Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Preliminary Elevation Study. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

Root’s first strokes of lightning on brown paper, although containing initially only ten of the final eleven stories, already revealed not only all of the conceptual organization of the design and materials of the Rookery’s final appearance, but also, incredibly, most of the actual ornamental details that would comprise the elevations with little deviation or revision.  And just what was the hint that had unleashed Root’s imagination that produced this drawing? 

Above: Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking south. The Rookery (left) and the Insurance Exchange (right) as the portal to the Board of Trade district. The entrance of the Home Insurance Building with its famous columns is in the left front. The Maller’s Building with its corner turret of stacked vaults is in back of the Insurance Exchange. (Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890); Below: Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking north. On the left: the Gaff, the Maller, the Insurance Exchange, the Marshall Field dormant excavation; on the right: the Grand Pacific Hotel, the Rookery (note how the additional story in the Rookery lifted its roof over the Home Insurance across the street (photo taken prior to when the addition floors were added). (urbanremainschicago.com)

Once again, as with Burnham’s studies, it was the site and its urban context.  The existing urban void of the site was defined by his own Insurance Exchange, directly opposite of what would be the La Salle Street elevation, and Jenney’s Home Insurance Building, across Adams from what would be the Adams façade.  Therefore, 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.

Reconstruction of Adams Street Looking East from Franklin, showing the portal at La Salle created between the Home Insurance Building at the left and the Rookery at the right. Root’s Burlington Building is at the far right, while his Insurance Exchange is at the far right. Cobb & Frost’s Owings Building, in back of the Rookery is three years in the future. (Digital image by David Burwinkel)

The proposed building on this site 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 emerging 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. Boyington, Beman, and Jenney each had designed one of these; the Rookery would be Burnham & Root’s third (actually, it was four, counting the Brunswick Hotel at Michigan and Adams, across from the Pullman Building…with more to come…)

John Wellborn Root, Comparative Study of Five Skyscraper Elevations, 1883-5. From left to right: Arcade with single window: Insurance Exchange, Phoenix; Combined: Rookery; Pier-and-spadrel paired windows: 13-story version of Monadnock, Rialto. (Drawn by Kyle Campbell)

Coming as it did during the start of construction of the Rialto, and in the midst of the design of the Phoenix and Monadnock, the design of the Rookery’s elevations can also be viewed in the continuum of Root’s experimentation in developing an appropriate exterior expression for the skyscraper employing either arcades with single windows (Insurance Exchange and Phoenix) or paired windows within a pier-and-spandrel structure (Rialto and Monadnock). The Rookery provided Root with the opportunity not only to show how far this new building typology had evolved both in design and in construction technology during the past hectic twelve months, but also demanded of him a certain urbanistic response in its design to attempt to synthesize the alignment of the geometries of the two existing buildings in his design of the new building’s facades: 

As the Rookery would directly face the Insurance Exchange with approximately the same length of facade along La Salle, the opportunity to create a portal to Chicago’s financial district with these two brick bookends was one that Root must have quietly savored as a commission that many architects dream of, but rarely succeed in being awarded.  It is intriguing then, to wonder why he did not use the cherry red brick of the Insurance Exchange but opted instead for a reddish-brown brick for the Rookery.  (In all likelihood, Root chose the Rookery’s color as a transition between the lighter color of the Insurance Exchange and the darker color Jenney had used on the Home Insurance.) Nonetheless, the Rookery’s elevations can be viewed as Root taking the features of the Rialto, Phoenix, and Monadnock that he was most intrigued with at the time, and composing them into a framework that would complement, nay, engage the Insurance Exchange in a dialogue.

Yet, one should also not ignore the influence of the Rookery’s northern neighbor, the Home Insurance Building, if one is to truly understand the subtleties of Root’s original composition.  As much as the Rookery would be seen in conjunction with the Insurance Exchange, in some ways the Home Insurance Building represented an even more challenging architectural opportunity: while the Adams Street facade would directly face the Home Insurance Building, thereby also creating a portal to La Salle Street for those approaching along Adams from the west (this would have been even more effective if the owners had not added an extra floor as Root’s original design was to match the height of the Home Insurance), both buildings’ long La Salle Street elevations would be seen next to each other, presenting an obvious opportunity for direct comparison.  Here one may start to discover Root’s intentions in his initial design of the Rookery.  

Above: Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking north. Note how Root carried over the primary stringcourses of the Home Insurance Building (white lines) into the elevation of the Rookery. Root’s original ten-story design would have also reflected the upper floors of the Home Insurance, but the last-minute additional floor pushed its stringcourse out of alignment with that of the Home. (Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890); Below: In this view you can appreciate how Root has aligned the Rookery’s major horizontal layers with those in the Home Insurance, as well as how the two skyscrapers side-by-side acted as a portal into the Adams Street corridor. Note the the tower of the Board of Trade has been removed. (urbanremainschicago.com)

He carried the major horizontal stringcourses of Jenney’s elevation across Adams Street, repeating the Home Insurance’s layering sequence of 2:2:3:2:1.  He projected its central entrance bay that not only established another symmetry with the Home Insurance, but also created a direct axis across La Salle with the triumphal arched-entry of the Insurance Exchange. Root reinforced this axis by duplicating the triumphal arched-entrance in the Rookery’s base.  Coming out of either building at this point, one was confronted with a virtual mirror image across the street.


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

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