Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple, Chicago, NE corner of State and Randolph, 1890. Looking east along Randolph. (Online)

So what would Root have used as his theme or concept for the design of the exterior of the Masonic Temple?

1. This was not just another speculative office building like the Rookery.  It had a very special client that needed to be architecturally symbolized, much like the Woman’s Temple.

2. This was planned to be Chicago’s tallest building. It would be seen from almost everywhere, therefore, it deserved a “unique,” specifically-designed top that would complete it, rather than a flat roof like how he had topped the Chicago Hotel.

Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, The Dakota Apartments. View from Central Park. (Stern, New York-1880)

3. The first time I saw this photo of The Dakota in Robert Stern’s book New York 1880 I immediately understood Root’s design for the top of the Masonic Temple. Once again, and by now this should seem to you to be a recurring theme: Root was using a New York building, however this time not designed by George Post, as his inspiration for another of his designs of a Chicago building. (If you want to review this point, please refer to v.6. sec.1.4.)

4. Because of its height, the building’s construction would be steel framing. As opposed to the Chicago Hotel, whose rooms didn’t require the same amount of daylight, this building was to have not only offices, but also shops that also required a maximum of daylight, i.e. large windows.

Therefore, Root had no alternative for the overall language of the building but to minimize the size of the column coverings to maximize the size of the windows.(Hoffmann included an interesting detail: he stated that the columns’ masonry cladding was not supported on the frame at every floor but only at three points: the ground, the fifth story, and the 16th story.) Root could have either covered the entire twenty stories with one continuous surface, like he did with the Chicago Hotel and Monadnock, and then carve in it as large of windows as possible, or he employ the pier-and-spandrel language of a number of his previous designs.   From the final design of the elevations, Root had made the decision to emphasize the building’s verticality by detailing the piers as continuous vertical lines.  As one studies the elevational designs of his skyscrapers, the break point for him in designing either a balance of horizontals and verticals versus an unashamedly vertical elevation appears to have been 14 stories (Monadnock and the Chicago Hotel using their bay windows, and Masonic Temple with its unbroken piers).  In all his other shorter skyscrapers (including the Mills Building in San Francisco that came after these three), one finds Root trying to achieve a repose between the vertical and horizontal lines in the elevation. But once a building was at least 14 stories, it seems Root felt that such a repose was unachievable with these taller proportions and simply decided to celebrate the height of the building.  It was finally time to meet Buffington on his own ground: the piers of the Masonic Temple would be unleashed and the spandrels correspondingly recessed so as to create a vertical rush to the top similar to how the unbroken bay windows in the Monadnock Block read.

This did not, however, mean that Root had to apply the pier-and-spandrel language equally across the face of the building.  This is where the art of composition came into play. Similar to the Woman’s Temple, the Masonic Temple’s plan was a U-shape: two parallel wings linked by the State Street front.  In addition to the plan, the Masons’ major halls were to be located on top of each of these wings.  Root expressed the location of these halls with a 60° gable roof.  Rather than turning the corners of the building with this roof as he had done it the Woman’s Temple, however, he extended the front wall so that it intersected the gable roofs, not only expressing the structure of the trusses spanning the halls, but also forming an equilateral triangle, one of the symbols of the Masons (more on this later).  He had achieved a triple synthesis in this design: function, design/massing, and symbol: rare indeed, and underappreciated by critics. The gables defined the widths of the wings of the U-plan that Root expressed in the façade by recessing the remaining central piece of the façade, creating in essence, corner pavilions, his favorite elevational compositional technique (every skyscraper he designed, with the exception of the Calumet had thickened corners. In this category I include the curved corner bays of the Chicago Hotel and the Woman’s Temple).  Each corner pavilion he then further defined with wider corner piers at each side (the widened interior piers also expressed where the lines of windbracing were located). within which he then set an arcade (three arches in the corner pavilions, five between the bookend corner pavilions.

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Base. Note how the base is not solid but stands on the piers. Also, look at how Root has carried the bay windows down into the granite base, creating an interlocked joint between the grantie base and the brick body above. (Online)

Root detailed the first three floors as an appropriately–scaled base for such a tall building, sheathing it with a gray granite. He might have been able to get away with only a two-story base, but the dimensions of the entry arch were such that after Shankland had calculated the size of the transfer beam need to carry the seventeen floors above it, Root needed a third floor of granite to integrate the blind arcade above the arch that he used to hide the beam.  As in all his skyscrapers, the granite base was not detailed as a wall that met that ground but a series of piers, once again expressing the fact that this building was built with a steel frame and not a bearing wall.

The upper seventeen floors were enclosed with a matching mottled gray brick brick curtain wall that Root articulated into a 13-story arcade, a transition floor, and then a three-story top. The lowest floor (floor 4) of the arcade was detailed as a transition from the granite below to the unbroken run of eleven stories of brick above with a projected sillcourse that ran around the entire body of the building at the fifth floor, paralleling how Root had detailed the joint between the granite and the brick at the fourth floor.  Then came ten repetitive stories with their unbroken vertical piers and recessed spandrels.  

Burnham and Root, Masonic Temple. Exterior from Floor 16 to the top of the skylight. Note that the windows in the Observation Deck are open.. (Hoffmann, Root)

In the 14th story Root began to visually slow down the eye with the incremental addition of detail by first starting a thin projected vertical line of bricks in the piers of the 14th story that continued all the way to the top of each arch and then returned back down. Then he added ornament to the spandrels in floors 15 and 16 (the spandrels were unornamented until this point). Finally, the piers were brought to a stop by the arches that had the heaviest brick detailing (i.e., darkest texture and shadow) between the upper edge of the arch and the sillcourse of the 17th floor. And yes, the arched windows had the “proper” tripartite division by mullions.

Before we move to the top of the building, a word about the addition of the bay windows: why?  I mean why were they needed?  It was already, without such extras, one of the larger floor areas ever constructed.  The stores on floors three through ten couldn’t really use them to any advantage. This may explain why there were only three added on the State Street elevation: one in the center of each corner pavilion, and only one meager bay placed in the center bay of the five central arches.  In other words, there were eleven bays across the State Street façade, and only three of these contained a bay window. While I can question their value, I can compliment the designer in how he continued the bay windows from the brick body down into the third-floor granite, thereby creating an interlock between the brick and granite that softened, and enriched the joint between these two different materials. 

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple, Randolph façade. (researchgate.net)

Let’s also have a brief word about the two side elevations before we address the top.  As much as the wider piers in the State Street elevation made compositional sense, these same elements had NO COMPOSITIONAL REASON to exist on the side elevations.  If I wanted to be an apologist for Root, I might point out that in the side elevations the addition of widened piers “kinda” created corner pavilions on the two side elevations as well… but then this holds only as long as one doesn’t continue looking up to the roof where there is no such corresponding articulation, Oops… This problem is then compounded by the incorporation of the bay windows in this elevation. The “corner pavilions” have an even number (two) structural bays, not three.  So, where does one put the bay window without making this “pavilion” look lopsided?  Can’t be done.  At least there are an odd number of bays across the entire elevation so that the middle bay window is symmetric.  But then take a look at the plan and see if he did this same mistake on the north face… Nope, this elevation has its bay windows in each of the pavilions in the opposite side.  Of course, you might say, well, nobody is ever going to catch this mistake, because nobody will ever see the two sides at the same time. There is simply no excuse for such carelessness; this is not wit that we expect from Root, this was a simplistic inversion of the bay windows from one side to the other with no reason. This willfulness was and is, inexcusable in architecture, and one must wonder whether this detail was changed after Root was dead?  The two side elevations should have been the same: wider piers at both corners as bookends, with seven equal, repetitive arched bays running between these. (As he had done correctly in the State Street elevation and would also do so in the elevations of the Mills Building in San Francisco, his next design.)  If bay windows were required, these should have been located in bays 2, 4, and 6, as was done in the north elevation.

With The Dakota’s double-gabled roof motif as his precedent, Root used the triangles at either side of the elevation to symbolically express the building’s owner and occupants: Chicago’s Masonic Order.  Given the formal symbols of the Masonic Order, especially the compass and framing square, the triangle, and the Eye of Providence, it would have been natural in Root’s design process to have played with their symbolic potential in this location.    Each of the two floors that contained Masonic Spaces (fl.s 17 and 18) were articulated separate from the “skeletal” lower body by being detailed as a horizontal, planar surface into which were carved square-headed windows.  Both stories were given an emphatic horizontal accent that not only combined with the arcade to stop the vertical rise of the piers below, but also provided the necessary base and transition to the 50’ tall double-gabled roof.  This was especially true at night, when the lit repetitive windows would have created a glowing base for the triangles above, and as the Masons’ meetings typically took place during the evenings, would have signaled to those outside of the Order that a meeting was in session. This is not the first time I have mentioned Root’s use of electric light as a new design medium in the exteriors of his buildings.

Left: Masonic Temple; Center: The Reverse side of the Great Seal of the U.S., showing an unfinished pyramid (with 13 layers, one for each of the original states) being watched over by the All-seeing Eye of Providence (God), occupying the pyramid’s capstone. Right: The Reverse side of the Great Seal of the U.S.: the All-seeing Eye of Providence (God) occupying the pyramid’s capstone;

The massive 50’ triangles were then further broken with a rectilinear geometry of lines that resulted in the formation of a smaller, central triangle in which a circular window was placed: an abstracted Masonic symbol of the All-seeing Eye of God within the capstone of a pyramid. This symbol was approved for the reverse of the Great Seal of the U.S. in 1782. (This did not appear on the one-dollar bill until 1935.) Is it coincidence that Root has surrounded this triangle along its two upper sides with 13 steps, the same number of layers (13 original states) in the unfinished pyramid in the Seal? It appears that the circle was a glass window that, if so, lighted would have looked down upon the city at night, hovering above the two parallel lines of lit windows of the two Masonic floors.

I also must admit that Root’s conscious thickening of the top two sides (and not the bottom) of the triangular gables, in both their width, but even more so their three-dimensional thickness that Root detailed to extend beyond the surface of the roof in back of it, evokes in my eyes an inverted squaring frame in the Masonic symbol of the compass and framing square that even though it is at a 60° angle, is, coincidentally, the same open angle of the compass. This design was not repeated on the two triangles on the east elevation.


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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.  New York: Horizon, 1967.

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

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

Wolner, Edward W., “Chicago’s Fraternity Temples.” Roberta Moudry (ed.), The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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


Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Above: Plan 18th Floor; Below: Plan 17th Floor. They were almost identical except for the exterior windows. I have dashed in the cantilevered walkways seen in the atrium photo that do not appear in these originals. It is apparent that these were added not only for privacy screening, but also to permit access to the smaller center hall without having to move through the larger halls. (Architectural Record, March 27, 1893)

The rooms for the Masons and their secret rituals were located on floors 17-18, high above the sidewalks and completely out of sight from the non-member.  The building’s floor plan had been so designed and structured to provide large, 50’ by 111’ column-free halls with capacities of 1300 people for balls and banquets on the North and the South sides of each of these floors, that were linked by a smaller hall on the West or State Street front.

The seventeenth story was spanned by 3’ deep lattice girders that not only had sufficient depth to support the large live loads of Masonic events performed on the eighteenth floor, but also to act as tierods for the A-framed trusses that spanned the eighteenth story. 

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Left: Section through Floors 17 to the skylight; Right: Construction of the roof trusses. (Online)

These trusses not only gave the rooms on this floor a 20.5’ high ceiling which allowed for the insertion of balconies in the vaulted ceiling, but also supported the smaller nineteenth floor. 

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Left: Plan of the Observation Deck. Note the stairway immediately above the atrium, coming up to this level; Right: Plan of Floor 19. Visitors bound for the Observation deck would step out of their elevator on this level and proceed up the stairs to the Wintergarden. (Architectural Record, March 27, 1893)

 The nineteenth floor housed the men’s toilet rooms and barbershops.  The A-framed structural solution bore a remarkable resemblance to Post’s design of the top floor of his Western Union Building, built some fifteen years earlier, providing yet another precedent of Post’s work for Root’s designs.


Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Rooftop Observation Deck and Wintergarden. (chicagology.com)

As a response to not only the success of the Auditorium’s new observation deck, but also to Madison Square Garden’s rooftop beergarden, the project’s leaders decided to make the rooftop (the twenty-first floor, as there was a mechanical space or twentieth floor squeezed in between the 19th and the roof) a combined wintergarden and observation deck.  While the Chicago Hotel had a rooftop summer garden, an enclosed greenhouse would not only continue to draw paying customers year-round, but also better encourage those who were of weaker heart to experience the open-air elevator cab ride with the hope that they would come back to visit the ten floors of shopping without any reservation.  There were four express elevators that whisked visitors up to the nineteenth floor, from which they would then climb up two flights of Root’s open ironwork stairway along the edge of the vast chasm that was sheathed with mirrors at this level (if the faint-of-heart didn’t lose it at this point, looking down into a 300’ deep well that at its top was lined with mirrors…) and into the artificial Garden of Eden in the sky.  (During the gray, cold Chicago winter, the warm and lush world of the Observation deck would most definitely have seemed to be “heavenly,” in more then one way!)

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Above: Top four floors of the East (the business side) elevation. The windows on floors 18 and 19 have elevators in front of them. Floor 20 appears to have a blank wall (although the mechanical room here with the elevator equipment could have used the daylight (its hard to determine from this photo). The Obsevation Windows of the 21st Floor give an unobstructed view down to the street and out to the lake. Below: Framing sections of the skylight.
Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Framing sections of the skylight.
Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Plan of Roofdeck (Floor 21). This is my best reconstruction: visualize the stairs starting at the 19th floor with only a hole for the stairs in the roof deck for the runs coming from the landing-see drawing below. Note there are no elevators on this level so as not to obstruct the view of the lake. Also note that only the East (lake) windows are flush with the building’s exterior, i.e., one can look straight down to the street. The other three sides look down on the sloping roof. (Architectural Record, March 27, 1893)
Burnham and Root, Masonic Temple. Exterior from Floor 16 to the top of the skylight. Note that the windows in the Observation Deck are open. Also note the exposed steel trussed arches that support the skylight. (Hoffmann, Root)

The Conservatory was completely enclosed with a sloped glass roof that ran up from the building’s edge, where there were radiators to provide heat for the winter, to the vast skylight that covered the atrium.  Sliding panels of glass lined the perimeter walls of the Conservatory that could be opened on a summer day.  Similar to how Armand Moisant had detailed the skylight in the Bon Marché, Burnham & Root placed the skylight’s iron structure outside of glass making the glass from the inside seemingly to float effortlessly above the atrium.  From the Observation deck, a visitor had a 360° unobstructed vista of Lake Michigan sparkling in the east, and the infinite plains disappearing to the horizon on the north, west, and south.  This view was unobstructed because the architects had stopped the elevators at the nineteenth floor and made visitors walk up two flights of stairs.  This was necessary because the elevators’ mechanical space, above each shaft, was located in the “hidden” twentieth floor, so that it did not raise its head into the Observation deck. Had the elevators run any higher, say to the rooftop, these, in addition to their mechanical room above would have blocked the most important view: looking to the East out over Lake Michigan.

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple.  Rooftop Observation Deck and Wintergarden.  Note the stairway from the 19th Floor at the right center.  (Wolner, The American Skyscraper)


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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.  New York: Horizon, 1967.

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

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

Wolner, Edward W., “Chicago’s Fraternity Temples.” Roberta Moudry (ed.), The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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


Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Exterior from Floor 16 to the top of the skylight. Note that the windows in the Observation Deck are open. Also note the exposed steel trussed arches that support the skylight. (Hoffmann, Root)

The challenge of designing and erecting this building was not, by any means, eased by its intended program, for this was not to be your ordinary 1890 office building.  Anticipating the demand that the Fair would generate for new hotel rooms it had been Gassette’s original plan to incorporate a hotel in the project, but at some point the hotel was replaced by a much more ambitious idea: a vertical shopping arcade.  (The recent construction spate of office towers had created a surplus of office space.) Up to this time, very few American cities offered the upscale shopper a commercial venue that offered the comfort of shopping within the protection from the elements that the Parisian shopping arcade provided (once again, Cincinnati was one of the few American cities that did, since 1876 with the Emory Arcade while Chicago did not).  The covered shopping street protected one from the weather, from the traffic on the street with its inherent smell of horses and manure, and from the hustle, bustle, and crime of crowded urban sidewalks.  This idea seemed to Gassette and his architects to make sense, on paper at least, that such a building in Chicago could succeed, especially given the city’s long, cold winters.  After all, it was to be located on the city’s major shopping street, State Street.  Therefore, Chicago’s tallest building would be built neither on Dearborn nor LaSalle, but on the northeast corner of State and Randolph, opposite Marshall Field’s store, where Potter Palmer had started the rotation of Chicago’s commercial grid from Lake to State Street.  Coincidently, and most appropriately, Chicago’s tallest vertical grid would mark the point where Chicago’s streetgrid had first rotated from its East-West river orientation to meet the railroad with a North-South emphasis.

But there was even more planned than just a new type of shopping venue, for this building was intended as a response to New York’s Madison Square Garden. As I had mentioned earlier, although the House of Representatives had voted on February 24, 1890, to give the Fair to Chicago, this was only the first of a number of decisions that had to be made before President Harrison could truly make Chicago the site of the Fair by issuing a proclamation inviting all nations to come to Chicago (that didn’t happen until November 26, twenty days after the laying of the cornerstone, and those would, indeed, be intense days for Burnham and Root).  In other words, the battle of one-upmanship between New York and Chicago was far from over when the Temple’s building permit was granted on June 21, 1890, only five days after the grand opening of Madison Square Garden with its 304’ high tower and observation deck.  Hell, Chicago was about to erect an entire skyscraper as tall as that spindly little tower. And to top it off, its wintergarden wouldn’t be only five floors above the ground, but twenty!

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Above: typical office floor (11-16) plan. Note the inner ring of offices that look onto the atrium, but do not have direct access to fresh air or day light; Below: typical shopping floor (3-10) plan. (Architectural Record, May 13, 1893)

So the first ten floors of the Masonic Temple would be designed as what today is termed a vertical shopping mall around a vertical atrium.  While large department stores, like A. T. Stewart’s in New York and Shillito’s in Cincinnati, had been designed as a stack of floors around an interior atrium during the past thirty years, this was going to be a completely different concept.  Instead of one store with its various floors built around an atrium in which the customer had already entered, a great number of stores would be arranged around the vertical space.  The challenge was to first get the customer to enter the building, and then once in, entice her to travel to the tenth floor to arrive at a particular store to shop.  Would this be as, more, or less desirable than walking along State Street?  Gassette showed his concern not only over this issue, but also over the fear of heights of potential customers by not numbering the floors in the shopping zone (so as “to do away with the idea of altitude”), but by naming them instead after distinguished Masons that “allowed Mrs. Browne to be shot up to Smith Street, instead of starting with the idea of going up to the nineth floor.”

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Ground Floor Plan. Note how the stairways were placed to either side, permitting an unobstructed approach to the elevators. (Architectural Record, May 13, 1893)

Burnham’s U-plan concept lined the two street fronts and the north alley face with single-loaded commercial space around a central atrium that opened to the east.  The site wasn’t deep enough to complete a doughnut plan and still have an atrium wide enough to balance its interior height of 300,’ so he closed the eastern face with a curved bank of 14 elevators to complete the atrium. The extreme height of the atrium meant that the architects would have to employ every trick in the book to coerce sufficient daylight to penetrate into the lower floors, even though they had resorted to the window wall behind the elevator tracks, similar to how they designed the Phoenix Building. 

Burnham & Root, Phœnix Building. South (rear) elevation.. The windows behind the four elevators that were supported by iron skeleton framing. (urbanremainschicago.com)

They also lined the storefronts between the balcony and the shops with large plate glass windows. This not only provided clear views into the shops to entice customers to come in, but also allowed daylight from the exterior windows to bounce into the atrium.  The last detail they employed to maximize the use of daylight was using highly polished materials on all the surfaces: alabaster-encased columns, marble-sheathed ceilings, mosaic tile floors, and even mirrors in the upper levels of the atrium, to help reflect daylight into the atrium. 

George H. Edbrooke, Adams Express Building, Chicago, 1883. (Online)

A shopper would enter the building under the colossal 30’-6” high by 29’ wide granite arch, (this was not, however, the largest entry arch in Chicago, that honor still belonged to George Edbrooke’s 35’ wide cyclopian arch in the Adams Express Building of 1883: v.3, sec.7.15),  through a double-doored vestibule to minimize the stack effect, and into a relatively low vestibule, not unlike the Rookery entrance sequence.  This space provided the spatial transition or compression that set the stage for the shock of entering into the tallest space in the U.S., the 20-story, 300’ high atrium. (This was twice the height of the tallest Gothic nave in Europe, Beauvais Cathedral at 138′ as well as that of St. Peter’s at 152.’ I thought that, of course, the interior height of St. Peter’s dome was much taller, but then I tried to find this dimension, could not find it other than it is 240′ to the start of the dome with a diameter of 138.’ Thist calculates a height to the dome’s oculus as 309′ so the Temple’s atrium appears to have been as tall (minus 7 feet) as St. Peter’s dome! The interior height of the U.S. Capitol dome is only 180.’ Bottomline, the size of this atrium deserves more publicity than it has received.)  

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. East elevation showing the all-glass wall behind the elevators. (Online)

In the morning on a bright day, the rising sun would have flooded the atrium, passing through the east wall of windows behind the elevators, accentuating the incessant movement of all 14 cabs and their shadows.  A first-time visitor most likely could have missed the stairways to the second floor as these spilled out, onto the ground floor immediately adjacent to the edge of the opening at the second floor, as they walked awestruck into the atrium.  The lateral location of these stairs on the First and Second Floor not only provided an unimpeded view from the entry to the elevators, but also allowed the architects to carve the second floor opening deeper into the floor plate. Note that the Third Floor stretches across the two columns and is not carved back, creating a subtle two-story high transition to the elevator lobby.  The lateral stairways ended at the Third Floor where the stairs were then joined at the centerline of the atrium for the remaining height of the building.  A new visitor would have to be careful into which elevator s/he walked into because although there were 14 elevators, they were divided into two banks: while the first bank of seven cabs stopped at all 20 floors, the second bank of “express” elevators served only the upper ten floors (i.e., the offices and the Masonic Rooms). I have found reports that four of these went directly to the roof garden to make this effort as convenient as possible.  Meanwhile, if at any time a shopper wanted a bite to eat, a 2000-seat restaurant, the largest in the city, was available in the basement.

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Ground Floor Rotunda. Note the windows in the wall behind the elevator shafts. The stairways to the Second Floor are at either edge of the photo, so as not to impede the direct view and route to the elevators. While the Second Floor is recessed between the two center columns, the Third Floor projects flush with the columns, creating a lower lobby for the elevator bank. (Hoffmann, Root)
Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Atrium at the Second and Third Floors. Note the large panes of plate glass used in the storefronts. This photo also shows the entresol stairs stopping at the Third Floor (in the middle) and then were redirected to the center of the atrium (just visible in the right upper corner), going from the Third to the Fourth Floor, etc. (Hoffmann, Root)
Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Stairway between floors 3-20. (Wolner, The American Skyscraper.)

Floors 11-16 were designed for rental offices that required a shallower depth from the exterior windows than the shops on the floors below.  The corridors were correspondingly pulled in from their location at the perimeter of the balcony along the atrium to an interior location that divided the office space into a double-loaded corridor scheme.  This pushed the “exterior” window wall of the inner ring of offices to the outer edge of the floor at the atrium, for which Root designed another modern, straightforward, unornamented elevation sheathed with a veined, white carrara marble with a rectilinear grid design similar to those he had designed in the Phoenix and Rookery. 

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. View down the atrium from the Fourteenth floor. I have rotated the original image 90° to better focus on the stairway. At the bottom of this photo the “exterior wall” of the offices floors is visible. Note the straightforward, unornamented design in carrara marble of this elevation. At the ground floor the entresol stairway design is visible. (Merwood, 1890)
Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. View up the atrium from the Eleventh floor. This is a better view of Root’s “rational” wall elevation. Instead of emphasizing the horizontal construction of supporting the enclosure at each spandrel beam, as he had done in the Rookery, here he has expressed the rectilinear geometry of the skeleton frame (one method is not better or more rational than the other). Note the corridors cantilevered over the 16th story in floors 17 and 18 (Masonic floors). These do not appear on the floor plans below and maybe, were added to screen the activities in these spaces. (Online)
Burnham & Root. Left: Masonic Temple, Atrium elevation; Right: Rookery, Lightcourt elevation

This internal ring of offices, however, presented a unique problem:  how to provide these offices with fresh air?  In all previous double-loaded corridor buildings (i.e., the Rookery), the atrium’s skylight had been lowered to the ground floor in order to be able to allow the offices in the inner ring to be able to directly open their windows to the outside to gain fresh air ventilation.  This was an impossibility, however, with the Masonic Temple’s skylight being located at the roof.  These same offices would also suffer a similar reduction in the amount of daylight that was available for the same reason.  I have always been vexed by the ventilation issue in these offices ever since my first introduction to this building.  Either there was a special mechanical solution to this problem (which I have yet to uncover) or, quite simply, the rent charged for these 66 offices was accordingly reduced.


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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.  New York: Horizon, 1967.

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

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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


LeRoy S. Buffington, 28-story Cloudscraper, Minneapolis, 1888. (Inland Architect, July 1888)

All of these tall buildings in New York that I have reviewed were constructed with ‘boxed” construction, that is, while they had iron skeleton framing in their interiors, they still had masonry bearing walls/piers supporting the exterior.  We have seen that this even included the 309’ tall World Building, whose walls at grade were 7’-4” thick. (Yes, Bradford Gilbert’s structure for the Tower Building was completely iron-framed, but this due more to expedience given the slender depth of the site than a straight-on attempt to build an all-skeleton framed building.) In fact, with the exception of Jenney’s 16-story Manhattan Building, I have shown that all of Chicago’s skyscrapers up to this point also had at least one masonry bearing or party wall. I posited that the reasons for this were two-fold: first, that Chicago’s building code required a masonry party wall for fireproof reasons, and second, economics, that is, a masonry bearing wall was cheaper than an iron-framed wall.  The Manhattan was the exception, and this was due to the fact that an iron-framed party wall on both interior lotlines was less expensive because the two neighboring buildings contained printing businesses, and the cost of underpinning these to strengthen their respective foundations (in money and time) was prohibitive. Jenney had no choice but to erect the first tall building in Chicago that relied solely on an iron frame.  My analysis of its structure, however, showed it to have been slightly “jerry-rigged,” that is, its structure wasn’t a systematic approach to a free-standing tall building but rather an empirical solution to the foundation problem.

The Masons had assembled the entire quarter block at the northeast corner of Sate and Randolph, with alleys on the north and east, i.e., like the Rookery; there would be no party walls required.  Unlike the Rookery, the Temple was planned to be twice the height of the Rookery. There was no way of avoiding the facts, that is, a 20-story masonry bearing wall on Chicago’s soil would sink to China, as the Auditorium’s tower was proving. It was finally the moment to take on LeRoy Buffington’s challenge (v.4, sec.3.1). Could a free-standing skyscraper be built solely with a metal skeleton frame? Burnham, Root, E.C. Shankland and George Fuller would be the first to attempt to build Buffington’s iron skeleton-framed Cloudscraper, first proposed some two years earlier, and as such, it’s design and construction engendered great interest in the American press, equally in the Midwest as well as on the East Coast.  It marked the end of the beginning phase in the development of the American skyscraper.  Francisco Mujica, in his early history of the skyscraper published in 1930, stated that the Masonic Temple was “the first really important skyscraper in history.”  A statement my research most emphatically supports.

Structurally, the Masonic Temple would fulfill Buffington’s prophesy in the Cloudscraper. A twenty-story steel frame with no supplementary rigidity provided by any bearing walls.  Lateral stability was gained with the same system that Burnham & Root first tried in the Chicago Hotel: two lines of continuous diagonal bracing that were located on either side of the elevator bank that also supplied the columns for the long, clearspan trusses over the Masonic spaces in the upper floors.  The diagonal bracing extended for two floors, typically intersecting the intermediate floor at a column connection.  Very concerned about the overall stiffness of the frame, Burnham & Root’s engineer E.C. Shankland employed two-story iron columns that were arranged in an alternating pattern so that half of the columns in each floor were always continuous at that point.  (This practice continued to be used in many skyscrapers up through the World Trade Center!)  The foundations were detailed as the by-now standard construction of a concrete pad upon which were placed steel beams (one of Root’s many technical firsts). Shankland had calculated the amount of settlement he expected once the building had been completed and set the elevation of the top of the footings this much higher than the desired final elevation for the ground floor (again, a standard practice by then), expecting to bring the behemoth to a smooth landing…

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Entry arch. Note the eight low relief niches above the arch, in which were placed various Masonic symbols. This arcade hid the seven-foot deep transfer beam. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

The three-story triumphal-arched entry posed a significant structural problem in that there were two columns that carried the load of the seventeen floors above the arch that had to be transferred to the sides of the arch so that the opening would be column-free.  Shankland placed a 25 ton, 7’ deep by 43’ long box girder immediately above the arch to carry the column loads over to the adjacent columns.  (There is some irony in having to use a seven-foot deep steel beam so that an arch with this depth would have no loads to carry except its own self-weight…) The Chicago Tribune realized that the city’s builders had invented a new “type of the American school of Architecture, the masonry is only to protect the real supports of the building, steel beams.” (Once again, there are no similar claims made in contemporary accounts of the Home Insurance Building’s construction.)  I’ll take the opportunity here to point out that the Tribune had called this the “American school of Architecture,” to reinforce my argument that there were, indeed, those in Chicago during this period that were aware of, and encouraging the development of a modern style of architecture in Chicago, i.e., the Chicago School of architecture..


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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.  New York: Horizon, 1967.

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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


Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple, Chicago, NE corner of State and Randolph, 1890. (Online)

Five days after the laying of the cornerstone for the Woman’s Temple, a much grander ceremony on November 6, 1890, preceded the laying of the cornerstone for the 302’-1” Masonic Temple, for there was no more important building for such a ceremony.  Mayor DeWitt C. Creiger, past Grand Master of the Illinois State Lodge, led a procession to the site of four thousand Masons, including those who held the all-important 33° Scottish Rite, dressed in black clothes to set-off their white aprons.  The project was the idea of Norman T. Gassette, the Grandmaster of the Chicago Lodge, who most likely planned it as a response to the Minneapolis Lodge’s recently completed huge, 8-story building designed by Long & Kees, the newest and largest Temple in the Midwest. (I have not uncovered any evidence that either Root or Burnham were Masons.)

Long & Kees, Masonic Temple, Minneapolis, 1886. Hennepin elevation. (Larson, Spirit of H.H. Richardson)

The Chicago Lodge had outgrown its rooms that it had rented in Richardson’s American Express Building since 1884, and Gassette appreciated the potential publicity that could be gained for the organization if Chicago would win the contest for the 1892 Fair.  In anticipation of Chicago’s victory, the lodge bought the property at the northeast corner of State and Randolph in January 1890 and announced that it was planning to build a 12-story building that would contain the headquarters of the Illinois and Chicago orders, as well as an 850-room European-style Hotel.  The Chicago Tribune reported that the new building would “honor Masonry, much as the Auditorium (that was still receiving its final finishing touches) has honored its promoters.”  It was not at all odd that the report had mentioned both the planned Temple and the Auditorium (with its 17-story tower) in the same article, for the Mason’s planned building grew in height to 15 stories in February 1890, and then to 18 stories in July, when Inland Architect noted the real objective of the building committee: “The extreme height of the building up to the finial on the gables as shown in the design will be 288,’ 48 higher than the top of the Auditorium tower,” that had just been completed during the previous month (the added U.S. Signal Corps watch tower brought its final height to 275’).  Once again, the challengers who were planning a taller building had waited until construction of their competition was completed so that it would be next to impossible to add extra height to compete with the planned taller height of their tower.   The final design would comprise 20 stories to a final height of 302’-1.”

While the Chicago Hotel had given Root the opportunity to begin to avenge the loss in late 1886 of the design of the Auditorium to Adler & Sullivan as Root’s hotel rose four floors higher than that in the Auditorium, Sullivan’s 17-story tower was still the second highest structure in the city, overshadowed only by the Board of Trade’s tower, another lost commission and sore spot with Burnham and Root.  As we have seen, when the 303’ (322’ counting the corona) tall Board of Trade tower was completed in early 1885, it was the first Chicago structure to be taller than New York’s tallest, the spire of Trinity Church at 281’ (though the Washington Monument still under construction was already taller than the Board of Trade).  It was not coincidence, then, that on the same day that the permit to build the Chicago Hotel was approved, June 21, 1890, the permit to build the city’s tallest building (in terms of number of floors), the Masonic Temple, was also secured.  Root, who had already designed Chicago’s first and largest skyscrapers, had his opportunity to finally avenge the loss of both of Chicago’s two tallest commissions.  Note that I am limiting the Masonic Temple’s height title to only Chicago, because in New York, when the permit for the Masonic Temple was approved, New York had already reclaimed the title of the tallest building in America (and would keep it until the Sears, now Willis Building was topped off in 1973 and returned the title to Chicago.) The 305’ Statue of Liberty had overtaken Chicago’s Board of Trade, unless one counted Sperry’s corona that topped off at 322.’ Post’s New York World Building was quickly approaching its final height of 309’ (done on December 10, 1890), and construction of the tower for Madison Square Garden had already reached 304’ when it opened on June 16, 1890, with its ultimate height, including Saint-Gaudens Diana, still to be determined (for obvious reasons).

The Masonic Temple (302’), Trinity Church (281’), Statue of Liberty (305’), U.S. Capitol (288’). Scientific American, February 10, 1894. Note that the writer has not included the taller Madison Square Garden tower (341’), the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (330’) and the New York World Building (309’). (Chicagology.com)

So I have always been perplexed by reports that refer to the 302’ Masonic Temple when it was completed in June 1892 as the tallest building in Chicago (it would not the tallest until the tower of the 303’ Board of Trade was demolished in 1895), or as the tallest skyscraper in the world (the 309’ World Building had been completed only five weeks after the laying of the Temple’s cornerstone), or especially those who claim that Masonic Temple had finally taken from New York the title of the tallest building in America.  It was never the tallest building in the U.S., let alone the world, unless one defines tallest not in terms of its physical dimensions, but as having the greatest number of floors, which what must have obviously been meant at the time (for I know of no other building that had 20 floors, the World Building had 19).  All these claims appear to simply be typical “Windy City urban legends.”  Quite frankly, the matter was moot in less than two years anyway after the completion of the Masonic Temple, for the 348’ high Manhattan Life Insurance Building in New York designed by Kimball & Thompson with its own cupola, ended the argument (with the aid of Chicago’s  self-imposed height limit off 1891) once and for all. 

Kimball & Thompson, Manhattan Life Insurance Building, New York, 1893. (Stern, New York 1900)


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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.  New York: Horizon, 1967.

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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


One entered through a two-story, skylighted vestibule, again like the Rialto and Kansas City Board of Trade (and poignantly, Post’s Mills Building), that led directly to a rotunda formed by a curved bank of eight elevators that was located immediately to the west of the central, crossing corridor. 

The vast majority of the building was dedicated to rented office space in order to help pay the cost of the annual $40,000 lease, nonetheless, there were various-sized rooms to provide space for the headquarters for the national, state, and local organizations.  The project’s leader, Matilda Bradley Carse, had a vision of providing a variety of services and functions for the betterment of the city’s women.  The most important space, however, was a 700-seat auditorium on the ground floor, that Carse had named Willard Hall, after the organization’s founder and national president, Miss Frances E. Willard.  Similar to the Chicago Opera Block, Willard Hall had its own entry not from the building’s central rotunda, but located on Monroe Street. 

Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple. Monroe Street Entrance. (Online)

Root once again worked with William Pretyman and Walter Crane (the same Pre-Raphaelite jolly band that decorated Cleveland’s Society for Savings Bank: v.4, sec.5.3). The hall “was decorated with thirteen stained-glass lights and two rostral paintings commissioned from Walter Crane… Crane’s subjects [were] Temperance, Purity, Mercy, and Justice – all of which he represented by elongated female figures in the Pre-Raphaelite style of (Edward) Burne-Jones.” (I included a copy of Crane’s mural from the Society for Savings as an example of the colors Crane employed.)

Walter Crane, Mercy & Justice, Willard Hall, 1893. (victorianweb.org)
Walter Crane, “Fortune Never Comes With Both Hands Open,” Cleveland Society For Savings Bank, 1891. (The First Hundred Years)

The cornerstone was laid on November 1, 1890, with a children’s chorus singing “The Saloons Must Go.”  Root is reputed to have characteristically responded with a puckish suggestion that he and his friends needed to leave and have a drink.

WCTU Woman’s Temple, La Salle Street Entrance.


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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.  New York: Horizon, 1967.

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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



Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple, Chicago, SW corner of La Salle and Monroe, 1890. Note the secondary entrance on Monroe that led to Willard Hall. (preservationchicago.org)

Fortunately for a variety of reasons, Marshall Field had finally decided in July 1888 to rid himself of the albatross of his hole-in-the-ground at the southwest corner of La Salle and Monroe, an excavated basement that had scarred the southern length of La Salle for three years since May 1885, when his former partner, Levi Leiter had sprung his vengeful legal trap that stopped construction on Field’s planned thirteen-story skyscraper designed by S.S. Beman (see v.3, sec. 8.19).  More than likely, Field needed more capital to help pay for his new Wholesale Store by Richardson and offered the site at an annual lease of $40,000 to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, far less than what the Building Association, that included Burnham & Root’s clients and friends William E. Hale (Kansas City’s Midland Hotel and the Reliance Building) and Norman B. Ream (Rookery, Midland Hotel, and the Chicago Hotel) had planned to pay Eugene Pike for the northeast corner of Dearborn and Jackson.  

Field’s offer had saved Burnham & Root, who had already designed the building (v.4, sec.5.4) from a major embarrassment because this first design was, simply not up to Root’s standards.  I had posed the question if this was a result of a mid-life burnout?

Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple, Chicago, NE corner of Dearborn and Jackson, 1888.. (Inland Architect, Dec. 1888)

Fortunately, Field’s offer had given Root a second chance and by then he had returned to his old self, enjoying the challenge of the design of more buildings. (The move of the project also opened up the site on Dearborn for Burnham & Root to design the Chicago Hotel.)

I have used the previous chapter to summarize the “architectural climate” in New York from the second half of 1888 through 1890, a period that paralleled the battle between New York and Chicago for the honor of hosting the 1892/3 World’s Fair.  I did this purposefully to help us all understand what Root was looking at when he visited New York during the summer and fall of 1889 during the final negotiations running up to the 1889 Consolidation Convention of the A.I.A. and the W.A.A. This had culminated in the consolidation on November 21, 1889, and saw Root’s election as the Secretary of the new organization, second in responsibility only to the President, Richard Morris Hunt. He, therefore, was obligated to continue travelling to New York on a regular basis during the final heated months of the contest for the Fair that led up to the final decision in favor of Chicago on February 24, 1890.

I introduced the question of why did Root start putting roofs, highly-pitched hipped and gabled, on the top of his skyscrapers in 1890?  He had often incorporated such forms in lower buildings, such his 1885 submission for the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and a design in 1888 for the Boatmen’s Saving Bank in St. Louis, but in 1890 his skyscrapers began to sport such forms. Was it simply coincidence that he did this after Post had done so immediately before?  Or was Root seriously concerned about the visual result from taking what amounted to an extruded floor plan to such unprecedented heights without attempting to give expression to the building’s terminus at the sky?  Or had the time that both Burnham and Root spent in New York with their new A.I.A. acquaintances, especially President Hunt, encouraged Root to gain their professional approval by adding these “historical” references into their taller buildings?  Or was it Root’s longtime commitment of expressing a building’s “spirit” that resulted in these new forms?  While one might argue this point for the first two projects (the W.C.T.U. and Masonic “Temples”) that were actually built, there is no apparent “spirit” in the program of either the San Francisco design or the unidentified project that could have been manifested with the addition of these high roofs, is there?  My best guess for these next two buildings that I am going to analyze, it was a combination of how to impart an “appropriate spirit” to them, and his innate competitiveness to do better than what Hunt and Post were designing back East.

For the redesign of the Woman’s Temple, Burnham & Root settled on an H-plan, similar in concept to the Rialto and the Kansas City Board of Trade, by placing double-loaded corridors on the north and south edges of the site.  These were linked with a single-loaded corridor that was recessed 30’ from La Salle Street that created an exterior lightcourt. The resulting central void of the lightcourt marked the axial, two-story arched entry.  This broke the long, La Salle Street elevation into two corner pavilions whose presence was reinforced with the application of a nine-story, 20’ diameter cylindrical bay window on each of the four corners, once again turning the corner without a sharp angle, alluding to the continuous surface of the exterior enclosure (à la Monadnack and the Chicago Hotel).   

Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple. Typical Lower Floors Plan. (Online)
Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

In its masonry bearing wall construction, the Woman’s Temple echoed the widely-spaced piered system used in the Monadnock. In its elevational design, it can be viewed as the twin sister of the Chicago Hotel (George Fuller was the contractor for all three), that was topped with a three-story, steeply-pitched, French châteauesque hat, including a hatpin that was a “70’ tall fleché of gilded bronze, surmounted by the beautiful form of a woman, with face upturned and hands outstretched to heaven in prayer… as she protests against laws and customs of the nation… and appeals unto God for help to save her home, children, and land from (liquor’s) destroying power.” (Judging by the appearance of the fleché, Root may have been inspired by the spire of Mont Saint-Michel, but can there be any doubt that its true reason for being was a parry to Stanford White’s Diana planned to cap the tower of Madison Square Garden?)  

Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple with Fleché. 1890. (chicagocollections.org)

Root detailed a two-story base of rough-hewn pinkish brown granite that supported an 8-story body sheathed with a cinnamon-colored brick set in brown mortar.  It was this portion of the building that Root detailed in a similar manner as he had the Chicago Hotel.  The brick surface was treated as a smooth surface into which he again carved the squareheaded windows.  The bay windows were direct copies of the hotel’s. 

In the Temple’s elevation, the sillcourse at the fifth floor this time actually did break the brick body into a lower two-story layer and an upper five-story layer (as opposed to the applied superfluous sillcourse in the Hotel).  The lower layer was reinforced by Root’s changing the window pattern in this area of the bay windows.  Again, echoing the Chicago hotel’s elevation, the wall surface, where it was not covered by a bay window, was detailed as a multistoried arch with paired windows, except in the floor under the arch that was infilled with a triple window.  Above the arcade created by the bay windows he detailed a continuous sillcourse, under which he accented the surfaces between the arch and the sillcourse with an ornate, foliated terra cotta pattern. Here Root “let out all the stops” with the number of brick details he employed: was this a result of Brooks’ prohibition of any ornament on the Monadnock, i.e., “see folks, I really can design ornament.” Of course, this shows that the unornamented Monadnock was an anomaly in Root’s oeuvre, and not a change in Root’s design theory.

In the tenth story, that was the uppermost layer of the continuous surface of brick, Root carved a continuous row of arched windows that appears completely extraneous to the entire composition.  The windows were not spaced close enough to create the “void” layer that he had successfully used to top off the Hotel.  This story was then capped with a dentil-molding cornice, again like that he had also used in the Hotel.

Below: Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple. Roof plan. (sophia.smith.edu)

He then made another, and more successful, void layer in the eleventh story row of windows to set off the building’s “hat.”  On top of this void he placed the three-story roof that overhung this line of windows with a heavy eave, except where Root had extended the wall plane through the eave to form a two-story gabled dormer, à la  Richardson.  In fact, this tinted postcard image (left) shows the gables to have been sheathed in granite, giving it an uncanny resemblance to Richardson’s winning design of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. This intersection resulted in an intriguing interplay of horizontal and vertical that Root accentuated by placing corner piers on each dormer that seemed to pick up and continue the horizontal edge of the eaves.  

The tall, pitched roof was then ornamented with a line of closely-spaced single-story dormers at the top floor. (Compare these to Post’s dormers in the New York Cotton Exchange above.) The piece d’resistance of the roof silhouette were the four conical roofs that topped each of the bay windows that would have set-up the vertical launch of the fleché.  Truly, Root had expressed the purpose of this building in its design (that is, women helping other women) by his French Romanesque interpretation of the shape and scale of an 1890 lady’s hat.  Unfortunately, the metaphor remained somewhat incomplete when it was decided following Root’s death not to build the “hatpin” fleché.  . 

Burnham & Root, W.C.T.U. Woman’s Temple. (Hoffmann, Meanings)


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

Hoffmann, Donald. The Meanings of Architecture: Buildings and Writings by John Wellborn Root.  New York: Horizon, 1967.

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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


(I have included this “tangential” subject to introduce you to both Saint-Gaudens, who will play a major role in the design of the 1893 Fair, and to the shift towards Classicism in the East.)

McKim, Mead, and White, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1889-90. (Online)

Meanwhile, White still had to complete the top of the tower of Madison Square Garden.  Chicago’s Board of Trade was topped by Sperry’s “Corona” that incorporated a weathervane of a ship under full sail, symbolic of the importance of Chicago’s location on Lake Michigan.  White, on the other hand, chosen for his subject the Greek goddess Artemis, also known as the Roman goddess Diana. There was little symbolic connection for this choice, as New Yorkers did not worship the gods of ancient Greece and Rome.  She was the ancient goddess of the rural countryside, animals and hunters, the moon, and fertility.  One possible reason for his choice was the connection between the moon and the many evening activities planned for the complex. (I need to interject the possibility of the influence of White’s well-known sexual preference for seducing underage girls with his red velvet swing hung from the ceiling of his apartment.)  The choice of a Classical god was also a reflection of the change in fashion, especially in the East at this moment to a preference for all things Classical, a topic I will explore in the next volume dedicated to the Fair.

White commissioned his friend, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (see Vol. 7 for biography) to design an appropriate sculpture as a weathervane to top it off.  The two artists believed that the sculpture was so critical to complete the tower’s silhouette that Saint-Gaudens designed it for free and White paid for its fabrication.  Saint-Gaudens responded with a gilded 18’ tall statue of Diana made from copper sheets attached to a rotating iron frame (like a miniature Statue of Liberty).  The 1800# statue was fabricated by the W.H. Mullins Company in Salem, OH.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Diana, 1890. Upon completion by the W.H. Mullins Co. in Salem, OH. (Online)

White designed a base for the statue that was a 12’ long crescent moon of plate glass that was lit from within by sixty-six incandescent bulbs.  When these was placed atop of the tower in October 1891, the finished height of the 38’ square tower was 341.’  (Chicago’s Board of Trade with the corona topped off at 322.’) White staged an extravaganza the likes of which had never been seen before in New York on November 2, 1891, to open the tower to the public.  Following the requisite display of fireworks, a show that deployed 6,600 electric incandescent bulbs on the base building and another 1,400 bulbs that outlined the tower, introduced New Yorkers to the entertainment potential of the electric light.  Two powerful searchlights then completed the evening by shining into the night sky and eventually came to rest on Diana.  The precedent for a Broadway opening had been established.  Nonetheless, by this date New York had finally lost the Fair to Chicago, but White’s electric extravaganza had set a precedent for the upcoming Fair.


Stern, Robert A.M. New York: 1880. New York: Monacelli Press, 1999.

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


W.W. Boyington, Board of Trade with Sperry’s Corona, 1884-5. (Wade and Meyer, Chicago)

The World Building’s 309’ height is an unusual number, until we put it into context: up to the completion of the 303’ tower in Chicago’s Board of Trade in April 1885, the 281’ high steeple of New York’s Trinity Church had been the tallest “building” in the U.S. since its completion in 1846. (This ignores the planned height of 548’ for the tower of the corruption-plagued Philadelphia City Hall-not completed until 1894.  In case you are wondering, the piers in the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883 are only 272’ tall.) Now we must get into the definition of a “building,” for the Washington Monument was completed in December 1884 at a height of 555,’ making it the tallest “structure” in the world at that moment. (I have discussed the various European churches that had held this record prior to 1884 in v.4, sec.3.7.) I don’t think anyone argued that the monument was a “building” so two categories of “tallest” began to emerge: the tallest “structure” vs. the tallest “building.” Chicago’s advocates argued that Sperry’s “Corona” at the top of the Board of Trade had extended its height to 322.’ (Otherwise, the recently completed tower of the Auditorium had a height of 240,’ that is, unless you count the 35’ wooden observation tower added by the U.S. Signal Corps that increased its total height to 275.’) So then, should flagpoles and other ornamental extensions count in a building’s final height? (The debate over these definitions continues to evolve over time.)

Celebration of the Dedication of the Statue of Liberty, November 1, 1886. Post’s Produce Exchange Tower (225′) is at the right. (Online)

New York had quickly regained the title of “tallest” in its battle with Chicago with the completion of the Statue of Liberty in October 1886 to a height of 305,’ curiously Hunt had designed its pedestal to be just two feet taller than the 303’ Chicago tower. That is, unless one counted the statue as a “structure” and not a building. Of course, this begs the argument of whether the Chicago tower was part of a “building” or was just an added “structure.”  New York continued to build taller as the twin steeples of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were finished in 1888 to the height of 330,’ shutting down Chicago’s claim of 322’ with Sperry’s Corona once and for all.

James Renwick Jr., St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, 1850-88. The steeples were competed in 1888. (Stern, New York: 1880)

While today this contest/debate in 1889 may seem a bit pointless, we must remember that 1889 is THE YEAR that Congress would make the decision over which city would host the 1892 World’s Fair.  In 1889 bigger was definitely better and New York was “pulling out all the stops” to bag the Fair.  New York’s pièce de résistance planned to incorporate not only a larger performance venue than Chicago’s Auditorium, then scheduled to open in December 1889, but also a tower taller than anything in New York (and, of course, Chicago): the new Madison Square Garden.

McKim, Mead, and White, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1889-90. (Online)

As St. Patrick’s steeples were nearing completion, an even taller tower was being planned by architect Stanford White (see Vol. Seven for a biography) of the firm McKim, Mead, & White.  In September 1887, White was a member of the syndicate, headed by William K. Vanderbilt (Alva’s husband) that had purchased the old Madison Square Garden on the northeast corner of Madison Square at the northeast corner of Madison and 26th Street.  The group was planning to erect “one of the largest places of amusement in the country.”  There can be little doubt that this was a direct response to Chicago’s construction of the largest music and convention venue in the country, the Auditorium.  New York had already been embarrassed ten years earlier when Cincinnati had completed its Music Hall and enticed Theodore Thomas with his German orchestra to move from New York to its new acoustical wonder.  Then in 1885 Chicago’s Board of Trade had risen 38’ higher than New York’s venerable Trinity Church steeple (281’).  Paris was then building the 300m Eiffel Tower.  It was, however, the Auditorium that was the last blow to New York’s civic ego that finally awakened the giant city from its self-imposed smugness.  New York’s civic pride would only stiffen during the 1889-90 competition over the 1892 World’s Fair. 

McKim, Mead, and White, Madison Square Garden. Interior of Arena. (Online)

The syndicate’s plan was to best both of the Windy City’s “biggest” with one building.  The new Madison Square Garden’s arena that was to be sized to accommodate a minimum of 8000 seated people, with many more with standing room, was reported by the press to be larger than not only Chicago’s Auditorium (that was still under construction), but also Salt Lake City’s Mormon Temple, the Paris Opera House, and London’s Royal Albert Hall. (Andrew Carnegie was originally part of the syndicate, but would withdraw to fund the construction of Carnegie Hall, which was another New York response to the Auditorium and the mounting battle with Chicago over the Fair.  Its relatively inexperienced architect, William B. Tuthill, was instructed to consult Adler for his expertise in acoustics during its design.  It opened a year after the Auditorium on May 5, 1891.)  In addition to a 1500 seat concert hall and a 1200 seat theater for various sized performances, the planned project also included a summer and winter garden on the building’s roof.  

McKim, Mead, and White, Madison Square Garden. The rooftop garden is to the left of the tower. (Online)

White also planned a tower for the complex that would be taller than not only the Board of Trade tower, but also the steeples of St. Patrick’s, if they actually would ever be completed to their planned height.  He had based his design of the tower on the Giralda Tower of the Seville Cathedral that had been derived from the design of the Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh, Morocco.  

Left: Giralda Tower, Seville, 1568; Right: Koutoubia Minaret, Marrakesh, Morocco, 1184. (Web)

While the syndicate had no doubts about the project’s auditorium, there was great skepticism over the profitability of the tower.  White was confronted in March 1888 by a New York Times reporter that gave him the opportunity to acknowledge that there had been “some objection to the proposed tower” and to fight for the tower in the arena of public opinion.  The Times jumped to White’s defense:

“While accounts of the wonderful tower of Eiffel were coming across the ocean from Paris, the modern Babylon, the city of New York was hugging herself with the belief that she was to have a tower too, but one in which quality not quantity was to be shown… (the tower would confirm that) we had for that purpose not only the architects capable of designing a beautiful tower, but citizens of wealth who had the courage and civic spirit to undertake its erection… The abandonment of the tower as a means of obtaining a bird’s eye view of the city… and as the one thing which dignified and made important the main building, is a fact somewhat crushing… If New York is proud of the new Madison Square Garden as a work of art, everything connected with it will succeed.”

The investors refused to be intimidated by such editorials and the project’s financing remained questionable for another sixteen months. Meanwhile, Pulitzer had jumped into the fray by announcing in the fall of 1888 the competition for the World Building, with Post winning with his 309’ design.

McKim, Mead, and White, Madison Square Garden. View down 26th Street with Madison Square Park in right center. (Stern, New York 1880)

Construction on both the World Building and Madison Square Garden began in late summer of 1889, just as the battle with Chicago for the World’s Fair began to heat up. Madison Square Garden, with its tower of masonry bearing walls completed to the 304’ high observation deck, was the first to be opened with a huge gala event attended by 12,000 people on June 16, 1890.

McKim, Mead, and White, Madison Square Garden. View to the northeast, c. 1895. (Stern, New York 1880)

Although the House of Representatives had voted to give Chicago the Fair on February 24, the matter was far from decided in June because the National Commission established to approve Chicago’s plans was withholding its final approval over where within Chicago the Fair should be erected because, as of yet, there was not agreement between the Commission and Chicago’s own Board of Directors for the Fair.  President Harrison, who had the final say by issuing the call to all nations to come, was waiting on the decision by the Commission. This was still some five months in the future, so the 12,000 New Yorkers that June night were still clinging to the hope that Chicago would some how blow its big chance.


Landau, Sarah B., and Carl Condit.  The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Stern, Robert A.M. New York: 1880. New York: Monacelli Press, 1999.

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


Among the New York architects involved in the A.I.A. consolidation meetings in New York was George Post, who had already provided Root with a number of precedents for his earlier Chicago buildings.  If we review Post’s most recent multi-storied designs following his Mills Building and New York Produce Exchange, that both had flat roofs, one can see the impact of Hunt’s mansions and the Dakota in Post’s addition of the high-pitched roof, often punctuated by numerous dormers and corner turrets.  The earlier ones, the nine-story New York Cotton Exchange, (1883-5) and the ten-story Mortimer Building, (1884-5) in the style of Francois I, while the later ones, the 160’ high, 13-story New York Times Building, (1888-9) and the 172′ tall, 11-story Union Trust Building, (1889-90) revealed Post’s interest in the late Richardson.  Both these last two buildings not only sported Richardson-like gabled dormers that were flush with the building’s exterior, but also arcades that rose in a progression of openings with a 1:2:3 ratio.

But the design of none of these buildings could have been said “to have set one up” for his tallest building to-date, the Pulitzer or New York World building. Joseph B. Pulitzer, the owner of the New York World and the person who had been ultimately responsible for the successful campaign to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, had decided to generate free publicity for his paper by erecting what would be New York’s tallest building at the northeast corner of Park Row and Frankfort Street.  In the fall of 1888, he held a design competition that was supervised by Hunt (who had designed the Statue’s pedestal) that Post won with a 19-story design that would ultimately top off at 309,’ six feet taller than the tower of Chicago’s Board of Trade, reclaiming for New York the title of having the tallest building in the U.S. Pulitzer obviously wanted the record height (this was measured from the lowest point in its steeply sloped site and therefore, was contested by those in Chicago who were using the height of the building measured from the highest point of the site: really?).

The World (Pulitzer) Building can be understood as having been designed by Pulitzer and refined by Post. In addition to building the tallest building in the U.S., Pulitzer also wanted to top the building with a domed cupola.  Post designed a 14-story extruded body, upon which was placed a six-story, 52′ diameter cupola that was topped with a gilded dome that was inspired by Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s.  By this date, McKim, Mead & White’s academically correct classical-inspired design for the Boston Public Library was gaining converts.  Post’s design of the World Building could be considered a “free-style” classicism, in that in addition to the Renaissance dome, Post added a Roman triumphal-arched entry with a classical pediment located above it at the roofline. Critics roundly criticized the building’s design, principally for the lack of any formal integration between the cupola and the lower body.  The more notoriety his building engendered, the more satisfied Pulitzer was with his new building.

George B. Post, New York World Building, New York, 1889-90. (Landau, George B. Post)

As New York didn’t suffer from the soil problems that plagued Chicago, Post had simply continued to use “boxed” construction, that is a masonry exterior bearing wall within which he placed an iron frame to support the floors. The exterior walls at the building’s base reached a massive 7’- 4” thick at times.  This fact raises an interesting question: how can Chicago claim that the 6’ thick walls of the 215’ tall Monadnock Block, then still under design, were the tallest bearing walls ever constructed when the World was more than 80’ taller, and its walls were over a foot thicker as well? Surely, the 309’ tall World Building with its 7’-4” thick walls deserve this reputation. (As I have mentioned earlier, it would be accurate to claim that the Monadnock is now the tallest “surviving” building erected with masonry bearing walls.

Post, New York World Building. Ground Flor plan. (Online)

The cornerstone was laid on October 10, 1889, when New York was very much in the running for the Fair.  The building opened on December 10, 1890, only five weeks after Chicago’s Masons on November 6, 1890, had placed the cornerstone of their new 302’ tall building designed Burnham & Root, that would be completed in time for the Fair.


Friedman, Donald. The Structure of Skyscrapers in America: 1871-1900. Springfield, IL: Association for Preservation Technology, 2020.

Landau, Sarah B. George B. Post, Architect.  New York: Monacelli Press, 1998.

Landau, Sarah B., and Carl Condit.  The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Stern, Robert A.M. New York: 1880. New York: Monacelli Press, 1999.

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