8.20. ROOT CHANNELS HIS INNER GEORGE POST AGAIN: THE PHOENIX BUILDING

As construction of the Maller’s 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. 

Burnham & Root, Phœnix Building, Chicago, SW corner of Jackson and Clark, 1884. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

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.

Map of the Board of Trade (H) area: La Salle and Clark Streets are shown. (Author’s collection)

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.

Burnham & Root, Phœnix Building. Typical floor plan. (Hoffmann, Root)

Like the Rialto and the Insurance Exchange, Root was once again faced with designing a thin slab office building.  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.

George B. Post, Mills Building, New York, 1881. (Landau, Post)

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.

George B. Post, Western Union Telegraph Building, New York, 1872. Top floor, operations room. (Online)
Burnham & Root, Phœnix Building. Top floor. Another early example of the universal space or “open office concept.” (Hoffmann, Root)
Post, Equitable Building. Banking Hall. (Landau and Condit, New York)

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.

Above: Burnham & Root, Phœnix Building; Below: Boyington, Royal Insurance Building.

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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