Burnham & Root, Chicago Hotel, northeast corner of Dearborn and Jackson, 1889. The 1895 office/theater addition is at the rear. (Online)

In early 1890 Chicago was engaged in a no-holds–barred, winner-takes-all battle with New York City to host the 1892 World’s Fair to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World (see Vol. Seven).  If Chicago succeeded in winning the contest, the city would need a series of large hotels to provide rooms for the Fair’s visitors.  A group of investors who intimately understood the potential profit from such an investment were planning to build a hotel on the northeast corner of Dearborn and Jackson, that only a year earlier had been slated for the W.C.T.U.’s new headquarters (see v. 4, sec. 5.4).  The site was owned by Eugene S. Pike, who once the W.C.T.U. had moved its planned building to Marshall Field’s vacant lot on La Salle, had contemplated building a 16-story office building designed by Burnham & Root.  That is, until Chicago’s prospects for winning the Fair had markedly improved in late 1889. Pike had insider knowledge of the City’s Fair proposal because he was a member of the City’s Committee of 100 appointed by then Mayor DeWitt Creiger in July 1889 to promote Chicago’s Fair submission.  In addition, Burnham and Root had already been “unofficially” working with a number of the Committee “behind the scenes” to assist the effort before the city even formally announced that it was in the running.

In fact, Burnham organized this group of investors that in addition to Pike and Root, also included George Fuller and Norman Ream.  This was basically the same group, minus Peter Brooks, who had financed and constructed the Rookery.  These investors were savvy enough to know that in order to be open and ready for the start of the Fair, the plans for the new Chicago Hotel would have to be completed and be ready to go out to bid on the first day after the final decision had been made.  Therefore, Burnham saw to the incorporation of the company in November 1889, some three months before Chicago was formally named by Congress on February 24, 1890. It may have just been a coincidence that the hotel was incorporated only a few weeks before the Opening Night gala of the Auditorium’s theater on December 9, but I have to speculate that Burnham and Root wanted a modicum of revenge for having lost this commission directly through the intervention of Ferdinand Peck.  The Auditorium’s hotel was scheduled to open the following month in January. It was built with ten floors; the Chicago Hotel was to have 14 floors.  But what really had made the Auditorium Hotel an anachronism before it even opened was that American tastes in hotel rooms had changed between 1887 and 1889. The Auditorium Hotel was designed on the European model of shared/public bathrooms, typically one per every ten hotel rooms (just down the corridor).  If you look carefully at the floor plan of the Chicago Hotel, every hotel room has been designed with its own bathroom.  The Auditorium Hotel would never receive the prestige Peck had hoped for.  (Burnham completed his “Auditorium alternative” in 1895 with an addition that included a 2000-seat theater and a 16-floor office annex to the east of the hotel. Its name was correspondingly changed to the Great Northern Hotel and Theater.)

Burnham & Root. Left: Midland Hotel, Kansas City, 1886; Right: Typical Floor Plan.(Hoffmann, Root)
Burnham & Root, Chicago Hotel. Typical floor plan. Note that the rooms show a separate bathroom, (Hoffmann, Root)

Ream was one of the owners who had erected the Midland Hotel in Kansas City in 1886, also designed by Burnham & Root. In fact, one can understand the Chicago Hotel as an extruded version of the Midland Hotel.  Each hotel had a U-shaped plan, with double-loaded corridors on the three street fronts that wrapped around an exterior lightcourt.  As a double-loaded corridor scheme, like the Midland Hotel, the Rookery, and the Rand-McNally Building, the skylight was brought down to the third floor.  Under this Root located the hotel’s service counters and offices. Although Root had included in the light court, his, by now, signature cantilevered semi-circular stairway (used in the Rialto, the Insurance Exchange, the Rookery, and the Midland Hotel) the surviving photos of the atrium do not show the stairway intersecting with the skylight.

Burnham & Root. Left: Midland Hotel (Hoffmann, Root); Right: The Rookery.
Burnham & Root, Chicago Hotel. Above left: The skylight and exterior lightcourt, that once again, as Root had done with the Rookery (above right), was given an expression in which the horizontals, and not the verticals, were continuous. Here one can see the difference in the required daylight between a hotel room and an office. (Left: Hoffmann, Root); Below: The hotel’s atrium: note that it does not appear that the oriel window/stair in the lightcourt was brought down through the skylight as was done in the Rookery. (Left: Online; Right: Hoffmann, Root)

As the site was diagonally across the intersection of Dearborn and Jackson from the Monadnock, Root again had an opportunity to design an urban ensemble, similar to the portal to the Board of Trade he had designed with the Insurance Exchange and the Rookery at the intersection of La Salle and Adams.  Indicative of the fact that Burnham and Root were intimately connected with both sides of the urban battle between La Salle and Dearborn, the portal created by the new Chicago Hotel and Monadnock Block framed the tower of the Dearborn Station.

Intersection of La Salle and Adams, looking south. The Rookery (left) and the Insurance Exchange (right) as the portal to the Board of Trade district. (Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890)
Burnham & Root, Intersection of Dearborn and Jackson: Left-the cylindrical bay windows of the Chicago Hotel; Right-the Monadnock Block. The tower of the Dearborn Street Station is at the end of the vista. Note that the new U.S. Courthouse has completely filled the old Post Office Square. (Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers)
Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block (left) and the Chicago Hotel (right) Note how the new Courthouse (Cobb, 1906) completely filled the old Post Office Square, eliminating the only public space in the South Loop. (Online)

This site also included the Post Office Square, the only remaining “public open space” beyond lake shore of Lake Park. Therefore, the open space on the west side of Dearborn would offer long vistas of both buildings, meaning they would be easily seen together, as an ensemble should.  

Contemporary designs by Root at the southeast corner of the Post Office Square: Monadnock Block (#7) and the Chicago Hotel (#8). The Owings Building is #3, the Union League Club is #6. (Rand-McNally Views)

Burnham & Root had been designing the hotel roughly on a parallel timeframe with that of the Monadnock Block.  What the Brookses had prohibited Root to do in the Monadnock he could experiment with in the design of the planned hotel, if for no other reason than he was one of the project’s owners.  Root gave the hotel the same smooth masonry surface of the Monadnock so the two buildings would act as a group rather than two individual buildings.  

Burnham & Root, Chicago Hotel. (urbanremainschicago.com)

Some historians have speculated that Root had used his first 16-story design of the Monadnock, the steel-framed version that Shepherd Brooks had rejected. I don’t think this was the case simply because this design was for an office building that required more window area than did a hotel.  I see the Chicago Hotel’s elevation as the next iteration in Root’s exploration of the “continuous curtain wall.”  In the Rand-McNally Building, Root had detailed its elevation as one continuous 10-story sheet of terra cotta.  While the Monadnock was structured with masonry piers and not a steel frame, Root had still detailed its exterior as a continuous surface of brick.  He treated the Chicago Hotel’s elevation as the third in this sequence of continuous brick surfaces.  The Rand-McNally was a single plane, sandwiched by its neighboring buildings. In the Monadnock, he avoided sharp corners to achieve continuity by carving the corner with the ever-increasing chamfer.  In the Chicago Hotel, as he had done four years earlier in the Pickwick Flats, he simply eliminated the sharp corner by placing a cylindrical bay window at the two corners. (Similar to how Starrett did in the Hyde Park Hotel.)

In the Chicago Hotel elevations Root, however, could not resist his propensity to achieve repose: a balance between the horizontal and the vertical.  He articulated the general massing into a single-story base with a 12-story middle. He then stopped this continuous, 12-story tall surface at the 14th floor with a heavy, projected stringcourse that allowed the 14th floor to be read as a cornice.  This consisted of a continuous line of repeated rectangular windows and small mullions that made the floor read as a void, and correspondingly allowed the parapet above the windows to appear to float, as it topped off the building.  The parapet reprised the Monadnock’s coved cornice, with the only difference being Root set up the cute with a series of machiolations. This detail tied the two buildings together as an ensemble at their rooflines. 

Left: Monadnock Block; Right: Chicago Hotel. (chuckmanchicagonosalgia.wordpress.com)

Unfortunately, Root still felt compelled to add a few, superfluous horizontal projections as a transition from the column-and-void base (à la Holabird & Roche) to the 12-story center.  (This detail was similar to his technique of creating a transition story by taking the material of the upper floor but using the language of the lower one.) This reveals his hesitancy, even at this late date in his career, to make his skyscrapers “vertical:” we owe the verticality in the Monadnock to Peter Brooks’ command to eliminate all projections, not to Root’s final epiphany that a skyscraper could be a “proud and soaring” building.

Burnham & Root, Chicago Hotel. (urbanremainschicago.com)

Unlike the Monadnock, Root incorporated his old friend, the Romanesque semi-circular arch in the hotel’s elevations, but limited their use only to the twelfth floor, as a method of capping the building.  The three street elevations alternated between bay windows (with single windows) and 11-story tall arched bays with inset paired windows and recessed spandrels, a detail taken from the Rand-McNally Building.

Burnham & Root. Left: Arched windows in the Rand-McNally Building; Right: Arched windows in the Chicago Hotel.

As was the case in the Rand-McNally Building, the arches’ location seem to be arbitrary. In addition to the segmented arches in these bays, he also continued the arch into the bay windows in the eleventh floor with a series of individual semicircular arches.  One must wonder, however, why the arches in the bays were located in the twelfth floor rather than in the thirteenth, i.e., at their top?  My guess is that Root wanted to make a transition between the fourteenth-floor cornice of flat-headed windows and the twelfth floor’s arches.  He did this by detailing the thirteenth-floor with all flat-headed windows (from the floor above) but still kept the undulating surface of the floors below. While this “kinda works” above the arched paired windows, the semicircular arches in the curved bays needed to be relocated to the top floor (the 13th) of the bays: they just look out of-place where they ended up.  This is quite evident because Root did exactly this (terminate the bays with the arches) in all of the polygonal bay windows. Again, one is tempted to assign these “design errors” to one of Root’s assistants following Root’s death in January 1891. However, this goes against how every draftsman in Burnham & Root described his design process of thinking for a few days, and then drawing the entire, completed design in one day,

Burnham & Root, Chicago Hotel. (urbanremainschicago.com)
Burnham & Root, Chicago Hotel. Typical floor plan. Note the two masonry party walls at the rear. (Hoffmann, Root)

While the building’s structure was completely iron-framed with a system of wind bracing that comprised of double diagonal tie rods that extended for two stories and passed through a column in the middle, it still relied on two masonry party walls at the rear, as required by the building code.  

Burnham & Root, Masonic Temple. Cross section showing the configuration of the diagonal bracing that was similar to that used in the Chicago Hotel. (Engineering Record, January 21, 1893)

When we review the seven buildings erected in 1888-90 (Tacoma, Chamber of Commerce, Rand-McNally, Second Leiter, Manhattan, Monadnock, and the Chicago Hotel), only one of these, Jenney’s Manhattan Building appears to have been erected solely with a skeleton frame, but not because he wanted to be the first to do so.  The other six were either required by the building code to have masonry party walls or the designers chose to incorporate lateral masonry walls to assist in stiffening the building against wind loads. I would credit this fact to:

-first: there appears to have been no rush, contrary to what historians like to record, to claim to have been the first architect to design a building erected solely with the iron skeleton.  (Nowhere in any publication of the period does a writer claims that a building was the first to have been so constructed. It was, apparently, no big deal. Was this simply because Buffington’s patent was the first such building?) This, more than likely, was the result that iron framing was more expensive than a masonry wall, and no client in Chicago was interested in this extra cost;

-and second: Jenney was confronted in the design of the Manhattan with the fact that there were existing buildings on both interior sides of its lot, meaning that if he was to build the masonry party walls from the ground up, he would have to shore up the foundations of the adjoining buildings and reinforce their foundations.  This was obviously more expensive in time and money than his final solution: to cantilever the structure’s beams at each floor to the lotline upon which he could then erect the requisite masonry party wall.  

Root had faced a similar problem the year before in the Rand-McNally Building in which he had cantilevered one massive girder at the foundation to pick up and move the load of the party wall away from the existing footing of the neighboring Insurance Exchange. Fortunately for the budget of the building’s owner, the interior lot on the western edge of the site did not have a building, so Root could use a less expensive masonry bearing wall.  If there had been a significant existing building on this lot, Root would have had to cantilever this foundation as well, and then could have claimed to have been “the first” to design an all-skeleton framed skyscraper.  So my conclusion to this issue that has vexed historians for over a century is: Jenney in the Manhattan Building was the first Chicago architect to design a skyscraper using only the iron skeleton frame (but remember, New Yorker Bradford Gilbert had designed the first iron skeleton-framed building, the Tower Building, whose permit was approved only a month after the first publication of Buffington’s “Cloudscraper.”)

Bradford Gilbert, Tower Building, 1888. Note the five-story continuous piers in the arcade at the middle of the façade; Right: Diagram of diagonal bracing. (Landau/Condit, New York)


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

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s