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)

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