4.4. REVIEW: THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE MONADNOCK BLOCK

Burnham and Root, Monadnock Block, Chicago, SW corner of Dearborn and Jackson, 1889. (Lewis, An Early Encounter with Tomorrow)

In Vol. 3, I documented the early history of Root’s design for the planned 13-story Monadnock Block for Peter and Shepherd Brooks, slated for the southwest corner of Dearborn and Jackson. 

The Monadnock design had already undergone many variations as a 12- and 13-story building over a two-year period. As with the Montauk Block, Peter Brooks had a preconceived aesthetic for the project: “I would request an avoidance of ornamentation… rely upon the effect of solidity and strength, or a design that will produce that effect, rather than ornament for a notable appearance.”  (Those of us who are fans of Chicago’s architectural history owe Carl Condit a huge debt of gratitude for his uncovering the correspondence between the Brookses and Owen Aldis.) Brooks characteristically reasserted his control over Root’s ornamental proclivity in a letter to Aldis on May 6, 1884, revealing a functionalist theory that echoed Peter B. Wight’s call for a modern, Chicago aesthetic that he had articulated in his 1880 article in American Art Review (that was published in Boston): 

“My notion is to have no projecting surfaces or indentations, but to have everything flush, or flat and smooth with the walls with the exception of bosses, and ornamentation of that nature in low relief, on the red terra cotta… So tall and narrow a building must have some ornament in so conspicuous a situation… [but] projections mean dirt, nor do they add strength to the building… one great nuisance [is] the lodgment of pigeons and sparrows… “

Root worked on the project during the busy summer of 1884, but judging from a letter that Aldis sent to Brooks on September 16, Root had once again deviated from Brooks’ prescribed aesthetic:

“I have suggested to Mr. Root that Mr. Richardson, Mr. Root and some other architects have given up in despair the problem of architectural beauty and effect, under the conditions of the modern office building, viz., great height, straight thrusts and bearings, flat surfaces, all the light attainable, low stories, and economy… Mr. Root, however, refuses to give up the problem and vows that he is back on the right track with the sketch sent you some time ago.  His head is now deep in Egyptian like effects, and he declares that if he fails to make a harmonious and massive and artistic building this time, he will never build another Office Building.”

John Wellborn Root, Comparative Study of Five Skyscraper Elevations, 1883-5. From left (arcades with single windows) to right (pier/spandrel with paired windows): Insurance Exchange, Phoenix, Rookery (the synthesis of the two languages), 13-story version of Monadnock, Rialto. (Kyle Campbell)

The Insurance Exchange and Phœnix Buildings have been discussed as if they were siblings, i.e., a wall with single windows versus the pier-and-spandrel with paired windows language of the Rialto Building and Root’s March 1886 design for the Monadnock Block, the new name for the Quamquisset chosen by Brooks in early 1885 in honor of the mountain in New Hampshire that was the highest mountain within easy reach of Boston.  Root used paired windows separated by continuous piers and emphasized the corner piers to frame the elevation.  He even carried over the Rialto’s original graded polychromatic scheme into the design of the Monadnock Block.  Faced with four more floors than the Rialto had, Root placed an additional story in the “capital” or top layer, appropriately due to the increased vertical proportions of the taller building.  The remaining three extra floors were placed in the unbroken range of pilasters that comprised the “shaft” or middle grouping of floors.  This elongated the Rialto’s four-story continuous piers to seven floors in the Monadnock, including the pilasters’ lotus capitals that encompassed the eleventh floor, the tallest unbroken piers he had designed up to this point.  The only significant departure in the Monadnock’s design from the other three slab buildings, outside of the obvious stylistic choices, was the location of the major entrance.  Instead of placing it on the long side, Root located an entry on the short face that fronted Jackson Street and the Post Office Square.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Detail of cornice, 1885 design. (Hoffmann, Root)

Using the “capital” or top layer of the elevation to impart a majority of the “style” to his buildings, Root simply switched the gothic crown of the Rialto to an Egyptian cornice for the Monadnock.  This he detailed by subtly flaring the machicolated brickwork in the top floor to recall the capital of an Egyptian abstracted papyrus column.  Donald Hoffmann saw the capitals of the piers in the tenth story as lotus blossoms, traditionally symbolic of the Upper Nile, while, obviously, the “papyrus” cornice represented the Lower Nile. Hoffmann speculated the reason for Root’s choice of Egyptian detailing for the Monadnock as being consistent with his desire to impart symbolic content to his buildings.  As he was led to the Venetian Gothic for the Rialto because of the bridge between it and the Board of Trade, Hoffmann suggested that Root had equated the Chicago River’s marshy conditions with those of the Nile, as well as the origin of Chicago’s name, “wild onion place,” with a similar Egyptian plant, the papyrus. 

Adler & Sullivan, Above: Troescher Building, 1884-5. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City); Below: Ryerson Building, 1884. (Cannon, Sullivan)

As we will discover further into this story, Root’s innate competition with Sullivan will be outed, giving another reason for the Root’s use of Egyptian motifs.  In 1884, Sullivan had employed the papyrus profile in two buildings, the Ryerson and the Troescher Buildings.  There would be more to come.

FURTHER READING:

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

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

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