Printing House Row along S. Dearborn, 1893. Manhattan-#3; Caxton-#6, Pontiac-#7. (Rand-McNally View #10)

In v.3, sec.6.5, I discussed how the decision of the Santa Fe Railroad to extend its tracks to Chicago had finally reignited speculative construction in the business district after the two-plus year hiatus caused by the Haymarket Affair (while some historians credit the expectation that Chicago would be named the city for the 1892 World’s Fair, this decision was made more than a year after the announcement of the Santa Fe, and had only “poured gas on the fire” already set).  The railroad owners had chosen to align its tracks with Dearborn Street, undoubtedly in conjunction with the long-term investment plans of the Brooks brothers, who already owned the Portland Block at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Washington.  The original plan was to erect the Chicago & Western Indiana Station (the umbrella company formed to build the station for the numerous companies planning to use it) at the foot of Dearborn, on the south side of Harrison. Before these plans were announced, the Brookses had purchased a number of lots along Dearborn for future buildings.  In addition to the lot for the Monadnock, they also secretly purchased the northwest corner of Dearborn and Harrison, immediately across the street from where these insiders were planning the erect the new station.  Unfortunately for their bottomline, investors in La Salle Street properties had not only used their clout with City Council members to force the station to eventually be erected two blocks farther south at Polk Street, but also to stop the southward extension of Dearborn for over two years that, for all practical purposes, had prevented any construction along this southern stretch of “Dearborn.”

During the great construction boom of 1884-5, the Brookses’ agent, Owen Aldis, who was working with Burnham & Root in the early design of the Monadnock, was also working with Holabird & Roche to design a six-story building for the Brookses for the corner of Dearborn and Harrison. In Chapter Three, I had summarized how the young firm of Holabird & Roche came to be commissioned by Wirt Walker to design the Tacoma Building.  Center to the early success of the firm was a personal connection with Byran Lathrop, Thomas Byran’s nephew and successor as the President of Graceland Cemetery, as well of many Byran’s other investments. Lathrop was the older brother-in-law of Owen Aldis, who at the time of Holabird and Roche forming their firm, had recently become the real estate agent for the Brooks, being responsible for commissioning Burnham & Root to design the Montauk Block. Lathrop, who maintained his Chicago office in the Montauk, had just arranged with his brother-in-law to offer Holabird & Roche the lease of the office across the hall from his, hence, the two aspiring architects had made the acquaintance of one of Chicago’s leading real estate agents. Aldis had given them a “test” commission of a small addition in 1884 before he then recommended them to the Brookses to design a six-story building for this corner of Dearborn and Harrison.  Aldis had already contracted George Fuller to be the contractor, which is how the two firms met, prior to being commissioned by Wirt Walker to design and build the Tacoma Building.  Anyway, their first Brookses’ project was a victim of the Haymarket slowdown of 1886-8, not be resurrected until 1889.

Holabird & Roche, Caxton Building, 508 S. Dearborn, 1889. Van Osdel’s Monon Building is to the immediate right. (Condit, Chicago)

The facts reveal that Lathrop, Aldis’ brother-in-law was, more than likely, apprised by Aldis of the potential bonanza available in undeveloped Dearborn real estate and “jumped on the bandwagon” by buying an 80’ interior lot on the west side of Dearborn, at 508 S. Dearborn, only a few lots north of the planned location for the Brookses’ building. Lathrop logically commissioned Holabird & Roche to design the building. This occurred after construction had reached the halfway point on the Tacoma and followed the publication of the first renderings of Root’s final design of the Monadnock, so one can understand the design of the Caxton Building as the next iteration of the use of the combined iron frame with lateral walls/masonry curtain wall/bay window construction following the Tacoma Building and the Monadnock Block.

Holabird & Roche, Caxton Building, (Chicagology.com)

The lot was located in what was becoming Chicago’s relocated “Printing House Row,” so not needing any “design incentives” to entice renters, Lathrop settled for a “bare bones” design. As was the case with the two precedents, the narrow site once again cried out for bay windows to increase the rental floor area. With masonry party walls required on both interior edges of the lot, Holabird & Roche simply placed a 12-story steel frame with five bays/four lines of columns within the two party walls. The exterior “curtain wall” was as “plain” was the Monadnock’s; gone were the repetitive horizontal sillcourses of the Tacoma,

The only difference being the Caxton’s cornice was more traditional than Root’s radical coved profile.  Holabird & Roche even reiterated Root’s design of the bay windows: these started at the third floor (whereas those in the Tacoma began at the second) and were stopped one floor lower that the top floor (again, as Root had done versus how they had allowed the Tacoma’s bays to extend into and disrupt the cornice). As what one may credit as having been a response to the negative comments about the Tacoma’s overabundance of glass, Holabird & Roche reduced the size of the windows in the two end bays, even though they, too, were skeleton-framed, thereby again echoing Root’s design. In fact, if one didn’t look at the first two floors, you were looking at a good copy of the Monadnock’s upper floors. 

Holabird & Roche, Caxton Building. Two lowest floors, showing the skeletal construction of the building’s front. Note how the windows in the end bay are much smaller than its “structural” bay. (Condit, Chicago)

It was in the two lowest floors that a difference from the Monadnock was plainly evident.  As they had done in the Tacoma Building, Holabird & Roche let the “thinness” of the steel frame open up these two floors: apparently it was not a “sin” to have too much glass along the siewalk in a building.  As was the case in with the Tacoma Building, the building would have offered a completely different effect during the evenings and the long winter months of early darkness: the upper floors of the building would have appeared to be floating above the building’s luminous base.  Le Corbusier and his “pilotis” of the 1920s had nothing on the early skyscrapers of Holabird & Roche.

Holabird & Roche, Pontiac Building, NW corner of Dearborn and Harrison, 1889. The Caxton Building is at the far right. (Bruegmann, Holabird & Roche)

Meanwhile, a few months later Shepherd Brooks decided to begin construction on the fourteen-story Pontiac Building only four lots south of the Caxton’s construction site, and three blocks south of where the Monadnock Block was under construction.  Coming so close on the heels of the start of the Monadnock, and having the same owner, real estate agent, and contractor, one could view it as it as the half-sister of the Monadnock: half-sister because it was designed by a different architect, Holabird & Roche.  Nonetheless, the Pontiac had many similarities with the Monadnock.  In fact, one could speculate on how much of Burnham & Root’s iron-framed version of the Monadnock was incorporated in the design of the Pontiac (after all, both Aldis and Fuller would have had a set of drawings for this design…).

One immediate difference between the Monadnock and the Pontiac is the different exterior profiles.  Even though both sites had the same 66’ width, while Burnham & Root had reduced the width of the upper floors by 30” which Root celebrated with the gentle curve in the elevation within the second story, Holabird & Roche simply extruded the entire width of the lot for the building’s height, as they had done with the Caxton Building.  

Had Aldis finally understood, or at least suspected that the extra cost of all those curved bricks was not offset by the reduction in amount of floor area and wall surface in the final design of the Monadnock? Therefore, in massing, the Pontiac was just the elongation by two floors of the Caxton. (Even the start and stopping of the bay windows echoed the Caxton, that was a copy of Root’s in the Monadnock.)

Holabird & Roche, Pontiac Building. Under construction: note there is no iron column in the corners. (Bruegmann, Holabird & Roche)

In construction, Shepherd Brooks still clung to his aversion to all steel-framed exteriors but appears to have compromised somewhat.  While the exterior steel framing of the Caxton was used in each of the three streetfronts, the building’s two corners on Harrison were solid load-bearing masonry piers. Although the building had a party wall on the north end, Holabird & Roche decided to place a lateral wall in the second interior columnline, as they had done in the Tacoma Building (and Burnham & Root had done in the Monadnock).

Holabird & Roche, Pontiac Building, Typical floor plan. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

The apparent aversion to the ‘spindliness” of the wide-open elevations of the Tacoma (or had it been a reaction to the cold frost that had formed on the glass during the below zero Chicago winters?) had, as was done with the elevations of the Caxton, forced Holabird & Roche to reduce the amount of glass in the elevations of the Pontiac, giving it the more “solid” look of the Monadnock, even though these elevations were steel-framed. This was accomplished by making the bay windows smaller than the structural bay, filling in the space between the columns and the bay with a masonry partition (see plan).

Holabird & Roche. Left: Tacoma Building Elevation; Right: Pontiac Building Elevation. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

As the elevations above show, Holabird & Roche once again decided to “open up” the elevations of the two stories closest to the sidewalk, revealing the steel frame supporting the floors above.Therefore, in all three buildings, Tacoma, Caxton, and Pontiac, the lower two floors would glow during the evenings and the dark, winter afternoons.

Holabird & Roche, Pontiac Building. Ground floor. (Bruegmann, Holabird & Roche)

One detail that they brought over from the Tacoma was its horizontal accentuation of each floor. This was accomplished not with a projecting sillcourse, but with a course of larger terra cotta blocks set flush with the wall that connected the heads of the windows in each story.  

Holabird & Roche, Pontiac Building. Detail of elevation, Note the continuous horizontal banding at the head of the windows. (Chicago.designslinger)

One innovation they incorporated was the two structural bay-bay window.  That is, rather than putting a bay window over only one bay, they stretched these bay windows over two structural bays, giving it a more fluid form than the one-bay windows also used on the exterior.  The building code had specified only that bay windows could project no more than 36″ over the sidewalk; it never defined how “large” a bay window could be. Some historians say that this was to create more floor space, but the two-bay windows did not project as far out as the one-bay windows, so I don’t think this was the reason for this detail.  Looking at the plan, they detailed a partition “panel” between the bay windows central mullion and the column.  My guess is that, because of this “right-angle,” the two-bay window allowed better furniture placement than did the angular one-bay window.  No matter, on the exterior the two-bay windows imparted a fluidity that recalled the surface undulations of the Monadnock.

To look into the future: Were Burnham & Root just too busy to take on another Brooks’ building (yes, in 1889 they were) or/and was Aldis giving Holabird & Roche the opportunity to show that they were capable of designing a successful large office building, in order to increase his covey of reliable architects.  I read the events that came after to confirm both speculations.  The facts are that following Root’s death, Aldis never commissioned D.H. Burnham & Co. to design another building for the Brookses.  Hoffman stated that Aldis had complained, after Root had died, that the Monadnock came in way over budget as his reason for switching architects.  With the Pontiac Aldis had the ability to compare similar buildings from a cost perspective erected by the same contractor, Fuller. However, as I will discuss in detail in Vol. Seven devoted to the 1893 Fair, I think the real issue was that Aldis truly enjoyed the opportunity to work with Root. He did not have the same enthusiasm for working with Burnham alone, following Root’s death.


Bruegmann, Robert. The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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

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


Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Reconstruction of the structural system in the first (Jackson) section. Drawing by Shaghayegh Missaghi and Ryan Gauquie. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

(A quick note first: you have followed me this far, so believe me when I ask you to reread Section 4.10. I have rewritten it with some new insights that I think you will like.)

In summary, the Monadnock broke little new ground technologically with its traditional “boxed” structure of an exterior of masonry piers surrounding an interior skeleton frame of wrought iron Z-bar columns and steel beams.  Fuller had refined the cantilevered iron structure of the bay windows in the Tacoma Building, that had supported Root’s original detailing of the non-loadbearing brick in the Rookery’s light court. Steel girders spanned between the masonry piers at the point where the bay windows began to cantilever. A tapered steel bracket cantilevered to each corner in the bay windows, that supported a 7” spandrel beam. This bracket was riveted to the girder (that acted as a fulcrum) at which point a floor beam extended to the center line of girders, thereby creating sufficient leverage to offset the potential rotation of the cantilevered bracket.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Detail of how the bay windows are structured. (Leslie, “Monadnock Building”)

The only real challenges faced by Edward C. Shankland, Burnham & Root’s in-house engineer were the overloaded foundations and the extreme wind loads to be resisted by the 16-story building.  As I have stated, the building’s “foundation” actually started at the third floor: the 15” flare of the walls in the second story was larger than what was needed to support the load above. Although this was done explicitly to ameliorate the difference in floor depths between the office floors above and the ground floor, this also began to spread the load in the wall over a greater surface area, i.e., spreading the load or reducing the bearing stress in the masonry: the exact same function of one on the steps in a stepped footing. This had the effect of reducing the height of the footing below, even if it was only by one layer of steel beams in the footing’s grillage.  While Shankland had calculated that the building would settle eight inches, it settled almost 20.”  Nonetheless, the building’s settlement was nearly uniform, leaving the building intact.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Photograph of the south end of the first phase showing the party wall with the arched walkways for the corridor to continue into the next phase. Here one can see the increasing thickness of the long walls as they approach the ground. In order to keep the exterior surface vertical, the extra dimension needed for the increasing thickness was taken from the interior. The Great Northern Hotel is diagonally to the right. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

Thomas Leslie has published a detailed analysis of the building’s structure in Issue IV, 2013 of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Journal from which, in addition to Hoffmann’s book on Root, I am summarizing the building’s structure: The wind problem was exacerbated by the site’s narrow, 66’ width, that resulted in a relatively “thin,” flexible building form in this direction. (Yes, think of it as a wide, vertical diving board.)  In addition to the lateral masonry walls, Shankland also added three other systems for wind bracing.  As each of the the lateral walls, that at times were 4’ 2” in thickness, had to be broken into two “halves” to allow the corridors to run through them, Shankland tied the two “halves” of a wall to act as one with steel trusses that were rigidly connected to the column that was connected to the adjacent edge of each wall, thereby increasing the structural depth of these walls from two 21’ deep walls to one 63’ deep walls (much, much stiffer!). 

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block, phase one. Typical floor plan. Note the extra lateral wall in the Jackson Street section (right), supplying the stiffness lost by the windows in the Jackson elevation. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)

The second system he added was a series of rigid portals comprised of eighteen-inch steel beams that spanned from the interior row of columns, to which they were riveted for their entire depth, to the exterior piers, where they were embedded into the walls for an extra four inches, in an attempt to create a rigid portal between the exterior piers, the column, and the girder for extra stiffness.  The third system consisted of horizontal diagonal bracing in the floors, triangulating each floor, (that is, tying the various piers and columns of the building into a rigid form) and by extension the building as well.  These were 4” by 5/16” thick steel tension straps that ran from the first line of columns to be embedded 4 inches into the masonry piers at which point they were then angled vertically 8” into the brick in order to further anchor the steel into the pier. These were included to resist the building’s tendency to twist or rotate from the foundation caused by the wind.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Structural plan of the eighth floor of the first (Jackson) section, showing the layout of the tie plates to resist the torsion caused by the wind. (Leslie, “Monadnock Building”)


The Monadnock Block is one of, if not the most, misunderstood and misinterpreted buildings in Chicago’s architectural history.

First: following its completion, numerous critics had cited its “plainness” as a negative, therefore many thought that its design had to have been a product of Burnham.  In fact, some didn’t even consider it as architecture because of its lack of traditional ornament.

Second: early European International Style historians proclaimed its “unornamented” exterior and Root’s “honest” expression of its “wall” structure as a herald for the unornamented, structural rationalism of the 1920s.  The next logical leap in this train of thought was to claim that Mies van der Rohe’s post-WWII Chicago buildings represented the reincarnation of the Chicago School of the 1880s, hence, it was dubbed “the Second Chicago School.” (As I have portrayed may times, if one is looking for a Second Chicago School, it was the “American modern” Art Deco skyscrapers of the late 1920s, a movement led by none other than Root’s son, John Wellborn Root, Jr., of the firm Holabird & Root.)

Holabird & Root (Designer: John Wellborn Root, Jr.), Chicago Board of Trade, 1925. (Online)

The facts are that the building’s structure is not a masonry wall, even though Root’s design made it “look” like a wall.  Shepherd Brooks had denied the extensive use of iron framing in the building’s exterior, but this didn’t require the use of a brick wall.  Architects had been designing buildings with masonry piers since the beginning of history, and the Monadnock Block was just one more example.  This should be obvious when one looks at the building’s elevation: there is more void (the bay windows) in the building’s vertical surface than there is masonry. 

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Elevation, showing the proportional amounts of wall vs. void. (Leslie, Chicago)

Root never intended to express the structure in his final design of the Monadnock (other than in the placement of the windows: flush vs. deep).  As I keep stating, there were more design concepts used by the Chicago School architects than only expressing the building’s structure. This is where the misunderstanding/misinterpretation of Root’s design begins.  Even some contemporary critics, who now have a better understanding of the actual structure, fault Root for making the building look like a monolithic wall, when it is not one.  They are still blinded by the “structural expression” mantra.  Root had mastered the “structural expression” of the iron frame in the elevations of the Rookery’s lightcourt, and had already moved on to other design challenges.  As was the case with the Rand-McNally Building, he was exploring the challenge of expressing the building’s skin/curtain wall as a continuous membrane or surface: he had already done so in the Rand-McNally’s 158’ long by 10-story high, unbroken surface of terra cotta, and would follow the Monadnock with a third iteration of the continuous skin in the Great Northern (Chicago) Hotel.

Burnham & Root, Chicago (Great Northern) Hotel, NE corner of Dearborn and Jackson, 1890. Root’s third building employing the continuous surface of the curtain wall. This time he turned the corner with cylindrical bay windows. (Hoffmann, Root)

In his design for the Monadnock, he had accepted the office building’s function for this particular site: a ground floor hugging the lotlines, while the office floors were pulled back from the lotlines to be as efficient as possible. This  established the building’s overall form.  He then detailed the exterior surface as one continuous surface, as he had done in the Rand-McNally Building.  The challenge for Root this time was that instead of the exterior being just a two-dimensional plane like the Rand-McNally, the Monadnock gave him the opportunity to extend the idea of the continuous surface over a three-dimensional form: he got to address the challenge in turning the corners of the building: i.e., avoiding a sharp edge to prevent the exterior from reading as two intersecting planes, so that one could perceive it only as a three-dimensional object. (Note that he used cylindrical bay windows to turn the corners in the Great Northern Hotel.) As he had done in his better designs, Root had chosen a leitmotif for the Monadmock: to lyrically recall (not copy) the form of the Egyptian pylon.  With the addition of his plan to incorporate a gradation of color within the building’s exterior, he had designed not “just a building,” but, in the spirit of the great Wagner, a gesamtkunstwerk, that is, “a total work of architecture.”


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.

Leslie, Thomas. “The Monadnock Building, Technically Reconsidered.” Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Journal, 2013 Issue IV.

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


Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-6, Art Institute of Chicago. (Online)

“Out of this chaos of color the new art will arise as great as music itself.  Then will come the complete unification of the arts [gesamtkunstwerk] for which [Richard] Wagner labored.”

Thus Root wrote in June 1883 in his article, “Art of Pure Color.” Denied by Peter Brooks the option of incorporating carved ornament in the exterior of the Monadnock, Root, in addition to treating its massing as a giant piece of sculpture, had resurrected his 1883 polychromatic scheme for the exterior of the Rialto Building, as an attempt to give the building a claim at being a legitimate piece of architecture (art). Undoubtedly, the criticism of his earlier Brooks-controlled Montauk Block still reverberated in the back of his mind. Six years, however, had passed since he wrote the lines above, and while he had done little towards achieving his goal of using “modern” color in his buildings, the younger Sullivan had continued to push the boundaries of color in his theater interiors, until his ultimate creation, the interior of the Auditorium, was being readied for its grand opening, only five months away in December (v.4, sec. 6.3).

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. (Photo courtesy Jyoti Srivastava: chicago-architecture-jyoti.blogspot.com)

Sullivan chose a warm, but neutral ivory for the base color for the theater, using an oil paint, and then applied 23-carat gold leaf to create highlights around the room.  “A single idea or principle is taken as a basis of the color scheme [in each public room], that is to say, use is made of but one color in each instance, and that color is associated with gold.  The color selected varies with each room treated, but the plan of using one color with gold is in no case departed from.  Thus the main Auditorium is in old ivory and gold…in graded tones.” 

Sullivan chose his theme for the space characteristically not from history, but from nature; the cycles of nature and human life: growth and decadence.  There was, seemingly, no two points in the space that had the same color. The four main elliptical arches that spanned the great hall were given the primary focus by being “treated in a scientific manner.  They are dark at the base and light at the springing of the arch.  This gives atmosphere and lightness to the arch.” He tinted the color ever darker as one’s eyes moved farther away from the stage.  As the eye also moved across the room from the south (right side) of the hall, sunrise, to the north (left side), sunset, he also darkened the color as a metaphor of the sun’s daily path. 

William Pretyman, Banking Hall, Cleveland Society For Savings Bank, 1887. (Online)

It was somewhat easier for Sullivan to explore the potentials of color because Adler’s acumen for acoustics had garnered a number of theater projects, offering Sullivan large spaces that could be swathed with paint of all hues.  True, Root had finally found a kindred spirit in the use of color, William Pretyman, and the two had collaborated in the richly-colored ground floor spaces in Cleveland’s Society for Savings Bank, but the only large surfaces Root had to experiment with were the exteriors of his office buildings.  The 215’ x 200’ long canvas of the Monadnock offered just such an opportunity.  

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.”

Owen Jones, Plans, Sections, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambra, Title page, 1841. (Flores, Jones)

For Root, as with all “modern” artists during the mid-1800s, the only topic more important than “color” was “truth.”  In my earlier sections (3.7.14; 3.10.11; 3.10.12; 3.10.13; 3.10.14; 3.10.15; 3.10.21), I have traced both Root’s and Sullivan’s interest in color in art starting with Owen Jones’ 1834 study of the use of polychromy in the Alhambra, that he had serially published between 1836 and 1845 as the Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra. John Ruskin soon engaged this topic with his 1849 book The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which he stated in “The Lamp of Beauty:” 

“And the first broad conclusion we shall deduce from observance of natural colour in such cases will be that it never follows form, but is arranged on an entirely separate system. What mysterious connection there may be between the shape of the spots on an animal’s skin and its anatomical system, I do not know, nor even if such a connection has in anywise been traced: but to the eye the systems are entirely separate, and in many cases that of colour is accidentally variable. The stripes of a zebra do not follow the lines of its body or limbs,—still less the spots of a leopard. In the plumage of birds, each feather bears a part of the pattern which is arbitrarily carried over the body, having indeed certain graceful harmonies with the form, diminishing or enlarging in directions which sometimes follow, but also not unfrequently oppose, the directions of its muscular lines. Whatever harmonies there may be, are distinctly like those of two separate musical parts, coinciding here and there only—never discordant, but essentially different. I hold this, then, for the first great principle of architectural colour. Let it be visibly independent of form.”

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, c. 1842, Tate Britain. (Online)

By this time Ruskin had already assumed the leadership mantle as the leading art critic of Great Britain with his 1843 first volume of Modern Painters, in which he came to the defense of J.M.W. Turner. Without reservation he claimed that Turner and other “modern” landscape painters were more “artistic” than the renowned early traditional landscape painters who merely had invented scenes in their studios. Turner observed nature and “truthfully” represented it without resorting to any “academic” conventions.  Ruskin became a champion of the British “moderns” in the ongoing (and as this is in Great Britain, I will use my English interpretation of the phrase from now on), the War of the “Academics” vs. the Moderns. 

Doge’s Palace, Venice, ca. 1340. (Author’s collection)

He had extended his advocacy of the “modern” into architecture in 1849 with The Seven Lamps of Architecture.  He clarified his position in the 1851 publication of his first volume of The Stones of Venice, in which in the first chapter he declared the Doge’s Palace in Venice as “the central building of the world.”

“SECTION XXIV. The work of the Lombard [Northern European] was to give hardihood and system to the enervated body and enfeebled mind of Christendom [Rome]; that of the Arab was to punish idolatry, and to proclaim the spirituality of worship.  The Lombard covered every church which he built with the sculptured representations of bodily exercises—hunting and war…

“The Arab banished all imagination of creature form from his temples, and proclaimed from their minarets, “There is no god but God.”  Opposite in their character and mission, alike in their magnificence of energy, they came from the North, and from the South, the glacier torrent and the lava stream: they met and contended over the wreck of the Roman empire; and the very centre of the struggle, the point of pause of both, the dead water of the opposite eddies, charged with embayed fragments of the Roman wreck, is VENICE.

“The Ducal palace of Venice contains the three elements in exactly equal proportions—the Roman, Lombard, and Arab.  It is the central building of the world.”

Undoubtedly because of this passage, Root had always held a special place for Venice in his artistic heart, as we will see time and again. Most certainly, he had included the city in his 1886 European itinerary.  First, however, I want to show that Root was not a blind sycophant of Ruskin. In 1877, James Abbott McNeill Whistler exhibited his 1874 painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Yes, the same Whistler that Jenney had run with in Paris during 1858-60. v.3; sec. 2.10.) in a show consciously curated as an alternative to the annual Royal Academy of Art exhibition (i.e., the War of the Academics vs. the Moderns).  Ruskin published a review of Whistler’s painting; “[I have] never expected to hear a coxcomb [a dandy] ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  Whistler sued Ruskin for defamation and while the jury found in his favor, awarded him only one farthing while making each of them split the court costs.  This had bankrupted the painter.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874, Detroit Institute of Arts. (Online)

Six years later, in his 1883 “Art of Pure Color,” when both parties were still very much alive, Root took Ruskin to task for attacking Whistler, “the real apostle of color:”

“Yet in [Ruskin’s] analysis of [color] he seems curiously blind to the right of color to be recognized as an independent art, and was so far astray in his perception of its proper and higher function that, in the whirligig of time, he found himself arrayed against Whistler, in a cause where Whistler was the real apostle of color…

“When the “London Bridge and Fireworks” was shown to this jury, someone asked which was the bridge, greatly to the artist’s discomfiture and the audience’s amusement.  Now there was no cause for discomfiture nor the qualification on his part.  Had the jury, the eminent defendant and the judge been actual spectators of the scene under similar circumstances, the identical question would have been to them quite puzzling.  The merit of the artist here considered is the fact that he was able to translate into pigments effects which were in their nature too vague to be drawn.

“The criticism applied to Whistler has been equally applied to all of the “Impressionists”… People, whose highest ideal of art was reached in a Dutch painting of a cabbage leaf, laughed with infinite glee at Corot, because he might paint a tree in full foliage, on which the closest scrutiny failed to find a leaf.  Yet the same critic would calmly tell that he was walking in a lane at dusk, and saw something which was either a man or a cow – the difference between himself and the artist (I had almost said cow) being that one could depict what he saw – the other could not.”

I repeated this section from Root’s paper not only to show Root’s intimate knowledge of contemporary artists and events in Europe, but also his commitment to those pursuing a similar approach to his in regards to color. There can be no doubt on what side of the War of the Academics vs. the Moderns Root stood.

Owen Jones, Osler Crystal’s Showroom, London, 1858. (Flores, Jones)

Why did he want to use color on the Monadnock? First, he was truly committed to pursuing color as an art unto itself (v.3; sec. 10.11-4). Second, because of Chicago’s pollution, as he stated in his 1883 article, “The Art of Pure Color:”

“Think for a moment what our streets might become, if to the somber grays of stone or reds of brick were added the full unfading bloom [there’s that term of Owen Jones again: the same word used by critics to describe the effect that Jones had achieved with his use of primary colors in his designs that spanned from the 1851 Crystal Palace to London’s St. James’ Hall] of [non-absorbing] glass, marble, and tiles.  These combined by artists.. would fill our cities with the eternal joy of color… [Compare Root’s urban ideal vs. Burnham’s “White City” in 1893…] Look back but a few years and recall the period when red brick began to be used with some appreciation of its inherent beauty. What oases in our street architecture these glowing walls of brick presented, contrasted as they were with all the smoke-begrimed and smoke-absorbing stone fronts! [my emphasis]…in a few years there will be everywhere, as in a lovely symphony, the full verdure of woods, the warm blue of summer sky, the eternal joyousness of blooming flowers, crystallized into unfading colors, and greeting us in our daily avocations.”

Once again, Root is getting dangerously close to German Expressionism, this time to Paul Scheerbart’s theory of colored glass in his 1914 Glasarchitektur, written some thirty years later. In fact, one could compare Scheerbart’s mysticism with Root’s beliefs in the Swedenborgian church.  (For more on this, please see Merwood-Salisbury, p. 72.)

Root revealed his interest in Venice with his intimate knowledge of Murano glass:

“[The potential of colored blown glass] was recognized by artists in Venice… [Antonio] Salviati has revived [in 1859] some of the glories of old Venetian glass.”

Root was referring to the hand-blown colored glass manufactured in Murano, the manufacturing village of Venetian glass that employed striking colors and patterns.  Being translucent, the glass generates a myriad of effects depending upon how light impinges on it.  Murano glass production was first interrupted by Napoleon’s capture of Venice in 1797, and then further paused during the period of Venice’s transference to the Austrian empire, until Italian independence in 1866 saw the resurrection of Murano’s glass production.  I am quite certain that among the cities Root had visited during his 1886 European tour, Venice must have been on the schedule.  While Murano’s colored glass undoubtedly reinforced his views on “pure color,” I believe it was Venice’s other “craft” village, Burano, famous for its lace-making, that influenced his ideas for cities “filled with the eternal joy of color.”  The city has been famous for its brightly-painted buildings, so famous that an owner still must submit a request to repaint his/her building. 

Burano, Venice. (Online)

In 1889 how would Root have constructed such an exterior color scheme in the Monadnock? Glazed brick had a few years of further development in the U.S. before such an application would become feasible. (The white-glazed brick in the Rookery’s light court was imported from Britain.) Therefore, Root would have had George Fuller assemble whatever colored (indigenous clay) brick was available in the U.S. For example, Milwaukee was known for its cream-(yellow)colored brick while Philadelphia produced its famous red brick. (Hence, the limited palette of browns, reds, and yellows.)  Then Fuller’s masons would have the job to make the transitions from one color to another by gradually changing the percentage of the two colors of the brick in each course from 0% until the next color above was 100%.

George A. Fuller, Construction of the Monadnock Block, c.1891. (urbanremainschicago.com)

While Root’s 1886 itinerary is missing, we must assume that he also had visited Paris, if for no other reason to view the latest canvasses by the Impressionists, whose work he followed as kindred spirits in the use of color (see v.3, sec.10-14).  Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was first exhibited in Paris that May in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition (again as an alternative to the annual Salon curated by the Académie des Beaux Arts). Seurat’s painting technique employed only points of pure color, pointillism. (Today the same idea is referred to as pixilation.)  Seurat’s monumental painting then reappeared later that summer in August’s Salon of the Société des Artistes Indédependants. The dates are important because Root was touring Europe during the summer of 1886.  It is intriguing to stand in front of the painting in the Art Institute of Chicago and imagine what Root would have been thinking as his studied the painting.  (If Root had not died in 1891, the painting would now be hanging in the Art Institute as designed by Root. Full circle!)  Seurat’s use of pointillism to achieve a “bloom of color” was simply a reinterpretation of the traditional mosaic of small pieces of color to achieve a figural representation. The only difference between Seurat’s points of color and Root’s use of colored bricks was scale: Root’s canvas was 215’ high and 200’ long.

What I find most surprising is that Peter Brooks let the design team work on this idea for almost a year before he squashed it in May 1890, choosing instead obsidian purple-brown, the same color of brick that had been used on the Rookery.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block. Original 1889 color palette. (Colors added by Signe Luebbers)
Schwartz & Gross, Central Park West at 66th St., New York, 1930. An example of Root’s proposal to vary the color of the brick in a tall building from dark at the base to light at the top to make it appear even taller. This is one of the reasons I consider Chicago’s Art Deco skyscrapers to be the true “Second Chicago School,” and not the European International Style. (Robinson/Bletter, Skyscraper Style)


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)