One of the most magnificent examples of the nineteenth-century revolution in construction is the Rookery Building in Chicago’s Loop, built by Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) and John Wellborn Root (1850-1891) during the explosion of innovation that followed the great fire of 1871.
Under pressure to rebuild the city quickly, the group of architects we now call the “Chicago School” mastered the techniques of building high buildings on a swampy site, and in doing so virtually invented the skyscraper.
The Rookery is externally conventional: above the second storey its outside walls are entirely load-bearing masonry. On the inside, however, the central light-court is framed by cast-iron columns, wrought-iron spandrels and steel beams.
Its spectacular atrium, lit by a glazed skylight roof and embellished by dramatic staircases to and above the mezzanine balcony, is one of the architectural wonders of Chicago.
It was modernised in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who encased Root’s elaborately ornamental wrought iron and terracotta with gilded, incised white marble panels that picked up the carved ornament of Burnham & Root’s exterior.
Burnham & Root – before Root’s untimely death – and, later on, Frank Lloyd Wright each based their practices in the building.
A further, clumsy refurbishment in 1931 obscured much of the quality of the original designs, and in 1992 a careful restoration by McClier Architects brought back the full impact of its 1905 appearance.
Indeed, McClier left exposed one of Root’s cast-iron columns to show the contrast between the original design and Frank Lloyd Wright’s radical make-over.
The lobby of the Rookery Building is freely accessible to visitors, on regular tours, but the light court is less often seen: http://www.therookerybuilding.com/building-features.html.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust offers tours of the Rookery Building on a regular basis – http://gowright.org/visit/rookery.html – and the Chicago Architectural Foundation includes the Rookery in their rich programme of architectural experiences: https://tickets.architecture.org/public/default.asp.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.