Everyone knows about Root’s famous chamfer of the corner of the Monadock, but I have only recently understood a much more subtle detail on the part of Root in the Monadnock. It took me almost 50 years to see it, let alone understand it, but I hope I have it figured out. There is an old saying among artists, sometimes you do something for yourself, and if even one person finds/appreciates it, it was worth the doing. I think this detail I am going to discuss is just one such detail.
In his 1973 biography of Root, Donald Hoffmann included this cryptic sentence on p. 166: “The upper framing members of the sash windows were rounded at the ends, and the broad frames of the second-story windows were gently bowed to echo in the vertical plane the bowing of the bays above.” He included no photos of this detail, so I assume like most people, I read the sentence without digesting its importance. Recently as I was looking at a number of detail photos of the lower two floors, I caught the curve in the corners of the windows under the bays: with this detail was Root showing how the three-dimensional curve of the bays above was first emerging in two-dimensions in the window frames located immediately below the first bay in the third story? As was the case with the chamfered corner, Root was again playing with optical illusion. If one looks from just the right angle, (above left photo) the curved frame makes the glass look like it is gently bowing out, setting up the curved bay above.
Apparently, Root used this detail in the first-floor windows as well, as the pre-restoration photo above does match the restored version. Here my opinion differs from Root, for I argue that with the first-floor windows also curved, Root blew a chance to show the growth of the curved bay from a simple rectilinear void on the ground-floor to a transitional curved frame in the second-story to the full-grown curved bay in the upper floors. I would like to know if Root also used the rounded frames in the single windows he cut into the masonry piers between the bays. I hope he didn’t because if he did, it negates this idea of showing the growth of the curved bay from ground floor to its full emergence above, and my hypothesis of Root’s emergence of the curved bays is simply a post-rationalization. (If you have the chance, when you walk by the Monadnock, take a picture or two of the single window frames and forward to me: thanks!) I owe acknowledgements to a number of my followers (especially friend and former student Tom Lee) who took the time to shoot close-ups of these windows so I could get a better grasp of their detailing and share them with you.
Let’s take a moment to put these curved corners into perspective. Hopefully, this motif should jog your memory as an Art Nouveau detail. I include images of two of the better examples of this: Victor Horta’s house (1898) and Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló (1906).
Root’s curved window detail is another Chicago School example, in conjunction with Louis Sullivan’s proto-Art Nouveau stenciling in the 1885 Chicago Opera Festival retrofit of the Interstate Exposition Center (v.4, sec. 10.19) as well as his interior details in the Auditorium, that gives evidence to the contemporary emergence of a modern style of architecture in Chicago that paralleled that in Europe.
I think the Masonic Temple was Root’s best building. I list it over the Monadnock Block simply because the Temple’s program was more complex than just a spec office building. While the Monadnock was a unique sculptural form, the Temple was an architectural synthesis of form and space. The 19-story open cab elevator ride with Lake Michigan behind you had to have been simply exhilarating. Henry Van Brunt, one of, if not the premiere American architectural critic in 1890 had this to say about the Temple in his obituary of Root published in Inland Architect in January 1891:
“The Masonic Temple is an extreme example of the daring quality of Root’s genius… It is a departure so fundamental from the traditions of decorative architecture that I hardly know how to characterize it. It is a building absolutely committed to what one may call a perpendicular tyranny of pilasters… Thirteen stories of similar use and importance, typical of an industrial hive of democratic industry, find themselves expressed here externally in an absolutely monotonous and unmitigated system of fenestration, separated by vertical piers which rise from top to bottom without incident. It is perhaps the frankest admission of a structural and economical necessity ever expressed in architectural form… For the interruption of these vertical lines there would be of course only the excuse of design; none are supplied either by the structure or use. It is probable that in this experiment, which looks like the apotheosis of the elevator in the modern social system, it was Root’s desire to permit an exceptional character of structure to have the fullest and most honest architectural expression once and for all.”
Root had succeeded in imparting the sheer verticality of Buffington’s Cloudscraper’s unbroken, multistory pilasters to the elevations of the Masonic Temple. More on this issue in a moment. Van Brunt’s phrase, “a perpendicular tyranny of pilasters,” is a remark eerily similar to that made by American Architect’s Cincinnati correspondent who had complained some fifteen years earlier about the piers in the Shillito’s Store being “very monotonous. Each bay is just like its next neighbor, and the whole may be likened to a street parade of well-drilled soldiers, so uniform, straight, and severe are the windows and piers.” In some ways Shillito’s and the Masonic Temple represent the bookends of this first phase of the skyscraper’s evolution.
Later opinions of Root’s design ebbed and flowed with the fashion tides of the times. Burnham’s biographer, Thomas Hines in 1974, at the end of the reign of the International Style, stated that “Had its first eighteen floors been capped by a flat roof and an appropriately bold cornice, the masonic building might have been the firm’s greatest skyscraper, but instead the partners placed a steeply pitched, densely dormered, and wholly irrelevant gabled roof at the summit of the ‘tallest building in the world’.” So much for the commandment that “form follows function”… Only the year before, Root’s biographer, Donald Hoffmann had a similar criticism about “that roof”: “The attic-which may have seemed a final flourish of the Queen Anne revival, in monstrous scale-represented Root’s attempt to express the presence of the Masonic bodies…” Here again we have a critic judging Root’s roof using the fashion of the present for flat roofs to critique it.
Root designed at least eighteen skyscrapers that were constructed. How many more designs he studied for how many more buildings that were not erected we will never know. But as I stated earlier, Root had the luxury, and took advantage, of experimenting with “full-scale models.” His strength was improvisation and I think this is how he viewed his work. Improvisation is not a pejorative term, it is a valid method of creating, just ask any jazz musician or composer. Root held very strong, well-thought through theories of design, but this does not mean he was a formal ideologue, i.e., every building, no matter what its function, had to be designed from the same set of formal “rules.” (I place Sullivan, McKim, and Mies in this category.) Root saw artistic rigor/discipline in his design process. (I place Eero Saarinen in this category.) Therefore, he could produce such “different-looking” buildings at the same time without any intellectual conflict, i.e., the Woman’s Temple vs. the Monadnock Block. The bottomline for him was that his designs met the client’s program as well as the design problem he had set for himself in a particular project.
In the Woman’s Temple, in addition to the client’s program, Root wanted not only to symbolize that the building was by and for women, but I believe there was also an underlying theme of Root’s innate competitive nature: Root had just been elected the Number Two man in the new A.I.A., the organization’s Secretary to its President, Richard Morris Hunt. Hunt had made headlines not only with his Alva Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue (that Root had parried in his design of the Calumet Club) but also with the ongoing construction of Biltmore, the nation’s largest house. I cannot avoid seeing Root using Hunt’s Francois I language in the Woman’s Temple as a refrain on the old lyric, “Anything you can do, I can do better” (or at least bigger).
The Woman’s Temple was a virtuoso performance, But critics point to it at the same time they discuss the Monadnock Block, trying to figure out how the same architect could produce such diametrically-opposed designs at the same time in his career. The answer is, I believe, quite straightforward: both buildings met the clients’ different programs perfectly. Their formal differences came from the problem that Root had set for himself in each building. In the Monadnock he had been restrained by Brooks to avoid the use of any carved ornament. The genius of the design is how Root followed this limitation and yet achieved a synthesis of construction, function, and beauty (in this case his theme of the Egyptian pylon). The program was explicitly expressed in the building’s massing, that was then ever so subtly sculpted in brick to evoke the idea of a brick skin covering the building’s rounded volume. The Monadnock was detailed for what it was, a 16-story unbroken brick surface (note I did not say wall, because I have pointed out that its structure was a series of masonry piers) that undulated between wide-open bay windows and ranks of windows carved into the masonry surface. It is the continuous 13-story bay windows that impart the building’s verticality. This was structural expression, yes, but not literal structural exposure; there is a significant difference. During the 1880s, structural expression was a “rational” design methodology, especially when compared to the Academic Classicism being promoted at the École des Beaux-arts at this moment.
As I’ve said, the Masonic Temple’s program was much more complicated than that for the Monadnock or the Woman’s Temple, and yet this was exactly where Root began. Sixteen floors of repetitive structure and function (the difference between small store and office not withstanding) that surrounded the country’s tallest space/atrium. This to be topped with two floors of longspan, column-free meeting halls for the Masons. Is this not what he expressed in the building’s massing and elevation (let’s ignore those two side elevations, OK?).
To restate my earlier compliment of his design, in the building’s top floors (so criticized by the biographers of the two partners), Root achieved a synthesis of true genius proportion with the pair of the meeting halls’ equilateral triangular volumes: they expressed the structure of the roof trusses that made the column-free spaces possible; they evoked the main symbols of the Masons; and once again, they gave Root the opportunity to stick it to New York. His building with triangular gables was twice the height of New York’s famous highrise apartment building, The Dakota (who’s competitive?) And then to top it off, Root finally exposed the atrium’s skylight above the building’s roof, expressing and exposing the presence of the atrium completely hidden behind the building’s skeleton-framed elevations. (Augustus Pugin would have approved of the massing that expressed each function.) This was not a “Queen Anne” conceit, but a well thought-out, totally modern expression and synthesis of function, structure, and symbol. (Vitruvius rules!)
It is the cage-like expression of the Masonic Temple, with its language of vertical piers, unbroken by any sillcourse for eleven stories, that should be celebrated as the first vertical solution to the design of the modern iron-framed skyscraper, that is, if one discounts Buffington’s project as being unrealized. Van Brunt said as much in his January 1891 article. As early as October 1892, the Chicago Tribune praised the architects of the Monadnock and the Masonic Temple for leaving the central shafts of these buildings in a “natural state,” thereby expressing “power and mightiness.” Once again, Root had expressed, not exposed, the Temple’s structure, a skeleton frame in its elevations. Consistency in process, not formal vocabulary.
But Historians of the International Style some 30 years later would attack Root’s design as not being “rational” because they equated “rational” with “honest,” that is, using and exposing only what was required to do the job structurally. These critics crucified Root for the heavier corner piers because they were not “honest”: corner columns carry only half the load that exterior columns support and therefore, should be designed to have a smaller, not a larger cross-section than the other columns in the exterior.
In light of these facts, I have always doubted the claim by some historians that Louis Sullivan was the first to arrive at the ”vertical’ solution for the elevation of a skyscraper in his December 1890 design of the 10-story Wainwright Building in St. Louis, in which the unbroken piers extend continuous for all of seven stories vs. the Masonic Temple’s 11-story piers that were designed some six months before the Wainwright. In fact, the entireheight of the Wainwright Building could be easily fitted within the 11-story piers of the Temple.
The seven stories of the Wainwright’s piers was the same height that Root had used five years earlier in the well-published 1885 version of the Monadnock Block. I have mentioned a number of times how Root and Sullivan had influenced each other’s designs. If I compare Root’s design of the piers in the Eighth Street elevation of the American National Bank in Kansas City (1886), with Sullivan’s piers in the Wainwright, designed four years later, they seem remarkable similar…
But if we really want to give credit to where credit is due, we need to remember that even earlier George Edbrooke in 1883 had used five-story unbroken piers in the Adams Express Building and seven-storied pilasters in the Hiram Sibley Warehouse.
Inland Architect published Root’s obituary in its January 1891 issue. On page 94 was placed a photograph of Root. When one turned the page, “there it was” to use Frank Lloyd Wright’s own words, the first published drawing of Louis Sullivan’s design for the Wainwright Building, Sullivan’s first skyscraper. How more poignant can this issue of Inland Architect be? For indeed with the death of Root, the first skyscraper era in Chicago had ended and a new page in the history of the Chicago skyscraper was about to be turned. As I stated in the Introduction, Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers were all designed AFTER Root had died. Therefore, it is pure fiction to state the Root and Sullivan were professional equals during the 1880s. It is an insult to the memory and the accomplishments of John Wellborn Root to champion Louis Sullivan as the leader (or even as its co-leader) of Chicago’s architects during the heyday of skyscraper construction before the 1893 World’s Fair. The important skyscrapers of Adler & Sullivan were not contemporaneous with those of Burnham & Root as Sullivan had implied in the Autobiography of an Idea. Root’s designs were of the 1880s, Sullivan’s skyscrapers were done in the 1890s. Pathetically, Sullivan seems to have known this as he also included the following his The Autobiography of an Idea.
“John Wellborn Root in passing left a void in his wake…Who now would take up the foils he had dropped on his way, from hands that were once so strong? There was none!”
A FEW NOTES:
The Masonic Temple would be a great building to digitally model. The elevator ride up looking at the lake and down through the atrium should be thrilling. I am offering my help in any way to those who would take on this task. Best luck!
This will be my last post on this blog for a while, simply because I am still researching the coming chapters:
Chapter 3: A Review of Chicago’s Modern Architecture, including the work of Louis Sullivan, up to 1893 compared to similar developments in Europe.
Chapter 4: The American Renaissance: The Rise of the Ancients in the East
Chapter 5: High Noon in the American Battle of the Ancients vs. the Moderns: The 1893 World’s Fair
The good news is, I hope, is that I am not stopping the blog, I am only starting a second blog: “Chicago Architecture Before the Fire.” This will be the first comprehensive history of Chicago’s pre-fire architecture (that I am aware of) that will start with the building of Fort Dearborn in 1803 and end with the 1871 fire. I have already written this, I just need to revise it for the blog format. I hope you will enjoy it as much as what I have just completed: over 700 pages of double-spaced text with over 2000 images.
I will make one more post on this first blog alerting you to the address of the new blog in about a week.
Thank you all for your interest, support, and questions/comments. It’s had to believe that I started this blog on April 18, 2020, seventeen months ago……
Hines, Thomas S. Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
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.