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The Rookery

2010 September 22
by Caroline Nye Stevens

CNS 2010

209 S. LaSalle St.

Between 1872 and 1884, after the ravages of the Great Chicago Fire, the corner of LaSalle and Adams streets was the popular hangout for politicians and pigeons alike. It was the location of City Hall and a water tank. City Hall was the place where politicians cheated or “rooked” one another, and the water tank was the favored place for birds or “rooks” to roost. Even after City Hall and the water tank were demolished and a building that invoked awe like no other in the city took its place, there was no hope in the building adopting any other name than The Rookery.

The fact that the Rookery looks a lot like a castle, or what in the game of chess is called a “rook,” is probably coincidental. But the carved rooks flanking either side of the building’s main entrance are anything but a coincidence. They were a small joke of John Wellborn Root.  Root and his partner Daniel Hudson Burnham were the architects of the Rookery completed in 1888. Root was the firm’s master craftsman and engineer, and Burnham was their visionary and salesman. For almost twenty years Burnham and Root were an unstoppable team designing 40 buildings of note in Chicago and another 25 across the country. Only a few of their buildings remain standing today and the Rookery is one of the best. Burnham and Root must have thought so too — they kept their offices on the Rookery’s top floor until Root’s untimely death from pneumonia at the age of 41 in 1891, just as the two began their efforts in planning the World’s Columbian Exposition.

They were commissioned to design the building by Peter and Shepard Brooks – East coast developers with a number of prominent structures to their name in Chicago. The speculative office building was developed under the auspices of the Central Safety Deposit Company of which Daniel Burnham was a stockholder. Root designed an impressive 11-story building that was transitional and innovative in both style and structure. It combines some modern ideas of what became the Chicago School (it’s visually divided into thirds, and celebrates its structure) with a more historic interest in lavish ornamentation. Much of the ornament, such as its pinnacles and delicate terra-cotta carvings, looks almost Moorish in design and lends the building an international flare. The Rookery’s structure was also transitional in how Root used both masonry load-bearing techniques (seen on the walls of LaSalle and Adams streets) and experimented with the new technology of an iron frame (seen in the light well, and first two stories along the alley and Quincy Street).

The Rookery is in the shape of a hallowed square surrounding a light-filled inner court – one of Chicago’s greatest interior spaces. This plan allowed all offices to receive natural light and fresh air from either the street or light well – an important attribute in a time when electrical lighting was weak and air conditioning nonexistent. Times changed quickly at the turn of the century, and by 1905 Root’s iron decorative work in the interior court had already gone out of fashion. Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to renovate the interior to more modern tastes. He encased most of Root’s ironwork in white marble incised and gilded with a design inspired by one of Root’s Arab motifs surrounding the Rookery’s entrance. Wright also added the hanging prairie style chandeliers and grand geometric urns.

CNS 2010

Over the years the Rookery has continued to evolve. In 1931 it was renovated again, this time in the Art Deco style by William Drummond – who had worked for many years as one of Wright’s chief draftsmen. His elevator doors decorated with stylized rooks survive today. For a number of years the building also went into a period of great disrepair – the light well was even tarred over to protect the interior court from water damage. The building went through an extensive and award winning restoration and renovation under the direction of the McClier architecture firm during the early 1990’s, bringing the Rookery to the grandeur we see it in today.


Interested in learning still more about the Rookery? The current owner’s website contains a thorough history of the building – visit it here. If you want to take a tour of the Rookery, the Chicago Architecture Foundation leads a great one twice a month. Search their tours here. And the doors of the Rookery are open to anybody. Want to take a look? Just walk right in.

2 Responses
  1. September 27, 2010

    I have always wanted to see this building! With YOU!

    • September 27, 2010

      We can trade! I’ll walk you through the Rookery (and more) and you can tour me around (and in if possible) Grand Central Station. That would be so lovely.

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