4.10. ROOT’S FINAL DESIGN OF THE MONADNOCK

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block, 1889. Note that this version shows six bay windows as it was drawn before Shepherd Brooks decided not to build on the last 75’ of property. (Inland Architect, Nov. 1889)

Meanwhile, in the face of Shepherd Brooks’ resistance to steel framing, Burnham & Root had no option but to completely redesign the Monadnock a third time.  The exterior would have to be constructed with loadbearing masonry and the resulting settlement of the building would be the cost of the client’s refusal to accept, or even understand, the new technology of iron framing.  (The architects had calculated the building would settle 8”; in reality it settled over 20.”)  Root now faced the daunting task of designing a 215’ high pile of bricks, and to please the other brother, there could be no carved ornament on the surface of this massive pile. But if you think about it for a moment, if one ignores the requirement for no carved ornament, the Rookery as constructed with its pier/spandrel language met Brooks’ demand. After all, while Shepherd had rejected exterior iron framing, he had not specified that a loadbearing WALL be used instead, as so many historians have assumed the Monadnock’s structure to be. So the question is, when did Root change from expressing the building’s structure in its elevation, to expressing the building’s skin or enclosing envelope as he just done in the Rand-McNally Building? And I ask this question, because, as I have shown in the plan below, the final structure was not a bearing wall, but a series of masonry piers. Even though past historians have claimed that Root’s design was the perfect “rational” or “honest” solution for a masonry bearing wall structure, this was not his idea that he expressed in its final design. We will examine this issue in detail later on.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Ground Floor plan. I chose this drawing because it highlights the “pier” nature of the exterior structure: it is not a bearing wall. (Online)

At least the floor plan seemed agreed upon by all parties.  The bay windows were a given, following the success of the Tacoma Building, as Aldis had stated earlier, “numerous bays for extra floor space.”  With a site width of 66,’ lining both long street fronts with 22’ deep office space, the resulting corridor would have been over 20′ wide.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Upper: Plan 14th Floor; Lower: Plan 3rd Floor. Note the lateral masonry wall in the middle of the building is so designed that it continues into the corridor in order to be able to lock one side off from the other if ever needed. Note the addition of another wall in the middle of the right (Peter Brooks’) half. This was included to provide the stability lost in the Jackson Street wall because of the openings needed for the bay windows. Note that there is no equivalent wall in the left (Shepherd Brooks’) half, as the party wall at the far south of the plan does not have the same amount of openings in it. Note each “section” has its own bank of elevators and stairway. (Hoffmann, Root)

Instead of placing a narrow atrium through the center of this overly-wide corridor as Baumann had done in the Chamber of Commerce, Burnham & Root first placed the stairs and elevator shaft for each of the four portions of the building within this central area, thereby keeping the building’s entire perimeter open for rentable office space. (This was only possible once artificial, gas or electric, light could be supplied to the elevators.) Without the interior lightwell, however, the only daylight available for the corridors would be provided by a meager 8’ wide skylight over the open stairways and what could be leeched through the glass panes in the corridor walls.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Stairway in the corridor. Just beyond is the continuous masonry wall that provided lateral stability and also could close off this half of the building from the other side if ever needed. Note the small arched doorways at both ends of the wall. The corridors have glass to allow daylight to pass from the rooms into the corridor. (Online)

Then, calculating the minimum width needed to walk around either side of the stairway, they found they could eliminate 30″ of width in the floor plate, so they pulled the exterior walls in from the lotlines some 15″ on the two long sides. This resulted in an unheard of 68% floor space efficiency as noted by Aldis. He compared this with the 50 to 55% in the Rookery and 45% in Home Insurance Building. This floor plan also saved the construction costs of the extra, unusable corridor floor area as well as by reducing the surface area of the exterior wall. I can see Root and George Fuller using this to justify the extra cost of the specially-made curved brick. This is the reason for the building’s flared form in the second floor: wanting to keep the ground floor at the lotline to maximize floor area (note in the ground floor plan above that there is no “bearing wall” directly under each of the bay windows, just open display windows at the sidewalk), the exterior gently curves inward the 15″ to the shallower depth of the upper office floors. (The display windows also prove that the structure is not a loadbearing wall but a series of masonry piers.)

Root was faced with how to detail the 16-story masonry exterior, that was not unlike that of the Albi Cathedral.

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

In his 1887 paper, “Style,” Root seems to have actually prophesized his design two years before he put it on paper:

“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.”

Sometime during the period after June 8 (when the Inter Ocean had published the description of the skeleton-framed version) and before July 9, 1889, when Aldis wrote to Brooks complaining about the new “bell-shaped cornice,” Root had completely reworked the exterior into the form of the final design.  Instead of employing the recessed spandrel of the pier/spandrel language of the framed design, Root decided to detail the spandrels flush with the piers, thereby creating a “good, generous sweep of masonry.” What were his intensions for this design?

Adler & Sullivan, Walker Warehouse, Chicago, SW corner of Adams and Market (Wacker), 1888. (urbanremainschicago.com)

Once again, he seems to have been looking over his shoulder to see what Sullivan’s latest projects could provide as a point of departure. Sullivan had recently completed his takes on the unornamented, smooth-faced pile of masonry with the Walker Warehouse and the Ryerson Tomb.  In the Walker Warehouse Sullivan had built a seven-story high box of smooth-faced stone.  He took the box as a given and proceeded to carve the windows into each face in a tripartite elevation of a two-story base, four-story arcade, and one-story cornice, that was capped with the conventional parapet.  What made this look “modern” was the complete lack of carved ornament on the building’s surface (other than the few pieces I noted in v.4, sec 5.8).  Sullivan, respecting the end thrusts of the arcades he emphasized the corner piers, in essence framing each elevation with a sharp corner. The building was conceived as a collection of planar surfaces that defined the masonry box. I could compare its architectonic concept with those of my elongated version of Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève as being two “traditionally” conceived works of architecture. 

Herni Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. Arcade digitally extruded for effect. (Author’s Collection)

Peter Brooks had demanded no ornament to be placed on the Monadnock. Root could have easily designed it as a sixteen-story high rectangular mass of bricks, carved the windows into it in some “artistic” pattern as had Sullivan, and then stuck the bay windows onto the mass, similar to the Tacoma Building and moved onto more interesting projects, leaving Burnham to build it.  In fact, this was precisely what many critics claimed had occurred in post-construction reviews. Root’s death in January 1891, when the building was just coming out of the ground, had complicated the issue of the authorship of the design. (“Did Root design any of the “plain” building that was so out-of-character with his prior buildings, or did Burnham design it?”) There were two courses of thought pursued by later critics: one line argued that because the building was so “plain” it had to have been designed by Burnham; the second narrative again favored Burnham as the designer because the building’s form had been generated from “only” the building’s economic return. This was a positive comment from those critics who favored an “honest” design approach. Because of its positive portrayal of the design, Burnham did not go out of his way to dissuade such reviews during the post-Root phase of his career. This was entirely disingenuous on the part of Burnham. (I will discuss Burnham’s “tossing Root under the bus” following his partner’s death in Volume Seven that reviews the 1893 World’s Fair.) Although Root’s death in January 1891 blurred the issue of who deserved the credit for the building’s design, all of the rendered images I have shown you were published while Root was still alive. Construction had begun in May 1890, some seven months before Root’s death. The very “artistic” design of the Monadnock that I will document could only have been conceived by Root’s imagination.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Elevation and Section, showing the amount of the original “block of brick” Root had carved from the “original block.”. (Left: Leslie, Chicago; Right: Hoffmann, Root)

Needing/wanting to transcend “mere building” into the making of architecture, however, Root had risen to this artistic challenge by changing the conceptual method he had typically employed in his past projects.  Instead of conventionally applying/integrating carved sculptural elements onto the body of his buildings in an additive method, he would carve out from the original 200’ x 66’ x 215’ high pile of brick a sculptural form, subtracting material from the original block, not unlike what a sculptor does to a block of stone.  

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Awakening Slave, 1519. (Online); Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Detail of column carved from the corner pier. (Author image)

In v.3, sec. 11.10, I had compared Root’s detailing of how he had “extracted” the form of the granite columns in the base of the Rookery from its sandstone corner piers to Michelangelo’s statement that all he did in making a piece of sculpture (I paraphrase) “was to release it from within the piece of stone he had chosen to carve.”  In the process of redesigning the Monadnock, Root had created a new type of architectural form; instead of a building with carved sculpture on it, the building now became a piece of sculpture.  Root had literally carved a 16-story piece of sculpture.

But before we analyze his final form, we need one more variable: Why “Egyptian”?  In Sec. 4.4, I echoed Hoffmann’s assertion that Root, in search of “meaning” for his design, had gravitated to Egyptian detailing in the 1884 designs to allude to the similarities between the Nile Delta and the Chicago River’s marshy conditions along the lakefront. Ancient Egyptian buildings were being found to have been very colorful, which may have also piqued his interest in the use of polychromy in his designs. I also want to speculate that Root might have been experimenting (that’s really what he was always doing, wasn’t it: improvisations) with Egyptian architecture because it was a “pre-arch” style, very appropriate as a point of departure to evolve a style for the iron skeleton frame. Later into the design process, Root began to translate, with the assistance of German-born Fritz Wagner, one of the city’s leading terra cotta fabricators, a section from German theorist Gottfried Semper’s 1860 study, Der Stil. Historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury in her book, Chicago: 1890, posited that Semper’s discussion of Egyptian architecture could have easily reinforced Root’s innate curiosity in the potential of Egyptian forms to be a fresh point of departure for the development of an American architecture.  

Root’s original designs for the Monadnock had incorporated Egyptian motifs, and so it wasn’t really much of a stretch for him to restudy what the style might offer in this latest effort to use only brick walls.  As he had been working over the past four years in some of his designs with the idea of the continuous plane or surface as a mode of expression for the exterior of a skyscraper (I.e., the Rand-McNally Building) that expressed the enclosure or boundary surface of the interior’s volume, it would have been logical for him to apply this concept to the new design for Monadnock. After all, when we imagine a “215′ high pile of bricks” over the course of architectural history, the only culture that built with this technique that immediately comes to mind is, of course, Egypt.

One significant change Root made from the 1885 Egyptian designs was to shift building precedent types from the columnular Egyptian temples to the continuous, massive planes of masonry in the Egyptian pylon, the gateway walls that flanked the entrances to the temple precincts.  The pylon was typically capped with a coved cornice, not unlike the profile he had been experimenting with in the 1885 design. Taking the pylon as his precedent, Root would also try to impart a battered, or slopping profile to the Monadnock’s walls, echoing the decrease of the wall’s required thickness as one moved up through the building.  

The pylon, like the Brookses’ program, had two parts that were so arranged as to create a central opening, in line with the axis of the precinct. This was because in the month before construction was scheduled to begin, Shepherd had decided to build only the first 100’ of the rest of the site that he owned.  This forced Root to eliminate the last line of bay windows shown in the November rendering.  This left a 180’ long plan that was not only designed to function as two completely independent entities with the placement of one of the lateral load masonry walls exactly in the middle, but Shepherd also decided to give his half of the building its own name, the Kearsarge, again named after another mountain in New Hampshire.  As Shepherd Brooks was planning to build some, if not the entire southern half, of the Monadnock at a later date, Root might just have the opportunity to echo the split nature of the pylon quite functionally.  So Root seems to have simply taken an Egyptian pylon as his point of departure, and added the appropriate number of bay windows:


Adler & Sullivan, Martin L. Ryerson Tomb, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, 1887. (Online)

Here again, we find the added challenge of Sullivan coming into the equation: the Ryerson Tomb. With apologies to Root, there can be no mistaking the curving flare of the tomb’s base as the inspiration for Root’s final design.  In fact, if we look carefully at the tomb’s base, we find Root’s exact solution for the second story of the Monadnock: Sullivan brought the first course of stone out of the ground with a vertical face for a few inches, and then let the curve take-off.  Exactly the detail Root used at the second floor of the Monadnock.

While Burnham & Root didn’t want to use the entire 66′ width of the site in the office floors for the reasons I discussed above, it was important to use every inch that could be incorporated in the Ground Floor. Therefore, the 6’4” thick brick walls of the base of the building grew straight out from the lot’s edges, until the second floor, where the function (and space requirements) changed to office floors. (Note below that each of the four “sections” of the building had its own entry along Dearborn.) Thus, we have the base of the Monadnock designed, but from here Root took architecture into the modern period:

Burnham & Root, The Monadnock Block. The 6’4″ thickness of the wall at grade was not required to support the loads from above. This thickness is an increase of 15″ from the second floor wall, which is much larger than what was required to support the additional load of the second floor. I have shown that the 15″ was a dimension arrived at from minimizing the depth of the office floors. However, what this increase in thickness accomplished structurally is that it spreads the loads of building over a greater area: yes, it actually is also part of the building’s foundation!

1. He then flared the second floor, à la Sullivan, back 15” over a height of 10’ with an elliptical curve to the third floor.

2. At this point the exterior face retained an “economical” verticality until the sixteenth floor, at which point Root reprised the flare of the second floor with the coved cornice, echoing the conventional termination of an Egyptian pylon.  In order to compensate for its distance from the sidewalk, Root somewhat exaggerated the curve for it bows out 24” over a height of 6’8.”

(SAH Archipedia)

3. He then carved out each of the openings in the “wall” where the bay windows would be located, defining the structural piers, that extended from the ground to the cornice. In concept and reality, the Monadnock was not a bearing wall, but a series of masonry piers with openings between these.

4. These openings in the “wall” were then infilled with a lightweight, cantilevered steel framework that held the bay windows.  (As the building envelope had been pulled 15″ back from the lotline, this had correspondingly reduced the projection of the bay windows into the public air rights above the sidewalk.) Root then applied his “continuous surface” of brick over the bay’s structure that he simply continued from the surface of adjacent brick pier with a fluidity that contained no sharp corners.  The brick seems simply to organically grow as a skin over the volume of the building. (It took the Anderson Pressed Brick Co. in Indiana over 100 different molds to make the variety of shapes required.) To complete the reading of this continuous masonry surface, Root did not recess the spandrels in the rectangular windows in the piers but made them flush with the face of the piers. Therefore, the exterior does read as a “wall” even though it consists of a seires of piers and bay windows.

In the final design of the building’s elevation, Root has finally admitted that a skyscraper could be “vertical”: he has scrapped all dominant horizontal projections. This leaves the vertical lines of the 13-story unbroken bay windows to soar to the sky (over a year before Sullivan is credited with having been the first to do so in the seven-story unbroken piers in the Wainwright Building. And just to set the record straight: Root had also designed the 12-story unbroken piers in the Masonic Temple at least six months prior to Sullivan’s Wainwright Building). Unlike in his Argyle Apartments, he chose, as he had detailed in the Pickwick Flats, to stop the bay windows one story short of the roof, rather than extending them to the roofline. This imparted a crisper edge to the building’s overall massing. He then capped each bay with a coved cornice that reprised the top of the building.

Burnham & Root. Left: Argyle Apartments, northwest corner of Michigan and Jackson, 1886. Right: Pickwick Flats, southeast corner of Michigan and Twentieth, 1886. (Hoffmann, Root)

5. A true subtly that I had never observed, but give credit to Donald Hoffmann for discovering and noting in his biography of Root, is how Root ever so gently curved the upper corners in the windows under each bay, but not in the single windows in the piers, in both stories. I agree with Hoffmann’s interpretation that Root is recording the genesis of the curved bays from the voids below by restating the bays’ curved plan in the elevation of the windows below, The subtlety of this detail should be proof enough of Root’s authorship of the building’s design… (Its gentle curved profile predates Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau windows by only two years…) If you have different interpretation of Root’s use of curved corners in these windows, please send me thoughts.

Victor Horta, Maison Horta, Brussels, 1898. (Online)

6. He then communicated to the onlooker the inherent contrast between the two structural systems (the masonry piers vs. the framed bay windows) with the location of the glass.  In the bay windows, the glass is pushed as close to the surface of the exterior brick as possible, creating a sense of a taut, thin surface that is being blown out, away from the building by the air pressure inside.  The windows that are located in the bearing walls, on the other hand, have been crisply carved into the “wall” and the glass pulled as far back as possible, revealing the immense thickness of the brick wall for all to see. Said in a different way, Root had brought the plane of the spandrels flush with the surface of the piers, thereby creating the unbroken continuity of the brick surface. (This is most effective in the curved second floor window openings: see image above.)

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Longitudinal section showing how the thickness of the bearing walls decreses as the wall grows taller.

And lastly, the best of his details: still wanting to evoke the precedent of the pylons with their battered, sloping walls, while he could not literally afford to make the walls slope inward, (even though as the wall’s thickness had to increase as the wall approached the ground, it would have been easy to keep the same inside dimensions, but this would have cost space and money in sloped brick) he struck upon a truly ingenious visual illusion that is effective, and yet so subtle that many viewers aren’t even aware of its presence until someone points it out. 

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Corner chamfer with the increasing radius. (Author image)

He detailed the corners of the buildings with a progressively increasing chamfer, starting rather imperceptibly at the third floor, until it reached a three-foot radius at the cornice.  Physically, it actually reduces the dimension from the last window jamb to the building’s corner as one moves up to the top of the building.  When one is standing obliquely to the long elevations this resulting angle does create the illusion that the wall is sloping inward.  This illusion is reinforced on a sunny day when the shade around the chamfer reinforces the visual angle at the wall’s edge.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Note how the reduction in the dimension from the last window jamb to the building’s corner creates an angle that creates the illusion that the walls are sloping inward. (Author image)

I do not label the Monadnock Block as a modern, Chicago School building because of its absence of ornament or because of its “structural expression.” I have already presented my argument that the structure of the Monadnock Block was not a bearing wall, but a series of masonry piers. At the start of this blog I stated that the aesthetic of the “Chicago School” was a design process aesthetic. Therefore, the Monadnock was a Chicago School building because of the manner in which Root conceptualized its design: by synthesizing its various determinants he arrived at a new form that he then enriched by sheathing it with a fluid, undulating skin of brick.  In this respect, Root was contemporary with the emerging Belgian Art Nouveau movement (as I earlier have noted Sullivan’s ornament was likewise) and twenty years ahead of the German Expressionists. He had achieved a true Vitruvian synthesis of commodity, firmness, and delight.

As I also stated in the beginning, there were at least four ways of conceptualizing a building that resulted in a Chicago School aesthetic. While expressing the building’s structure was one of these, Root with his design of the Monadnock had developed two other possible aesthetics: the building’s unbroken, continuous 13-story bay windows imparted a dominant vertical emphasis to its elevation, Chicago’s architects, in addition to expressing the building’s structural system, were now free to give a skyscraper a vertical accent to its elevations. In addition, Root’s continuous fluid surface of brick offered a third alternative aesthetic, emphasizing the skeletal-framed skyscraper’s thin, continuous enclosure of its curtain wall. The fourth type of elevational design was to express the repetitive nature of the office floor plans in the building by giving the elevation a horizontal accent, such as Holabird & Roche had done in the Tacoma Building.

As far as Root’s search for a modern ornament, I have already identified his contemporary experiment with that he placed in the base of the Reliance Building.

The only variable I have yet to address is Root’s contemporary interest in the use of polychromy in his buildings.  Root had carried his original 1883 color scheme that he had planned for the Rialto Building over to the Monadnock, The Economist reported this on August 17, 1889:

“A uniform material is everywhere employed, brick… no two parts of the building will have the same color value… There is no cornice to the building only a bell-shaped coping.  There is no base, the entire building swelling outward at the bottom, to insure the expression of perfect stability.”

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Original 1889 color palette. (Colors added by Signe Luebbers)

FURTHER READING:

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

Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.

Merwood-Salisbury, Joanna. Chicago 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2009.

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

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