Burnham & Root, Reliance Building, SW corner of State and Washington, 1889. (Author’s image)

While Brooks equivocated over the Monadnock, another of Burnham & Root’s clients, William Ellery Hale, whose livelihood was actually predicated on making buildings taller, pursued his own sixteen-story skyscraper.  (In 1869, Hale had patented the Hale-Balwin hydraulic elevator and the following year founded the Hale Hydraulic Elevator Company).  Hale had purchased the old, post-fire First National Bank building at the southwest corner of State and Washington, diagonally across from Marshall Field’s, once the bank had moved to its new building at Dearborn and Monroe in 1882.  Also concerned over the threat of the pending height limit legislation at this time, Hale had commissioned his close associates (Hale owned shares in the Calumet, Phoenix, Insurance Exchange, Rookery, and Midland Hotel, as did Burnham and Root) to design a sixteen-story office building for his site in the heart of Chicago’s retail district, to be named the Reliance Building.  In fact, apparently the Monadnock and the Reliance Building were originally conceived by Root as maternal twins (remembering Root’s propensity to build full-scale models). That the two finished buildings ended up being diametric opposites in almost every feature was simply due to the vagaries of history.

I would like to introduce the Reliance Building by quoting once again the description of Root’s then current design for the Monadnock cited in the previous section:

“The object has been to secure the greatest strength with the least weight, the most floor space with a maximum of light and air, the entire construction being held subsidiary to complete fire-proofing.  The building materials will be steel, sewer brick, Portland cement, red granite, hollow tile, and terra cotta.  The frontages of the ground and sixteenth floors will be flat, the intermediate stories being provided with bay windows.  The entire frontages will be covered with red terra cotta, and the building will not be unlike the Tacoma, although straight lines will predominate…”

Composite: The body of the Tacoma Building sitting on the base of the Reliance Building.

If I change one word in this quote, red (terra cotta) to white (terra cotta), the description also fits the final design of the Reliance Building as it was completed in 1895.  

Burnham & Root; D. H. Burnham and Co., Reliance Building, Southwest corner of State and Washington, 1890/1894.  (Author’s image)

The protracted date of the completion of the Reliance Building was due to the fact that the existing building’s tenants of the First Floor and basement had leases that expired on May 1, 1890, while the tenants in the upper floors held leases that continued until May 1, 1894, and had no interest in moving before the aforementioned deadline.  Meanwhile, the drygoods store of Charles Gossage & Co., that occupied the adjacent storefronts on both State and Washington, desperately wanted to link their premises with the space on the corner, including the basement, and agreed to lease both floors of the new construction under the existing three upper floors.  Evidently, Hale wanted to get an early jump on the construction of his skyscraper (and just maybe make life sufficiently inconvenient for the clients on the upper floors that they would want to move earlier then the lease required) so he had Burnham & Root design the entire building, but could have them construct only the lower two floors starting on May 1, 1890.

Burnham & Root, Reliance Building. Ground floor plan. (Online)

All Burnham & Root had to do was to erect a temporary underpinning to support the upper three floors of the existing building while the ground floor and basement were demolished, clearing the site for the construction of the building’s new foundation and lower two floors of iron framing.  The site’s dimensions (56’x 85’) were just sufficient for the floor plan to support a single-loaded corridor scheme that they wrapped around the corner.  Across the corridor, pushed up against the back or south wall they located a bank of three (increased to four in the final design) of Hale’s elevators and a stairway.  By this time, the structure of these taller skyscrapers had become more complex than what the prior experience of the architect or contractor could rely upon, forcing architects to engage the services of structural engineers to determine the required structure and corresponding size of its members.  Burnham & Root had hired engineer E.C. Shankland (1854-1924) to provide this expertise for their buildings.  The structure of the Reliance was from the beginning planned to be a totally iron-framed skyscraper.  The building code still required masonry party walls to be constructed on the building’s south and west sides, but Shankland detailed these as non-loadbearing partitions, cantilevered from the frame, as Jenney was doing in the Manhattan Building.

I think insufficient attention on the part of historians has been paid to Root’s two lower floors of the Reliance.  Here we have a surviving fragment of Root’s evolving modern “Chicago School” ornamental language, maybe the only such remnant ever constructed, because he died before the upper floors were constructed.  Although he had conceived of the elevations of both the Monadnock and the Reliance as “twins” the Monadnock was to be “unornamented” by orders of the Brookses. Hale was a close friend and supporter of Root, and so here, in these two stories of the Reliance, are the only hints of where Root was in his design thoughts about ornament prior to his death.  Contrary to claims by International Style historians, Root, as did Sullivan, did not equate a modern architecture with the elimination of ornament, but only with the development of a new, modern style of ornament.  Those historians who point to the lack of ornament in the Montauk and Monadnock as proof of Root’s desire to minimize ornament fail to acknowledge that he had been forced to eliminate all ornament in these two buildings, against his artistic will, by the Brookses as a cost savings measure.

Root designed the exterior of the ground floor to be the most open, transparent surface as-of-yet to be incorporated in a Chicago building, including the Tacoma.  He faced the steel structure with thin, flat sheets of reddish-brown Scottish granite that he located at the extreme of the property’s lotline, whose edges and joints were masked with a bronze trim.  In order to maximize the usable space within the site’s tight dimensions, he also pushed the large panes of glass to the lotline, leaving no depth whatsoever in the building’s exterior surface. Root had thus designed a piece of true contemporary or “modern architecture”: he had allowed the building’s rectilinear structure to establish the overall design of the façade, he had honestly detailed the granite slabs that sheathed the terra cotta-covered metal structure in such a manner that no one could misinterpret them as being solid structural piers, he had used the largest plates of glass available in 1890 to fill the void between the columns (the dimensions of these panes were not achievable only a few short years earlier, hence the building could not have looked like this before 1890: hence, it was as architecturally up-to-date as was possible), and he had accented the granite’s joints with an ornamental pattern that did not copy any historic design, but was as contemporary as was the size of the glass plates.  

Burnham & Root, Reliance Building, 1890. Photograph taken after the ground floor construction was completed for Carson, Pirie, Scott on June 1, 1891. Note the last bay to the left of the State Street elevation was left intact as the entrance for the businesses above that were left untouched by the construction. (Hoffmann, Root)
Burnham & Root, Reliance Building. Ground floor. (Author image)

Of course, the last (southernmost) bay along State Street of the existing building had to be maintained because it contained the entrance for the upper three floors, which was how the completed building appeared when the doors of a new client, Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. opened for business on the new ground floor on July 1, 1891. Root also designed, in collaboration with the firm’s inhouse decorator, William Pretyman, (v.4, sec.5.3) the interior of the store using the best materials: English alabaster with gold inlay, mahogany, mosaic tile floors, and ceiling paintings by Pretyman himself.

The upper fourteen floors would have to wait until the other leases terminated on May 1, 1894, to be constructed. Unfortunately, Root would die in January 1891, so the upper floors of the Reliance Building would be the product of a different designer, operating under a different set of aesthetics.  It is very suspicious, however, that no drawings of Root’s original designs for these upper floors have survived.  Root’s biographer, Donald Hoffmann stated this fact quite bluntly:

“It is inconceivable that by this time Root had made no drawings for the entire building.  The loads had to be calculated. More importantly, he characteristically designed from the whole to the part; his mind was not so disengaged that he could have conceived the base and then rested without any clear idea of the whole building, even if the plans were understood as tentative.”

One can sense Hoffmann’s frustration with the loss of Root’s original drawings by this one footnote he included: “A search of more than forty possible sources has yielded not so much as a thumbnail sketch of what was intended in the upper stories.”  (Hoffmann, Root, p. 180.)  As I will elaborate in Volume Seven, I believe that Burnham undertook a concerted effort to eliminate as many drawings by Root as he could after he had changed his aesthetic values to Neoclassicism, in order to distance himself as far as he could from the work of Burnham & Root during the 1880s.

So we are left to imagine what modern elevation Root intended to place on top of the Reliance’s modern base.  I suggest that Root intended the same language that he had contemporaneously designed for the Monadnock:

“The frontages of the ground and sixteenth floors will be flat, the intermediate stories being provided with bay windows.  The entire frontages will be covered with red terra cotta, and the building will not be unlike the Tacoma, although straight lines will predominate…”

If we mentally juxtapose the Tacoma’s elevation on top of Root’s base, but revise Holabird & Roche’s horizontal layering with the vertical (“straight lines”) bay windows of Root’s Monadnock, and cover them in a “red terra cotta” (Root would not have used a white terra cotta in 1890 because of the pollution, also remembering that glazed terra cotta was not perfected until after he had died), we may then have an idea of how Root had originally intended the Reliance Building, as well as the Monadnock Block, to appear.

Unfortunately, neither of Root’s twin modern designed skyscrapers, were ever completely constructed, leaving the original two-story base of the Reliance as an even more important remnant of the Chicago School.


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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