The Kansas City Board of Trade resolved to have an architectural competition for its new building. The significance of this decision was that the competition would be the first to be held under the new regulations for competitions developed by the Western Association of Architects. In Vol. Three, Sec. 9.5. I documented the formation of the W.A.A. at its first convention held Nov. 12-4, 1884, in Chicago, at which Burnham and Root had wasted little time in addressing one of their longstanding professional frustrations: design competitions (remember that they had thought that they had twice won the competition for the Chicago Board of Trade, only to have last minute closed-door political intrigues deny them the opportunity to design Chicago’s most important building).
Burnham had revealed his sense of frustration over competitions in his speech that opened the convention: “There are many things undoubtedly to come up for discussion… for instance… that frequent source of trouble, competitions.” He, therefore, as Chairman of the meeting, named Root to chair the Committee on Competitions with a charge to draft a statement on the subject overnight that could be voted on by the convention the next day. Root returned the following morning with a sweeping reform of the American competition system (that more than likely they had prepared in advance), about which Burnham quickly stepped out of the chair to defend. After much debate, the committee’s resolution: “That no architect should enter a competition for any building or other work, unless the decision of the competition shall be made by recognized experts,” was adopted for the coming year, pending a thorough review of the subject by a standing committee. Henry Cobb motioned that Burnham, as the Chairman of the Convention who had showed such passion over the issue in his opening remarks, should be one of the committee’s five members. Burnham, as the Chairman of the Convention, filled out the committee, naming Root as the Chairman. Burnham and Root were where they wanted to be in order to change the rules for future competitions.
The standing committee made its report the following year at the 1885 convention in St. Louis. Burnham and Root were once again at the forefront of the meeting, with Root giving the W.A.A.’s official response to the City of St. Louis delegation’s opening welcome. Burnham took to the floor in the afternoon session to lead the floor fight to adopt the committee’s drafted Code for Architectural Competitions that he, along with Root, had helped to write during the intervening year between the two conventions. In essence, it required: submissions by all competitors to be uniform; a three-man jury of experts; a custodian to be appointed who would check all submissions before they would be forwarded to the jury; the cost of the winning entry to be verified to be within the allotted budget prior to a final announcement; the winning architect to be guaranteed to be contracted to design the building; and that the drawings of the unsuccessful entries would be immediately returned to the respective architects without any part of these designs being used in the final building, without the consent of the designer. The Code, as adopted by the convention, would result in reforming some of the more infamous “evils” that architects, especially Burnham & Root, had encountered in past competitions.
And so, having written the rules under which the Kansas City Board of Trade competition would be organized, Burnham & Root seemingly were in an ideal position to win the competition, which they did. Unfortunately for the four Chicago promoters of the Midland Hotel, a site for the new building, different from the one they had gambled on, was chosen at 210 W. 8th Street, four blocks away from the hotel. Prof. William R. Ware, who had started the country’s first collegiate program in architecture in 1867 at M.I.T. but had left the school in 1881 to start a new school of architecture at Columbia University, was chosen to be the professional advisor of the competition. The competition board, under his direction, made formal invitations with an agreement for $500 compensation towards expenses to three architects: George B. Post of New York, Peabody & Stearns from Boston, and Burnham & Root. Other architects were welcomed to submit entries if they chose to do so at their own expense, the deadline being June 15, 1886. Office legend had it that Root, who was scheduled to leave for Europe on June 12, spent the entire Saturday before he was to depart, hammering out not only the complete set of competition drawings for the firm’s entry but also a series of alternative plans as well. This wasn’t as impossible as it may first seem, as Root was known to have simply reworked his best scheme that ultimately had been rejected for the Chicago Board of Trade. As the invitations had been sent in early April, Root had over two months to work over his design in his head during this period, and surely, it was simply a matter of making the final drawings. Root was known as a draftsman par excellence and would have had little trouble in completing the drawings in a day.
Ware identified five projects from the 53 submissions that he felt were the best from which the building committee would choose the winner. The committee ultimately chose Burnham & Root’s, anonymously labeled as Utilissimus. As scheduled, the committee announced the winner on June 30, stating the Utilissimus‘s plan was “plainly the best of all for light and ventilation of offices, gave to the halls the best positions possible, and furnished the largest number of offices for rent in the best groupings for advantageous use, and on the whole promised the largest returns of income.” Edbrooke & Burnham from Chicago was awarded second place, Weston & Tuckerman from New York, third, John L. Faxton of Boston, fourth, and W.W. Clay of Chicago fifth place. Robert McLean, the editor of Inland Architect and prime advocate of the W.A.A. could not hold back his pleasure in noting that the best of the West had beaten the best from the East:
“Kansas City will enjoy the possession of a building which will represent the best architectural talent this country can produce, and that western architects have been honored as its authors will be a matter which architects east as well as west will generally rejoice in, showing, as it does, that the talent of the United States does not lie in any prescribed section.”
He also quoted Ware’s report that stated that “sixteen [submissions] were designed in some variety of Roman or Renaissance architecture, nine with a tolerably strict and nine with a somewhat free use of Romanesque or round-arched medieval motives” as evidence of progress “toward an American style of architecture…and will be the foundation…of our architectural creations of the future.” The narrative that accompanied the drawings of Utilissimus‘s submission described Burnham & Root’s process that generated the final design:
“This competitor began a study of the problem by laying out all plans he could devise as feasible for such a building and lot. Their value as to exterior light and air was then compared; and the one herewith submitted giving the best results, was therefore chosen. It depends but little on interior courts, and opens well to the south, from whence comes most of the sunshine and the summer breezes… Following out this scheme of looking first and only to practical utility in the consideration of all the main questions, the outside of this building is to be almost entirely of red brick and red semi-glazed terra-cotta.
First-Because these materials alone are fireproof.
Second-Because they are always bright and warm in their glowing monotone.
Third-Because they keep clean and do not grow dingy with age.
Fourth-Because, most especially, good effects are obtainable by these materials more cheaply than by any other known to your designer…
It is not deemed necessary to more minutely describe this design, as the author of it has full confidence in the professional adviser, and feels that under his investigation everything of value will be brought out without tediously calling his attention to the same herein.”
As they had described above, Burnham & Root had chosen a U-, or more accurately, an H-plan that incorporated two parallel wings of single-loaded office floors that were separated by an exterior lightcourt that opened to the south, maximizing sunlight and summer breezes. In essence, Root had chopped the Rialto in half, and vertically extruded the center circulation core to make the tower. The exposed light court not only marked the location for the main entrance, but also gave visual access to the central tower in the back.
Root said that he had placed tower with the elevators on the north side of the building as this location had the poorest access to daylight. This location also guaranteed that a visitor would have to walk through the entire first floor lobby and thereby, be exposed to the businesses located on both sides of the lobby. One walked, therefore, under the triumphal arched-entry and into the skylighted two-story lobby. Marble stairs on both sides immediately gave one access to the offices on the mezzanine. In essence, he had synthesized the best detailing from the lobbies of Post’s Mills Building, Beman’s Pullman Building, and his own Phoenix and Rookery.
Root placed the 59′ by 115′ Trading Hall in the west wing to take advantage of the late afternoon daylight, and on its top floor for better views and also because it would be easier to clearspan the space with scissors trusses so that no columns would interfere with its openness. The tall room was enclosed on three sides with tall, triple-windowed arches that in the original design were mirrored in the east wing for the sake of symmetry. He then articulated the Trading Hall from the east wing on the exterior by placing a pediment over it (covered the gable roof) in the south and west facades. Rental offices, once again included to help defray the cost of the project, were located on floors 3-6 in the east wing and floors 3-4 in the west wing. These were single-loaded, and therefore, an interior lightwell extended vertically through the section to a skylight at the roof in the east wing, while light was provided to the lightwell in the lower floors of the west wing by Hyatt glass prisms built into the floor of the Trading Hall.
Upon his return from Europe in September 1886, Root made two significant changes from the original design in the constructed building. First, he toned down the entry arches by removing the triangular pediment in favor of his more typical triumphal arch inscribed within a rectilinear frame. More intriguing was the second change.
He replaced the arcades in the facades of the East wing with lintels and an attic of square-headed windows. This resulted in his first elevation of a major building that was completely rational as no romantic arches were gratuitously employed since his eight-story Traders Building designed two years earlier. He obviously felt it was more “honest” to make the expression of the Trading Hall more unique by reserving the arcade for this space and damn the need for “symmetry.”
The fact remained, however, that the decision to place a pediment above the cornice to hide the truss over the Trading Hall, without a corresponding gesture in the East wing, left the building lopsided. (This unbalanced composition apparently was a result of the competition’s program. Root implied as much in his accompanying brief: “The use of the different stories [in the Trading Hall] is as directed by you…”) The formal imbalance was only made worse by the requirement of a cantilevered balcony around the Trading Hall. Removing the arcades from the elevations of East wing seemed to only make the problem worse. This was unfortunate and could have been better resolved if he had detailed a balancing gesture in the roofline of the east wing. He certainly had the opportunity to do so because it was here that he had located most of the building’s mechanical equipment. While one might point the finger of judgment at the program, Root should have been able to come up with a better design to resolve the asymmetry inherent in the program, rather than merely accepting a pragmatic, but awkwardly lopsided solution. As it was, the foreground triangular pediment fought against the tower, that should have been the dominant visual focus. There must have been something more behind the scenes that caused this unfortunate result…
Speaking of the tower, the real revolutionary detail in this building was Root’s straightforward exposure of the building’s mechanical system on the exterior, something more typically associated with twentieth century architecture. Here he may have been influenced by Richardson’s three towers in the Allegheny County Courthouse, that he had used to supply fresh air and exhaust cycled air. But I also believe that Root was experimenting with the image and details of the Albi Cathedral, the largest all-brick cathedral in the world, because I think he was doing this in anticipation of seeing the real building during his upcoming trip to Europe. The Albi Cathedral’s tower was built against a pair of cylindrical towers that act as a spine, much like how Root’s two shafts work. On the north side of the tower, Root designed two continuous, unbroken brick shafts that extended the entire height of the tower. One served as the building’s chimney, the other as a ventilation shaft. Note that the west tower is taller than the eastern. (With predominant southernly winds, your guess is as good as mine as to which one served which purpose.) Root’s remarkably frank expression of function was decade’s ahead of Louis Kahn’s concept of “served and servant spaces.” (As had Root’s design of the rear elevation of the Phoenix Building been decade’s ahead of Le Corbusier’s concept of the “free façade.”)
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.
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