Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building, Chicago, 165 W. Adams Street, 1888. To the left is the Insurance Exchange and then sitting across La Salle is the Rookery. (Chicagology.com)

The third building of 1888 in which the iron frame was introduced into the exterior was the Rand-McNally Building.  In the fall of 1888, Burnham & Root were contracted by the local printing/publishing house Rand-McNally to design a new office building to be constructed adjacent to Root’s Insurance Exchange on a site that was in the interior of the block that ran between Adams and Quincy, to replace their existing building at 125 W. Monroe. While Root would push construction technology to the next level in this building, it was the site that controlled the overall design of this building.

The size of the lot was about the same size as that of the Rookery. The difference was that this site was not a corner site, but an interior site, very much like that of the Royal Insurance Building (v.3, sec. 7.11) that sat across the street facing the Quincy elevation.  

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Typical floor plan. (Hoffmann, Root)

As in the Rookery, Burnham, who typically was responsible for figuring out the most efficient floor plan for a given project, had lined both street fronts with a double-loaded corridor while placing single-loaded offices against the two masonry party walls. 

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Transverse section through the street fronts. (Hoffmann, Root)

This left a 60’ x 68’ lightcourt lined, once again lined in white-glazed brick, in the center with the skylight brought down to the second floor so that the interior ring of offices had access to daylight and fresh air, again echoing the Rookery.  As the building’s use was primarily for the company, the accounting department was located on the ground floor in the space directly under the skylight. Therefore, the building did not need, nor did it enjoy the exhilarating spatial sequence of the Rookery.  One could consider the Rand-McNally to have been the Rookery’s poor cousin…

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Ground floor plan. (Prominent Buildings Erected by George A. Fuller)

The site in the interior of this block, in combination with the company’s program, dictated a very efficient ground floor plan: entries were located at each of the building’s four corners to minimize employee travel distance to an elevator bank at each end of the building. Employees simply passed through one of the corner entries and went directly to an elevator bank and up to their respective floor, except the accountants, who were able to enjoy the one inspiring space in the entire building.  Between the entrances at either end the street fronts on both elevations were to be rented out as stores.

Quincy Street, looking west from Adams Street (from the Rookery). From left to right: the Gaff Building, the Mallers Building, the Royal Insurance Building, the Rand-McNally Building, and the Insurance Exchange.

Although the size of the site was equivalent to that of the Rookery, because it was located in the interior of the block, Root was faced with the design of only an elevation, as opposed to the three-dimensional mass of the Rookery and his other corner buildings, including the neighboring Insurance Exchange and Burlington Building.  In concept, the problem of designing a building with two independent elevations was similar to what Boyington had faced with the Royal Insurance Building. While Boyington had designed two completely different elevations, economics dictated Root’s repetition. There were two considerations for Root to address in the design of the building’s elevations: one technical expression, and second, the building’s architectural/urban context.

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 (on the left) and Cobb & Frost’s Owings Building (turret in back of the Rookery). At the far end on the right side, in front of the Exposition Center is the Pullman Building. If Root had any intention to reference the arcades in the Field Store, it would have been with the second tier arcade in the sixth floor. (Digital image by David Burwinkel)

It was the context that was the more challenging of the two, and so, I’ll start there. Adams Street, as I’ve already alluded to, was quickly emerging as Chicago’s architectural showcase.  To the east of the site sat Root’s Insurance Exchange and the Rookery, as well as the Home Insurance Building; to the west sat his Burlington Building. But the real challenge was Richardson’s recently completed Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store. As this was on the same side of the street as the Rand-McNally lot, his design would be seen “inline” with the Field’s sophisticated use of stone arcades.

H.H. Richardson, Marshall Field Wholesale Store. By eliminating the continuous sill course at this level (note that he even went so far to avoid emphasizing this line that he did not increase the height of the stone coursing at this level even though he did do so at the other floor levels), Richardson transformed his elevation from a stack of four horizontal layers to a tripartite scheme in which the middle layer was one, continuous five-story high surface.

Given such an opportunity to have “the last laugh” with Richardson’s (who had died two years earlier) masterpiece next door, Root had to have been extremely frustrated with the company’s representatives who could not make up their mind on how many floors to build.  During the design phase, Root was asked to design elevations that contained 9, 10, 12, 14, and 16 floors.  This indecisiveness would have tried the patience of Job, so one can just imagine the utter frustration that Root went through trying to one-up Richardson with this particular project.  Eventually the company decided on ten stories.

As Root had been the first in Chicago to use the iron frame and curtain wall in the lightcourt of the Rookery, it was logical that he would also be one of the first to try the new system on the exterior of a tall building.  First, he restated the elevation of the Rookery’s lightcourt to enclose the Rand-McNally’s court. To this new type of exterior construction he added the extra challenge of using only enameled terra cotta to clad the iron frame.  In addition to the reducing the weight of the brick exterior and the corresponding increase in rentable area gained from using the thinner terra cotta, the work done on a building controlled by the members of the bricklayers’ union would be significantly reduced, lessening the chance of a slowdown in the building’s construction.

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Entrance. Note that the entire exterior is made of one continuous, ten-story high surface of terra cotta. (Hoffmann, Root)

I am quite certain that in his mind, Root believed he had already solved in the Rookery’s lightcourt the problem of designing an elevation that rationally expressed the gridlike nature of the iron skeleton frame.  I think he took the opportunity afforded with the Rand-McNally design to explore the plastic potential of terra cotta as an exterior material.  

The year before the firm received the commission, Root had published in the Inland Architect a paper, “Style,” in which he clearly stated:

“The value of plain surfaces in every building is not to be overestimated.  Strive for them, and when the fates place at your disposal a good, generous sweep of masonry, accept it frankly and thank God.  If this goodly surface comes at the corners of your building, so much the better; for there can be no better guaranty that the house will “stay where it was put” than the presence of simple masonry at its angles.”

Think of the Rand-McNally’s facade as one 158′ long by ten-story high sheet (or curtain) of smooth clay hung on the building’s skeletal structure. Now you get to carve the windows for each floor in it. You could simply make the windows all the same, but for Root an elevation was still meant to be a composed piece of architecture. While one can easily read the steel frame behind the terra cotta skin, Root’s design was not a dry repetition of the same floor detailing, one on top of the next, as was his design of the Rookery lightcourt or Holabird & Roche’s design of the Tacoma Building’s elevations.  Root was Root, and the design of a building was but one more opportunity to experiment with a “full-scale model.”  

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building, Chicago, 1888. To the left is Root’s Insurance Exchange. Richardson’s Marshall Field Store is in the right background. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

First off, he treated the facade of the Rand-McNally as one continuous, ten-story high surface of plastic terra cotta. In this aspect it continued his earlier experiments with such a surface in the two apartment buildings he had designed in 1886 following the precedent set by Richardson in the middle layer of the Field Wholesale Store’s elevations (in which he had eliminated the continuous sillcourse between the primary and secondary arcades). Sullivan had also experimented with the smooth, unbroken multi-storied surface in the elevations of the Walker Warehouse, that sat only three blocks to the west along Adams Street. The difference between the Sullivan’s building and Root’s was that Sullivan had used a smooth stone wall that also provided the building’s structure; Root was going to explore the same language of the smooth-surfaced exterior, except with a different material. Where Sullivan’s detailing was rightfully lithic and designed with Sullivan’s propensity to see a building as a series of intersecting, two-dimensional planes (i.e., sharp corners), Root explored the plastic possibilities with terra cotta designed with his propensity to see a building as a three-dimensional volume (i.e., rounded corners) to be sculpted. (Once again, no judgment, both approaches are valid, but very different in design.) This was not the only detail from Sullivan that Root appropriated in his design of the Rand-McNally Building.

Burnham & Root. Left: Argyle Apartments, northwest corner of Michigan and Jackson, 1886. Right: Pickwick Flats, southeast corner of Michigan and Twentieth, 1886. Gone are all intermediate stringcourses, leaving an elevation of an unbroken plane of brick: the final solution for the Monadnock is born. (Hoffmann, Root)
Adler & Sullivan, Walker Warehouse, Chicago, SW corner of Adams and Market (Wacker), 1888. The building stood a mere three blocks west along Adams Street. (urbanremainschicago.com)

At first glance, surviving photographs of the Rand-McNally Building’s exterior tend to make the viewer think that the elevation consisted of corner pavilions that acted as bookends within which Root placed a number of horizontal layers. These images contain the exterior fire escapes that were located in front of each of the corner pavilions, that obscured how each of the floors intersected with the corner pavilions.

He had detailed slightly wider pilasters within the elevation’s surface to articulate the two end bays of the façade. These contained the entries on the ground floor and the elevator corridors above. The corner pavilions made a frame but were still contiguous with the smooth, taut terra cotta ten-story surface.  It is when one zooms in for a closer inspection that we see that Root had detailed the entire 10-storied surface as one continuous plane, within which he then carved out the windows, experimenting with a number of different details.  Hence, the reason I call this building a “Whitman Smapler” of how terra cotta could be detailed in any number of different ways to frame a window opening. No matter if you move up or across the building’s face, you will find that the exterior is one continuous surface within which Root then proceeds to show a number of different corner conditions achievable with the plasticity of terra cotta. In fact, in the total ten floors, eight of these each had different details. Only floors 5 and 6 and 8 and 9 were duplicates. Within this building, Root took the opportunity to experiment with each of the four types of constructional articulation that I have listed as being an appropriate rational solution for the iron skeleton frame: the structural grid (the lightcourt), the column/vertical (floors 5-7), the horizontal repetition of stacked identical floors (floors 8-10), and the uniform surface enclosing the building’s volume (all ten floors).

Root used continuous projected sillcourses (that he stopped short at the corner pavilions) to break the elevation into four zones, each displaying a different window technique:

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Zone 1: lowest two floors. Arrow #1 points to the flush surface of the corner pavilion and the spandrel. Arrow #2 points to the break in the sillcourse that allowed the terra cotta surface to continue up, into the second story.

Zone 1. The first two floors were one continuous two-story surface of terra cotta. In this close-up photo of the building’s base, I have highlighted where the building’s original surface continues past the joint between the corner pavilion and each floor (arrow #1).  At first glance, the two stories look like separate layers, defined by a continuous sillcourse. Yet, when we get closer, it is apparent that the sillcourse was broken for a few inches at the centerline of each column (arrow #2), just enough to allow the surface of the Ground Floor to ooze up, into the second floor.  The first floor storefronts were carved into the surface plane with his characteristics curved edges and with a curved corner between the pier and the beam.  The second floor was detailed as a line of single-story columns that Root had formed by taking the terra cotta surface of the lower floor and bending it to form a column that sat above the flat-fronted pier below.  These were capped with an ornamental capital that supported the sharp-cornered spandrel of the third floor. A pair of double-hung windows set the secondary vertical spacing between the primary spacing of the terra cotta clad steel columns.

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Zone 2: Floors 3 and 4.

Zone 2.  He detailed this zone as a two-story colonnade by recessing the spandrels between floors three and four. While the columns had rounded corners, the lintel of the colonnade once again had a sharp corner. The mullions in floor 3 were detailed to be flush with the recessed spandrel above, while those in floor 4 were slightly different as they sat recessed from the original surface of the elevation.

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Zone 3: Floors 5-7. The white arrow points to where the voussoir arch intersects with the rounded edge of the pier.

Zone 3.  This zone contained his old friend, the arcade, that obviously Root was having a hard time saying good-bye to. The piers in this zone were triple-stepped in section that supported crisply-detailed voussoir arches. He continued the same window spacing from below, with the exception, rightly so, under the arches in which he appropriately divided into three windows with smaller mullions than those used with the paired windows.  One detail I truly appreciate that I want to bring to your attention is how he detailed the connection of the arches to the wider piers of each corner pavilion: the sharp edge of the arch dissipates into a line as the pier’s corner curves away from it.

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Zone 4: Floors 8-10. The black arrow is pointing to where Root recessed the roof’s spandrel to allow the piers to read as if they support the cornice.

Zone 4. Here he articulated each floor into its own layer with a continuous sillcourse. He continued to use the triple-stepped piers and the paired window language in these three floors, but with a final twist. He recessed the spandrel in front of the roof to be flush with the recessed secondary window mullions that allowed the primary piers to read as if they were helping to support the building’s cornice. While zones 2 and 3 had a vertical accent, with these sillcourses he gave zone 4 a distinct horizontal grain, probably to provide an appropriate cap for the elevation.  As the elevation was nearly as wide as it was tall, such a balance between these two forces would have imparted a sense of “repose” to the design.  A feat of master design, that is to synthesize four related, but different elevational languages into one “reposeful” elevation.

Comparison of the elevations of Rand-McNally Building and the Field Wholesale Store. There was no obvious relationship between Root’s arcade and those in Richardson’s design.

The enigma of the final design was his continued use of his old friend, the multistoried arcade.  Similar to his awkward placement of the arcade in the Phoenix elevation, he located the three-story arcade in the ambiguous midheight region, with the arches capping the windows in the seventh floor.  One wonders at first viewing why didn’t he put these at the top, in the compositionally more logical location, or was Root trying to tie his elevation back to the arcade in the Insurance Exchange, or had it something to do with Richardson’s arcades in the adjacent Field Store?  There is a reference that states that the company wanted its printing presses located on the seventh floor, but this flies in the face of everything we have learned about buildings with printing presses.  First, the presses are heavy, and second, they are susceptible to the slightest vibrations (that the building’s lightweight steel frame most certainly would not have retarded).  Nevertheless, if this was the case, then no one can question the logic of Root’s placement of the only arches in the entire field of the building’s elevation to mark the presence of this special activity. (If this was the case, then Root gave us five examples of a “rational” elevation for a skyscraper, i.e., an expression of the building’s internal function.) But again, Root told us that arches actually retard the amount of daylight making it to the interior,  This may have been somewhat offset because the openings under the arches were appropriately divided into three windows with smaller mullions than those used with the paired windows, arguably compensating for the lost daylight caused by the arches.  My instinct tells me that Root placed these arches here to tie the Rand-McNally to the Rookery in order to create an urban setpiece with the three Root designs lining these two blocks of Adams.

Burnham & Root, Buildings along Adams Street. From left: 2. Rookery, 3. Insurance Exchange, 4. Rand-McNally Building. Three things to note: 1. The elevational language in the lightcourts of the Rand-McNally and Rookery appear to be almost identical. This was because both buildings had an inner tier of offices lining the court requiring a maximum of daylight; 2. How the Rand-McNally Building was pushed right up to the lotline with the Insurance Exchange, allowing its lightcourt to provide daylight for its eastern corridor. Rolling fireshutters were attached to all of the windows in this area of the Rand-McNally; 3. The only reason I can find for the location of the seventh floor arcade in the Rand-McNally is to echo the arcade in the Rookery at the same location. (Rand-McNally View #1; of course it was the first view they included in this guide…)

The only other arches used by Root demarked the two entries at either end bay.  These were ornamented with terra cotta panels that bore Root’s personal organic-motifed designs. 

Curiously, while these were semicircular in profile, the arcade arches had an elliptical profile, the first use by Root of this shape.  While I can make an argument that this shape allows more daylight to enter than the semicircle, I am intrigued by another idea: Root took this shape from Sullivan’s interior of the Auditorium’s House, whose interior had only recently been opened to the public for the Republican Convention (opening night was still over a year in the future).  If this was the only quote from a recent Sullivan building, I would not have mentioned it.  But I have already mentioned Sullivan’s smooth-surfaced Walker Warehouse, in which he had employed projected ledges for their articulation and their shadow, in a similar manner to how Root then used them in the Rand-McNally Building.  In fact, I had pointed out how Root had interrupted these at the second floor to allow the building’s surface to continue through this opening. Sullivan had done this exact detail at the third and seventh floors in the Walker Warehouse.

Adler & Sullivan. Left: The Auditorium’s Main Foyer; Right: Walker Warehouse.

As I stated at the beginning of this chapter, the Rand-McNally Building was the third of this series of Chicago buildings designed 1888 to replace exterior masonry walls with iron skeleton framing in the evolutionary process of birthing the all iron-framed skyscraper that Buffington had prophesized in May 1888.  In addition to being the first exterior made from only enameled terra cotta, it also deserves credit for having been the first all-steel structure. This, however, does not mean that it was an independent steel-framed building without any bearing walls, for the west party wall was still a masonry bearing wall.  In other words, all of the building’s structure, except this one wall comprised of iron skeleton framing.  The family tree of its construction consisted of:

1. The Rookery: its lightcourt iron framing and curtain wall.

2. Cleveland’s Society for Savings Building: Charles Strobel’s riveted steel z-bar columns.

3. The Tacoma Building: its engineers, Wade & Purdy and its contractor, George Fuller, were responsible for its erection.

As was done in the Society for Savings Building, steel z-bar columns were used, hot-riveted to steel beams to achieve sufficient rigidity to resist the wind loads. The frame was braced in the horizontal plane with diagonal ties rods in the floors to resist wracking of the frame due to wind and to incorporate the rigidity of 44” thick west wall to assist against the wind. I am sure that it was less expensive to use load-bearing masonry in this wall rather than the skeletal construction used to erect the east wall.

Charles L. Strobel, Column Cross-sectional Shapes Using Riveted Z-Sections. (Birkmire, Skeleton Construction)

While the building code also required a masonry party wall between the Insurance Exchange and the Rand-McNally Building, the Insurance Exchange’s party wall had not been designed with the idea of eventually having to support an adjacent building, meaning that the Rand-McNally Building would have to be built with its own party wall in this location.  This posed a vexing problem for Root and his consulting engineers, Wade & Purdy, in that he could not locate the new party wall immediately up to the Insurance Exchange if he employed a conventional foundation, for he would have to place the new load of the Rand-McNally’s east wall on the Insurance Exchange’s existing pyramidal footing.  This would significantly increase the stress under the footing, which would expose the existing building to the subsequent additional settlement and would certainly result in cracking within the Insurance Exchange. 

Root evolved a revolutionary solution by cantilevering iron box beams in the basement from the first interior line of columns, over a fulcrum located a safe distance from the existing foundations of the Insurance Exchange, to the edge of the lot line.  Here the cantilevers could support the loads of the steel columns of the skeleton frame that Root placed in the party wall (to also lighten the weight of the wall that would have to be transferred by the cantilevers).  Thus, the cantilevers carried the load of the east party wall back to the fulcrum and down to the ground, without impacting the existing foundation. The rotation of the cantilever was counterbalanced by making the cantilever continuous over the fulcrum to the first line of columns whose loads offset that of the cantilevers..   He had achieved his second innovation in foundation engineering (the first being the use of iron rails to reinforce concrete in the construction of pad foundations, that replaced stone pyramidal foundations). However, the Rand-McNally Building still had one load-bearing masonry wall. We have yet found Chicago’s first all-skeleton framed skyscraper…

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building. Cantilevered foundation for the party wall, next to the Insurance Exchange. (Hoffmann, Root)


Condit, Carl W. The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875-1925. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root. New York: Horizon, 1967.

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

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