John Wellborn Root

John Wellborn Root (1850-1891) lent his name and artistic genius to one of nineteenth-century America's most famed architectural firms, Burnham and Root. Their Chicago office designed and built some of the tallest commercial buildings in the world. Root's structural innovations helped create the first modern office blocks in history.

Root was born on January 10, 1850 in Lumpkin, Georgia. His father Sidney, who had wanted to be an architect when he was young, ran a dry-goods store. Educated at home until he was ten, Root emerged as a gifted artist as a child who loved to draw and play the piano. Eventually the family moved to Atlanta, but during the American Civil War Root was sent to England, where he stayed in Liverpool with business associates of his father's. By this time the senior Root was profiting handsomely from a fleet of ships he owned that were able to evade a trade blockade of the South. After the end of the war, the family settled in New York City, but Root remained in England a bit longer, studying drawing at Oxford College and continuing his musical studies. By this time Root had become a talented organist.

His family lost their fortune almost as quickly as it had been gained, and Root's choices for college, when he returned to America, were limited. He enrolled at the University of the City of New York, and earned a degree in civil engineering in 1869. The first in his class, he delivered the commencement speech, but did not plan on a career in civil engineering. Instead he harbored a desire to design buildings. Since there were no graduate training programs in architecture at the time, he apprenticed with James Renwick, the designer of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. It was an unpaid internship. After a year Root was able to find a paid post with John Butler Snook, whose Brooklyn firm enjoyed a working relationship with the Vanderbilt family. During Root's tenure at the firm, Snook was completing a commission for New York's Grand Central Station-a building later destroyed to make way for the present one. At the age of 20 Root became supervisor of construction on the massive glass and iron vault. The first trains entered the shed on October 8, 1871-the same day as the Great Chicago Fire.


Headed West

Root showed some of his work to a forward-thinking New York architect, Peter Bonnet Wight, who was impressed by the young architect's drawings. He felt that they possessed a maturity and personal style unusual for someone so new to the profession. Wight had ties to Chicago, where he had maintained an office for a time in the late 1850s, and returned there to establish himself with Asher Carter and William H. Drake after the fire. The leveling of the city, at the moment when its commercial prospects were growing exponentially, gave architects an unprecedented opportunity. The Carter, Drake and Wight firm had so much business that they offered Root a job as head draftsman. He moved to Chicago in early 1872.

At the firm Root befriended a drafting-room colleague, Daniel Hudson Burnham, a Chicagoan from a well-to-do family. A talented artist, Burnham had done poorly in school and had only recently seemed to discover his calling. He and Root decided to begin working together. Burnham's exuberant personality won them their first commission, a house located at Harrison Street and Ashland Avenue. They formalized their partnership as Burnham and Root in July of 1873. Two months later, the Panic of 1873 triggered an economic downturn, and they struggled to keep the firm afloat. The partners took turns staffing the office while the other hired himself out to other architectural firms. Root also earned a salary as the organist at the First Presbyterian Church.

One of Burnham and Root's first important clients was John B. Sherman, co-founder of the famous Union Stock Yards and Transit Company. They designed a residence for him, at 21st Street and Prairie Avenue, in a dignified style that soon attracted attention. Louis Sullivan later wrote about discovering the house when he was a young man and finding himself entranced by its turrets and decorative stonework. As a result of the contract, Burnham met and later married Sherman's daughter. Root's personal life had a more tragic cast: he married Mary Louise Walker in 1879, but she suffered from tuberculosis and succumbed just six weeks later. Three years later, he wed Dora Louise Monroe.


Floating Raft

Burnham and Root's fortunes as a firm improved considerably in 1880 when they met Owen Aldis, a lawyer and agent for two Boston brothers with Chicago real-estate holdings. Aldis liked Burnham and Root's work, and secured commissions for them from Peter and Shepard Brooks that would leave an indelible stamp on the architectural history of the city. Their first project was the Grannis Block (1880-81) on North Dearborn Street, an office building with a terra-cotta facade carved into floral motifs. Their next Brooks commission, the Montauk block on West Monroe, was slated to sit on some of Chicago's marshiest soil. Root devised a new type of foundation made up of steel rails crisscrossed and then encased in concrete. He called it the "floating raft." Other architects in city began to use it as well.

Root's first corporate commission was finished in 1883. It had been awarded to the firm thanks to the father-in-law of his first wife, who was the solicitor for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company. The headquarters for the railroad, erected at the intersection of Franklin and Adams, achieved fame for its inner courtyard, which gave its offices much more light than was customary in a building of that size. The concept was expanded the following year in a design for the six-floor McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Building. Its intermediate floors became an arcade. Its facade consisted of a single-story base, midsection of four floors, attic story with corbelled cornice-an arrangement that set the tone for building design for years to come.


The Chicago School

Root began devising methods to create taller buildings. He transferred the floating raft concept into a vertical framework. In his historic Phenix Building of 1887, a metal skeleton was used for the inside walls. No longer did the walls have to bear weight-the steel beams carried it. Lighter buildings with more windows were now possible. The Phenix offices at 111 West Jackson Street housed an insurance company and provided an astonishingly vast space for hundreds of clerical workers on its ninth floor. It heralded the onset of a new era for American business. The Phenix was called the first great modern office block in history.

As their success grew, Root, Burnham, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, and other leading Chicago architects felt slighted by the American Institute of Architects, which was dominated by their New York and Boston colleagues. Conventions were almost always held in the East, since many loathed the idea of "the West," as Chicago was viewed. To combat these prejudices, the Chicago innovators formed the Western Association of Architects. Root was elected president at its third convention in 1886. The group rejected European trends and advocated the development of a purely American style, which their buildings already followed.


The Rookery and Monadnock

The years between 1880 and 1890 were the most successful for Root. Chicago's population had doubled, and space was at a premium. Therefore, building owners were more willing to allow their architects to build upward. Prior to this time, tall buildings were viewed as unsafe and therefore unprofitable. It is estimated that Burnham and Root designed about two new buildings a month during this heady period. One of their most enduring was the Rookery Building (1885-88). It was situated on a prime spot in Chicago's financial district that had previously served as the site for City Hall in the years after the 1871 fire. A citizen once stopped the mayor on the street and complained about the pigeons that roosted above, and the name stuck. The Rookery's walls were structural piers made from stone, brick, and terracotta. Metal lintels on the rear walls and those of the inner court carried the weight of the structure. The inner courtyard was one of the most opulent spaces in the city in its day, made from gold and white marble. Framing this space were latticework iron balconies and an oriel staircase. It was famous even before it opened. Burnham and Root liked the space so much that they took offices in it themselves.

Another Root building that survived the twentieth century also became one of the landmarks of Chicago architecture. Root spent more time on the Monadnock Block, located at the south end of the Loop, than on any other project of his career. Built between 1884 and 1892 at Jackson and Dearborn streets, it was the tallest and heaviest wall-bearing building in the city—and most likely the world. It was 16 stories in height. At the ground floor level its brick walls were six feet thick. The Brooks owners named it after a mountain in New Hampshire, and specified that its ornamentation be restrained. Therefore, Root used a brown obsidian brick that offered visual delight, for its tone ranged from red to purple, depending on the light. Panels on the tenth floor offer carvings of lotus blossoms. On the twelfth floor were decorative papyrus stems, each of which were symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt. Root saw similarities in the two places, each situated near a large body of water and an important river, and both committed to establishing their own cultural and economic legacy. "In its refinement and nobility the Monadnock Block remains without peer in the history of the high office building," wrote Hoffmann in The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. "In Chicago, it was the perfect gesture-the exact visual metaphor of the vitality of the city. Root made it rise from the soil as if it were a springtime plant."


Firm's Legacy Ended

The Rookery and Monadnock buildings established Root and his fellow Chicago School architects as some of the most innovative design minds of the era. When the AIA finally met in the city in 1887, Root was elected a director. Despite the heady pace of commissions he completed for the firm, he found time to write prolifically on the subjects of art and architecture, and traveled to lecture and meet with clients elsewhere. One of his last great achievements was the Reliance Building, began in 1889 and finished posthumously in 1895. It towered 15 stories above the heart of Chicago at Washington and State streets, and featured broad plate-glass display windows on its ground floor, which set a permanent standard for commercial architecture. Tragically, that ground floor was the only surviving part of Root's design. After his death from pneumonia on January 15, 1891, it was finished by Charles B. Atwood, Root's successor at the firm.

Root died just days after his 41st birthday. He left behind two daughters and a son, who became an architect. After his death, Burnham's firm made a radical shift toward classicism, and began designing Greek-and Roman-inspired buildings.


Hoffman, David, The Architecture of John Wellborn Root, University of Chicago Press, 1973.

International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture, St. James Press, 1993.

Monroe, Harriet, John Wellborn Root: A Study of His Life and Work, Prairie School Press, 1896.