8.21. ROOT GETS THE ARCADE RIGHT: THE McCORMICK BUILDING

Burnham & Root, McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Offices and Warehouse, Chicago, SW corner of Jackson and Market (Wacker), 1884. (Hoffmann, Root)

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.

Burnham & Root, Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Building, Topeka, Kansas, 1883. (Hoffmann, Root)
Burnham & Root, McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Offices and Warehouse, Original Seven Story Design. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

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.

Peabody and Stearns, R.H. White Warehouse Store, Boston, 1882. (American Architect, September 15, 1883)

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’ Maller 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.

FURTHER READING:

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

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

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