Henry Rohkam House
by: chicago designslinger
[Henry Rohkam House (1887) Theodore Karls, architect / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, "Fireproof" became the buzzword of the post-fire era. Commercial buildings had been marketed as flame resistant prior to the metal-melting inferno, but after seeing brick, stone and iron pulverized by the intense heat, fireproof took on new meaning. Virtually nothing survived the fire's fury, and the handful of structures that did remain standing left few consistent clues as to their survival. The Nixon building was nearing completion when the fire struck and it withstood the intense heat virtually intact. Maybe it was the insulating coatings of concrete and plaster of Paris that helped the building survive. Or maybe it was just the fact that the wood-framed roof hadn't been constructed yet which had played such a large role in fanning the flames of utter destruction. Then a story began floating around town. John Van Osdel, Chicago's first official architect, had taken the plans of the recently completed Palmer House Hotel, went down to the basement and buried the paper drawings beneath two feet of clay and sand. After things had cooled down, he made his way through the hotel's debris pile and recovered the damp, but in otherwise perfect condition set of drawings from their burial place. As history would have it, this urban legend became one of the defining moments when builders began to think that something wrapped in clay, perhaps in its fired form, might produce an ideal fire insulator. It made for a good story. It was common knowledge that terra cotta - Latin for "baked earth" - was fire resistant, but after the Great Conflagration the flower pot and decorative garden market variety of the malleable material took on new forms and an important new meaning as an essential component in the construction of modern commercial structures.
[Henry Rohkam House, 1048 W. Oakdale, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
As Henry Rohkam and Gustav Hottinger signed their names to the documents of incorporation of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company in 1887, it was hard not to be swept up in the moment and recall with wonder how much they had achieved since forming their clay manufacturing concern in 1877 - less than ten years after first setting foot in Chicago. Natives of Germany and Austria, the pair had found work carving and molding clay into decorative garden products for the Chicago Terra Cotta Company in the late 1860s. Their employers were churning out a line of bird baths, draped classical figurines, and other assorted object d'art for middle class consumers but the company was struggling. So instead of waiting for their employer to go under and lose their jobs as a result, Rohkam and Hottinger each took $1,000 of their savings and joined with fellow employees John True and John Brunkhorst to form True, Bunkhorst & Co. Terra Cotta in 1877. Two years later Chicago Terra Cotta went out-of-business and the partners moved their start-up into Chicago's plant at 15th and Laflin Streets.
[Henry Rohkam House, City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The timing was perfect. Year after year, architects added more and more of the fireproofing material to their buildings as the commercial property market soared higher and higher. Not only were the utilitarian version of the baked earth tiles great for wrapping steel and iron columns and the floor plates of these new skyscraping buildings in a snug fireproof coat, but the ease of working with clay also made exterior architectural decoration a much more cost effective proposition. So why not kill two birds with one stone and fireproof the interior with utilitarian flower-pot-looking red clay tiles while at the same time apply a skin of decorative fireproof protection on the exterior. The idea took off like wildfire, then in 1886 Chicago passed an ordinance requiring all buildings over 90 feet had to be absolutely fireproof, and True & Brunkhorst became one of the largest manufacturers of the fireproofing clay in the city. The company grew, the partners had to expand. They built a new building on property they had acquired on Wrightwood Avenue just east of Clybourn on the north side of town where much of their workforce lived, and by the time True & Brunkhorst became Northwestern Terra Cotta in 1887, the physical plant had expanded to accommodate over 300 workers. Henry Rohkam, Vice-President of the newly incorporated and ever-growing company, built a house not far from the office.
[Henry Rohkam House, Lakeview, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Oakdale Avenue was out in the sticks. When Henry and his friend and business partner Gustav bought two vacant lots at Oakdale and Seminary Avenues in 1886 there were a handful of houses on the north side of the street, while the south side's only occupants were wild life that lived in the tall prairie grass. Hottinger took the corner and Henry took the next lot over. He then called on architect Theodore Karls, a fellow German immigrant, to design a large single family home for Rohkam and his family. Karls looked back to 15th century Flanders and Northern Germany for the profile the facade of the 2,100 square-foot house, and threw in a number of decorative exterior embellishments, provided of course, by Northwestern Terra Cotta. The elaborate, ochre-glazed, Oakdale-facing-fence came onto the scene after Henry's death on December 1, 1896, the year after Theodore Karls had committed suicide in his downtown office.
[Henry Rohkam House, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By 1920 Northwestern's 24-acre complex was firing clay like mad with over 1,000 skilled craftsmen on the payroll - the largest terra cotta manufacturer in the world. Henry's wife Augusta still lived in the house that she and her husband had built decades before. Her daughter Lena, and Lena's husband Sherman Taylor, Vice-President of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, lived with Augusta, and after Taylor's death in 1926, mother and daughter soldiered on. Northwestern Terra Cotta thrived until the Great Depression virtually shut down all building construction in the United States for several years. After the Second World War and the advent of new building materials and a new design aesthetic, decorative terra cotta was pretty much done for, but Northwestern managed to hang on until 1956.