H.H. Richardson, Marshall Field Wholesale Store. Above: Preliminary first floor plan incorporating an interior atrium. (O’Gorman, Selected Drawings); Below: Final Ground Floor Plan. (Inland Architect, 1888)

Field’s tight budget also forced Richardson to revise his initial floor plan.  The central skylighted atrium, along with its corresponding spatial complexity, was replaced with a more efficient plan that incorporated a loading dock at the rear of the building along Quincy.  This changed the plan from a hollow rectangle to an elongated U-shape by moving the floor area that was to have been under the skylight to the back of the building, thus forcing the floor at this perimeter location into the area where the atrium was to have been.  In order to replace the daylight lost from the elimination of the skylight, Richardson chose to design the rear elevation in back of the dock to be as open as possible, similar to how Root had just detailed the wall in back of the elevators in the Phoenix Building,  To save even more money, this wall appears to have been constructed only with brick (compare the arches in the Field wall vs. the Phoenix’s flat-headed iron grid).

Above: Marshall Field Wholesale Store, Rear Elevation along Quincy Street. (O’Gorman, JSAH, October 1978); Below: Burnham & Root, Phoenix Building. South(rear) elevation. (urbanremainschicago.com)

The loading dock was sheltered with a glass roof that may have been suspended from a cable that spanned between the two corners of the building. While this drawing shows such a system, no photograph exists that would confirm this detail.

Above: Drawing showing suspension system for the glass roof covering the loading dock. (O’Gorman, JSAH, October 1978); Below: Field Wholesale Store. Loading dock. Columns to support the open end would have inhibited movement so either the glass roof was, indeed, supported from a cable above or a deep truss system. (Ochsner, Richardson)

The spatial sequence of the store’s final plan was further simplified with two continuous, full-height walls that extended from the indentation of the loading dock, breaking the building into three vertical zones.  Within the huge floor area, the walls provided firebreaks that would compartmentalize the building to help to contain the spread of fire.  Field had been the victim of too many fires not to have been overly-cautious in the design of his new store.  Every window was provided with an iron fire shutter that was located on the interior side of each window.  Although the cast iron columns, protected with terra cotta casings, were used to support the first three floors, heavy timber mill framing was used in all the floors and for the columns in the four upper floors. 

Marshall Field Wholesale Store. Packing Department at the Eighth Floor. Note the timber columns. (Ochsner, Richardson)

Historians have speculated a number of reasons for Richardson’s use of timber in 1885.  First, this may have been simply a budget issue.  More likely, once again we must remember that Field had suffered significant losses due to fire, starting of course with the 1871 fire, and he would have demanded a tried-and-true system.  Such a system, we saw in Sec. 3.18 had been championed by Boston’s own Edward Atkinson of the Massachusetts Manufacturers’ Mutual Insurance Company, the same timber system that Peter Wight’s porous terra cotta casings with iron columns had proven equal to in the Boston Society of Architects tests only three and a half years earlier in November 1881.  I have noted a number of times that Atkinson was a neighbor of Richardson’s in suburban Brookline, and so one could believe that Atkinson may have played a role in this decision.

Finally, Richardson had to bring this structure to the ground via a foundation system, one the mistakes he had made in the earlier American Express Building. Root’s biographer, Harriet Monroe, reported that Richardson had visited Root’s office during one of his trips to Chicago, ostensibly to query Root about the design of the foundations for the Field Store.  In reality, professional courtesy of the time would have dictated that Root, the city’s leading architect, invite the famous Richardson to visit the office.  If the meeting actually took place, it more than likely occurred during Richardson’s stay in October 1885, as the Field project was still in secret gestation during Richardson’s earlier visit in May to discuss the Glessner’s house.  Although his construction drawings reveal that Richardson had incorporated Root’s relatively new technique of using iron rails in only the footings that supported the interior fire walls, it is apparent that Richardson had learned little from this talk with Root, or for that matter, his prior experience twelve years earlier with the problematic settlement in the American Express Building, for he still designed the stepped stone footings in the traditional Eastern way, either ignorant of or choosing to ignore Baumann’s theory for uniformly-stressed foundations.  This technical oversight would once again plague Richardson’s second building in Chicago’s Loop, but unfortunately, it would take more time for the mistake to manifest itself in physical distress than it did in the first building, so that it could not be as easily remedied as had been the American Express Building by Peter Wight’s redesign of its foundation and front elevation.  The heavier-loaded foundations of the exterior wall settled at a greater rate than did the interior pad footings under the columns, that resulted in the floors sloping to the lower, exterior walls (one can experience the same phenomenon in the floors of the side balconies in the Auditorium).

In summary, placing the technology that Richardson employed within its context of Chicago in late 1885, the Field Wholesale Store emerges as more of a dinosaur than as a harbinger of things to come.  A comparison with Root’s contemporary design for the Rookery, the construction of which had paralleled that of the Field Store, will prove the point.  In the Rookery’s foundations, not only had Root utilized Baumann’s twelve-year old theory, but he had also reduced the size and corresponding weight of the footings by using iron rails and concrete, while Richardson employed the old-fashioned pyramids of stone for most of the Field Store’s footings.  The interior of the Rookery was completely framed in terra cotta-encased iron with hollow terra cotta floors, that in 1885 had become the conventional construction system for large buildings in Chicago.  The Field Store relied on heavy timber mill framing for most of its structure.  Lastly, the exterior walls in the Rookery’s light court were enclosed with non-loadbearing terra cotta and brick supported on the iron frame, the way buildings would be constructed for the next forty years.  Richardson, on the other hand, had been forced by his client to revert to the use of the archaic mode of construction of the stone bearing wall.

Like its construction technology, the design of the Field Store also did not contain many new ideas from which Chicago’s architects could learn.  Certainly, as a spatial experience, the building was bland at best, meaning that from the viewpoint of architectural history, the Field Store’s potential significance can be reduced to only its facades. The large, straightforward box of the palazzo without an expression of a roof had been in vogue in American architecture for at least a decade by 1885, except, as we have seen, in the work of Richardson.  Therefore, its overall massing and large, urban scale did nothing more than repeat what the best Chicago architects were producing at the time.  Even though Richardson had tried to incorporate more ornamental detail, Field’s budget had forced the elimination of all but the simplest of detailing.  The Field Store, therefore, could be understood as the equivalent of Root’s Montauk Building laid on its side.  Although stone was starting to make a comeback on the exterior of buildings in 1885, the stone that Field demanded was detailed as rock-faced, a rough texture that was highly susceptible to Chicago’s atmospheric pollution of the time.  Such surface textures were actually being abandoned by the city’s architects in favor of a smooth-faced exterior, be it of stone, brick, or the soon-to-come glazed terra cotta, any of which would show less of the city’s grime and was easier to clean.  Richardson’s motif of stacking arcades in a decreasing geometric progression was not a radical departure in the design of elevations, as has so often been stated by historians, but had been used by so many architects by 1885 that it was not only quite commonplace, but with the advent of the use of iron framing in the exterior of repetitive-floored office buildings, it was also on the verge of becoming anachronistic.  Definitely, the layered, arcaded elevation offered little new direction for those architects at the time who were facing the challenge of evolving an appropriate expression for the ever-increasing height of the skyscraper.  As Root’s troubled experimentation in the Rookery revealed, the skyscraper was growing upwardly, along the vertical axis, rather than the horizontal.  And it was going to do this not with the stacking of one layer of masonry arcades on top of another, but with the repetitive rectilinear grid of the iron skeleton frame.  For the most part, therefore, Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store didn’t break much new ground from which the city’s architects could learn.  Those who would try to emulate it in the design of a skyscraper soon found themselves on a path with a dead end.

However, while directly copying its form or elevations held little hope for any advancement in the art of architecture, an architect who looked with a careful eye at the Field Store for principles, rather than mere formal precedents, however, would eventually understand Richardson’s true achievements in its design.  The elimination of all projecting sill and beltcourses in the middle of the building left it as an unbroken multistoried surface or layer (or field). Richardson not only gave Chicago a powerful example of a multistory building with a three-part elevation, but also finally broke the tyranny of the repetitive horizontal layer, the albatross that Root had yet to exorcise from his elevations.  No longer would an architect be forced to place one three-story building on top of another, adding layers to achieve the building’s total height. After the Field Store, an architect could unify all the floors (with no limit) in a skyscraper into one coherent totality.  The Marshall Field Wholesale Store was not the start of the layered elevation, but the end of it: a primarily horizontal building had wiped the elevation clean of repetitive horizontals, so that an architect could finally express either the vertical nature of the skyscraper, or the stacked quality of its repetitive floors, or the rectangular grid of the structural frame that supported it, or the continuity of the skin that enclosed its interior volume (there is NO ONE RIGHT WAY in design).  The Field Store’s impact on Chicago, especially that on Root’s later work, therefore, should not be misunderstood nor underestimated.  In the same breath, however, Chicago’s impact, especially that of Root’s, on Richardson’s last designs likewise cannot be ignored as it has so often been in the past.


So how had the understanding of the influence of Richardson’s Field Store become so skewed over time? At the beginning of this segment I quoted Louis Sullivan’s 1901 Kindergarten Chats, in which he singled out Richardson’s building as his guiding star.  This reference will point International Style (“Modernist”) historians, such as Sigfried Giedeon, who were tracing the pedigree of the unornamented European International Style of the 1920s, to identify the Field Store as an early manifestation of this practice, i.e., minimal ornament. From there it was an easy jump to enshine the Field Store as one the early precedents of the “minimalist” buildings of the “Chicago School.”  Of course, as I have documented, this was a complete misreading of not only the Field Wholesale Store but also the ethos of the architects in what I have defined as the emerging “Chicago School.”  Nowhere in these last eleven chapters have I ever stated that any Chicago architect was pursuing a “minimalist” aesthetic. Quite the opposite was the reality, as I have shown with Root’s detailing in the Rookery for instance. The frugal Field could be excused for chuckling in his grave over this academic misinterpretation of his “billboard.”


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: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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