Burnham & Root. The Rookery. (Chicago Architectural Center)

While the Exchange Hall was the primary reason for building the Produce Exchange, the Rookery had no reason for an equivalent “showcase” space on the ground floor.  The Rookery was being built simply to provide as much rentable floor area as possible.  Root could have simply designed a well-detailed ground floor of shops and offices lining the perimeter of the skylighted atrium.  More than likely, because Burnham was one of the owners, Root took advantage of this situation and added a “little flair” to the two-story atrium.  Although denied the opportunity to add another of his designs to Chicago’s growing collection of tall, light-filled atria (Grannis, Burlington, First National Bank, Royal Insurance, and Traders), Root took advantage of the lowered location of the Rookery’s skylight to allow people the opportunity to experience something they couldn’t in his multistoried atriums: the ability to penetrate up and through the skylight and into the exterior light court itself, blurring the boundary between what was inside and what was outside.  

Burnham & Root, The Rookery.  La Salle Street entrance. (Hoffmann, John Wellborn Root)

In essence, the play of contrasts, especially that between outside versus inside and between dark versus light, was the leitmotiv of Root’s rhapsody of movement through space and light in the Rookery.  Penetrating the heavy, dark brick exterior, darkened with atmospheric pollution, through the stone triumphal arch, one entered a two-story vestibule of white stone and onyx with gold-leafed trim, an attenuated version of the Phoenix’s entry.  

Burnham & Root. Above: Phoenix Building. Lobby. Note the windows in the rear wall, in back of the elevators, that open into the lightwell. These were made possible by Root’s first use of the iron frame in an exterior wall. Below: The Rookery. Lobby. Root uses the smoothly-curving (note the smooth-topped handrail post at the bottom right) mezzanine to block the immediate view to the atrium. (Hoffmann, Root)

Stairs at both sides joined overhead in a balcony that beckoned a visitor up to the entresol.  Flanking the stairs going up were vomitoria that led to the basement where the vaults of the Central Safety Deposit Company were located, space for which had been gained by Root’s new foundations. But here the similarities between his two designs diverged: where the Phoenix was “a one-liner,” i.e., you walked into the lobby and saw the bank of moving elevators backlit by the ten-story wall of glass, in the Rookery Root concealed the climax of the sequence from the lobby with the mezzanine he had projected into the lobby, enticing the visitor to explore what they would encounter next in the Rookery.

Burnham & Root. The Rookery. View from the elevator lobby into the atrium. (therookerybuilding.com)

Drawn forward by the light of the courtyard ahead, one was compressed as he or she passed underneath the mezzanine and past the open grille doors and the movements of the elevator cabs that were silhouetted against the wall of windows at the far side of each bank. 

This compression heightened the spatial perception of the otherwise “downsized” courtyard.  The transparency of the skylight not only allowed daylight to bathe the white marble in the two story atrium with brightness (that would have contrasted dramatically with the eleven-story shadow cast on La Salle by the Rookery that one had to walk through to enter the building in the morning), but also permitted one to view not only the sky above, and, more importantly from the standpoint of architectural history, a prophetic vision of the future:  the exterior elevation Root had designed for the inner tier of offices that faced onto the lightcourt.

Coming through the aperture of the Rookery’s elevator lobby, Root enticed you to come up, through the skylight and into the lightcourt itself, in order to view this new architectural language.  One was presented by Root’s unconscious prophesy of what a skyscraper’s exterior in the immediate future would look like: thin, lightweight, rectilinear, light-colored and clean, and somewhat released from the tyranny of gravity: free from having to be vertically connected to the ground. (One only had to wait five years for it to appear on the Reliance Building.)  The contrast between the exterior’s elevations and those of the atrium not only must have been startling, it was also profound.  Root had not only changed construction history with the Rookery; he had also designed a history lesson for later generations to appreciate the radical differences between the two structural systems.  The chrysalis of the skyscraper had emerged within the protective confines of its protective masonry cocoon, for Bogardus’ iron skeleton frame of the shot towers had finally reappeared in the exterior of a tall building.  The lightcourt in the Rookery could be described as taking a department store with a skeletal structure, such as Shillito’s in Cincinnati, and enclosing its multistory atrium at every floor with Bogardus’s technique of supporting brick panels that he had first used thirty years earlier in the McCollough Shot Tower.  In fact, Root had even inserted such a form within the lightcourt that housed his by now characteristic cantilevered oriel stair tower. It would take a few more years before this non-romantic elevational expression would make its first appearance on the public exterior of a building, yet one cannot dispute that Root’s atrium walls was its first showcase.  Unknowingly (perhaps?), Root had devised a very thorough monument to the history of the iron skeleton frame.

            Of course, Root did not reveal all of these delights to a visitor the instant he or she burst into the courtyard, but instead tantalized the observer by choreographing one new event after another, in order to control one’s circulation around both floors of the courtyard, to maximize the exposure of visitors to each of the storefronts in this prime, high rental zone.  

Burnham & Root, The Rookery.  Stairs to the entresol. Note the open risers in the stairs extend the motif of light and space. (Hoffmann, Meaning of Architecture)

He pulled a visitor across the ground floor of the courtyard by placing a monumental stair to the mezzanine directly opposite from where one had entered that was flanked by electroliers that outshone even those he had designed for the Phoenix.  Walking to the stair, one’s head moved upward, looking through the crystal skylight.  The visitor caught a glimpse of the light court stair tower above and then saw Root’s piece d’ resistance:  a floating set of stairs that would actually take one through the skylight and into the stair tower of the light court. 

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

Of course, this was purposefully located over the entry through which one had just passed, requiring a person to reverse direction and travel, once again, the entire length of the courtyard this time on the second level, upon arriving at the top of the monumental staircase.  

Burnham & Root, The Rookery.  View into the atrium from the entresol. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

At this point, one would be exposed to the storefronts on the second floor, assuming that any attention was paid to them in one’s rush to get to the floating staircase.  Here, Root had once again used his engineering genius to create a very clever perch for the birds in his new “Rookery” not just to look out into his cage of glass, but also to be looked upon.  

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Cantilevered stair to “the Perch.” Frank Lloyd Wright in his remodeling of 1905 was asked by the owners to add the iron support bars you can see here to alleviate the fears of some people. (Chicago Architecture Center)

From this overlook, one continued up the half-flight of stairs that carried the visitor through the skylight and onto the third floor landing. In the original building, this point provided a visitor with a wealth of visual/spatial pleasures: looking back through the aperture in the skylight with the cantilevered balcony beyond, to either side the dynamic ballet of the open cages of the six elevators moving up and down in their open eleven-storied shafts (until these were framed in during the 1905 remodeling, and, of course, the first step into the Piranesiesque space of the spiral stairway that projected into the lightcourt, from where one could see Root’s gleaming elevations in all their glory.

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Above:  Stairway through the skylight, into the lightcourt. In the original building this view would have been even more dynamic because at your back would have been the six open cage elevators moving up and down, that you can see in the photo of the elevator lobbies above. (Chicago Architectural Foundation, The Rookery); Below: Stairway. (therookerybuilding.com)

The era’s leading critic, Henry Van Brunt, summarized his opinion of Root’s design in the obituary he penned for Root in early in 1891:

“Even the imaginative prison visions in the famous etchings of Piranesi, [it was well-known that Root’s library had a portfolio of Piranesi’s drawings] with their aerial ladders and impossible galleries, present nothing more audacious… The Rookery is not only a noted example of great fertility of design, but there is nothing bolder, more original or more inspiring in modern civic architecture either here or elsewhere than its glass-covered court.”

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “The Round Tower” from Imaginary Prisons, ca. 1749. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Clausen, Meredith L., “Paris of the 1880s and the Rookery,” Zukowski, John (ed.), Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis. Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

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

Stack, Joanne. Saving a Treasure: Chicago’s Rookery Building. Joanne R. Stack, 2019.

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

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