old chicago skyscraper of the week–the Rookery

The Rookery, La Salle and Adams.  Burnham & Root, 1888The “Rookery” was the result of a complex web of backroom deals and land exchanges.  The City of Chicago had owned the site, which was partly occupied by an abandoned water tank that had been turned into the city’s Library, and an aging, decrepit structure that had served as a temporary city hall since shortly after the great fire.  While many have thought that this old structure was called the “rookery” because it housed as many pigeons as people, the term was also used to describe a den of thieves or con-men, which more than adequately described city hall in the 1880s.

Whatever its origins, the name was stuck on to the new project, funded by a number of local businessmen including Daniel Burnham.  His partner, John Root, took the opportunity to advance a rigorous Romanesque style that combined the heavy masonry arches of H. H. Richardson with a budget-driven sense of order.  Root’s design wrapped a reinforced masonry mass–somewhere between a skeleton and a bearing wall–around a central light court.  While this was a common configuration in Burnham and Root’s work by this time, the court itself featured a stripped-down, skeletal structure that enabled interior offices to access more daylight.  This, and a similar skeletal approach on the lower stories of two rear facades, are often seen as precursors to the larger skeletal frames that the office came to design in the 1890s.

Perhaps as importantly, however, were narrow iron columns inserted into the masonry piers that formed the Rookery’s exterior.  These differed little from the reinforcing installed by Jenney in the Home Insurance Building, a block away and a year earlier, and they enabled Root to widen the building’s exterior windows by reducing the amount of masonry needed to hold the loads of the floors above.  While Sullivan had been experimenting with narrow brick piers by this point, the resulting frame of brick and iron, while nowhere near the narrow proportions that would arrive with steel frames in a few years, nevertheless allowed Root to experiment with the exterior wall as a system of verticals and horizontals, not as a solid mass or plane.  While he had made similar experiments with the Insurance Exchange, the Western Union Building, and the Rialto, all in the same neighborhood (though none of them still extant), the Rookery was his most eloquent statement of this possibility.

If the Rookery represented a tenuous step toward the skyscraper frame and away from the bearing wall, it also fostered a new mode of practice.  Burnham and Root occupied offices on the eleventh floor, and Burnham himself convinced many of the offices’ most trusted collaborators to lease space in the building as well–Illinois Steel, for example, located there.  This gave Burnham and Root a decided advantage when it came to communicating with other members of the design and construction teams they helped assemble, and helped consolidate their near-dominance of the Chicago market.  Burnham and his associates laid out most of the 1893 Fair from this office, and, tragically, well-known Chicago engineer Abraham Gottlieb died on the building’s steps after being fired as the Fair’s chief of construction.  He may well have been on his way to protest his dismissal.

The Rookery has been renovated several times, most notably by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1900s.  Wright removed much of Root’s original ornament in the atrium skylight–today we would undoubtedly say he marred the building, but since it was Wright, subsequent renovations have restored his vision, not Root’s.

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