Happy holidays, fellow roadies! How many of us here in Chicago do the home tourist thing over the holidays and take the opportunity to see our hometown the way other people do? Since we live here, you’d think we’d know all the museums, galleries and event venues inside out … and yet, it sometimes takes a visit from out-of-town friends or relatives to prompt us. We get busy with our lives, and we miss a lot. Personally, if I don’t hit a museum or a lecture or an event in town at least once a month, I get antsy and need a fix. But that’s me, a born and bred Chicagoan unwillingly living in the suburbs. Besides, in our case, writing the Route 66 book has given us plenty of excuses for local travel, so I’ve been kind of spoiled for a while.
At this time of year, the local-tourist itch usually starts with going downtown to shop or see the decorated store windows as an excuse. You’ve made reservations for lunch or brunch at the Walnut Room or some other place you only hit during the holidays. Before you know it, you’ve finally decided to use those museum passes that have been burning a hole in your wallet all year or take a few building tours as long as you’re in the Loop. You really meant to do this when the weather was better. Yeah. Uh-huh. Sure you did.
Well, we can’t claim to be much different, except that we didn’t wait for friends or relatives to give us an excuse (we have book research for that!). ;D So last Thursday, Joe and I did something we haven’t done in a while: we took not one, but two building tours led by docents from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. For free!! (We had left-over passes from previous tours.) Given our particular interest, of course we chose two structures on Route 66 – Union Station and The Rookery – one of which neither of us had ever been in before. Since I’ve been reading a biography of Daniel H. Burnham lately (Thomas S. Hines’s Burnham of Chicago, Second Edition, which is the definitive one, I’m told; Chicago architect Harry Weese thinks so, anyway, and I agree), I figured we were lucky that those particular tours just happened to be available last week.
Let me say one thing first, before we get into the buildings themselves and the tours: our sincere thanks to Rich Keal and Frank Youngwerth, the two CAF docents who led our Union Station and Rookery tours, respectively. They were full of information delivered with zest and obvious pleasure at being there, so that you couldn’t help but be swept along with their enthusiasm for the works before us, and they were very patient with my occasional interjections of additional information (a professional liability when you happen to be doing extensive research about the very thing you’ve come to see: you’ve already formed your own opinions about what’s most important about the building, regardless of what might interest the average tourist more. For example, I wasn’t at all thinking about scenes from popular movies that might have been filmed at either place, but those questions did arise more than once. Oops). Thank you, Rich and Frank, for your gracious reaction to me adding my own two cents. We, too, were there to take pleasure in the buildings, the same as the average man or woman on the street, and your presentations increased that delight. Which, we suppose, is the point of it all: to have fun while learning something about your city. Works both sides of the brain.
Let’s take these in chronological order of their erection rather than in the order we saw them. That puts the Rookery Building first. It’s the building that’s just about on everybody’s architectural tour in Chicago and the one Chicagoans themselves call their favorite – and why wouldn’t it be? After all, it’s not often you have a building that Daniel Burnham, John W. Root and Frank Lloyd Wright all worked on, now is it? In fact, this is the only building that bears the marks of both Wright and Burnham & Root. Also, it was here on the top floor that plans were begun for the 1893 Columbian Exposition and Burnham’s famous White City, the fair that told the world Chicago had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the Great Fire. The conference room where the planners first met was an oak-paneled library, meeting room and reception area within Burnham & Root’s offices in the Rookery. It’s still there, preserved along with its fireplace, in the southwest corner. Clients would have entered the practice’s offices through that room. If you stand across the street at LaSalle at Quincy (next to the wrought-iron gate barring your way to the side entrance of the Federal Reserve Bank) and look up at the top of the south edge of the Rookery, the Burnham & Root library is at the very top corner of the building.
Burnham was in charge of the fair’s construction, whereas Root was to have been responsible for the overall design; but Root died suddenly of pneumonia in January 1891. In fact, he fell ill while the committee of architects was in Chicago, attending a meeting with Burnham & Root. Root, who hadn’t been feeling well for a few days and had skipped the trip out to the then barren Jackson Park, had hosted a dinner for all of them the night before he fell ill. Afterwards, he supposedly walked his guests out to the street without a coat on, and died only a few days later. Burnham hadn’t realized until then how dependent they had been on each another as a creative team. Once Root fell ill, a grief-stricken Burnham did not leave his side until after his partner was dead.
Historians (thanks to Louis Sullivan’s jealous vilification of Burnham in his late-life writings) give Root all the credit for their designs and portray Burnham as merely a salesman, glad-hander and business manager, but that’s a false picture. Even Root’s doting sister-in-law, poet Harriet Monroe (publisher and editor of Poetry magazine), conceded that Root might have turned out to be an unfocused dilettante if not for the drive and direction that Burnham provided. Whereas Root preferred to work with ornament, Burnham – himself an excellent draftsman with a good eye for proportion and organization – often began by roughing out floor plans and building proportions. He was better than Root at apportioning space and usually gave Root the starting point the latter required, from which Root could then work his wonders. Burnham would then recommend changes, if he thought any were necessary. Burnham was not merely a capable manager but also an able architect; however, with Root’s death he would lose not only a firm friend and well suited partner but also an anchor who had allowed him to be more confident in his own artistic choices.
By the late 20th century, The Rookery was looking a little tired, but a sensitive restoration during the 1980s set it right, down to renewing the original reddish color of the granite. Ever since, The Rookery has become one of Chicagoans’ darlings, selected as Chicago’s favorite building per a Tribune reader poll a few years ago. You need to see the interior atrium for yourselves. In an ironic twist, there’s a Brooks Brothers store now on the ground floor, even though the clothiers had nothing to do with the original Brooks Brothers, Peter C. and Shepherd Brooks, the Boston area developers and investors who rarely left Massachusetts.
For those who didn’t already know, the Rookery Building was commissioned by Peter C. Brooks II through his Chicago land agent, Owen F. Aldis. Aldis had also formed a group of shareholders to finance it that included Burnham’s friend Edward C. Waller, who had obtained the land from the city, Burnham, Root, a few other minority investors, and the Brooks brothers, who had reserved the majority share for themselves. Peter Brooks had known Burnham from the latter’s brief tenure as an apprentice at the office of William LeBaron Jenney when Jenney (aided by Burnham and William Holabird, another apprentice) had designed Brooks’s first building in Chicago, the original Portland Block, which was completed in 1868.
The Brooks brothers had this geeky penchant for wanting to name all their buildings using Native American place names found in New England – thus, the Monadnock (named after a mountain). Sometimes those place names weren’t easily pronounceable or even memorable, so people eventually sought other, simpler names for the same buildings. Most people didn’t even remember (if they ever knew) the original name of the Rookery and didn’t care what the Brookses had in mind – they’d been calling the building on that spot the Rookery for ages, and the name was bound to stick. For one thing, the building that preceded Burnham & Root’s structure on that spot had been both a roosting place for birds and a temporary city hall after the fire – thus, a place where politicians ‘perched,’ also therefore a place where the common man got ‘rooked’ or fleeced, given the level of corruption to be found in Chicago politics even then – in fact, much more so then than now. Say what you will about our politics being a spectator sport played between city hall, the courthouse and the federal prison system, but Chicago’s a lot cleaner now politically and administratively than it was then and works better, too. Which is really saying something about what it was like then. Yeow! An ancient Roman accustomed to greed, bribery, and bread and circuses would have felt completely at home.
John Root, of course, was completely aware of the building’s reputation and all the double and triple meanings to the name and added his own little visual jokes in the building’s exterior. Most obvious are the laughing birds incorporated into the entrance arch on either side and the towers atop the building’s cornice that look like chess rooks (the end pieces that are the castles or towers. ‘Rook’-ery. See? Double and triple meanings and puns everywhere). Root must have been highly amused while drafting his plans for this place.
The part that most enchants visitors, of course, is the ground-level atrium with its lacy glass canopy and elegant bridgework, its beautiful use of space. If the Rookery’s ruddy granite and brick exterior strikes you as somewhat over the top overall, although pleasing in its massing and humorous in its details, the atrium is a work of understated elegance. A refined, polished counterpoint to the rusticated stone outside. In this, it is aided not just by Burnham’s floor plan and Root’s ornament but also by the additions of Frank Lloyd Wright in his renovation of 1905. While keeping the graceful lines of Root’s black ironwork and brass exposed on the staircases and balcony railings, Wright enclosed the rest of Root’s ornamented structural supports, which now look a little dated and overdone despite their beauty, in white marble etched in patterns inlaid with gilt (you can see the comparison on a column that has one side exposed to show Root’s highly ornate support). The marble made the columns square and also provided clean lines that are repeated elsewhere in the atrium.
Wright then extended that marble all around the periphery of the atrium and into the lobby, lobby stairs and stars down to the vault, visually unifying the spaces. Moreover, he had the ironwork of the glass canopy and its braces painted white, which did the trick to further help lighten the space. If the basic nature and reason for being for a skylight is to provide light and airiness, painting the ironwork white only increases that impression while also tying it visually to the white marble. If anything, it made the lovely bridgework look even more like white filigree, which also provides a nice contrast to the beautiful colored and patterned mosaic stone floor.
Speaking of filigree: you’ll notice that the pattern in Root’s railings for the balcony and staircases is really a geometric, as is the pattern of the skylight, whereas the exposed black support braces beneath the marble staircase to the mezzanine have a different pattern, just as elegant but not geometric. Wright’s tracery on the marble is even more flowing and organic, like the staircase braces, and provides a less than obvious echo or link between the two, pulling together all the other tracery in the atrium, whereas his black, brass and white light fixtures draw on and relate to those same colors used elsewhere in the atrium: the black and brass from the ironwork on the staircase and railings, the white globes from the marble and painted bridgework. In the background are creamy-colored walls and moldings, also accented here and there with gilt, that provide a warm, welcoming surface against which the marble, brass and iron can shine.
A tasteful, modest amount of dark red bunting adds a nice touch of color for the holidays, as does the seasonal topiary in urns atop the marble staircase pillars. One look at those urns, by the way – circular bowls squared at the rims – and you know they’re Wright’s. Just like those light fixtures, they’re instantly recognizable as his design, but they fit in seamlessly without calling attention to themselves. Nice work. One can’t help but think that in a way, Wright made the atrium more of what Burnham and Root intended it to be.
The other thing most people come to see is the magnificent oriel staircase. You only get a hint of it from the atrium, where you can see the double-sweep of the open black iron staircase (looking like a villain’s handlebar mustache, not unlike Burnham’s own) . It begins on the mezzanine and vanishes up into the second floor as a single black channel. The spiral staircase then climbs up the west side of the light court, encased in its own glass-and-wood tube, above the atrium canopy all the way to the top. Although the wood forms a dark frame with filigree accents around the glass from the inside, the side exposed to the light court is soft white – as is the rest of the skylight-topped court. This is a delight that you can only see from inside the staircase or inside the offices. Interestingly, whereas the exterior edges of the building along the street and alley sides are all load-bearing masonry, the walls of the light court are true curtain walls with iron frames from which the walls are ‘hung’ – so, like the Monadnock after its Holabird & Roche addition, the Rookery is a little bit of both.
When you go for a visit, make sure you take the black iron staircase with its white marble steps from the mezzanine and walk up several floors, until you get past the lower atrium canopy, so that you can see the light court first hand (that means climbing the spiral staircase above the third floor). As the guards won’t let you onto the atrium’s marble staircase or the glass-block-floored mezzanine itself unless you’re visiting with an architectural tour group, you’ll have to take the elevator to the mezzanine lobby and reach the staircase from there (you also won’t get to Burnham & Root’s library without a tour, unless you come in October during the Open House Chicago weekend). By the way: the best photos of the oriel staircase are taken from the mezzanine looking up or from the top of the staircase looking down.
Equally elegant are the elevator lobbies renovated by Wright protégé William Drummond in 1930-31. That renovation was needed because the elevator grilles had to be replaced with solid doors for fire safety reasons. Drummond’s ground-floor doors are of etched brass with a vertical pattern that is both angular and organic, zigzags framing a (what else?) bird motif. The pattern reminds you a little of motifs that Wright used in his Arizona buildings, but it still fits, melding nicely with the white marble and clean lines of Wright’s own contribution here. The brass elevator doors on the second and upper levels are plainer but just as elegant.
But what really impressed people when the Rookery opened and what still makes it a highly sought-after business address today is Burnham’s floor plans and organization of space. If nothing about that seems remarkable to you today, remember that we’ve had more than 125 years of skyscrapers by now, and most of them have copied what worked in earlier buildings. Efficient, effective organization of rooms for business ought to be a no-brainer today for architects, but someone had to do the hard work of figuring it out the first time and possibly failing along the way. Here, Burnham was the first to find what works for business tenants.
Before sitting down to sketch out Root’s starting point for the Rookery, Burnham went over everything he’d learned from their experience with their first (and seemingly unimpressive) tall building, the Montauk Block, which was also their first commission together for Peter Brooks. That building had been – as Brooks insisted upon it – as plain as a homely farm boy in its exterior; but it was a purposefully designed office tower and had some beauty of organization in that fact (architect and historian Thomas Tallmadge called the Montauk an ultimate prototype of office skyscrapers, similar to what Chartres was to cathedrals). To this data, Burnham added the comments of his friend Edward C. Waller (the guy he’d left Jenney’s firm for and run off to Nevada with in 1869, where they both failed in a gold mining venture, then Burnham failed in a political run, too; when they returned, Burnham went back into architecture, but Waller became a businessman and real estate developer). Waller told Burnham a lot about what a business tenant needed, and Burnham listened. [Note: Waller became an important patron to the young Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he most probably met through Burnham; Burnham liked to entertain and often had Wright and Waller, among many others, over to his Evanston home. Wright’s Waller Apartments, the developer’s exercise in affordable housing, were named after Brunham’s friend.]
So: you could fairly say that in the Rookery, Burnham created the purposeful space in which Root provided the details and delight and Wright – and, to a lesser extent, Drummond – enhanced the result. And that is an excellent explanation of why, after a century and a quarter, the Rookery is still in demand by business tenants and is Chicagoans’ favorite landmark building. Consequently, it’s worth taking the time to see The Rookery in its entirety, or at least as much of it as you can see without invading anyone’s offices; that probably means taking the building tour before or after you undertake your Route 66 day trip.
Historical postscript: in February of 1885 while Dan Burnham and John Root were still planning and designing the Rookery, the building in which they had their own offices at the time – the seven-story Grannis Block on Dearborn – burned down. Burnham & Root had provided the building design to Amos Grannis, so you can imagine how shocked they were. Grannis was a carpenter who built the office building on land leased from Shepherd Brooks, who had bought the building from Grannis only months before the fire after being assured by Aldis that it was a good investment. At first, Burnham mistakenly thought the new hydraulic elevators were to blame for the fire, but everyone soon discovered that the building had been poorly constructed and massively underinsured. Obviously, Grannis had cut corners and hadn’t told anyone. Where the two architects and their employees relocated to finish their work on the Rookery is a good question; but wherever it was, it was clearly temporary – because once the Rookery was completed, they occupied the top floor themselves.
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Please note: this post is partially excerpted from the upcoming book The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago, by Maria R. Traska and Joseph D. Kubal with Keith Yearman. Copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved. No part of this post or any of our other posts may be copied, redistributed or otherwise used without express written permission from the authors. All photos used in the slideshow above are copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reseved, and may not be used ot reproduced in any way without specific written permission from me. Just protecting the intellectual property, folks.
Next time: holiday touring, part 2 – Union Station