John P. Gaynor, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1871. (Online)

One can only imagine what the original design with a line of bay windows attached to every bay would have looked like (one can get an idea by looking at the middle of the Madison elevation where two bays are back to back).  Edbrooke’s compromise had eliminated only four bays, two on each of the streets, of the original eleven. The final vertical programmatic section consisted of a ground floor of stores, the second floor, still deemed as valuable as the ground floor, had a higher ceiling than the repetitive office stories in floors three through twelve. The thirteenth floor, (or back then the fourteenth, as the number thirteen was typically superstitiously avoided) housed much of the equipment.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Detail of the curtain wall in the middle portion of the building, (Online)

As the Inter-Ocean had dubbed the Tacoma as a “new order of architecture [that] is evidently here, and coming to stay – iron and fireproofing,” I will start with the repetitive main portion of the elevation, and then discuss the building’s top and base. I believe that Fuller, who had to construct the building, had suggested that they use the Rookery’s technique of cantilevering a lintel off the face of the columns upon which the exterior’s face brick/terra cotta and window glazing could be supported.

Left: Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Courtyard wall detailing. (Thanks to Kevin Wilson at TGRWA, Nathaniel Parks at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Gunny Harboe for helping me to find this image!); Right: Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Exterior wall detailing. This drawing is inaccurate in how the masonry was constructed in relation to the window frame. (Freitag, Engineering)

The “design detailing” was similar, but the difference between how Root detailed his bay elevation and how Holabird & Roche designed the Tacoma’s is quite revealing. 

Root wanted to express the new idea of hanging the brick on the iron frame. He did this by first, locating the larger of the two continuous terra cotta bands immediately in front of the iron lintel that was cantilevered in front of the column face. The second continuous line of terra cotta, smaller because it didn’t represent the structural iron as did the lower band, was the window sill that terminated the spandrel panel that covered the ceiling/floor assembly. This detailing, however, was secondary to the primary detail of allowing the brick spandrel to run unbroken past the column.  To say this in a different way: because Root’s brick spandrels were dominant, they interrupted the vertical, i.e., structural continuity of the columns (that had always been continuous in past buildings), therefore, this brick was not structural, but merely a facing applied to the iron frame that stood behind the brick and glass curtain wall.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Madison Street elevation. (Drawing by Thomas Leslie, Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

Root’s elevation reads as a series of layers alternating between spandrels and then columns and windows. Holabird & Roche’s detail at the same location repeated the continuous horizontal expression of each floor, but did not have the same concern/idea to communicate the skeletal nature of the building’s structure as had Root’s. At first glance of the overall elevation, one is struck by the amount of glass and the “skeletal” look of the building.  It is when one zooms into the detailing around the windows, however, that we realize the difference between Root and Roche. Root has detailed a skeleton frame whose voids have been filled with windows. Roche has treated the zone between the continuous horizontal bands not as columns and windows with mullions, but as what still appears as a conventional brick wall with windows cut into it. This was a result of using brick not only to encase the iron columns, but also the intermediate mullions. The manner in which Roche continued this language around the bay windows only made it more difficult to articulate the “structural grid” in the facade.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Exterior masonry detailing. The black arrows point to the joint between the brick and the terra cotta window head. The white arrows point to how the terra cotta was inset to receive the window frame.

Roche didn’t “express” the exterior’s iron skeleton frame, consciously, or more likely unconsciously, but simply carried over the conventional brick wall language onto the Tacoma’s exterior.  Again, this is not apparent until you look up close at the windows.  The terra cotta window heads (the black arrows point to the joint between the brick and the terra cotta) were the same color as the brick. Therefore, from the street the terra cotta window heads blended with the brick, creating a wall-like surface, with little differentiation between the two materials. This left the area between the horizontal “beams” to be read not as a void of windows and mullions, as Root’s reads, but as a wall with windows cut into it. The brick spandrels without the terra cotta ornamental band only reinforced the “wall-like” nature of the elevation. These stories read not as a structural frame, but as a wall with minor horizontal lines of decorative trim.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Drawings of penultimate design (note: the balconies over the bay windows are missing). These show where the brick stops and the terra cotta banding, with the inset window heads, begin. (Bruegmann, Holabird & Roche)

Roche’s decision to detail the terra cotta window heads to read as flush with the columns and mullions blurred the reading of the elevation. To wit: rather than setting the projecting line of terra cotta at the top of the window, he raised it a distance of perhaps 12″. This was to be the lower edge for all of the terra cotta spandrel covers, that were to be detailed to fit within the space from the projection to the window sill. The backing for these panels was face brick, as is shown in Freitag’s detail. For whatever reason, (economics?), the ornamental bands were eliminated in floors 6, 7, 8, 10, and 12, leaving the face brick exposed in the spandrels, only confusing the reading of the elevation even more. In summary, while Roche’s elevation did express the reality of the repetitive nature of the horizontal floors, it did not express the skeletal nature of the frame behind the brick and glass. I believe Roche had no intention to do so, which, in and of itself is fine. But for historians to state that Roche expressed the building’s skeleton structure in its elevation is a simplistic misreading of Roche’s intent and detailing.

Holabird & Roche, The Tacoma Building. Detail plan of the bay windows and the lateral wall at the right.

When I study the plan dimensions of the exterior “masonry piers” that Roche has detailed (within each was contained a cast iron column) versus the width of the three-foot wide masonry lateral walls that he left exposed on the exterior, I come to the conclusion that, because he had detailed both of these with almost the exact same width, he was attempting to either hide the existence of the lateral walls or to standardize the dimensions in all vertical elements for constructional/economic efficiency. Truth be told, he had a hard problem to solve: should he express the difference between the width of the iron columns and that of the lateral walls (by making the piers with the iron columns smaller than the ends of the walls) or what he finally chose to do? (There might have been one other option: that is to stop the end of the lateral walls short of the exterior and cover it with a facing that had the same width as the smaller piers. Curiously, Roche had actually detailed the ends of the four walls at the ground floor with exactly this detail!)

In summary, upon close examination of Roche’s detailing of the exterior, the Tacoma Building does not merit the reputation of having expressed the building’s structural system, while Roche did, consciously or not, successfully express the building’s overall program of repetitive office floors.

I hinted at “unconsciously,” simply because a “new order of architecture” is a very hard thing, as Root and Sullivan told us, to invent, especially in what may have been the first attempt to do so. How does one design something that has never been done before? This is quite evident in Roche’s final elevation design in which he was faced with how to design an accumulation of twelve repetitive floors? We could consider the Tacoma’s exterior walls to have been the first “systems building,” if we ignore the cast iron fronts of the 1850. It was way too early in the history of the modern Chicago School, however, to assume that Roche would accept, let alone appreciate, the reality and design each of the floors in the same manner.  Tradition still demanded that he break the building’s composition into a number of horizontal layers, so as to reduce the vertical scale of such a tall building.  This he did with what appears as a rather random attempt to group the floors by the application of a heavy frieze (a less pronounced frieze fronted floors two through four) at floors five, nine, eleven, and thirteen.  I describe the overall effect as random as the rhythm that resulted from these cornices was Ground:3:4:2:2:Cornice; no discernable pattern is evident. (This is quite evident in the colored postcard below.)

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Period postcard showing purported colors of exterior. (Online)

The thirteenth floor was detailed as an open logia that rather successfully capped the tower.  While the geometry of the bay windows was carried into this floor, the bays were left open, creating what appeared to be balconies on top of each line of bay windows.   The reading of this floor as a cap was then reinforced first with a change in the fenestration from a pair of double-hung windows to an arcade of much smaller openings, upon which was placed an appropriately dimensioned sculpted terra cotta cornice.  The result was a very satisfactory overlapping of the vertical force of the bays and the horizontal capping of the top floor.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Detail of upper floors and cornice. (Condit, Chicago School)
Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Detail of Ground floor and Entrance. (preservationchicgo.org)

Meanwhile, the ground floor was detailed to be as open and transparent as possible with unusually large plate glass windows, taking advantage of the iron frame.  In essence, it was an anti-base: gone was the traditional solidity of a massive masonry wall or a stone colonnade, replaced by the transparent veil of the enclosing glass planes, above which the upper floors appeared to magically float.  Once again, we can point back to the Rookery for the precedent, this time in the glass walls that lined the two alley walls, that were also erected by George Fuller. In fact, this was the fourth building erected by Fuller that had used iron framing to open up the ground floor.  He had first used iron framing in the United Bank Building of 1881 and then again in the Chicago Opera Block of 1884.  So the Tacoma was not the first experiment of iron being used to open the ground floor, but the fourth in a series of buildings erected and/or designed by Fuller.

Holabird & Roche went to great extremes to pull most of the building’s columns just inside of the glass to be able to locate the glass up to the sidewalk.  The only masonry purposely exposed on the ground floor were the ends of the four lateral walls, the building’s two entrances, and the heavy corner pier (the result of seeing both faces of the pier in perspective) that was detailed as freestanding at the corner of the site.  

The ground floor plan was a model of efficiency: entrances on each street were located to the corner side of each of the interior lateral walls, with a corridor that led directly to a bank of four elevators. These were separated in the middle to provide an entrance to the spiral (the only) stairway in the building that was enclosed within a curved portion of each of the lateral masonry walls.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Ground floor: note that the end of the lateral walls at the sidewalk has been reduced to a minimum. (Buildings by George A. Fuller)

The iron framing also permitted the second floor to be as open and airy as the first.  Note that large plate glass windows were also placed here, as opposed to the double hung windows used above, revealing that the height of the second floor was greater than that of the floors above.   The Opera Block notwithstanding (and the Rookery’s were along the alley), never before in a Chicago building had the base of a building along its sidewalk been made so open that had to have been quite apparent in the evening, especially during the dark winter months, when the interior lights were on.  In fact, the entire building lit up at 4 P.M. in November through February, would have provided quite a startling prophesy of the International Style glass towers of the future. 

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Note the large plate glass windows in the second floor and the full size statue of Chief Tacoma at the Third Floor. (Online)
Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Alley elevation at dusk. (Author image)

The opposite, however, was also true: that is, the building’s two street walls faced south and west, the worst orientations from a solar heat gain perspective. This problem was ameliorated in the typical nineteenth century manner with awnings. No awning would ever have been placed on an International Style glass box: this was quite evident in Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture (1941), who went out of his way to find photographs of Chicago School buildings in the winter, when their awnings would have been removed to prevent snow and ice damage.

Holabird & Roche, The Tacoma Building (with awnings). (Online)

But of course, Chicago’s buildings of this period also varied from the future International Style in another important manner: ornament was a very important part of the design.  In addition to the ornament of the terra cotta cornice and sillcourses, the entries on each street also sported contemporary floriated ornament.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Details of ornamental terra cotta. Above: cornice. Note that in this drawing the balconies above the bay windows have not appeared; Below: Ground floor along Madison Street. (Bruegmann, Holabird & Roche)

The only other two exterior ornamental features were a flagstaff that graced the building’s corner in the top two floors, and the famous full-sized statue of Chief Tacoma that sat on its pedestal on the corner of the building at the third floor. (Bruegmann stated that Walker chose the name, Tacoma, as it was an Indian word that meant, “the highest.”  It also had a romantic association with both Mount Rainier, in Washington State, and earlier, with a lake in Maine, as both were commonly nicknamed, “Tacoma.”) 

Faced with having to utilize a new structural technique in the Tacoma’s exterior, Martin Roche had no thought of designing a “Chicago School” skyscraper. He did what he did best: he solved the problem as best he could and employed the current contemporary ornament to enrich the building. He did an excellent job in the face of a number of constructional and aesthetic unknowns. The Tacoma Building meets my two criteria of a “Chicago School” skyscraper: it displayed a non-historic ornament, and Roche’s design expressed the building’s function.


Bruegmann, Robert. The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.

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


Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Period postcard showing purported colors of exterior. (Online)

I have kept the architects for the last because I believe that they, of all the major players, had the least impact on the Tacoma’s final design. Walker had set the final configuration and height. Fuller/economics had determined the building’s overall detailing of the elevation in terms of the amount of glass and the bay windows. In fact, even Commissioner Edbrooke had more of an impact than the architects in that he had decided how many bay windows were constructed that directly affected the building’s final exterior appearance.

Therefore, the design role Holabird & Roche played in the exterior of the Tacoma appears to have been nothing more than decorators: placing architectural ornament on the frame to impart a hint of architectural respectability to what otherwise could have been called a “building.” I think this might also describe many of their later office buildings as well. Neither partner had any formal architectural education. Neither partner during their career made the time to write anything serious about their work from a theoretically point of view. They were also not very interested in polemics in their designs, in contrast to Root and Sullivan.  No theory or point of view in my mind means there no is no idea underpinning the design process.  Earlier I stated that a piece of architecture needs an idea (even if that idea is not to have an idea) in order to transcend “building.” To enlarge this argument, a piece of art must have an idea to transcend its craft into art.  This is the dividing line between what is art and what is craft.

This is not meant so much as a criticism of the work of Holabird & Roche as a statement of fact.  For Holabird and Roche, architecture was a very serious business, and they were very, very good at what they did.  They were “professional” architects, proficient at meeting a client’s needs and delivering a building on budget.  They typically chose a building’s style without any deep artistic meaning (to paraphrase Marshall Field, “give the client what he wants”), and that was just fine for their clients.  But they weren’t artists, as were Root and Sullivan, who had ideas about what their designs were and meant, beyond meeting the client’s program. I believe it was the great Louis Kahn that said: “An architect always has two problems to solve; the one given to him by the client, the second one being the one that the architect has set for him/herself to solve” (i.e., the idea).  Holabird and Roche were “one problem” architects.

William Holabird (1854-1923) was born in Amenia Union, NY.  He had spent the better part of two years at West Point focused on engineering, but left in 1875 before he graduated in order to marry Molly Augur. The newlyweds moved to Chicago where Holabird’s father was stationed as the chief of the Military Division of Missouri.  He was apparently hired by Jenney as a draftsman because of his brief engineering studies at West Point. Here the young Holabird received his architectural training and met his future partners, Ossian C. Simonds, and Martin Roche.  Simonds (1855-1931) was born in Grand Rapids, MI, and had studied engineering and architecture at the University of Michigan, having had Jenney as a professor.  In 1878 he was hired by his former professor, working primarily on the firm’s landscape projects. 

Bruegmann has traced the long-term success of the firm back to Simonds being assigned by Jenney to survey an expansion of Graceland Cemetery for its president, Bryan Lathrop. I introduced Lathrop in Vol. 3, Sec. 1.16 as the nephew of local real estate magnate Thomas Bryan (who had taken over William Ogden’s unofficial role as Chicago’s “First Citizen” as Ogden grew older), who had become one of the city’s more successful and wealthier men. Bryan had groomed his nephew, Lathrop, to be his protégé and under the tutelage of his uncle, Lathrop had quickly grown to be one of Chicago’s leading real estate managers, sharing in his uncle’s profitable investments, including life insurance, and in 1878 had succeeded his uncle as the President of Graceland cemetery. In the meantime, Lathrop had married Helen Lynde Aldis in 1875, whose younger brother, Owen, Lathrop had brought to Chicago, following the old “keep it in the family tradition,” and had then helped him “to set up shop.” Holabird & Roche’s future seemed secure through this connection with one so influential as Bryan Lathrop.

Lathrop appreciated Simonds’ talents and offered him, and not Jenney, the commission to design the expansion of the cemetery. The size of this commission allowed Simonds to convince Holabird to leave Jenney and form their own firm, Holabird & Simonds in 1880. The following year Lathrop named Simonds the superintendent of Graceland, which required an ever-increasing amount of his time, leaving less for the firm’s other jobs. The two partners also had realized that while they both had excellent engineering backgrounds, neither of them had much in the way of architectural design experience.  They went back to Jenney’s office and raided Martin Roche, his chief draftsman to expand the firm to Holabird, Simonds, & Roche in 1881. Holabird was the business partner while Roche designed and supervised construction.  

Roche (1853-1927) was born in Cleveland, OH, but his family had moved to Chicago two years later.  Little is known about his early training, other than he was hired at the age of seventeen by Jenney in 1872, to help with the post-fire rebuilding. He had become Jenney’s righthand man, quickly rising to being his chief draftsman. So he was the first of three to join Jenney, and the last to leave the Major.  In 1883, Simonds left the firm to work full-time for Lathrop at Graceland. My reading of what happened next is that having “stolen” Simonds from the two architects, Lathrop went out of his way to assist the new firm of Holabird & Roche by arranging for the firm to lease an office directly across from his in the recently occupied Root-designed Montauk Block.  This brought them into direct contact with Owen Aldis, the agent for the Brooks brothers, the owners of the building and who were then working with Burnham & Root on a number of planned projects.  Aldis first hired Holabird & Roche to design a small addition for a building at the intersection of Wabash and the river, probably because Burnham & Root were too busy for such a small project, and also as a chance to evaluate their potential for larger projects.  He then recommended them in October 1884 to the Brookses to commission a design for a six-story building at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Harrison, across Harrison from where the C. & W.I. station was originally planned to be built (see v.3, sec. 8.24). It was through this project that the two partners came into contact with George Fuller, already contracted to be the project’s builder.  It was during this period in 1886 that Wirt Walker had walked into their office with the Tacoma commission.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Madison Street elevation. (Drawing by Thomas Leslie, Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)


Bruegmann, Robert. The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.

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


John P. Gaynor, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1871. (Online)

One of the more curious revisions that apparently was slipped in under the radar to the 1872 post-fire building code (Chapter 11, Section 2) was that the dimension that bay windows above the second floor were allowed to extend beyond the property line was increased to three feet.  Why this issue was addressed in the new “fireproof ticket’s” building code is puzzling, to say the least.  It was a gift just waiting to be taken advantage of by a greedy real estate developer: three square feet spread over the width of the window, multiplied by the number of windows and by the number of floors, all at no cost to the owner. (For instance, the Tacoma contained 7 bays per floor with eleven floors equating to 77 bays of roughly 30 sq. ft. each, totaling some 2300 extra square feet of rentable area that generated an extra $4500 per year.)  Today, the difference between the definition of a bay and an oriel window is that a bay window sits at grade, while an oriel window is cantilevered from the exterior wall and does not extend to the ground.  This is an arcane argument that I will gloss over and simply will refer to all such projected windows simply as bay windows.

Burnham & Root, Calumet Club House, Chicago, NE corner of Michigan Ave. and 20th St., 1881. (Lowe, Chicago Interiors)

Of course, this type of window has a long history. In post-fire Chicago, a bay or an oriel window put on a house by an architect was a romantic conceit from the domestic Queen Anne style.  A window seat could be provided that would offer a more expanded view of the outside than a traditional window in the wall.  The bay window represented a symbol of domesticity, and as such, was often placed on the exterior of hotels for just this reason.

Louis Sullivan, Earliest surviving drawing for his exterior for The Auditorium. Drawn by Paul Lautrup, Sept. 26, 1886. Sullivan sprinkled bay windows over the first two of his exterior designs. (Siry, Auditorium)

An early maximum use of the bay window on a hotel was the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, designed in 1871 (therefore its design preceded Chicago’s 1871 fire) by John P. Gaynor, the architect of New York’s cast iron-fronted Haughwout Building in 1857. The Palace Hotel was built by William C. Ralston, president of the Bank of California, the largest financial institution in the west, to be the largest and most opulent hotel in the world, intended as a “bookend” for the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. 

John P. Gaynor, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1871. The Grand Court. (Lewis, Bonanza Inn)

It was specifically designed to be more opulent and expensive than its Eastern counterpart, the Palmer House ($5 million vs. $3.5 million). I have already discussed the Palace’s seven-story Grand Court (84′ wide by 144′ long; Chicago’s largest atrium, until the 20-story high Masonic Temple, was the 55’ x 75’ by six-story high atrium in the Burlington, designed ten years later!) that was far larger, especially in 1875 when it opened, than was any space in Chicago. The most important element of Gaynor’s design for this post, however, was the building’s exterior.  

John P. Gaynor, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1871. The gilded boltheads at the corner are visible. (Online)

All of the walls, exterior and interior were made as strong as possible in anticipation of an earthquake, using brick and a very strong, cement mortar.  The exterior walls were two feet thick and were “reinforced every four feet by double strips of iron (over 3000 tons of iron straps were used) bolted together, forming continuous bands from end to end.  The ends of the bolts were visible on the outer surface of the walls.”  The walls were painted a bright white and the exposed bolt-heads were gilded.  Gaynor had given every hotel room along the streetfronts a bay window in which the glass ran from floor to ceiling.  (This somewhat negated the advantage of an expanded view, because the only extra view one had from these bays, with the exception of those at the building’s corners, was that of the adjacent bay.) The result was an undulating white facade comprised of six-story continuous projections of horizontal floor structure and an infill of all glass.  The vertically-stacked bay window would be one of the key elements of a Chicago School skyscraper in the late 1880s, but it was used first here in San Francisco, at least 15 years before Chicago architects would begin experimenting with it, and twenty years before the Reliance Building, famous for the exact same detail, was constructed.  

Gaynor’s design of the Palace Hotel, in both its facade as well as its Grand Court, heralded what was to come in Chicago’s architecture, some ten years later.  It’s Grand Court and its crystalline bay windowed facades, let alone its existence, however, would be a well-kept secret for many years by Chicago’s architectural historians.

In trying to gain a better appreciation for the use of bay windows on the Tacoma, I spent over an hour yesterday reviewing each of my 237 past posts, looking for buildings that sported bay windows, in order to gain a history of this detail in prior Chicago buildings. I did not include inset oriel windows, such as those in the Rookery and the Studebaker, as they were not cantilevered beyond the face of the building. What I found was that the first such use, no surprise, was in Burnham & Root’s Brunswick Hotel in 1883.  Root had placed four-story bays at each corner of the Adams Street (across from the Pullman Building) facade.

Burnham & Root, Brunswick Hotel, Chicago, NW corner of Michigan and Adams, 1883. (Hoffmann, Root)

In 1884, John J. Flanders used the bay window for the first time to purposely increase the floor area in an office building the Mallers Building.  The small size of the lot (38’ x 60’) forced him to be the first to exploit the 1872 Code’s allowance for bay windows above the second floor. He placed one eight-story tall bay on each of the building’s two streetfronts.

John J. Flanders, Mallers Building, Chicago, 1884. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

Meanwhile, Root used the bay window for a completely different purpose in his next three skyscrapers: to house the main stairway that was cantilevered into the building’s lightcourt. This he used in the Rialto, the Insurance Exchange, and of course, the Rookery.  He would go to use his “signature” half-spiral stair in a number of later buildings (including the Midland Hotel and the Chicago Hotel).

Burnham & Root. Bay window containing stair in the lightcourt. Left: Midland Hotel. (Hoffmann, Meanings); Right: The Rookery. (Hoffmann, Root)

In 1885, Root “played” with the multistoried bay window in the Phoenix Building as a formal device. He extended a six-story bay window (its projection was minimal and therefore, not a rental-enhancing detail) over the building’s entrance. He then reprised the bay windows, albeit now only four stories tall at either end of the long Jackson Street façade, creating, in essence, corner pavilions. Then he inverted this scheme on the side elevations, a trick he had used before in corner buildings (see the Burlington and Counselman Buildings), by placing the bay window in the center bay of each of these elevations.

Burnham & Root, Phœnix Building, Chicago, SW corner of Jackson and Clark, 1885. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

He continued employing the central bay window to mark the entrance in each of his next four out-of-town designs, the three in Kansas City and the San Francisco Chronicle Building. Note that in none of these Root buildings was the bay window used to increase the rentable area, probably because the buildings were already sufficient in size.

Burnham & Root, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, 1887. (Online)

Interestingly, E. Townsend Mix had used multistoried bay windows in both of his two skyscrapers in the Twin Cities at the same time that Holabird & Roche were putting them on the Tacoma Building.

In what was another high stakes poker game (like the one he had played to get the adjacent site), Walker had his architects originally draw up the Tacoma with bay windows over every bay of both street fronts.  Betting that this radical proposal would be rejected during the permit review, his end game more than likely was that he would “compromise” with Commissioner Edbrooke with a design that alternated bays on every other bay that was to be the building’s final configuration. The original design immediately garnered the anticipated rebuke from the Inter-Ocean in October 1888:

“And why, pray… should this Tacoma Building shoot out such a crop of projecting bow-windows way over into both streets, Madison and La Salle?  Or, does it own the whole of both thoroughfares, that it thus reaches forth its by no means translucent and fleshless arms to impede the light of adjacent buildings and of the streets.  The same sort of thing – and it is an undisguisable outrage on the public generally as well as neighboring owners – has been condemned and stopped in the past, and the same course ought to be taken now.

Inter-Ocean: Let me ask you specifically about the Tacoma and its plans submitted to you.   Were they approved after due examination?

“Edbrooke: Yes, sir, and this was fuller than usual, owing to some delay over an external feature.  Yes, I refer to the bays, to which I know that some of the citizens have taken exception… The design as originally presented, showed a continuous line of bays, and to this I objected, as there was really no street wall at all, no plain surface, simply one bay right after another on supporting piers.  Judge Green, the corporation counsel, with whom I consulted, agreed with me that I had a right to insist that only every other section should be a bay, the alternate spaces being plain wall and Judge Green also agreed with me that I could not prevent the building of bays to this extent, nor does the construction differ from other Chicago buildings with bays – quite a number of them – except that the latter buildings are not as high as the Tacoma.”

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building, Chicago, NE corner of La Salle and Madison, 1888. (preservationchicgo.org)

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


Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Elevation of the exterior walls lining the lightwell. (Author’s image)

Just who deserves the credit for initially suggesting that the Rookery’s lightcourt’s detailing be used on the exterior of the Tacoma Building has never been resolved.  I tend to favor the building’s contractor, George Fuller, who, not so coincidentally, was the contractor of the Rookery.  The timing would seem to confirm my suspicions as it would have been very cost-effective for Fuller to simply move his now experienced crews from where they were wrapping up the job on the Rookery two blocks north to begin construction on the Tacoma.  

Root had modeled the Rookery’s courtyard from George Post’s pioneering use of iron framing in the lightcourts of New York’s Equitable Building (1867) and the New York Produce Exchange (1881).  Quite frankly, as I review the dates of George Fuller’s early career, it is plausible that he may also have played a role in transferring Post’s technology to Chicago. I have already shown that Root always kept abreast (and would continue throughout his short career) of the latest developments in New York construction.  For instance, before he moved to Chicago in 1872, he was practicing in New York during the construction of the Equitable Building. Meanwhile, Fuller was in New York erecting the Untied Bank Building during the same period Post’s Produce Exchange was under construction.  Historically, George Post should be recognized as the first American architect to employ the iron skeleton frame in the exterior of a tall building.  Root’s achievement was the first use of such technology in a Chicago building. (I repeat, and will continue to do so, throughout this blog, New York, and not Chicago, was the birthplace of the iron skeleton frame.) 

Sooner or later, some architect would be the first to put Root’s Rookery lightcourt’s iron frame and curtainwall on the outside of a building.  I have surmised that Root, himself, may have been the first to do so in the Midland Hotel in Kansas City.  The first confirmed application on the exterior appears to have been Holabird & Roche in the Tacoma Building.  For this reason, as the topic of what building was the first “skyscraper” became a subject of continuous debate among architectural historians in the 1920s, while many historians favored Jenney’s Home Insurance Building, other  early histories of Chicago’s architecture argued that this honor belonged to the Tacoma Building, Some historians who championed the Home Insurance Building, attempted to trace Holabird & Roche’s structural detailing back to the Home Insurance Building, if for no other reason than they believed that the two partners were employed in Jenney’s office during the design and construction of the Home Insurance Building.  Later research has proven not only that they both had left Jenney’s office prior to the commission for the Home Insurance Building, but also as I will review, their detailing followed not Jenney’s, but Root’s structure in the Rookery.  Jenney’s detailing had elicited little professional interest during its construction (as we have already seen, no one copied his details) and its conventional construction generated no public interest.  Quite the contrary happened once construction of the Tacoma began; police had to called to the northeast corner of La Salle and Madison to control the throng of “sidewalk gawkers.”

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Detail of cantilevered brick and tera cotta overlaid the lightcourt’s elevation. (Author’s image)

Root’s detailing in the Rookery was a logical first step toward the use of iron skeleton framing in skyscrapers (as was George Post’s in the Produce Exchange) because the Rookery’s massive masonry exterior walls would more than adequately brace the building against the city’s significant wind loads.  This meant that he did not have to impart a significant amount of lateral rigidity to the iron framing in the lightcourt.  We have already examined Bradford Gilbert’s solution to the wind loads in the thin sliver of the 11-story Tower Building in the diagonal bracing that he had detailed in each bay.    Trying to erect a much larger footprint, to a height even greater than eleven floors would pose a greater challenge, and one that demanded of its builders the ultimate level of respect for the nature of this challenge.  Only a fool would try to “do everything at once” in constructing a large 12-story building with an untested, experimental structural system.  And so, builders of the iron frame would slowly, and carefully, shed those heavy, rigid, masonry bearing walls, one wall at a time, as buildings grew taller and taller.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Martin Roche’s diary notes. Left: March 8, 1888: proposed double-loaded corridor scheme in masonry bearing wall; Right: March 23, 1888: Walker’s scheme to move masonry into the interior and line the exterior with all glass and terra cotta. (Bruegmann, Holabird & Roche)

Bruegmann’s research had uncovered Roche’s diary in which he jotted brief summaries of the day’s events. After Walker had stopped excavation upon having succeeded in buying the adjacent lot to the north and had sent Holabird & Roche literally back to the drawing board to design a larger building for the expanded site, Roche recorded in his diary on March 8, 1888, that elevator manufacturer William E. Hale had suggested that the planned building should consist of a conventional masonry bearing exterior with a double-loaded corridor plan that wrapped around the corner, leaving the northeast corner of the site open as a light court.  The architects, along with Fuller and their consulting engineers, Charles G. Wade and Corydon T. Purdy, had compared the cost of this scheme against that of a much thinner, Rookery-like iron frame and curtain wall exterior, calculating that the extra rental floor area gained with the thinner curtain wall would generate $4500 a year more that would quickly offset its $10,000 higher construction cost.  (We will hear about Purdy’s importance in later buildings. Corydon Tyler Purdy [1859-1944] was born in Grand Rapids, WI, studied Civil Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and after having worked for a number of bridge design and construction firms, moved to Chicago in 1888, forming a partnership with Charles G. Wade.)

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Above: Typical Floor Plan. Note the panoramic view that the corner office on each floor offered; Below: Ground Floor Plan. Note that the end of the lateral walls at the sidewalk has been reduced to a minimum. (Buildings by George A. Fuller)

Two weeks later, March 23, Roche recorded that Walker himself had approved this alternative, that is, the building’s final configuration should consist of two masonry u-shaped shafts aligned at a right angle to each other with the two exterior streetfronts made with the Rookery’s lightcourt detailing of iron framing that supported the glass and terra cotta exterior enclosure.  This scheme did not eliminate the heavy exterior masonry walls, it simply had rotated them 90° so they were perpendicular to the street.  In other words, his plan had not eliminated any of the conventional masonry, it had simply relocated it from the exterior to the interior.  In essence, this plan had simply turned the Rookery inside out.  Walker, meanwhile, had added another floor to the ever-growing project, making it 13 stories tall, (probably as a response to Minneapolis’ Northwest Guaranty Building and Owing’s proposal to build his 13-story tower).

The increase in height demanded added caution with regards to the building’s ability to resist the increased wind loads because wind loads increase exponentially and not just linearly in relation to height. Not only does the amount of wind increase with the extra surface, but also the point at which the accumulated windload is applied, the length of the lever arm, grows farther from the ground, twice increasing the rotational force the building has to resist. I have used some basic numbers to illustrate the effect of increasing the height of a building below:

Fuller recommended that rivets be used wherever possible to connect the cast iron columns with the wrought iron and steel beams for speed of construction as well as for the extra rigidity to be gained in the connections. The wind-resisting structure was conceived, therefore, as a hybrid system that reinforced the riveted iron frame with the massive lateral masonry walls. One thing to remember, however, is that while Walker’s idea had opened up the exterior for a maximum of glass, it had not removed any of the heavy masonry. While this was good for the wind loads, Holabird & Roche would still have to design a foundation for a building that was going to be three floors higher (heavier) than the traditional soil strength limit of ten floors. Fuller responded with a relatively new technique.  Soil borings had indicated the presence of a number of pockets of soft clay or water within the bearing strata.  These were replaced with concrete that was pumped under pressure into these locations.  (Despite these precautions, when the building was demolished in 1929, the building was found to be leaning 11 ¾” to the east.

Conceptually, the architects and engineers had turned the Rookery inside out.  Nevertheless, for the first time, the iron frame was to be seen on the streets of Chicago (for the construction of the Rookery’s lightcourt had been hidden from the public by its massive masonry exterior), and the Inter-Ocean immediately had appreciated the revolutionary nature of the Tacoma’s exterior cladding: “its skeleton as it were – fireproofing tile will be used with such completeness that not a vestige of iron will be seen anywhere.  A new order of architecture [my emphasis] is evidently here, and coming to stay – iron and fireproofing.”  As early as 1888, the reporter from the Inter-Ocean had identified the Chicago School language.

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building. Note the large plate glass windows in the second floor and the full size statue of Chief Tacoma at the Third Floor. (Online)

The Tacoma Building was not just “a new order of architecture,” but was also revolutionary in its construction process.  So much so that a company of policemen had to be assigned to the construction site for crowd control, as people were flocking to the site to see for themselves what rumor had called “floating brick.”  Floating brick was a result of Fuller’s realization that as the masonry curtain wall was no longer a continuous brick wall from the ground up, but a series of brick partitions that were constructed on the iron frame. Therefore, it would be faster and less expensive, that if instead of having his bricklaying crew start the brick exterior at the ground and proceed upwards, he had three separate teams that would start laying brick at three different floors at the same time. In order for this to proceed, Fuller had to have erected all thirteen stories of iron framing around the building’s exterior perimeter, in conjunction with the four masonry bearing walls, before letting his three crews of masons start placing the exterior’s brick and terra cotta. By all rights, this should have been the first time this was done in Chicago, if not the country, (i.e., the entire iron frame erected on a building’s exterior before it was clothed) and would have added to the public’s perception of the radical nature of this building.

 In fact, as we will examine in the next section, Holabird & Roche had taken advantage of this system to completely open up the ground floor: there was only glass and what little metal needed to frame it along the sidewalk. The result of these decisions was that the three crews were laying brick on three different upper floors (second, sixth, and tenth) that had no contact with the ground, hence, to eyes that had become accustomed to seeing brick walls grow from the ground up, the brick in the upper floors did, indeed, appear to “float.” 

Not everybody was convinced, however, that such a radical departure from conventional construction would generate a safe building.  So much concern was raised, in fact, that the Inter-Ocean took the unusual step of interviewing Building Commissioner W. J. Edbrooke about concerns that people had raised about the Tacoma’s overall strength:

“Reporter: On the score of strength and height you made no objections?

“Edbrooke: No, none whatever.  The inside and alley walls – or the principal supports – are very heavy and very strong.  Then the foundation, the shape of the building on the ground makes it self-supporting to a great extent, while the floors are essentially iron and steel.  The floors are so braced laterally as to make the structure simply a tower of iron… Every connecting part is riveted and bolted and braced together in a manner unknown in mere masonry.  While externally it looks to be all brick and terra cotta, all this is in reality mere sheathing of an iron tower.  Inside, every steel pier, between the windows, are massed, vertically and horizontally, these iron and steel supporters, braced and riveted together in all directions… Certainly there can be nothing stronger than such an iron constructed building.”

Holabird & Roche, The Tacoma Building. Photograph of demolition taken on May 29, 1929, showing the iron framing and masonry bearing walls. (Bruegmann, Holabird & Roche)


Bruegmann, Robert. The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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


Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building, Chicago, NE corner of La Salle and Madison, 1888. Note that the Tacoma sculpture at the third floor corner has been removed. (preservationchicgo.org)

The opening of the new, post-fire City Hall caused a renewal of demand for office space in close proximity to this reinvigorated center of municipal power.  One of these sites was the old, post-fire Chamber of Commerce building, on the southeast corner of La Salle and Washington, and another site was immediately to the south, at the northeast La Salle and Madison.  The architects of the buildings to be erected on both these sites would push the iron frame to the next logical step in its development: finally, Chicago’s architects began to use the iron skeleton frame in the exterior of skyscrapers, during the same period that Buffington was submitting his patent application.

Cochrane and Miller, Post-fire Chamber of Commerce Building, Chicago, SE corner of La Salle and Washington. The Tacoma site is to the far right. (The Landowner, February 1872; Chicagology.com)

Wirt D. Walker had initially managed to purchase the existing eight-story building at the northeast corner of La Salle and Madison that had 101’ 6” frontage on Madison, but only a 25’ depth along La Salle.  Walker was the scion of the late James M. Walker, former president of the Union Stockyards as well as the CB&Q Railroad, among other powerful positions. He had assisted another of the city’s young scions, Ferdinand Peck, in financing the Auditorium, and was now moving into real estate investment on his own.  The contrast between attorney Walker and “hustler” Francis Owings, as well as between the appearance of their respective buildings each erected during the same period was as stark as that between day and night.  

(I have used Robert Bruegmann’s excellent monograph on Holabird & Roche for much of the information on the pre-construction phase of the Tacoma.) Walker wanted to erect a larger building but was prevented by the owner of the lot on La Salle immediately to the north of Walker’s lot who knew of his plans and was holding out for a higher price than what Walker wanted to pay.  Walker was the younger brother of John Root’s late wife Minnie Walker when the two had married in 1879, although she had lived for only another six weeks after the wedding.  Therefore, it is curious that Walker did not hire Burnham & Root to remodel the existing building.  (The relatively small size of this project may have been the reason for not bothering Root.)  Instead, he returned to the small firm of William Holabird and Martin Roche (see Section 3.4 below), whom he had recently hired to design a six-story loft building at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Harrison.  In late 1885, he had queried a number of firms, including Holabird & Roche, for ideas of how to improve his existing building at the northeast corner of La Salle and Madison.  

Bradford Gilbert, Tower Building, 1888. Right: Diagram of diagonal bracing. (Landau/Condit, New York)

He chose their proposal to replace the existing building’s exterior masonry walls with iron framing  (similar in concept to Gilbert’s contemporary Tower Building in New York) that supported a new brick and terra cotta curtain wall à la the Rookery, in order to free up more rental floor area per floor.  There have been a number of speculations on who had first suggested using a system similar to that then being erected in the Rookery.  A firm employee’s recollections late in life had identified Chicago Terra Cotta owner Sanford Loring as having made the recommendation. I, however, favor George Fuller, who at this moment was building the Rookery with just such a system. Holabird & Roche were already involved with Fuller by this date for a project for Peter C. Brooks slated to be erected on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Harrison (the site on which the Pontiac Building would be built).

Walker did not, however, find the economics of the design to be profitable, and followed up with a demand for a new 12-story building.  During 1887 they explored a variety of structural solutions until in January 1888 they had arrived at a design that placed a three-foot thick bearing wall on the north and east edge of the site, up against the property line of the stubborn neighbor.  For the same reason that Gilbert had resorted to iron framing in the Tower Building, at about this same moment, they proposed that the south-facing Madison front “be constructed of wrought iron and steel, terra cotta, and glass,” again similar to Root’s detailing in the Rookery’s lightcourt.  

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Elevation of the exterior walls lining the lightwell. (Author’s image)

Walker approved and gave the go-ahead to start construction.  Following the demolition of the existing building, excavation on the foundation began, when unexpectedly Walker stopped all construction.  His ruse had worked.  Walker had played a game of high-stakes poker with the “hold-out” neighbor and won.  Apparently, Walker had to start construction to call their bluff, for he caught even the architects off-guard.  Walker got the lot for $200,000 and told Holabird & Roche to go back to their boards once again and design a new building for the expanded lot.


Bruegmann, Robert. The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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


I laid out the essential characteristics of my definition of the Chicago School “style/movement” in the first chapter to be able to reference these as I move into the buildings of 1888-91.  By no means did all of Chicago’s architects pursue this aesthetic as we will examine, in fact, even the ones who did could not just flick a switch and were able to design such buildings. Both Root and Sullivan continually stated that a new, “American style” could not be invented overnight, if ever… But if it did happen, it would be a slow, tedious experimentation with ideas, materials, and details, that might evolve such a style, citing the organic/natural metaphor of growth that the European modern theorists had used to describe how such a style, as any true style had before, would evolve. And don’t forget that just as it was in France and Britain, there were two sides of la querelle des anciens et des modernes, in Chicago that included not only architects, but owners and critics as well.

Cobb & Frost, Ownings Building, Chicago, SE corner of Adams and Dearborn, 1888. Looking from the Post Office Square, down Adams: the Exposition Center’s dome is at the end of the vista. (Chicagology.com)


It would seem almost preordained, therefore, that the first new office building constructed in this post-Haymarket It would seem almost preordained that the first new office building constructed in this post-Haymarket period would be at the intersection of Adams and Dearborn. Francis P. Owings, a developer whose reputation could be described either as a flamboyant showman or a shady boodler, depending upon one’s personal outlook on life (either way, he eventually ended up declaring a $5 million bankruptcy that was purported to be “the largest schedule of liabilities ever presented for discharge under the National Bankruptcy Act”), shrewdly had purchased the southeast corner of Dearborn and Adams at the northeast corner of the Post Office Square, a site that offered an unobstructed view of the building, as well as from the building, he was planning to erect.

Owings’ planned building was a good example of the current competition between the Twin Cities and Chicago.    As a pure publicity stunt, he had held a design competition to determine the architect for his planned building. All designs were to have “certain picturesque features” in order to impart a unique visual image to the building that would hopefully generate more than the usual attention (and profit) such a building at the time normally would merit. As opposed to the “frugal” Brookses who would not pay for an unusable roof for their office buildings, Owings had challenged the city’s architects to give his tower a unique silhouette that would truly make his building standout within the city’s skyline.  In other words, he had no interest in architectural theory, he wanted a traditional design with as much flair that still looked reasonably tasteful. (Here I will once again invoke the contemporary French term, parvenu, to describe Owings’ artistic taste and appreciation, as I had in describing Potter Palmer’s association with “good taste” with copious ornament in Cobb & Frost’s “castle” for Palmer and his wife Bertha. See v.3, sec. 3.8.)

Cobb & Frost, Chicago Opera House Block, 1884. (Condit, Chicago)

 Cobb & Frost, who had designed the “Commercial Romanesque” 10-story Chicago Opera Block some four years earlier, won the commission as their submission was judged “as best combining with the convenience of an office building that strong individuality which the owner desired.”  The Owings Building was originally announced on March 10, 1888, to be twelve stories (compare its height to the twenty-eight stories of Buffington’s recently announced “Cloudscraper”).  The next week it was increased to thirteen stories, an apparent response to the announcement that St. Paul was going to build Beman’s twelve-story Pioneer Press Building.  Minneapolis entered the race in May by announcing the thirteen-story Northwestern Guarantee Loan (Metropolitan) Building, designed by E. T. Mix.  The Owings Building was then increased to fourteen floors that ended the argument once and for all.  Although it had a relatively small footprint (75’ on Dearborn, 50’ on Adams), when it was completed, the Owings Building became, momentarily, the tallest (number of floors) office building in the U.S.   

Cobb & Frost, Ownings, Building, Chicago, 1888. Looking south down Dearborn. The one-story building following the two taller buildings was to be the site for the W.C.T.U. Temple, but eventually the Great Northern Hotel would be built on it. (Gilbert, Chicago and its Makers)

Cobb & Frost’s design of the building’s exterior was definitely romantic or picturesque per the owner’s requirement. Stylistically, it could be called, if one wished to be kind, at best, eclectic.  Eccentric, however, might be a more accurate description in that the building sported a fashionable corner curved bay window that was topped with a tourelle capped with a copper conical roof.  This was uncomfortably framed by gable roofs of red clay tiles on both street fronts, whose ridges, unfortunately and awkwardly (especially when viewed from the northwest), were not at the same elevation.  The architects were forced into this solution by wanting to keep the angle of the two gables the same, but as the Dearborn elevation was 25’ wider than the Adams front, its gable extended to the top of the fourteenth floor, while that of the narrower Adams side stopped at the thirteenth floor.  The awkward intersection of these two gables at the building’s corner was somewhat masked by the corner turret with its conical spire, that was commonly referred to as its “Nuremberg Clock Tower.”  In defense of Cobb & Frost, however, in its review of the building, the Tribune reported that the architects were not “altogether responsible for the appearance of the tall slender structure with its animated top.”

Cobb & Frost, Ownings, Building. Roof from the northwest. Note the geometric finesse of the designer: the lower eave of both gables begins at the eleventh floor, while the other gable intersects the corner bay at the same, thirteenth floor. This was accomplished while keeping the same angle in both gables. Because the Dearborn façade (right) was longer than the Adams front (left), the ridges of the two gables did not meet. This irresolution was hidden by perspective. (Gilbert, Chicago and its Makers)

There are good examples of eclectic (Hunt’s Vanderbilt mansion) and there are examples of buildings that merely have details from a variety of periods thrown rather unresolved over a building’s exterior, that are also so labeled “eclectic.”  The Owings Building’s elevations revealed it to be of the latter category.  A Romanesque arch, à la Richardson and Root, was topped with a Gothic pointed gable (that surprisingly did not have the same angle as the two gables at the roof) including the requisite crockets, within which was located a glorious terra cotta tympanum sculpture employing a writhing Moresque organic pattern.

Cobb & Frost, Ownings Building. Entrance. (Wolner, Cobb)

I think we need to go back a minute and remember that this building was projected to be fourteen stories tall… We are still dealing with Chicago’s poor soil that could support a ten-story building without suffering excessive settlement. Cobb & Frost tried to use the same solution that Boyington had tried under the Board of Trade: a raft foundation under the entire building. They first detailed a two-foot thick concrete slab, reinforced with railroad rails throughout. They then, surprisingly, still placed stone cut pyramid foundations on top of the raft from which they then started construction of the building’s structure. The building’s exterior structure apparently was still masonry bearing walls, the first three floors being of a rock-cut gray granite that had a maximum thickness of 36,” while the upper floors were made with a roman brick of a matching color.   Its color and the repetitive window alignments, however, were the only elements that gave the exterior any aesthetic cohesion.  Two heavy cornices broke it into three, unrelated layers. The three-storied rock-cut base was topped with a four-storied layer of plain brick walls with punched windows that was articulated with shallow pilasters. This was topped by the third “layer,” using the term loosely: a two-story layer sans pilasters that was even plainer than the layer below it, was followed with three floors of the same window rhythm articulated with even thinner projected lines than the pilasters below that imparted a grid-like appearance.  It was into this layer that the gable on each street front was extended asymmetrically until it stopped at the eleventh floor. (This was detailed the same on both elevations which was a neat geometric trick!) The other end of the gable, on both sides, began from the thirteenth floor at the corner bay and met the other eave above the fourteenth floor (or the thirteenth floor on the Adams front). The Dearborn triangular gable front was given a voussoir rounded arch, recapitulating the arch at the entry. Unfortunately, the rather clever geometric design of the gable was overshadowed by the pedestrian inclusion of what appeared to be the building’s chimney, given a totally alien profile, undoubtedly an attempt to balance the thrust of the corner bay’s spire.

Cobb & Frost, Ownings Building. Detailing in the upper portion of the building. (Chicagology.com)

Its interior structure exhibited the construction evolution that had continued outside of Chicago during the aftermath of the Haymarket bombing: while the building’s interior columns were cast iron, the architects had used steel beams throughout the structure’s fourteen floors.  The building’s pioneering height made the architects take the unusual precaution of encircling the entire building with “heavy steel girders” at the third and seventh floors hoping that this would increase the building’s resistance to wind forces.


Wolner, Edward W. Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

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


Map of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad, 1891. (Online)

The event that finally brought confidence and investment back to downtown Chicago was the arrival of the Atkinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railroad. This was not an act of inconsequential significance, for the railroad would spend over $13 million on Chicago real estate and construction.  The Santa Fe was originally built to link Kansas City (Atchinson) to Santa Fe, NM, following the old Santa Fe Trail, that traders had used since 1821 to link Mexico’s northern territory to the Missouri River (and then onto St. Louis). This portion had been completed to the Colorado state line by 1872 and the road had continued to expand southwestward to connect with ports on the Pacific coast. In 1886, then company president William Barstow Strong, decided to expand the line eastward to make its own route into Chicago, that when completed had made the Santa Fe the longest road in the U.S. (and meant that the British, who had provided the bulk of the financing, had completed a route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, via the British funded Grand Trunk, that no longer relied on any American-controlled roads).

The company had been very successful in keeping its expansion plans secret as it assembled the land it needed for its new rail yards.  As property around 20th and State Street continued to be bought by a number of relatively unknown personalities during the spring of 1887, speculation mounted in the real estate and construction press as to identification of the ultimate buyer and their plans.  Finally, on June 9, 1887, the Inter-Ocean announced that it was, indeed, the Atkinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe that was buying the property as part of its expansion into the Chicago market.  Chicago was to have a second direct transcontinental railroad route to the Pacific.  

LeRoy S. Buffington, 28-story Cloudscraper, Minneapolis, 1888. (Inland Architect, July 1888)

In fact, it wasn’t until the Santa Fe completed the construction of its tracks to Chicago in 1888 and daily passenger service had begun on April 29, that speculative office construction returned to Chicago. The buildings erected in Chicago during this second boom would be of unprecedented height, for during the two-year lull in Chicago office construction, the detailing needed to employ the iron skeleton frame in skyscraper construction had been ironed out in cities other than Chicago.  In March 1888, the building industry was shocked by Buffington’s proposal to build his twenty-eight-story “Cloudscraper,” employing his soon-to-be patented system of iron framing. 

Bradford Gilbert, Tower Building, 1888. Note the five-story continuous piers in the arcade at the middle of the façade; Right: Diagram of diagonal bracing. (Landau/Condit, New York)

And then the following month, Bradford Gilbert had received a building permit to use only iron framing to support his 11-story Tower Building in New York.  All Chicago architects needed to do from this point was to fully resolve all the problems that these pioneering structures had run into, in order to be able to actually construct what Buffington had been the first to propose, a twenty-plus story, iron framed skyscraper.

Buffington’s proposal had only poured salt into the wounds that Chicago’s collective ego had recently sustained with the completion of Minneapolis’ recent skyscrapers.  The announcement that followed almost immediately after the published report of Buffington’s project, that both Minneapolis and St. Paul would be constructing 13-story buildings was apparently the last straw that produced an intense rivalry that challenged Chicago to regain its momentum with the skyscraper.  But there first had to be a demand for such buildings in Chicago, which meant that someone or something would have to revive Chicago’s stagnant real estate market, and that spark would be the massive financial investment made by the Santa Fe.  

Map of the Grand Trunk Railroad’s new track to Chicago, 1879-80. (Online)

As the Santa Fe was heavily financed by British capital, as had been the Grand Trunk Railroad, (Baring Brothers: see v. 3, sec. 1.14) it logically joined forces with the Dearborn Street interests. Its arrival at the C. & W. I. Station marked the beginning of the resurrection of the development plans for Dearborn Street that had been shelved in late 1885.   

As the new Board of Trade and LaSalle Street had been the center of the earlier boom during 1881-1885, Dearborn Street, especially adjacent to the Post Office Square, where the post-fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House had finally been completed, would be the center for this second construction boom.  The Inter-Ocean quoted the Post Office Square as “the new office building quarter, and is particularly suited to the purpose because of the wide ground about the Government Building opposite, insuring plenty of light.” 

William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

As William Potter’s design of the new Federal Building did not extend between lotlines but was a building whose width was less than the site so that it “looked” like an important, institutional building placed on a common green, the Post Office Square was now the only open space in the entire southern portion of downtown. This square, that already enjoyed the presence of Boyington’s grande dame Grand Pacific Hotel, Jenney’s Union League Club, and Burnham & Root’s Phoenix Building at its southwest corner, would see the erection of some of Chicago’s finest buildings in the coming three years.

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


U.S. Post Office and Custom House Square, c.1889. The Post Office is in the right, center, immediately to its left is Jenney’s Union Club with its domed turret), and to the left of it is the Phoenix Building, just to the right of the Board of Trade’S tower. The Rookery is just above the Post Office, with Burnham and Root’s office on the top floor, in the southeast corner, closest to the viewer. Note that construction on the Monadnock Block, nor its sister, the Chicago Hotel, has not yet started. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

The urban pattern of Chicago’s business district (I am now going to refer to it as downtown as “The Loop” didn’t come into fashion until the mid-1890’s) had undergone significant changes from its post-fire rebuilding during the period 1880-86.


James J. Egan, Post-Fire City Hall and Cook County Courthouse, 1878-85. (Online)

1. The City Hall had moved in 1885 from its post-fire “temporary” building that had been erected around the surviving water reservoir at the southeast corner of La Salle and Adams back to its new building on its pre-fire location on the Courthouse Square. One drawback of the new design was that it took up the entire, square, removing the green, open space that the Square used to offer. 

The only remaining open space on the “north side” of downtown was Dearborn Park, across Michigan Avenue from Lake Park. Meanwhile, the offices and businesses that had sprung up on the south side around the temporary City Hall, for the most part, chose to remain where they were, farther from the pollution and congestion of the Main Branch. The result was that there were now two centers of “urban business”: the original, older section of the downtown closer to the riverbank, centered around the City Hall, and the much newer section centered around the new Board of Trade that opened in May 1885. These buildings were primarily located along the first two blocks of La Salle north of the Board’s building.  This new “Wall Street” included the new Insurance Exchange, the Home Insurance Building, and the city’s largest office building, The Rookery, erected on the site of the old temporary City Hall, on the southeast corner of La Salle and Adams.  Burnham & Root moved its office to the southeast corner of the top floor, overlooking the lake.

Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking north. At the left is the Insurance Exchange; opposite is the Rookery, with the Home Insurance on the other side of Adams. (Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890)
Left: Burnham and Root in the Library. (Online); Right: Plan of the office of Burnham & Root. The left arrow points to the view of the drafting room, the right arrow is the library view. (Hoffmann, Root)

2. The construction of the Auditorium had extended the southern edge of the downtown by two blocks, from Jackson to Congress.  This opened up new real estate for development, and pulled the centroid of the downtown even farther south than had the move of the Board of Trade.

The Auditorium. (khanacademy.org)
View down Adams Street from the Bridge over the South branch to the dome of the Exposition Building. The Farwell Wholesale store is across the river at the left center. The site for the Walker Warehouse on the opposite side of Adams and immediately to the right of the bridge has just been cleared. (Andreas-vol. III)

3. One of the results of this continued southward extension of the district was the emergence of Adams Street as the southern east-west corridor.  (Some historians credit the horsecar line along Adams for this occurrence. While its presence surely added to the attractiveness of property along Adams, the fact was that every other east-west street in the downtown by 1888 had such a line, i.e., Madison to the north and Van Buren to the south.)

Public Transit Lines in 1890. The black lines are cable car lines, and the gray lines are horse car lines. Note that east/west horse car lines were located every two blocks: Lake, Randolph, Madison, Adams, Van Buren, and Harrison. (The Encyclopedia of Chicago)

While the bookends of the corridor, Union Station on the west bank of the river and the Exposition Center on the lakefront, were post-fire stalwarts, the last ten years had seen Adams Street filled in block by block until it sported most of the city’s better examples of architecture. Pullman’s Building sat across Michigan Avenue from the Exposition center. Three new wholesale buildings, Farwell’s, Walker’s, and Field’s, anchored the new wholesale district opposite the river from Union Station. 

Reconstruction of Adams Street Looking East from Franklin, Left side, Burlington Building, Right side, in order, Field Wholesale Store, Rand McNally Building (1889), Insurance Exchange, The Rookery, with the Home Insurance Building across Adams. Cobb & Frost’s Owings Building (turret in back of the Rookery) is three years in the future. (Digital image by David Burwinkel)
Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking north. At the right is the Insurance Exchange; opposite is the Rookery, with the Home Insurance on the other side of Adams at the far left. (Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890)

At La Salle Street, the new Rookery anchored Chicago’s “Wall Street.” In the middle of the corridor now sat the U.S. Post Office Square, containing the only open green space within the entire southern half of downtown.

William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

4. The eastern edge of the Post Office Square was the recently constructed and paved portion of Dearborn that finally extended south to the Dearborn Street (C.& W.I.) Station, located so far back at Polk Street that, for all practical purposes, it seemed as if it sat at the Indiana border.  

View looking south down Dearborn Street from the Post Office Square (right) to the Dearborn Street Station. The Monadnock Block is at the right, and the curved bay windows of the Northern Hotel are at the left side. Note at the far right that the Post Office has been replaced with Henry Cobb’s Federal Building of 1896. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

As I reviewed in vol. 3, sec 6.5, the C. & W.I. Railroad had been forced to build this far south by those in City Hall who were connected with La Salle Street.  Although Boston’s Brooks brothers had planned to continue their development of Dearborn farther south after the completion of the Montauk Block, their plan to build the Monadnock Block in 1884 at the southwest corner of Jackson had been stymied by the city’s inaction on the extension of Dearborn.  During the past four years, Root had designed and redesigned the building so many times that I am sure he must have had nightmares over it.  Things in Chicago, however, were finally, after over two years of stagnation, about to change…

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block, Chicago, 1884. Preliminary study of the Jackson Street elevation (12 stories plus basement). It still bears the original name for the building, Quamquisset. Root is slowly come to grips with verticality: here he has incorporated 7-story continuous piers. (Saliga, The Sky’s the Limit)

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


McKim, Mead, & White, Boston Public Library, 1887. (Online)

Precisely at this moment, however, Eastern American architects had also consciously diverged from the American omnipresent Romanesque Revival (Richardson had died on April 27, 1886, only a week before the Haymarket Square bombing, a very eventful week for Chicago’ architecture, indeed!). However, rather than looking to the problem for the solution, these architects chose to repurpose (positive)/ imitate (negative) the Classical architecture from the past. The best example of this sea change in Eastern architectural style was the new Boston Public Library designed in 1887 by McKim, Mead, and White, that poignantly sat facing the great Richardson’s Trinity Church. I will (need to) discuss the reasons for this change of style in depth prior to discussing the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition and will do so in Chapter 8.  For now, it must  suffice to state that as Chicago’s architects, led by Burnham and Root, had diverged from their East Coast contemporaries in terms of professional practice with the formation of the W.A.A. in November 1884, it should not surprise us that they would also take their own architectural path into the future.  These divergent paths will converge in January 1891…

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


As I first did in V.3 Sec. 4.9, let me recapitulate a number of different approaches to a “modern” skyscraper design that the Chicago School employed, that all fit within my definition:

Louis H. Sullivan, Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store (Carson, Pirie, Scott. (Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture)

1. Express the building’s structure, be it a bearing wall or a grid of columns and beams.

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple, Chicago, northeast corner of State and Randolph, 1890. (Hoffmann, Root)

2. Express the building’s reliance on the columns. The columns were the dominant structural element (lose a beam, you lose a floor; lose a column, you lose everything supported above it). This was accomplished by recessing the spandrels in relation to the front of the columns so the columns were continuous from the ground.

Burnham & Root, Great Northern Hotel, Chicago, northeast corner of Dearborn and Jackson, 1890. (Hoffmann, Root)

3. Express the fact that the skyscraper was simply a large, rectangular volume of space. The exterior was no longer structural, but merely a uniform skin/veil/curtain that enclosed the interior space, therefore, the facade should be detailed so that it would be read as one continuous surface or enclosure of the interior volume (as if it was wrapped in cellophane). This skin could be all brick with glass windows or entirely made with only plates of glass.  In either instance, the visual result would be a continuous material of uniform thickness applied to the exterior of the building’s structure.

These first three methods are “honest” expressions of the building’s “constructional” function.  One could also choose to express the “building’s program’s” functions:

Holabird and Roche, The Tacoma Building, Chicago, northeast corner of La Salle and Madison, 1889. (Online)

4. Express the fact that the skyscraper was an accumulation of identical floors, stacked one on top of the next.  Therefore, the facade should consist of a repetition of horizontals, alternating between the spandrel beams of each floor, and the glass infill between these.  This concept would only be possible using the iron frame, by cantilevering the floors beyond the face of the columns, allowing the horizontal lines of each floor to be the dominant elevational element. 

Adler & Sullivan, Chicago Stock Exchange, Chicago, 1893. (Online)

5. If there were different types of uses contained with the building, i.e., rental floors, commercial floors, office space, residential space, public floors (restaurant or observatory), and mechanical floor, one could easily differentiate each function within the design of the elevation by giving it its own, distinctive elevational/window treatment and/or floor height.

Or an architect could see his/her problem as the creation of a building whose function was to be architecturally artistic or meaningful.

Adler & Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1891. (Online)

6. The best example of this idea, in my opinion was Sullivan’s Wainwright Building.  Sullivan thought that the skyscraper’s proportions were overwhelmingly vertical, so why not reinforce the skyscraper’s overall massing by accentuating its verticality through emphasizing the continuity of its columns. The skyscraper’s function was to soar, as he stated in his 1896 essay, “The Tall Building Artistically Considered:”

“What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building?  And at once we answer, it is lofty…  It must be tall, every inch of it tall… It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.

So inspired, he detailed his first towers with repetitive vertical elements that gave their exteriors a “soaring” expression such as his design for the Wainwright Building.  This was not an “honest” solution because every other “column” in its façade is not a structural column but a mechanical run, even though they are detailed to look the same. The word “express” in architecture has an artistic or poetic side that allows for the architect to blur the literal meaning of the word “express” in the employment of his/her “artistic license,” such as Sullivan was prone to do.  For Sullivan, this building’s “function” was to soar, which he expressed in his designs. Therefore, having expressed the building’s function, Sullivan’s designs do qualify to be called Chicago School.

What was slowly evolving, (that is the precise meaning of the word, isn’t it?) initially, in Chicago by July 1888 was an approach to the design of skyscrapers that did not imitate traditional architectural design parameters/styles/details, but synthesized the functional, logical and/or lyrical determinates of a given architectural problem into a new architectural aesthetic that also sported a corresponding new ornamental language. In a number of public talks, both Root and Sullivan agreed that a new architectural style could not be invented, but would have to evolve over time.  Sullivan, and to a lesser extent, Root, were, at the same time, evolving their own ornamental language free from historical precedents. These two issues would slowly evolve during 1888-1891, in a slow, but rather methodical process until Root and Sullivan had synthesized both issues into a new language: the Chicago School. One could call it a “thoroughly modern” style of architecture. (Note I called it “a modern style” and not “the modern style”, for I maintain that there were and still are a number of modern styles of architecture, as there are a number of “Classical,” “Romanesque,” and “Gothic” styles of architecture. I also did not call it nor attempt to make any connection with the term “modernistic”, the word used by those historians who only recognize the “International Style” of the 1950s as the only attempt to evolve a modern architecture, either in a supportive or in a critical manner.)

As early as August 1891, America’s leading critic, Montgomery Schuyler in an article for Harper’s New Monthly, “Glimpses of Western Architecture: Chicago” had recognized and identified the difference that these architects were achieving with their new methodology:

 “These buildings…  not merely attest the skill of their architects, but reward their self-denial in making the design for a commercial building out of its elements, however unpromising these may seem; in permitting the building, in a word, to impose its design upon them, and in following its indications, rather than in imposing upon the building a design derived from anything but a considerations of its own requirements. Hence it is that, without showing anywhere any strain after originality, these structures are more original than structures in which such a strain is evident. “The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.” The designer did not permit himself to be diverted from the problem in hand by a consideration of the irrelevant beauties of Roman theatres, or Florentine palaces, or Flemish town-halls, and accordingly the work is not reminiscent of these nor of any previous architectural types, [my emphasis] of which so many contemporary buildings have the air of being adaptations under extreme difficulties.  It is to the same directness and sincerity in the attempt to solve a novel problem that these buildings owe what is not their least attraction, in the sense that they convey of a reserved power.  The architect of a commercial palace seems often to be discharging his architectural vocabulary and wreaking his entire faculty of expression upon that contradiction in terms… There is something especially grateful and welcome in turning from one of them to a building like one of those now in question, which suggests by comparison that, after he had completed the design of it, the architect might still had something left–in his portfolios and in his intellect.”


Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.

Schuyler, Montgomery. American Architecture-Studies, Harper & Bros: New York, 1892.

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