#ChicagoLandmarks | The Rookery Building

e-mail icon
Thursday, January 26, 2012 - 11:10am

Tucked along the LaSalle Street "canyon" sits The Rookery Building (209 South LaSalle Street).  Constructed in 1888 by Chicago architectural firm, Burnham and Root, The Rookery stands 12 stories tall (188 feet), and is considered the oldest standing high-rise in the city.  The ornate facade is dominated by red marble - something that makes it stand out from the relatively pale surrounding buildings. The Rookery is notable because it changed the mold that The Reliance Building would ultimately break in regards to skyscraper construction technology.  At the time of its construction, just about every building was constructed out of masonry that supported the full-weight of the structure.  While The Rookery did have exterior load-bearing masonry walls, it also featured an interior iron frame for added support - something new to the early skyscraper construction scene. 

While The Rookery is an impressive example of Chicago historical architecture on the outside, its most impressive aspect is the interior "Light Court". Originally designed by Burham and Root, the Light Court was meant to act as the building’s focal point, bringing ample light to the lobby and interior offices through a massive over-head skylight.  The main features of the Light Court include structural steel ribbing, a glass ceiling, a wrap-around balcony on the second floor, and a double set of curving, iron stairs winding upward from the lobby's second floor into the building's interior.  Architectural critic, Henry Van Brunt said of The Rookery's light court:

"There is nothing bolder, more original, or more inspiring in modern civic architecture than its glass-covered court"

Despite all of the accolades the lobby received, it was remodeled in 1905 by another one of Chicago's famous architects - Frank Lloyd Wright.  At the time of Wright's commissioning, he was an up and coming architectural star and his enhancements only added to the cache The Rookery had already gained.  Wright's main changes involved covering up a portion of the dark, wrought-iron finishes with white Carrara marble, as well as simplifying the complex ironwork supporting the glass ceiling.  Additionally, Wright changed the lighting and imparted his now famous "Prairie Style" design to the light fixtures and lobby area.

But the changes continued, in 1933, William Drummond was brought in to update the lobby and Light Court.  Much like Wright, Drummond covered up more exposed surfaces with marble for a "lighter" look.  In addition, Drummond's work on the lobby's elevator bank gave it an art-deco feel. He also laid Tennessee marble over the original mosaic flooring.  Can you believe he even had the Light Court skylight painted and tarred over? Well he did, vastly altering the original intent of the skylight, and making the Light Court anything but.  

After years of additions and alterations to the original design, L. Thomas Baldwin III purchased The Rookery in 1988 with the goal of completely restoring the landmark.  Architectural firm, McClier, was brought on to execute the plan.  Because there were so many different styles present throughout the years, the developers were challenged to define the style to which The Rookery would return.  They eventually settled on a combination of Root's original design mixed with many aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright's alterations.  These changes included restoring the mosaic floor using fragments of the old design; exposing some of the ironwork covered up by Wright; restoring the lobby and elevator bank to the Wright-era appearance; and perhaps most importantly, the paint and tar was removed from the skylight so that it could once again let light in to the space.

In 1992, the renovations were completed, and The Rookery celebrated its grand re-opening on May 6th.  Pro Tip: The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust offers tours of The Rookery daily. I'm hoping to do this soon so I can get more photos of this interior. When I do, you can bet I'll update this post with a nice, big photoset!


Have a request or idea for a #ChicagoLandmark photo-op or blog post?  Tweet the building/structure/location to me @ChiPhotoGuy and please include #ChicagoLandmarks.  If I don’t have the photos already, it means I need to go out and get them!

Check out my intro post for more information on the #ChicagoLandmarks project


Sources and additional reading:

Wikipedia - The Rookery

The Rookery: Building History

Rookery Building Staircase

ChiPhotoGuy's picture
Nick Ulivieri
e-mail icon

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments

Be in the know!

Sign up free for events and updates!

Join the TLTeam Today

Do you love Chicago? You could join our exclusive TLTeam of contributors!

Apply Now to join the TLTeam!

We also accept guest posts. If you'd like to write a guest post please apply here.