4.5. DEVELOPMENTS: MAY 1886-MAY 1889

Peter Brooks had sent a letter to Owen Aldis on March 16, 1886, putting the final hold on the project, stating “There is little chance of the Monadnock Block being begun before three years.” In those three years the Haymarket Square bombing and the ensuing court trial of the accused bombers had stopped investment in Chicago’s real estate dead in its tracks, so Brooks’ prediction of three years had actually extended for a number of months beyond. Between March 1886 and May 1889, when the Brookses finally gave the go ahead to restart the project, there were also many changes in architecture and construction that had occurred that would impact the final design of the Monadnock, with Root being responsible for many of these:

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

-the iron frame of the Rookery’s lightcourt had emerged from the protection of its masonry exterior, so that it was being experimented with as a method for the construction of exterior walls;

-the multistory bay window, so extensively used in the San Francisco Palace Hotel, had finally gained acceptance in Chicago with the Tacoma 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)

-Richardson’s Field Store had shown Chicago architects the new possibilities of architectural expression with the elimination of the horizontal layering of elevations.  Root had taken this idea and experimented with a smooth, unlayered masonry wall in the Pickwick and Argyle apartment buildings before the Haymarket Square bombing, and had just completed a similarly unbroken, all terra cotta exterior in the Rand-McNally Building.  The central figures behind these technical innovations were Root and George Fuller, who both would be responsible for designing and erecting the Monadnock Block.

Burnham & Root, Rand-McNally Building, Chicago, 1888. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

-Root had traveled to Europe in summer of 1886, and most likely had traveled to Albi, France to view its cathedral, reputed to be the largest all-brick building in the world.  The unbroken brick surfaces, and their plasticity would reappear on the exterior of the final design of the Monadnock (and the Armory that he would design for Chicago’s First Regiment of the National Guard). 

Cathedral of St. Cecilia, Albi, FR, 1282-1480. (Author image)

But before Root was able to take advantage of the lessons he saw at Albi, a former employee, Theodore Starrett collaborated with the ever-present George Fuller in designing and erecting the Hyde Park Hotel in 1887, on the south side, at 51st and Lake Park Avenue, a mere six blocks from Jaskson Park, the future site of the 1893 World’s Fair.  Starrett had worked as an engineer in Burnham & Root until 1886, meaning that more than likely he had met Fuller during the design of the Rookery, before he had left the firm during the onset of the Chicago building crash following the Haymarket Square bombing.  

Theodore Starrett, Hyde Park Hotel, Chicago, 1887. Note how Starrett turns the corners with a bay window, thereby avoiding a sharp corner, à la Root. (Condit, Chicago School)

Of course, what I am focusing on is Starrett’s design of the hotel’s exterior wall as one continuous, undulating dark red brick surface, within which he employed Root’s plastic rounding of every corner or edge of every window or door opening.  If we put ourselves in the shoes of the young designer, Root’s most recent building’s that would have provided inspiration, based on their formal similarities, would have been the Midland Hotel for its massing, the Kansas City Board of Trade for the brick detailing, and the Argyle and Pickwick Apartments for their smooth, unbroken brick walls.  

In plan, the hotel was a double-loaded corridor, with a 50’ x 100’ courtyard with the skylight at the second floor, a longer space than that of the Rookery or the Rand-McNally, again, both erected by Fuller (the Rand-McNally was built later).  Condit claimed that the hotel was all iron-framed construction.  As it was erected in 1887, it predated both the Tacoma and the Rand-McNally, two of Fuller’s early experiments in iron framing.  It also predated Jenney’s Manhattan Building, and, therefore, somewhat complicates the dating of Chicago’s “first” all iron-framed building because the hotel was “only” seven floors.  It seems to me that Fuller took the opportunity to experiment with an all-framed building of only seven stories, to avoid the larger wind loads of the coming challenge of the skyscrapers.  And, if I remind you of my intuitive claim that Root had used iron framing first in Kansas City’s Midland Hotel, the visual similarities of this with the Hyde Park Hotel speaks of a greater continuity in the early experiments with iron framing before this type of construction was used in the exterior of the Tacoma Building.

Per usual, when a lesser designer “copies” from a seasoned expert, the subtleties are unappreciated (such as those who copied Richardson’s arches but filled them in with only paired, rather than tripartite windows), hence, Starrett still used continuous sillcourses to break the elevation into a 4:2:1 layered scheme, while Root had used the apartment buildings to experiment with Richardson’s example of an unbroken, multistoried surface.

FURTHER READING:

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.

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

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