Nonetheless, the award for the best atrium of the Chicago School goes to… E. Townsend Mix for the 12-story atrium in the Northwestern Guaranty Building in Minneapolis. Mix’s age, however, would reveal itself in the building’s exterior design when it is compared to Beman’s. Whereas Beman had already moved on to the more simple, straightforward massing of the palazzo with smooth surfaces, that would mark the second half of the 1880s and the 1890s, Mix produced a design that was still picturesque in its silhouette and rough in its surface texture.
The owner, Louis F. Menage had given Mix almost a blank check and he made the most of it. A three-story, four-feet thick base of rusticated green New Hampshire granite supported the nine floors of red Lake Superior sandstone above. This was articulated into a seven-story middle and two-story top that resulted in a tripartite elevation. The middle elevation comprised of alternating eight-story bay windows and seven-story arched bays. The truly unfortunate aspect of Mix’s facade, however, was his decision to extend the primary piers past the cornice to reinforce the building’s dominant verticality, that resulted in an overly busy roofline that distracted a viewer’s eyes from the otherwise well-detailed facades.
Following Twin Cities convention, he placed a 40′ tall lookout tower at the main corner of the 12-story building, that increased its final height of the building to 220,’ that also purposely made it taller than St. Paul’s 13-story Pioneer Press‘ building (and also taller than any building in Chicago except the tower of the Board of Trade, including the planned 16-story, 213’ tower of the Auditorium, that would force its owners to add a 17th floor to increase its height, and unfortunately, its weight).
A visitor walked through the two-story entry arch that was truly Mix’s finest design with terra cotta ornament. Most unusual and notable was the softly-draped fabric, modeled in terra cotta, that was the background for the building’s name.
A visitor coming through the doors was greeted by the 12-story high interior atrium, that could be considered to have been Mix’s swansong. The dimensions of the site were such that after Mix had lined the perimeter with single-loaded offices, a huge, 50′ by 80′ atrium (the Rookery’s is 62’ by 71’) extended up all twelve floors to the skylight at the roof.
Mix cantilevered the floors of each story around the atrium so that no column would tie these hovering planes to the ground. What really gave the space its ethereal character was his substitution of Hyatt lights in favor of 1″ thick translucent glass as the flooring material for each gallery. Six open cage elevators in two banks of three completed his symphony of light and movement.
Chicago simply had nothing that was comparable to this 12-story high space when it was completed. The twelfth floor contained Jasper Gibb’s Restaurant, renowned as “the largest, finest restaurant west of Chicago.” An open-air rooftop garden, together with the observation tower, completed this urban palace.
Two years later, Burnham & Root’s 20-story Masonic Temple with its 302’ tall atrium (see later chapter to come) would eclipse its height record, but the Masonic Temple’s 30’ by 70’ atrium was not nearly as spacious. Unfortunately, both buildings were demolished, so if you want to experience the tallest surviving atrium built during the Chicago School, my research identifies it would be the 13-story (now 16-story with the addition) space in the Pioneer Press.
If you want to experience what I consider to be the “grandest” surviving atrium of this period, I think this is the 7-story Browne Palace Hotel in Denver designed by Frank Edbrooke (no relation to Chicago’s George Edbrooke) in 1893. (A personal aside: I remember when the first Hyatt House with an atrium, designed by John Portman for Atlanta opened in 1967. It was deemed to be “futuristic” because it had a 22-story interior space called an “atrium”…)
There is a video of the demolition of the Northwestern Guaranty Building that includes a brief shot of taking the elevator up, thorough the space: https://www.archantiques.com/metropolitan
Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.
Millett, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.
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