1.6. THE DEMISE OF THE ARCH

S.S. Beman, Studebaker Building, 1885. (chicago.designslinger)

Because the round arch was THE defining element of Romanesque, and up to Richardson’s premature death in 1886, Romanesque Revival was THE style favored by many Chicago architects, Chicago’s architects tended to use arches somewhere in their elevations of the early skyscrapers.  Arches were, by no means, needed for structural reasons in these buildings because iron lintels (that can span a window without an arched profile) could be and were used more often than not to span the opening between the masonry piers.

James McLaughlin, John Shillito and Co. Store, Cincinnati, 1877. (Cincinnati, The Queen City, 1901)

We have seen in these earlier buildings, therefore, that the iron frame was not at all necessary to construct a “rectilinear” or gridded (no arches) elevation; McLaughlin’s Shillito’s Building in Cincinnati had no iron columns in its exterior, merely iron lintels. In fact, I have shown numerous buildings with gridded elevations designed by a variety of Chicago architects that did not employ any arches and were constructed with the “composite” system of load bearing masonry piers and iron lintels (also referred to as pier and spandrel).

William Le Baron Jenney, First Leiter Building, Chicago, NW corner of Monroe and Wells, 1879. Perspective by Irving K. Pond, 1879. (Online)
Adler (with Sullivan), Revell Building, Chicago, NE corner of Adams and Wabash, 1881. (Morrison, Louis Sullivan)
John M. Van Osdel, John V. Farwell Wholesale Block, 1886. (Chicagology.com.)

These buildings were erected without arches prior to 1888, and so, how do we label these designs for they aren’t “Romanesque.”  Their ornament was historically derived, and as they also appeared not just in Chicago but throughout the country, “Chicago School” is not applicable. The term “Commercial Style” used by some historians seems to be the most descriptive.  I think this also applies to Adler & Sullivan’s early like-designed buildings, because Sullivan’s ornament in these was historically derivative. We also saw that Root had experimented with both the arcade and the “pier and spandrel” languages in the design of his early skyscrapers.

John Wellborn Root, Comparative Study of Five Skyscraper Elevations, 1883-5. From left to right: Insurance Exchange, Phoenix, Rookery, (arcades); 13-story version of Monadnock, Rialto (pier and spandrels). (Kyle Campbell)

So then what changed in the mid-1880s that merits some buildings being distinguished from either the Romanesque Revival or the Commercial Style with the appellation of their own style that I define as “Chicago School?” The pivotal issue I believe, was that once the iron skeleton frame was placed in a building’s exterior, the arch became an anachronism that raised red flags over the “honesty in construction” issue.

Burnham & Root, Phœnix Building. South (rear) elevation. Demolition photo taken by Richard Nickel in 1959. The windows behind the four elevators that were supported by iron skeleton framing. (urbanremainschicago.com)

While I labeled buildings in Chicago prior to 1885 that had rectilinear elevations as “Commercial Style,” we finally come across the elevations for the Phoenix and the Rookery lightcourt walls, and I believe we have our first true, Chicago School designs. Especially the Rookery courtyard elevations and the ground floor alley elevations. in addition to Root’s historic ornament, merit a new style name.

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Elevation of the exterior walls lining the lightwell. Below: Detailing of terra cotta ornament. (Author’s images)
Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Southeast corner showing the intersection of the two alley facades. One can see how the curtain wall is projected beyond the exterior structure. Some 38 years later, Swiss architect Le Corbusier in his 1923 book Vers une architecture would call this type of construction “the free facade.” Below: Detailing of cast iron ornament. (Author’s images)

In addition to the structural argument against arched windows in an iron-framed building, Root stated that these also reduced the amount of daylight that penetrated into a building’s interior. The best example of this we saw was his alley elevations of the Rookery. So the use of arches in an iron-framed skyscraper had two strikes against it: structural dishonesty and reduced daylight. 

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Comparison of the streetfronts (left) with arches vs. the alley elevations (right) with flatheaded windows. It is obvious that the flathead windows have more glass, i.e. daylight.

Strike three was the extra cost of detailing and fabricating arched windows versus simply using the same rectilinear window throughout the building. Minimizing construction costs through standardization of the dimensions of building elements and structural/spatial bays was necessary to keep construction costs down. This push was led by a newcomer to the construction team, the General Contractor, whose expertise was how to construct a building within a given budget.  The most important Chicago contractor who would play a major role in the upcoming years was George Fuller, contractor for both the Opera House Block and the Rookery.  

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

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