The Rookery! A My Curated Tour

I’m a huge fan of urban architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright. I’ve been to many of his most iconic structures and thoroughly enjoy the tours, the history, the tidbits about his architectural intentions, and I admire the beauty of the structures. I crossed another location off my bucket list this week when I toured The Rookery building in the financial district of downtown Chicago. For me it was an absolute geek-fest of detail, historical anecdotes, and learning about the architectural decisions made over time for the building. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust does a great job in having tour guides that know their stuff. The bonus for me was that I was the only person on this last tour of the day – giving me what amounted to a personal tour of the building.

The Rookery property was first occupied by a city of Chicago water pumping station and it survived the great fire (not unlike the most iconic water station that sits north of the Loop on Michigan Avenue). After the fire, the water station was repurposed into Chicago’s first public library. It was a round building and the shelves were curved along the walls. Later, the city built its first City Hall around the library structure. The name Rookery came about because a fire station (ironic, right?) was located next to the library and Rooks (a type of crow) came to pick up fallen oats that were used to feed the horses (this is the 1880s). When City Hall took over the property the name stuck because of the corrupt politicians that ran the city who “rooked” the citizens.

The city decided to sell the property to create a larger city hall and the architectural firm of Burnham and Root decided to build a grand structure for their business and to rent space to other tenants. At the time they built this new structure it was one of the tallest buildings in the city at 11 stories. People marveled at the daring elevation. The architecture of the building was equally daring. It was an iron skeleton covered in red brick and granite making it instantly recognizable. The other most innovative element was that it includes an open air center courtyard to create natural light for the inner office spaces. Tenants would pay top dollar for the air and light this provided. An atrium ceiling made of iron and glass was installed over the mezzanine and lobby levels so that visitors and tenants could be sheltered “inside” and have natural light in the space. If a traditional roof covered the lobby and mezzanine, the spaces would be cave-like. Without the roof, there would be no lobby or mezzanine.

The investors who helped fund the construction of the building were very worried about the local nickname of the property. They did not want Mr.s Burnham and Root to use that name in any official way. Mr. Root designed the building and very cleverly included a Rookery reference in the embellishments on the front of the building. He designed two crows into the motiffe on either side of the entry. Three of them have their mouths open, suggesting they are gossiping about passerbys or political issues of the city. The locals and tenants continued to refer to the building as The Rookery and embraced the new grand building.

Mr. Root died shortly after the building opened and Daniel Burnham changed the name of the firm to Burnham & Associates. His most famous commission was the creation of the White City for the 1892 – to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s exploration. The Columbia Exposition in Chicago was extraordinary and extravagant. Burnham brought in architects from Europe, New York, and the midwest to plan the space, pavilions, and placement of exhibits. The remains of the Exposition are what is now Jackson Park near the University of Chicago and the lakefront. Burnham and his contemporaries joined forces with business leaders in the city such as Marshall Field to bring about the event. They held meetings to chart their progress from the 11th floor of the Rookery in the Burnham library – what we would call a conference room/director’s office today. Because they were the tallest building, they had an unobstructed view of the Exposition sight that was a few miles south. Standing in that space was like standing on hallowed architectural ground. Something I’ll never forget.

Frank Lloyd Wright was brought in to revamp the building lobby in 1905. The most engaging feature of the lobby is the “floating staircase.” A split circular stairway came out from the mezzanine level and went to the third floor and continued as a single circular staircase up the the 11th floor. Wright took out the two support posts underneath the staircases and instead used a vertical ironwork connector to support the weight – thus the “floating name.” The other serious renovation he made was to encase all the ironwork in the lobby in white marble. He had a repeating pattern carved into the marble and filled it with gold leaf. The pattern ran across the mezzanine balcony, the columns of the lobby, and the grand staircase that sat opposite of the floating staircase, leading to the mezzanine level. The white marble and gold leaf reflected even more natural light, brightening the space even more. He also changed the ceiling lighting to the hanging fixtures that can be seen today.

Additional changes were made over the years to the interior entryway, elevator area, and lobby floors. In the 1930s an additional small and open staircase was built to go from the mezzanine level to the lobby and fit under one side of the floating staircase. In the modern preservation of the building that staircase was removed. Under it was the original tile mosaic floor that Mr. Root had installed when the building opened and had been removed in later years. Finding this flooring intact was remarkable because it was the only visual reference for the repeating pattern of the tile! The restoration of the building includes a reproduction of the original tile throughout the lobby and a special designation of the original tile. The marble was removed from one side of a column to show the original ironwork for historical purposes. The floor pattern can be seen in the picture as well. Other original ironwork decoration was never covered by Wright or in subsequent changes. The staircase embellishments are as Mr. Root designed them.

The melding of Burnham, Root, and Wright in this building is a significant piece of Chicago architectural history. The paths of these men crossed often in the development of the city and modern architecture. Wright declined an offer to join Burnham’s firm and struck out on his own to create his now iconic prairie style. Burnham developed the City Plan of Chicago which included the lakefront parks and green space, numerous homes and commercial buildings including the Montauk building in Chicago (now torn down), the Flatiron Building in New York City, and Wanamaker’s department store building in Philadelphia. But given that The Rookery was home to his firm and his most prolific Chicago contributions, the building will remain one of my favorite Chicago places brushed with Frank Lloyd Wright history.

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