Wright, Root, and the Rookery Building in Chicago

01
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Inside the 1888 Rookery Building

The Rookery Building's central light court and lobby, remodeled in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright
The Rookery Building's central light court and lobby, remodeled in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

A large building is rarely designed and built by one person or even one team. Very early large buildings, like the early skyscrapers of Chicago, Illinois, are often updated and remodeled after a number of years, just like homeowners might do after buying an old house.

Any renovation poses questions of preservation, modernization, and pragmatism. Should an architect redesign the work of another architect? Do 21st century features fit into a 19th century design? Should practical use of leasable space be the highest priority in an office building?

The Rookery Building, designed by the firm of Burnham and Root, was one of the earliest skyscrapers built in a devastated downtown Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. "Burnham was a notable visionary and convincing salesperson," claims the Rookery's website, "and Root was the master artisan and innovative engineer."

Their remarkable design for The Rookery, especially the fine art work of John Wellborn Root, is often overshadowed, however, by the man who remodeled the lobby in 1905—Frank Lloyd Wright.

Source: A Rich History, therookerybuilding.com [accessed September 1, 2014]

02
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Wright Examines Root's Space

Lobby of The Rookery Building, looking toward the entrance
Lobby of The Rookery Building, looking toward the entrance. Photo by Peter Ptschelinzew, Lonely Planet Images Collection, Getty Images

By 1893, Frank Lloyd Wright had split with his Chicago employer, skyscraper pioneer Louis Sullivan. Wright would have been familiar with Root's work as he watched the Burnham and Root Rookery Building take rise on 209 South LaSalle Street. Wright admired Root's "fine art sense" and, well after Root's early death from pneumonia in 1891, Wright wrote that "Chicago had a man of genius" in John Root.

Wright had established his Prairie Style reputation by the time he received the commission to remodel The Rookery's lobby in 1905. The Robie House was still on the drawing board, but over a decade had gone by since his first Prairie design, the Winslow House. Wright's ideas about natural light and geometric design were perfectly in synch with Root's interior details at The Rookery. Root's patterned iron beams created a lace-like metal roofing that, along with the glass ceiling and magnificent iron stairways, no doubt pleased Wright. In remodeling, all Wright could do would be to make the lobby better—more elegant, and more of what it already was.

SOURCE: "Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940)," Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, pp. 32, 89.

03
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Wright Remodels The Rookery Lobby

The marble staircase of the Rookery Building's lobby, remodeled in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright
The marble staircase of the Rookery Building's lobby, remodeled in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

The Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on architecture and building throughout the United States. Urbanization, the growth of "office jobs," and the Great Fire of 1871 made Chicago, Illinois the launching pad for a new type of building—the office high-rise, the castle of commerce.

The Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root designed the 11-story Rookery Building of 1888  much like Buckingham Palace—a four-walled structure open in the center. The Rookery's "light well" design became a standard for modern office buildings, allowing natural light and ventilation to enter an optimal number of office spaces.

John Root created an iron and glass roof to the second story, and this became the "light court" and grand lobby to the commercial office building. Through the ceiling glass, one can easily see "interior facade" of The Rookery. Frank Lloyd Wright made the lobby even more grand in 1905 by adding detail to the architectural elements Root had in place.

Wright's 1905 Lobby Remodeling:

  • Replicated Root's strong geometric patterns onto the central staircase, balconies, and walls
  • Encased Root's exposed iron columns in white marble, then "gilded and incised with Root's Arabic motif found in the LaSalle entrance"
  • Added and updated lighting fixtures to Wright-looking pieces
  • Updated the elevator grills with Wright-like geometric patterns
  • Squared the central stairs, added marble highlights, and replaced the thin-posted electric lamps with giant urns at the ground level base of the steps

The lobby of a commercial building should be elegant, modern, and fit for a king. Wright made it so.

Source: A Rich History, therookerybuilding.com [accessed September 1, 2014[

04
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John Root's Oriel Staircase

The Oriel Spiral Staircase designed by John Root for the Rookery Building, 1888
The Oriel Spiral Staircase designed by John Root for the Rookery Building, 1888. Photo by Panoramic Images/Panoramic Images Collection/Getty Images

Chicago's 1888 Rookery Building is well-known for it's spiral stairway—a very photogenic architectural detail. The Rookery lobby is also known as a work by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But it was architect John Wellborn Root who designed these stairs. An architectural detail of pure genius, the cantilevered iron staircase is called oriel because, like an oriel window, it projects into the open space of the light well, but not to the ground floor. Being outside the building's wall, but inside the building's facade, the staircase becomes an elegant fire escape from the 11th to the 2nd floor (view front and back of the Rookery building). A twelfth story was added to The Rookery in 1992, and the stairway was extended.

It is the John Root geometric pattern from these stairs that Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated into his lobby remodeling.

05
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Frank Lloyd Wright Details The Rookery

Frank Lloyd Wright added a decorative brace to the cantilevered stairway in the Rookery Building
Frank Lloyd Wright added a decorative brace to the cantilevered stairway designed by John Root for the Rookery Building. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

John Root's Oriel Staircase is combined beauty and engineering. The use of iron and the technique of cantilevering was very new to the 1888 public, but not to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright knew how safe and sturdy the staircase was. It is a design technique that Wright himself would use over and over again.

Nevertheless, when Wright remodeled the lobby in 1905, he added a decorative brace to assuage any fears. In Wright fashion, the brace emulates the Prairie-type lighting throughout the light court.

06
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Remodeling The Rookery

Detail of Frank Lloyd Wright lighting added to the Rookery Building's skylit lobby atrium
In 1905 Frank Lloyd Wright added his signature Prairie School lighting to the Rookery Building's central light court. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

Although they did not work together, John Wellborn Root and Frank Lloyd Wright were of the same mindset—fine art detailing, open spaces, natural light, geometric simplicity. Later architects had other ideas.

The Rookery lobby was remodeled again in 1931 by William Drummond. To increase usable space, Drummond removed the central stairs and created two floors within the two story atrium area. Later modifications shockingly included painting the skylight to create a modern, dimly-lit lobby reminiscent of a movie theater.

Historic preservation activities in 1988 and 1992 reverted the design to the Root/Wright lobby we see today.

07
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Root's and Wright's Rookery Lobby

Frank Lloyd Wright's large, hanging lamps inside the Rookery Building's central light court
Frank Lloyd Wright's large, hanging lamps inside the Rookery Building's central light court. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

Standing at the top of the marble staircase, on the second floor overlooking the grandeur of The Rookery's past years, one quickly appreciates the work of the architect as engineer and artist.

The Rookery is a highly ornamented office building designed in 1885 to 1888 by architect John Root. When Frank Lloyd Wright reworked the entry and main lobby, he introduced abstract, geometric details typical of his Prairie style architecture.

Yet the detail was already present—put there by architect John Wellborn Root, the true genius behind Chicago's architectural firm Burnham and Root.

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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Wright, Root, and the Rookery Building in Chicago." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/wright-root-and-the-rookery-chicago-178373. Craven, Jackie. (2016, August 9). Wright, Root, and the Rookery Building in Chicago. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wright-root-and-the-rookery-chicago-178373 Craven, Jackie. "Wright, Root, and the Rookery Building in Chicago." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wright-root-and-the-rookery-chicago-178373 (accessed October 19, 2017).