The two central determinants in Richardson’s final design for the Marshall Field Wholesale store were first: its owner, and second, the building’s professional and physical context. I want to begin with the building’s context. Never, never underestimate the ego of an architect (or a surgeon, or a lawyer, or any professional for that matter, or Marshall Field as we will see in the next section..). And Richardson, as I have already noted, was at the zenith of his career in June 1885. His self-professed best design, the Allegheny County Courthouse was beginning to show its refined strength as it rose out of the ground, the members of the A.I.A. had just named his Trinity Church the best designed building in the U.S., along with four other of his designs among their top ten favorite buildings. And to top it off, his submission for the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce had just been selected over that by Root, Chicago’s acknowledged leading architect. In fact, those on the East Coast viewed Root (rightfully so) as being one of the ringleaders who had led the rupture in the country’s professional ranks the previous November with the formation of the W.A.A.
When he had inquired of Field’s representative where was the planned building going to be built, one wonders what was his inner reaction for the new building would sit immediately across Adams Street from Root’s first masterpiece, the headquarters for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, Root’s personal interpretation in brick of the Palazzo Strozzi, the original of which Richardson must have viewed during his visit to Florence three years earlier. One block east of the site for Field’s new store on Adams stood Root’s just-opened Insurance Exchange and in the next block across La Salle Street lay the site given to Root to design the Rookery. Richardson’s long facade along Adams would sit face-to-face with the Burlington and also would be seen on the same side of the street in line with two of Root’s better elevations. The Field Store was to be a mano-a-mano face-off with Root: the best of the East was coming to meet the best of the West.
The Burlington Building contained Chicago’s second longest elevation at this time (only the elongated arcaded facade of the Hiram Sibley warehouse along the river was longer), that Root had detailed into a four-layered composition of 1:2:2:1, the two middle ranges consisting of one two-story arcade placed above an identical two-story arcade. Add to the power of the Burlington’s exterior image the magnificent spatial sequence of its atrium, and one was faced with a hard act to match, let alone eclipse. But apparently this is exactly what Richardson had originally intended to do in his design of the Field Store.
At the same time, one cannot underestimate the influence of Peabody & Stearns’ R. H. White Store in Boston completed only a few years earlier. I have already mentioned how it influenced some of Root’s earlier work (Sec. 8.21). While Richardson stood at the head of American architects in 1885, one could argue that Robert S. Peabody’s reputation within the Massachusetts’ community was at least equal to that of the great Richardson (Peabody & Stearns had designed Shepherd Brooks’ estate in Medford in 1881). The R. H. White Store stood in stark tectonic contrast to Richardson’s own store designed for F. L. Ames the following year, 1882, and easily could have encouraged Richardson to attempt to design a brick box.
We also cannot ignore the influence of George Post’s New York Produce Exchange, an equivalent-sized project to what confronted Richardson. While Root’s Burlington stood in front of his site, Post’s Produce Exchange was in the forefront of the consciousness of American architects as it had recently opened up to mixed reviews. As I have documented how Post’s design had influenced Root’s design for the Rookery at this precise moment, Post will also have a major influence on Richardson’s design.
We are indebted to James O’Gorman for his research of Richardson’s design process of the Field Store. Richardson took both the Burlington’s hollow rectangular plan and its brick, six-story arcaded elevations as his point of departure. but as such he had made two radical departures from his life’s oeuvre: he had abandoned not only his characteristic picturesque roofline in favor of Root’s palazzo-like flat-topped box of walls, but also his iconic rock-faced stone exterior for Chicago’s brick. The palazzo-form was completely antithetical to Richardson’s prior fondness for a picturesque roofline, of which the fugal Field wholesale division would have nothing of the kind.
This was the major influence that Chicago’s architecture, especially Root’s, had had on Richardson. The reverse argument, that Richardson brought the box to Chicago, and hence to modern architecture, has often been made, but, as I have attempted to present, this view has been entirely chronologically in error at best; at worst, it is a severe misinterpretation of Richardson’s own work. It is also an historical injustice to other architects of the period, especially Root, for he had been producing red brick boxes since the Montauk Block, four years before Richardson received the Field commission. Meanwhile, Richardson’s prior work did not even come close to the formal simplicity of Root’s commercial designs (as I have presented in the previous sections) until after the Bostonian had come face-to-face with Root’s designs.
Whether it was a large urban wholesale store (the Ames Store) or a just a large urban block (Allegheny County Courthouse and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce) that he had just designed immediately before coming to Chicago, Richardson had no reservation about celebrating his roof. Therefore, the Field design was not a high point in Richardson’s career, as is so often quoted (an honor that the Allegheny Courthouse merits) but it is more of a mid-life career change or major turning point in his ideas: a conversion to the simple, box-like forms of Chicago’s commercial buildings, especially those by Root, such as the McCormick Building that was located only two blocks to the southwest of Field’s site.
O’Gorman, James F. Selected Drawings – H.H. Richardson and His Office. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1974.
O’Gorman, James F. “The Marshall Field Whole Sale Store: Materials Towards a Monograph,” JSAH, Oct. 1978, pp. 175-194.
Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl. H.H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982.
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org)