3.5. THE TACOMA BUILDING: HOLABIRD & ROCHE

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)

FURTHER READING:

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)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s