In early 1888 Burnham & Root were hired by the Central Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to design a 12-story headquarters building for the northeast corner of Dearborn and Jackson, diagonally across from the site of their stalled Monadnock project. Note the location: Dearborn Street, not La Salle. During the construction lull of late 1886 through early 1888, the great railroad of the Southwest, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, had secretly spent over $13 million on property around 20th and State Street for its eventual entry into Chicago (see Chapter 6 where I will discuss the importance of this event in detail). In summary, the Santa Fe was financed by many of the same Boston financiers who controlled the Burlington and the Grand Trunk, therefore it would also use the Dearborn Street Station. Finally, after some five years of battling City Hall as well as the La Salle Street interests, Dearborn Street was finally going to blossom.
The W.C.T.U. had been founded in 1874 in Cleveland to combat the negative influence that alcohol had on the lives of women and children. In 1878, Matilda Bradley Carse had become president of the Chicago Central Christian Temperance Union and had also launched what would become The Union Signal, the largest women’s newspaper in the country. She led the Chicago organization in establishing many charities and promoting issues central to women and families, some ten years before Jane Addams began Hull House. The Building Association for this project had been incorporated in July 13, 1887, and consisted of Carse, the Chicago organization’s highly effective president, National President Frances E. Willard, Esther Pugh, William Deering, and James Hobbs, while local business leaders including William E. Hale, Norman B. Ream, and Melville E. Stone agreed to act as trustees of the building upon its completion.
It is readily apparent at first sight that Root in this design was attempting to one-up the corner tower in the recently announced Owings Building (see next chapter). At the southeast corner of Dearborn and Quincy, Root placed a corner tower (this location, and not at Jackson and Dearborn, was closest to the center of the downtown, i.e., it was the closest to the majority of people and therefore, perspective would make its image larger than if it was placed at Jackson) into the body that resembled his Cleveland Savings Fund Building. Some who knew of Root’s personal appreciation for the “finer things in life,” called into question the integrity behind his design, and frankly, the poor quality of this project only reinforced such suspicions. The Inter-Ocean was quite generous in describing Root’s rather unresolved body of the building as an architectural history lesson:
“Since the purpose of the W.C.T.U. is essentially Christian, a type of purely Christian architecture was deemed essential for the expression of its purpose in this building, but a Christian architecture of any one period was not thought necessary. Indeed, it seemed best that Christian architecture, in its comprehensive sense, should be used for the expression of the purposes so largely catholic as those avowed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. It is intended, therefore, that the completed building shall, in its lower stories, be of the earliest Romanesque type – a type growing into favor with the earliest growths of the Christian religion. Beginning with these primitive forms, the building, as it rises higher, will take on later forms; the early and simple Gothic; types of the early decorated forms; then middle decorated; then types more enriched; and finally, in the tower, the forms used are those which belonged to the last period of Gothic, or essentially Christian development in flamboyant traceries, etc.”
While his design incorporated numerous stylistic elements from past styles (a truly eclectic design!), it was constraint or control that was totally absent. Where was Root’s mind when he put this eclectic monstrosity to paper? Even the three visible corner towers each had their own language. It appears that he had rotated the body of the Cleveland bank so that the large tower, à la Balmoral Castle, was at the most public corner, and then topped off the whole confection with a mansard roof.
He hadn’t used a mansard roof with dormers since his equally poor entry for the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. I think Root was having a mid-career crisis. His creativity had simply expended itself in the design of twelve constructed (with many more stillborn) skyscrapers and numerous shorter office buildings (including the Burlington Building) in just five years. Twelve skyscrapers were two more than the combined number of skyscrapers designed by all of Chicago’s other architects (ten) by 1888! Beman ranked second in this category having designed three skyscrapers.
In the spring of 1888, Burnham & Root were completing the Rookery, the Phoenix, and the Rialto in Chicago, the Board of Trade, the Midland Hotel and the American National Bank in Kansas City, and just beginning construction on the San Francisco Chronicle and the Cleveland bank. In addition, they were in the process of moving their office from the Montauk Block to the top floor of the Rookery. Last, but not least, both partners were intimately involved in their plot to consolidate the W.A.A. and the A.I.A. I’ll simply say “burnout” and leave it at that. Fortunately for Root’s professional reputation, before contracts were let for the project, Marshall Field in July 1888 offered his hole in the ground at La Salle and Monroe that had defaced La Salle Street for over four years, as an alternative site with a lower annual lease. The W.C.T.U. Building Association jumped at the offer. Root would get a second chance to completely redesign the building later in the year. He would get it right this time. Saved by, of all things, Marshall Field’s “generosity.”
Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
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