At the base of the building’s 34’ x 56’ atrium Root located the 26’ high banking floor. For security reasons, the hall was physically (and visually) isolated from the atrium above by a skylight, but what a skylight it is! Root handed the design of the hall’s interior design to a talent and kindred spirit new to Chicago, English designer William Pretyman. Pretyman (1849-1920) was an artist and decorator born and educated in Great Britain. He had met his future wife while touring Egypt. Jenney Remington was the granddaughter and heiress of Eliphalet Remington, founder of the Remington Industries, manufacturers of firearms, agricultural equipment, and typewriters. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1881, settling near Albany, NY, to be close to Jenny whom he married in 1883. Meanwhile, he received a number of private and public decorating commissions, that the New York Times reviewed in 1882 as “he is one of the much travelled Britons, and has made with a practiced and rapid hand a long list of water-colours during journeys in the Orient and the Malay Archipelago.” They had eventually moved to Chicago in 1887 so that Jenny could be closer to her aunt, Mary Theresa Leiter, the wife of Levi Leiter, and her inner social circle. He decorated their new Chicago house with a British Aesthetic Movement interior “in a grand style,” that also included an English domestic staff. Born within a year apart, Pretyman personified the British Arts and Crafts movement that Root had followed since his early days in Liverpool. Root, during the rest of his life would come to rely upon Pretyman as his “color man.”
Pretyman was in charge of the decoration of all the hall’s surfaces: walls, ceilings, moldings, and, of course, the gorgeous leaded stained glass in the ceiling’s skylight. Similar to Sullivan’s interior ornament at this moment, Pretyman’s colors and complex curvilinearity also verged on the edge of Art Nouveau.
Pretyman took advantage of the opportunity offered by a visit to the U.S. in 1891 by a close friend, Walter Crane, in conjunction with a travelling exhibition of his work, to offer him the commission for two murals for the hall. Crane (born in 1845 in Liverpool, nonetheless) was a collaborator with William Morris in the design of textiles, wallpapers, stained glass, and other household materials. He had been influenced by John Ruskin and knew some of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He did wood engravings and watercolors, but his true calling was that of a book illustrator, especially children’s books. He also was an examiner for the Art Department of the South Kensington Museum, so he, like Pretyman, provided a direct link between the British Arts and Crafts Movement as well as the South Kensington Design Reform Movement and what was being done in Chicago during the late 1880s.
Crane chose as the subject for his murals “The Tale of the Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs,” one I’m sure that the bank’s Directors heartily approved. In the first one, “Call Me Not Fool Till Heaven Hath Sent Me Fortune,” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, II.7.xix) has the Master carrying the goose that lays the golden eggs, accompanied by a fool and a maiden with a plate of golden eggs, walking past a pub with the sign, “When Adam and Eve… in Paradise.” The Master’s knife is still in its scabbard. In the second mural, “Fortune Never Comes With Both Hands Open,” (Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, IV.4.ciii) the greedy Master, wanting all of the eggs immediately, has killed the goose, the last egg has cracked on the ground, exposing merely an yolk that is spreading toward the dropped knife of the Master. The sign of this pub reads, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Indicative of the class warfare in the U.S. at this moment, Crane, who in good Ruskinian and Morris fashion was a Socialist, had naively appeared early after his arrival at an anarchist meeting in Boston, where he voiced his support for the innocence of the four Haymarket Square anarchists who had been executed in 1887. That night saw the cancellation of many of the scheduled parties and dinners that were to mark his exhibition.
As he had detailed his earlier atriums (i.e., the Burlington Building) or his lightwells (i.e., the Rookery), Root’s objective was to maximize the distribution of daylight throughout the numerous floors below through the use of white-colored materials, glass windows and prisms in the floors, and gilded metalwork. The difference in the bank’s building was that the general public had no access to see this atrium because the stained-glass ceiling closed off the atrium above from the public. Only those people involved with business in the upper floors had the opportunity to view this “modern” Chicago School elevation. (Here I see a parallel between British landscape architects designing the early iron-and-glass greenhouses at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when J.C. Loudon in 1817 had predicted a modern design vocabulary without any traces of traditional architecture ornament because this tended to reduce the amount of daylight penetration (see Volume One), and these late nineteenth century architects who also had to design to maximize daylight penetration.)
What I find interesting in Root’s design of these elevations is that they differ from those in the similar location in the Rookery. While the structure of these walls in both the Rookery and the bank were iron skeleton-framed, while Root had expressed the frame in the Rookery’s elevations, he treated the wall surface of the Bank’s atrium as planes with windows and doors punched into them. More than likely, the reason for the difference I believe was that the Rookery’s spaces on the inside of this wall was a doubled-loaded corridor, meaning that this wall only had to provide light and air. Meanwhile, the Bank’s space on the other side of this wall was a single-loaded corridor, meaning that this wall had to provide physical entrance and yet some measure of privacy from those who were walking alongside it. The provision of daylight was secondary because these rooms still had exterior walls with windows on the opposite side of the rooms, therefore it was not necessary to provide an all-glass wall in the atrium of the bank.
Another sign of the times was the contrast between the “medieval” or “Gothic Revival” look (stemming from the mid-nineteenth century) of the bank’s exterior and the banking hall versus the “modern” aesthetic (now emerging at the end of the century) that Root employed in the atrium above the stained-glass ceiling. In essence, this building represented the conundrum faced by Chicago’s architects during the second half of the 1880s: trying to maintain a continuum with the traditions of architecture while faced with the reality of incorporating the industrialized materials of the present. In a way, this was the same contrast represented in the building’s construction: one could not see the modern iron frame of the building’s interior as it was hidden by the building’s traditional stone exterior.
Footnote: The bank is a hidden gem of the Chicago School, and well worth the trip to take it all in. However, if you would like to see an example of William Pretyman’s work in Chicago, visit the Glessner House. The Glessners had hired Pretyman to redecorate their parlor in 1893 when they were adding electricity. He replaced the original yellow floral-patterned wallpaper on the walls with burlap that was stenciled in eight layers of metallic paints and glazes, that has recently been restored.
I would like to express my appreciation of the following people for their kind assistance with this post:
Matthew Pitts, Key Bank’s Regional Manager of Communication for his assistance in procuring some of these images.
“stealthshot,” one of my Instagram followers who directed me to many of these images.
William Tyre, Executive Director and Curator, Glessner House.
In Our Second Century: Society for Savings, Cleveland, 1949.
Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org)