in the McCormick Building it appears that he employed a darker material (brick, terra cotta, or stone) to create the dark lines that were separated with lines of the same brick used in the rest of the building’s body. I would assume that he wanted the same effect as what he had achieved in the Insurance Exchange, but because the McCormick’s arches were at least twice as large, he needed these horizontals to have a larger “read” than what could be gained with a single course of brick.
Root’s only significant departure in the design of the McCormick Building from its Boston precedent was his first experiment with the triple window, that was most likely inspired by Flanders’ Mallers Building, Chicago’s tallest office building. The visual appropriateness of detailing a triple window, rather than a double, under an arch is easily understood when one looks at this building. As opposed to all of the other arches in the McCormick’s exterior, Root used a double window under the arch in the entrance bay. Here, the center mullion is allowed to extend to the underside of the arch at its midspan, resulting in a visual support of the arch directly where an arch is supposed to be spanning. Hence, the arch’s structural integrity was completed eviscerated.
Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
As construction of the Mallers Building paralleled that of the Insurance Exchange just across the street, it is inconceivable that Root did not take note of Flanders’ detailing. In June 1884, Burnham & Root were commissioned by a stock company headed by another of John Sherman Stockyard’s clients, Archibald McNeill, co-owner of the meatpacking company Libby, McNeill, and Libby, to design an office building on the block bounded by Jackson, Clark, and Pacific Streets.
This was a prime location as it was directly east of the Board of Trade, faced the Grand Pacific Hotel, and was diagonally across from the Post Office. In a sense, it was the link or pivot between Chicago’s two prime areas of development at this time: the Post Office Square and the Board of Trade district.
The owners were able to entice the Phœnix Insurance Company of Brooklyn to be the major tenant of the building, hence it was named the Phœnix Building. Although a building permit was obtained in October 1884, construction was postponed, as was the case with the Rialto, until late in 1885. Nonetheless, Root’s design of the Phœnix Building can be viewed as a direct evolution of the Rialto and the Insurance Exchange with the addition of bay windows inspired from Flander’s Maller Building.
Like the Rialto and the Insurance Exchange, Root was once again faced with designing a thin slab office building. In his essay, “The Value of Type in Art” published in Inland Architect in November 1883, Root had identified the value of typology in design:
“Now this adherence to type is one of the best tests of every good work of art, and forms one of the most infallible bases of criticism. Of every good work of art it is true that the first thing necessary is to put before one’s self the conditions of the problem to be solved, and then trace the consistency of the various solutions followed by the artist.”
And so we sill do just that. While the Jackson Street front was the longest elevation he had yet designed (216′ vs. the Burlington’s 199′), the site was only 46′ deep. The depth of the lot only permitted lining the three street faces with single-loaded offices in an elongated U-plan with a shallow lightwell in the rear (less than 10′ in depth) that allowed the addition of four more offices per floor.
Following the relatively successful horizontal composition of the Insurance Exchange’s elevation, Root experimented (I view this as more of an improvisation than a composition) with the design of the Phœnix. This may have been due what I perceive is a lack of a “theme” or inspirational spark. (As opposed to Rialto, where Root was inspired by the bridge between the Board of Trade and his building to conceive of the Rialto as a play on Venice.) First, he arbitrarily reversed the order of the Insurance Exchange’s layering of its middle floors from base / two-story colonnade / “belt” story / four-story arcade / one-story cap into the Phœnix’s base / one-story transition / three-story arcade / “belt” story / two-story colonnade / one-story cap. This resulted in a seemingly meaningless position of the now gratuitous arcade. He also continued experimenting with the joint between the stone base and brick body that he had initiated with the Insurance Exchange. This time he inserted a transitional story between the two-story stone base and the upper body of brick, that read as an overlap of the two languages. This he accomplished by alternating layers of the base’s stone and brick of the upper body, channeling the design of his “mentor” George Post in the Mills Building.
As Root had detailed the top floor of the Rialto, he once again employed a unique rectangular language to demark the top floor in the Phœnix, that echoed Post’s elevation of the Produce Exchange’s interior light court. This was a starkly utilitarian elevation, that hinted at the rational ‘Chicago School” elevations to come. In summary, whereas Root had toyed with giving the Insurance Exchange a vertical accent capped with the arcade in its upper body that was reinforced with the extruded corner turrets, it was if he had immediately rejected this verticality in the Phœnix and returned to the traditional horizontality of architecture. The repetitive elevation of the Phœnix’s top floor reinforced by its emphatic balcony (and the understated corner “buds” vs. the Insurance Exchange’s turrets) relayed Root’s uncomfortableness in 1884 with making a skyscraper with a vertical accent. (I am arguing with myself on this point because I cannot ignore the fact that the 216′ length of the facade would make it extremely difficult to pull off a vertical accent, but Root had just done so with the Rialto. My point is that Root at the “midpoint of his career” in 1885, was still hesitant to take the leap in changing the paradigm of the skyscraper to express its growing dominant dimension.)
The top floor in the Phœnix Building was appropriately occupied by the insurance company that Root expressed with a continuous balcony, obviously taken from the Rialto (and Post’s Western Union Building), that allowed the company’s employees to go outside and enjoy the view. Root designed the “workroom” as one continuous double height (22′ high), 216′ long space, similar to how Post had designed the top floor in the Western Union Building, some eleven years earlier (this concept is now commonly referred to as the “open plan”). The long dimension of the space opened to the north, perfect for daylighting. The two storied space allowed Root to easily locate a second floor/mezzanine for the managers, again refraining Post, albeit this time the mezzanine that Post had employed in the Banking Hall of the Equitable Building.
While Flanders had experimented with bay windows to gain additional square footage in the Maller Building because of its tight site, one cannot say the same thing about the Phœnix’s site. If the lack of space was an issue, surely Root would have included many more bay windows than the gratuitous few he employed. These were simply a formal experiment on the part of Root, once again pointing to improvisation. Similar to the design of the Burlington’s elevations, he used the bay windows in an inverted relationship between the facades.
In the long Jackson elevation, a semicircular, two-windowed bay window was located at both ends to form Root’s characteristic corner pavilions or bookends. The location of the same device was then inverted on the two short ends to be in the center that was, in turn, bookended by heavier corner piers. The largest of the bay windows, a three-windowed faceted bay was located in the middle of the Jackson facade, to emphasize the central position of the entrance. Root reinforced the center of the composition, as he typically had done in earlier designs, by slightly projecting the entire central bay of the facade beyond the surface plane of the rest of the elevation.
As one compares the Rialto, the Insurance Exchange, and the Phœnix as a progression, the entry entablature over the main entry is seen to be moving up the front of the building, until it breaks past the roofline in the Phœnix. In the Phœnix, Root seems to have used the central bay window as a link between the grand, arched portal at grade and the curved pediment at the roof.
Correspondingly, he reduced the dimensions of the roof’s corner turrets so that they would not compete with the central pediment. The location of what Donald Hoffmann has described as the “yoke-like” pediment can also be viewed as Root’s response to Boyington’s Jackson Street elevation of the Royal Insurance Building, located a mere block away on the opposite side of Jackson Street. As Boyington had placed the coat-of-arms of the Royal Insurance Company in the central pediment of its building, so had Root located a terra cotta panel of a phoenix in his pediment. If one is looking for a “theme” that Root had used for this building, the only one I can identify is here, at the apex of the cornice, where the Phoenix has arisen in its full glory.
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.
In the second week of March 1884, Marshall Field obtained a permit to build a 13-story office building on the southwest corner of La Salle and Monroe Streets, diagonally across the block of La Salle Street from the site of the 10-story Home Insurance Building. For this structure, Field departed from his preference in the design his Prairie Avenue residence for hiring out-of-town architects (Richard M. Hunt). Field logically hired S. S. Beman, the architect that his card partner George Pullman used to design his own downtown office building. Field wanted to do his friend one better, so the Field Building was designed with 13 floors to top off at 170,’ five feet taller than Pullman’s. Most likely influenced by Boyington’s successful use of all-granite facades in the Board of Trade and the Jackson Street elevation of the Royal Insurance Building, Field had Beman design the office building not in the currently fashionable brick, but completely in traditional rock-faced and polished granite.
Knowingly or not, in designing the Marshall Field Building, Beman had become involved in the vicious spite battle between two of Chicago’s merchant titans, Field and his former partner, Levi Leiter. I last mentioned these two partners in the rebuilding of the Singer Building, the home of Field & Leiter, that had been destroyed by fire in Nov. 1877. (see Sec. 3.11) The partners had agreed between themselves to buy the new building and lot for $500,000. But Singer demanded $700,000 and during the final negotiations while Field was in New York, Leiter, according to their plan, rejected the offer. Instead of lowering its price, Singer turned to their competitor, Carson, Pirie, Scott and offered them an annual lease for $70,000. Not wanting to lose the iconic corner on State Street, the two partners had ponied up the $700,000 from their personal funds, in addition to an extra $100,000 to compensate CPS to break the lease. Field’s biographers record that Field blamed Leiter for this debacle, but this was, by no means, the only reason for Field wanting to be rid of his partner and friend for the past sixteen years. Robert Twyman laid out a compelling case where Field not only wanted to be in sole control, but also wanted to reward his next generation of managers with partnerships, and this could only happen if Leiter’s percentage was available to offer these new partners. Field and Leiter’s partnership contract was up for renewal on January 31, 1881. Field, using their existing contract, mounted a well-orchestrated campaign that forced Leiter to sell his stake in their company to him, and their partnership was had been dissolved on Jan. 26, 1881.
Apparently, the break-up settlement had divided the holdings of the company between the two partners, as Leiter was given ownership of the adjacent lot to the west of Field’s corner site. Leiter had immediately proceeded to erect a five-story building on his site, locating, as was convention but without any prior arrangement, the east party wall midway along the property line, half of the wall’s thickness on his lot, half on the corner lot. Field eventually had acquired the corner lot for his new office building and struck an agreement with his former partner to use the mutually-owned party wall to support the new office tower. Field promised to increase the wall’s strength and foundation to support the loads of the new building, as was typical of the era, without injuring Leiter’s existing building on the west side of the wall. Excavation for the new Field Building proceeded through the summer of 1884, with the foundation being completed by September. Construction then came to the traditional halt with the onset of winter.
The postponement may also have been a tactic on Field’s part to publicly leverage Leiter, because at this time there was no technique to increase the strength of the existing wall and its foundation without getting under Leiter’s existing building. Leiter, rather cleverly I might add, had interpreted their agreement as stating that all of the construction needed for Field to use the party wall would be done on Field’s side of the wall (that, of course, at this time was impossible). Leiter simply had legally outsmarted his ex-partner, and further allowed Field to dig himself literally into a deeper hole. In March 1885, Field ordered Beman to complete the details of the building and construction on the site was renewed. Field approved breaking into Leiter’s basement in order to shore up the existing wall and to place the new foundation. Leiter countered by obtaining a permanent injunction in May 1885 against Field from doing any more construction on Leiter’s side of the wall. Field was eventually vindicated the following year (in May 1886) when the Illinois’ Supreme Court ruled that the original agreement was a party wall contract, implying that the easement of support was given to both parties, and that one party could not have the benefits without submitting his property to the requirements of support for either party. However, while Field had won the battle, he lost the war, for the time lost during the postponement in construction would kill the project as the building boom had oversaturated the rental market. Somewhat ironically, although the height limit ordinance had failed to be approved by council, the tallest of the skyscrapers (13 floors) planned for the Board of Trade district was not allowed to grow out of Chicago’s soil. The open excavation pit remained a scar exposed for five years on one of Chicago’s most expensive pieces of real estate: a grim testament to the realities of building tall structures on Chicago’s soil, as well as to the ferocity of the real estate battles being waged at this time on Chicago’s soil by America’s merchant princes. (By the way, the battle between these two giants had only just begun…)
Twyman, Robert W. History of Marshall Field & Co. 1852-1906. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954.
I’d like to thank Brian Kelly of “brianbrands.com” for offering his knowledge of the Field/Leiter relationship.
The next building for which a building permit had been granted in March 1884, once again to avoid the pending height limit, was to J. B. Mallers for Chicago’s first 12-story office building that would top-off at 175.’ The site chosen was the last buildable front on La Salle Street in the block immediately north of the Board of Trade. This was at the southwest corner of La Salle and Quincy, a tiny plot with a 38′ frontage along La Salle and a 60′ exposure on Quincy, across the street from the Insurance Exchange. The corner was bookended by the Royal Insurance Building on the west and the Gaff Building to the south.
Such tight conditions provided quite a challenge to John J. Flanders, the architect chosen by Mallers to design the building. Most likely utilizing a party wall contract, Flanders used the two existing party walls for support. Along the two street fronts he placed large masonry piers to support the floor girders of the interior iron frame. He chose to emphasize the corner pier not only by increasing its size to accommodate each floor’s safety vaults, but also by giving it a rounded profile. In order to gain as much rentable floor area as possible, Flanders not only pushed the glazing out as far as possible to be flush with the exterior face of the masonry piers, but also cantilevered a bay window that extended continuously for eight stories in floors 2-9 on each street front. These were supported by an iron framework connected to the masonry piers and clad with terra cotta.
Flanders arranged the elevation into four layers in with a decreasing rhythm of 4:3:2:3 that increased the building’s sense of height through its play with perspective. I think the four-story base was very ingenious in how he had interlocked the stone base with the brick/terra cotta body by carrying the terra cotta spandrels into the base, a much more integrated solution than the typical solution of simply placing the brick body on a stone base, that also reinforced the vertical nature of the elevation. He then capped the tower with a three-story arcade plus projected cornice that created, for all practical purposes, an eleven-story arcade. He had taken Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and extruded its elevation to the requisite 175.’
The influence of Boyington’s Royal Insurance Building is evident in the triple windows from the Jackson elevation (with the exception that Flanders did not use the “Chicago window” spacing) and the layered articulation and arcaded top of the adjacent Quincy elevation.
Meanwhile, the bay window may have been a first for a Chicago office building, but the device, that had been used in hotels for some years, most notably being the Palace Hotel in San Francisco had already been used in Chicago by Burnham & Root in the Brunswick Hotel, located across Adams Street from the Pullman Building.
Flanders’ use of flush-glazed triple windows and continuous bay windows elicited the attention of the Inland Architect that described them as a “unique feature and a thorough novelty” that would “excite much curiosity and comment because of its peculiar style.” Truly, Flanders had begun to integrate in the Mallers Building some of the iconic details that were emerging in the design of Chicago’s tall office buildings.