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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dizzying Designs at The Rookery

One of my favorite buildings in Chicago is just down the block from the Board of Trade at the corner of Adams and LaSalle.  I got a lot of the information in this post directly from The Rookery website.

The Rookery was completed in 1886 by the architectural team of Burnham and Root, those guys famous for their work that led to modern day skyscrapers after the Great Chicago Fire.  At 11 stories tall it is one of the earliest examples of metal framing with masonry walls in a large commercial building.  Root developed the "grillage foundation" technique necessary to erect heavy buildings on Chicago's soggy soil.  This design consists of iron rails laid in a crisscross pattern and encased in concrete that support the building’s immense weight.

They also coordinated the architectural building of the endlessly fascinating (to me anyway) Columbian Exposition World's Fair.  Want to see pictures from the Fair?  I recommend "The Chicago World's Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record".

The Rookery was unique in that was so ornate for an office building.  Already decorative to begin with, in 1905 Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to work on the building and in the lobbies he covered nearly every inch with incised and gilded marble, removing or hiding the original panels and railings. The incising was copied from Root’s original work and was likely inspired by Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament, a source Root also used.

"The Rookery" etched in marble that Frank Lloyd Wright added

From the website regarding the building's name:  "There are several stories about how the Rookery got its name. Some say it was called this because of the ramshackle appearance of the hastily built City Hall that occupied this site until 1885. Others claim the name originated with the crows that lived in the previous structure’s walls, paralleling the politicians who roosted there each day. It is also said that an adjacent fire station attracted scores of pigeons to the site to feed on the horses’ oats. Whatever the case, newspaper articles and first-hand accounts apply the word “rookery” when referring to the site of the post-fire City Hall. Unfortunately, people continued to call the new Burnham & Root masterpiece by the same name, which did not please the invested parties."

In 1931 William Drummond enclosed the elevators with solid bronze doors and marble, probably due to changes in fire code. A bit of Art Deco aesthetic played out in the realistic birds and flora and fauna etched into the doors, designed by Annette Byrne.

Art Deco inspired elevator doors

From the beginning the Rookery successfully implemented many new and breakthrough building technologies including metal framing, elevators, fireproofing, electrical lighting, and plate glass.  But the real show stopper is the light court. In the Chicago of the 1880s, getting sufficient light to read and work by was no easy task. Electricity was new, expensive and sometimes unreliable so access to natural light was critical.

Wright's staircase spilling into the light court of Burnham and Root design

When Wright was commissioned to work at The Rookery in 1905, the light court’s elaborate ironwork and ornament had gone out of fashion. A full-blown Prairie Style scheme would have overwhelmed the space. To strike a balance, Wright removed much of the iron and terra cotta detailing on the central staircase, balconies, and walls, replacing it with strong geometric patterns based on the railings of Root’s oriel stairs.

Root's iron stairway combined with Wright's lighter marble makes a stunning statement

Wright's bronze chandeliers

Wright added bronze chandeliers with prismatic glass that still hang there today and he encased the iron columns in white marble that was gilded and incised with Root’s Arabic motif found in the LaSalle entrance.

One of the best things about this building is the combination of details from different decades and architects that work so well together and of course the intensive restoration efforts.

Iron columns and original mosaic floors


  1. When did we forget how to build buildings like that?

  2. Certainly a humble name for such a splendid building.

  3. Certainly a humble name for such a splendid building.