The Enduring Wonder of the Rookery

December 30th, 2013 · 1 Comment · Beyond Gotham

One could be forgiven for thinking that one of the crows in terra cotta on Chicago’s Rookery building depicts a current leader of the U.S. Congress. Some of our greatest buildings possess an expressiveness that speaks not only of the time period in which architects and builders created the structure but also to today. The Rookery captures this quality wonderfully. The squawking, quarrelsome birds in terra cotta on its exterior, for example, were said to represent the crows and pigeons who perched on the walls of the dilapidated structure that preceded this building at the corner of LaSalle and Adams streets.

They had another meaning as well. The city of Chicago used that old structure for a time as City Hall after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and it became known as “the Rookery” – a name that won out when a company constructed this high-rise on the site. The birds, some say, also personified the shady Chicago politicians of the day. To my eyes, they bring up the interminable squawking and stalemate we have come to know in today’s Congress. Thus, the images are both historic and contemporary.

The Rookery invites contemplation, wonder, and yes, perhaps a laugh or two at those gaping bird beaks. If buildings have life-like characteristics, the Rookery expresses very divergent qualities. Its dark and massively squared-off exterior gives way inside to a very light interior space. Such buildings exist, but the Rookery is one of the most dramatic.

Yet both exterior and interior have a delicacy in decorative detail when you look up-close. The ability to appreciate it today is even more precious given that the structure somehow survived a wrecking ball for generations and that someone then carefully and lovingly restored and renovated the building in the late 1980s. It embodies beauty, engineering achievement, timelessness, varied and rich personalities, and sculptural appeal.

Completed in 1888, the 11-story Rookery is Chicago’s oldest standing high-rise building. Many come to see its dazzling interior courtyard that Frank Lloyd Wright, in the early years of his career, redesigned. However, the Rookery is much more than that: In one building is an array of the finest architectural expressions that three different architects brought to it over a period of nearly 50 years.

After the Great Fire

The Rookery reflects a city’s resilience, too – and its creative force – after dire times. The construction of the Rookery came during the massive building boom that followed the Great Fire. The fire had decimated a four-mile long swath of Chicago, destroyed approximately 18,000 buildings, and left more than 100,000 people homeless. Out of this destruction, however, came a period of innovation, cutting-edge technology such as fireproofing, and bold design. The Rookery was the work of architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. Burnham was the visionary whose master plans shaped Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Cleveland, among others, and who was a preeminent leader in the late 19th century movement to conceive of cities as majestic centers of beauty and commerce. In the Rookery, however, we primarily see Root’s architectural achievements, artisanship, and engineering genius.

Because Wright garners by far more attention for his redesign of the awe-inspiring light court, Root is, by comparison, somewhat neglected. Yet Root’s accomplishments were many in the design and engineering of a building that set standards for later skyscrapers. In prior decades, the desires of architects and builders to go taller confronted a certain limit because of load-bearing walls of brick and stone, which were thick and made for darker interiors. The Rookery was one of the first skyscrapers to employ metal framing. While its exterior walls were of masonry, for the interior Root used an iron framework that supported the walls and floors, a technique that Chicago engineer William Jenney developed and used in the 1884 Home Insurance Building. Root also incorporated other breakthrough technologies and materials of the era such as hydraulic elevators, fireproofing, and plate-glass windows.

The Rookery, at 209 South LaSalle Street in Chicago

The birds on the Rookery’s exterior

Stand back from the Rookery and you might think of it as a medieval fortress. But walking around and in it reveals a different sense, of a building with a bursting expressiveness of styles, fascinating details, and softer texture. Root studied in England, traveled widely, and in his early years was struck by the marvels of Gothic cathedrals and the original iron-and-glass Grand Central Station, writes author Jay Pridmore in his book on the Rookery. While Root believed firmly that architects must study every style of architecture, he observed, “Whenever architects get to be finical about the purity of their style, you may know that you have a period of architectural decadence,” as Harriet Monroe recounted in an 1896 biography of Root. The Rookery shows the ways Root drew from many and varied styles, including Romanesque, Moorish, Venetian, Islamic, and Byzantine.

Wright’s Reshaping of a Grand Space

Within the Rookery, Burnham and Root placed an open, airy light court, which would help bring daylight to the offices within. Today, we have become accustomed to such spaces, but at the time, the interior court was a bold and original feature, and it sparked strong praise from architectural critics. Less than two decades later, Wright, a not-yet-established architect, won the commission to redesign the building’s lobby in 1905, when its ornament and ironwork were no longer fashionable.

Wright’s work took what was one of the city’s most splendid lobbies into the 20th century. He brought a Prairie-style sensibility in brightening the color and lightening up the elaborate iron and terra cotta detailing while he also made use of Arabic motifs and geometric patterns that Root had designed for the Rookery’s elements elsewhere. Wright used a casing of white marble with the Arabic motif for the iron columns and covered most of the original panels and railings with incised and gilded Carrara marble. The result continues to captivate many who come to see the light court today.

The central court

The Rookery saw two more major renovations in the 20th century; the first brought new touches while the second took it back to its beginning decades. In 1931, William Drummond, a former assistant to Wright, oversaw a modernizing of parts of the interior and brought Art Deco styling. Artist Annette Byrne designed elements of the Art Deco aesthetic, such as gorgeous birds and geometric patterns etched into the then-new bronze elevator doors.

In subsequent decades, the Rookery’s fortunes went down and then up again. It underwent destructive changes and endured decades of neglect – for example, subsequent owners had its skylight covered with paint and waterproofing for maintenance. But in 1988, L. Thomas Baldwin III bought the Rookery. Setting out to restore the Rookery’s splendor and make it more attractive to modern tenants, Baldwin hired McClier Architects to complete a hybrid restoration drawing from varied facets of its history while upgrading its technology. In recent years, the new owners of the Rookery refurbished it again.

Thanks to those who have renovated and tended the Rookery over the years, we’re fortunate to still have this incredible building when new generations of builders and developers destroyed or altered the vast majority of Chicago’s commercial buildings from the late 19th century. It is one of the few left. The building remains a living entity 125 years after its construction. It continues to tell the story of its Victorian and early 20th century beginnings and yet remains timeless in beauty, architectural ingenuity, and its ability to mesmerize those who walk here today.

The ornate, well-proportioned archway above the front entrance

A winding stairwell in the light court is a marvel of intricacy

In his redesign, Frank Lloyd Wright placed bronze chandeliers with globe lighting in the central court.

The renovation of the early 1930s carried through the Rookery motif with birds in the Art Deco style on the bronze elevator doors

Place and street names are embedded on the building’s exterior.

View the slide show larger at Flickr.

Further Reading and Resources

The Rookery: Building History

The Rookery: A Building Book from the Chicago Architectural Foundation

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Rich

    I don’t believe that street the street names were embedded on the building’s exterior by Frank Lloyd Wright. I have a photo of this building from somewhere between 1888 and 1895 and those street signs are on the side of the building.


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