8.23. PREMATURE EXPECTATIONS: THE MONADNOCK BLOCK v.1.0

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.”

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

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.

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)

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.

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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