Wright and the Rookery

A great, great, great (but too short) article in Chicago magazine: “Who Deserves Credit for the Rookery”.

Designed by John Root in 1886, the Rookery Building is one of the most extraordinary buildings in downtown Chicago. Root, partner of Daniel Burnham, architect of the Monodnock and the Reliant Buildings, may have been on the road to becoming one of America’s greatest architects, but he died at age 41.

The original Burnham & Root-designed light court was widely praised, but in 1905 Wright patron Edward Waller asked the young architect to redesign the light court. Wright’s prairie-influenced light court added marble and luxury to the lobby and brought more light in.

But Wright’s lobby has overshadowed Root’s landmark building. Not that the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has moved into the Rookery and begun to offer tours of the light court. The Preservation Trust, unsurprisingly focuses on Wright’s contribution to the building. Root is mentioned, but dispensed with quickly.

In the new Rookery tours, guides acknowledge Root’s original design, but the talks focus on Wright’s contributions. The volunteers graciously describe Wright’s interior renovation as “a very restrained and reverential handling [of Root’s design],” says the trust’s director of volunteer resources, Kent Bartram. But, he explains, “we have more of a Wrightian approach.”

But, the Preservation Trust is missing a great opportunity to enlarge the understanding of Wright, to place him in context, and to replace the mythological figure with the real man. The Preservation Trust is falling short of its mission to educate the public about Wright.

Wright had arrived in Chicago in 1887 and Chicago was in the midst of an burst of architectural creativity possibly unrivaled in history. The young architect was inspired by the technological and creative advances all around him. And Burnham and Root were in the vanguard of Chicago’s urban revolution. Undoubtably, Burnham’s devotion to Beaux Arts has cast him as something of an anti-hero in the story of Louis Sullivan and Wright’s push towards a new, modern, American architecture (Burnham even tempted Wright with a remarkable opportunity to study in Europe). But Wright was beneficiary of the technological advances promoted by William Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn root and Dankmar Adler.

Wright was singular. Wright is the “indispensable man” of American architecture. But he also built on the work of those who went before; the men who raised Chicago up from the ashes of the Great Fire are as vital a part of his story as Anna Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. It’s a real disappointment that the Preservation Trust has missed a great opportunity to properly tell the story.