The Rookery Building
by: chicago designslinger
[The Rookery Building (1888) Burnham & Root, architects; (1907) Lobby modernization, Frank Lloyd Wright, architect; (1932) Lobby and elevator modernizations, William Drummond, architect; (1990) Building restoration, Gunny Harboe McClier Corporation, architects, Takayama & Associates, consulting architects, Hasbrouck Peterson Associates, conservation consulting architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
On June 2, 1852 the City of Chicago purchased the southeast corner of Adams and LaSalle Street from P.F.W. Peck for $8,750. The water department was given title to the land and soon after they built a tall $40,000 brick water reservoir tank on the site. The structure survived the Great Fire of 1871.
[The Rookery Building, 209 S. LaSalle Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Once the area had cooled down a bit, the city used the round tower as the starting-off point for the construction of a temporary city hall, courthouse, and library building. However, before construction could get underway birds starting nesting in the rafters of the scorched and exposed roof beams of the former water tank and the site came to be known as “the rookery.” Once government business was undertaken in the non-descript, 2-story structure surrounding the old water reservoir, Chicagoans still referred to the complex as “the rookery.”
[The Rookery Building, National Historic Landmark, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
When the city finally completed their permanent government building on Courthouse Square in 1885, they put the word out that “the rookery” lot was available to rent, and after much controversy and charges of corruption, a 99-year lease was signed at a yearly rent of $35,000. without having to pay any taxes on the land, just on the building. Once the signatures were dry on the document, the Chicago Tribune announced that architects Burnham & Root would design a first-class office building for the site and that the demolition of the ramshackle “rookery” would commence immediately.
[The Rookery Building, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago/Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Tribune also listed N.B. Ream, W.E. Hale, E.C. Waller, D. H. Burnham, and Owen Aldis as the directors and stockholders of the Central Safe Deposit, the corporate owners and developers of the new building. Aldis served as president and represented the investment interests of Peter and Shepherd Brooks, brothers and Boston developers who saw great opportunity in the booming city of the West. The brothers put-up more than half of the projected cost of the project and therefore held the largest share. Edward C. Waller, the safe deposit company’s secretary, was a well-known real estate developer in the city and was also the guy who had actually signed the lease. His company would serve as the property’s management firm. William E. Hale was another developer and Norman B. Ream owned the ornamental iron company that would be providing the iron work for the building. D.H. Burnham was Daniel Hudson Burnham of Burnham & Root, the firm designing the building.
[The Rookery Building, City of Chicago Landmark /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Because of a set of laws governing corporations and the ownership, construction and size of speculative commercial projects, a way to side step the arcane legislative action was to form a safe deposit company. By stating that the office block was owned by a company that needed lots of space for safes, developers and investors were able to skirt the law while technically complying with it. Even though Waller leased the lower two floors to the Illinois Trust Bank and the Northwestern National Bank, there was no correlation between the Central Safe Deposit Company, the banks, and the law-abiding size of the building.
[The Rookery Building, LaSalle Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The lot was almost square, and the architects had three choices: design the plan in the shape of an H, an E, or fill the lot from property line to property line. The H and E plan would allow for the required air and light, but the building mass of a square would not allow for any windows openings in the interior offices. So the designers came up with an idea to simply cut a hole in the middle, like donut, and bring light and fresh air into the central offices while at the same time creating a spectacular inner courtyard lobby.
[The Rookery Building, Chicago Loop /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The 11-story-plus-attic Rookery Building would not be the tallest in Chicago, but it would be the largest office building in the world because of the amount of cubic square feet the structure contained. Burnham & Root moved into 11th floor offices when the building was completed in 1888, and ten years later Frank Lloyd Wright would join them on the skylit level. When Edward Waller decided in 1905 that Root’s dark iron lobby needed a facelift, the building’s manager called on Wright. Even though the architect was no longer a tenant he had designed a couple of projects for Waller and he gave the building’s manager a white marble redo trimmed in gold that certainly brightened things up.
[The Rookery Building, Chicago /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
When Edward Waller died in 1931 at the age of 85, he was still managing the 43-year-old property. The new management undertook another lobby redo in 1932 and hired architect William Drummond – who had been working for Wright during the previous update – to design new elevator cab doors and to rework the lobby by adding more leaseable space. In 1957 the glass in the skylight was painted over and the lobby was plunged into dingy darkness. In 1983 as the 99-year lease was coming to a close, the city began hunting for a buyer and found one in the Rookery’s next door neighbor Continental Illinois Bank. The bank gave the city $25 million for the aging structure and took over all 9 floors of its office space. The financial institution had big plans for Burnham & Root’s National Historic and City of Chicago designated landmark, and planned on an extensive rehab. Unfortunately soon after taking possession Continental filed for bankruptcy – the largest bank failure in the nation’s history up to that point.
[The Rookery Building /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Fortunately, Tom Baldwin an enterprising 35-year-old Chicago commodities trader, was interested in the property. He formed the Baldwin Development Corporation and undertook an extensive multi-million-dollar restoration and rehabilitation of the building. The exterior was cleaned, the offices modernized, the lobby was polished, and the skylight was restored back to its light-producing brightness.