1.5. THE MIDLAND HOTEL: THE “LITTLE ROOKERY”

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel, Kansas City, 1886. (Hoffmann, Root)

What Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t say was that the seven-story skyscraper had been designed by Burnham & Root.  Kansas City’s leaders began to see the need for a new, larger building for their Board of Trade, rumors about which were freely circulating in early 1886.  Four of Chicago’s real estate investors, A.J. Cooper, William E. Hale, Norman Ream, and J. B. Smith,  were planning on repeating the successful speculation that had occurred four years earlier around the site of Chicago’s proposed Board of Trade.  As we have seen in older cities, the first mark of the growth of a town into a railroad city was a large hotel, and Kansas City would be no different.  Within a month after the Haymarket bombing, it was announced that the four Chicagoans were going to build a new seven-story hotel immediately adjacent to one of the proposed sites for the new Board of Trade (to their poor fortune, another site was chosen for the actual Board of Trade). The group once again hired Burnham & Root to design the Midland Hotel. 

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. Typical hotel room floor plan. (Hoffmann, Root)

They lined the three street fronts of the 150′ by 85′ site on Seventh Street, between Grand and Walnut Streets, with a double-loaded corridor of hotel rooms.  This created a U-plan with a 43′ by 81′ lightcourt in the rear facing south; similar to the Rookery minus the rear wing of offices.  Root articulated this massing scheme in the front elevation by slightly projecting the two side wings slightly forward from the middle, so slight that one could easily miss it, unfortunately, if you wouldn’t looking for it.  The side wings were also called out by the placement of a square turret that extended beyond the cornice at each corner of a wing, denying any chance of the building being read as a box.

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel, Kansas City, 1886. (Online)

The first thing one is struck by when viewing the rendering of the hotel above is the extreme openness in the elevation; it is quite skeletal in its overall detailing.  Its artist has taken some license with the size of the piers when compared to an actual photograph, but then when one looks carefully at a photograph, it is the extreme “flatness” or “thinness” of the exterior walls (that is caused by the placement of the windows set flush with the wall, i.e., they are not set back into the wall that would reveal the thickness of the wall) that is unusual for a Root design, especially in 1886.  

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. Note the ground floor is completely iron-framed and filled with glass (similar to how Root had detailed the alley elevations in the Rookery. The structure is not well-coordinated, as the masonry piers above do not necessarily align with the iron columns in the ground floor. The original entry portico and corner turrets are visible in this photo. Note the chimneys in the roofline that extend past the cornice. (Online)

The elevations’ flatness speaks to the possibility that portions, if not the entire exterior of the hotel was constructed using the iron skeleton frame for the first time.  Root had just employed the iron skeleton frame in the four exterior walls in the Rookery’s lightcourt, a detail he repeated in the three exterior walls of the hotel’s lightcourt.  A construction photograph shows the iron columns that lined the three exterior walls of the lightcourt.

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. Construction photo showing the iron columns used in the light court walls. (Online)

One difference from the Rookery’s light court, however, is that instead of infilling the entire structural void with glass, Root has used brick, supported on lintels cantilevered from the iron frame, the same detail used in the Rookery, to enclose the interior except for where windows were conventionally cut into the brick wall.  The masonry was cheaper than glass, the space behind the wall was a hotel room and not an office (not the same amount of daylight needed), and the light court opened directly to the south (as opposed to the Rookery’s four walls blocking out much of the daylight).

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. South side, showing the light court and the skylight over the ground floor. (Online)

This construction detail, in some ways, is even more important than the Rookery’s use of all glass. In essence, the hotel’s detail would allow an architect to hang a “conventionally-designed” masonry façade on an iron frame.  A hotel room also required smaller windows than an office building. As we are still in the infancy of the “curtain wall hung on an iron frame” technology, architects would readily fall back onto convention for the design of the façade, while recouping the economic advantages of “iron frame/curtain wall” construction, such as a thinner exterior wall and a corresponding increase in rentable floor area.  

When one carefully studies the hotel’s floor plan, Root has drawn circular voids in many of the piers in the exterior walls.  While some of these are obviously flues for the fireplaces in each room (that terminate in chimneys above the facade), some rooms have piers with two voids that leads me to speculate whether or not Root took advantage of the “looser” building code in such a young Western town like Kansas City, to experiment with using the iron skeleton frame in the exterior of a building (as opposed to only in the protected walls of the Rookery’s light court) for the first time in the U.S.  Root’s biographer, Donald Hoffmann, to whom we all owe a great deal of gratitude for his documentation of Root’s buildings and writings, made a reference to the hotel’s structure as being “peculiarly ad hoc: besides the masonry piers, there were circular cast columns and certain brick piers enclosing cast box-columns with rolled columns in the centers.”  

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. Construction photo showing the iron framing in the ground floor as well as in the interior. (Online)

Another construction photograph shows the iron framing in the first floor (similar to the Rookery’s alley elevations).  Nonetheless, it is the flatness of the exterior facades that I find hauntingly suspicious about the nature of their construction.  If we assume that all three streetfronts were iron skeleton framed, then the two interior masonry bearing walls that “close-off” the two side wings, in combination with the south walls of each of the side wings would have served the purpose of providing lateral bracing against wind loads (Holabird & Roche will use the exact same structure of an exterior skeleton frame with interior bearing walls for wind loads two years later in the Tacoma Building), a conservative precaution that any careful architect would take in making such a radically new experiment in construction.  Was the Midland Hotel the first tall building that was completely (or a great portion of it) iron skeleton-framed in its exterior?  While the first construction photograph confirms that the three walls in the lightcourt were completely framed with an iron structure à la the Rookery, actual drawings or more definitive photographs are needed to confirm my speculation about the use of iron skeleton framing in the three street elevations.  

Midland Hotel elevation versus the Rookery’s alley elevation. Root has “fixed” the error of the “floating” capitals in the Rookery’s seventh floor by simply eliminating the superfluous middle arcade in the Midland (see arrow).

Root’s overall composition of the hotel’s elevations bore a striking resemblance to that of the Rookery’s alley elevations.  They both had five layers marked by strong continuous bands: the hotel’s elevation comprised of a stone base, a two-story “upper base” upon which Root placed what appeared as six-story, arcade articulated into a 3:2:1 decreasing perspective: a three-story colonnade grouped by unbroken pilasters and recessed spandrels, a two-story arcade colonnade (sans capitals) that was topped with the single-story arches that linked these three layers into an arcade.  This was slightly misleading, however, for the upper two layers, the two-story colonnade and the arches, actually enclosed the two-story ballroom/banquet hall.

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. This photo was taken after the entry portico, the corner turrets, and the chimneys were removed in a “modernization.” Note how open the ground floor was. (Online)

Still playing fast and loose with the gratuitous arcade, however, Root placed them in rather meaningless locations: above the entrances on the side streets, and to either side of the front entrance on Seventh Street, where a rather spindly-looking portico was originally erected over the sidewalk.  Lastly, a truly anachronistic curved pediment broke the cornice over the front entrance that acted as a background for a very unfortunate and poorly proportioned two-story curved bay window.  One wonders if these last two details were actually designed by Root before he left on vacation, or more than likely were added at the request of the client and designed by someone in the office with much less experience while Root was in Europe?

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. Cornice detailing. Note the engaged colonette at both corners of each pier. (Hoffmann, Root)

Whether constructed completely with the iron frame or not, Root’s detailing of the brick and terra cotta in the three exterior street facades, especially in the cornice was exquisite.  Brick is corbelled, slightly recessed to create a grid, and even the mortar joints are varied: vertical joints were struck flush with the face of the brick so that they virtually disappeared to create a continuous horizontal line in certain locations, in other locations resorting to a standard tooled joint. (Did he also have the mortar in the vertical joints colored to match the color of the brick? This was a typical detail in 1885 as seen in the masonry details of the Ponce de León Hotel in St. Augustine, FL, designed Carrère & Hastings. No, Frank Lloyd Wright did not invent this detail…)   

Carrère & Hastings, Ponce de León Hotel, St. Augustine, FL, 1885. The brick detailing uses thinner vertical joints of mortar colored to match the brick that are struck flush. The horizontal joints are raked. The origin of this detail is often, mistakenly, credited to Frank Lloyd Wright. (Author’s collection)
Burnham & Root. Oriel containing stair in the lightcourt. Left: Midland Hotel. (Hoffmann, Meanings); Right: The Rookery. (Hoffmann, Root); Below; Spiral stair in the cantilevered oriel bay. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

On the interior, again similar to the Rookery, the skylight of the lightcourt was brought down to cover the first floor, under which were located a dance court, bar and billiard room.  There was a set of spiral stairs, like that in the Rookery, that took one up, through the skylight and continued up in a cantilevered oriel bay.  No photograph has been discovered that shows how Root brought this stairway down through the skylight and into the lower floors, à la the Rookery, but it appears that he did take advantage of the cantilever once again, this time projecting a balcony at this point at the second floor elevator lobby into the Hotel’s main lobby. 

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. Lobby. Note how Root has cantilevered a lookout from the elevator lobby at the second floor on the left that more than likely corresponds to where the spiral stair begins. (Online)

At the seventh floor, Root cantilevered a continuous walkway beyond the exterior wall as well as the stair in the oriel.  Until a plan of this floor is located, one can only surmise that the purpose of this walkway was to provide access for the waiters serving the banquet hall. As construction neared completion, unfortunately, two trusses over the banquet hall on the top floor collapsed on March 1, 1888, killing one worker that led to a Coroner’s inquest.  

Burnham & Root, Midland Hotel. Photo taken after construction accident on March 1, 1888. (Online)

The final report of the investigation found that during construction, it was decided to make the banquet hall free of columns by replacing the beams in the roof with clearspan trusses.  Burnham & Root had issued the necessary change orders and drawings, in which they had moved a flue to one side in the masonry pier that supported the heavier-loaded truss (no mention of an iron column was mentioned or apparently detailed), in order to increase the amount of solid masonry directly under the truss so as to be able to support it.  The contractor had ignored the relocation of the flue but was obviously aware of the flue’s location because the iron bearing pad for the truss was reduced in area from the size that Burnham & Root had specified in the change order, so that it was smaller and, therefore, would not put any load on the portion of the pier that still contained the flue in its original location.  Unfortunately, this reduced the overall bearing area over which the load of the truss was spread that increased the stress in the masonry pier beyond its capacity and failure ensued. Amazingly, that Root was quick to point out in a press release, the rest of the building was so well built that the only damage the building sustained was localized to where the truss fell.  It did not initiate a progressive collapse in the floors below but was halted at the floor of the banquet hall.  Burnham & Root were eventually absolved of all liability.

FURTHER READING:

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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.   New York: Horizon, 1967.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s