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The Rookery (209 South La Salle St.), built in 1886, is Chicago’s oldest, still standing, “sky scraper”.  Today, it seems ludicrous to call it a sky scraper, dwarfed as it is by its neighbours, but at the time of its construction, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world, if not the very tallest.

rookery terra cotta

The Rookery Building, constructed of rough granite and smooth brick with decorative terra cotta elements

rookery plaque

The Rookery was built to impress and cost over $1 Million to construct in 1880s dollars.  A staggering sum to be sure.  When completed, it was considered to be the finest and biggest office building in the United States.  It had 11 stories, 600 offices and 4000 people worked there every day.

It is still a working office building and as such, is open to the public.

rookery cantilever stair

The cantilevered staircase

rookery staircase

This staircase winds up 11 stories

It was designed by Burnham and Root, one of the leading 19th century architecture firms in Chicago.  They were the same team responsible for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition (i.e. first Chicago World’s Fair).

Root, the main architect, designed the building as a sort of tall, rectangular donut.  The entire centre of the building is negative space.  The result: inside offices get as much natural light as exterior ones.  He then added a cast and wrought iron structure across the hole at the upper second level and covered it in glass.  This interior light court is one of the most special parts of the building.

rookery ceiling

The light court from inside

rookery ceiling detail

Cast iron ceiling, detail

rookery ceiling from above

A view above the light court from inside the “donut”.  Shockingly, the light court ceiling was originally completely unprotected from the elements.  Rain and snow would fall on this glass roof.  This led to eventual leaking and deterioration.

The Rookery gets a lot of visitors not because of any of the above but because it is listed on the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust website as one of his buildings.  It’s also located in downtown Chicago and free to enter.

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most famous architects of the 1900s.  Architecture buffs make pilgrimages from all over the world to see his works, many of which are located in and around Chicago.

Wright was commissioned to give the Rookery an interior upgrade and the facelift was completed in 1907.  In a nutshell, he covered everything in white marble decorated in gilt and added distinctive elements such as chandeliers.

rookery chandelier2

The distinctive chandeliers that Wright added as part of his facelift.  The flower balusters under the railing and the incised gilt marble below were both added by Wright as well.

rookery original balustrade

Wright based his balusters on one of Root’s many baluster motifs.  Here, the Root original.

However, in 1931, the building was again modernized by a former Wright assistant, Drummond, who gave it an art deco aesthetic.  After several decades of deterioration and shoddy maintenance, a full restoration of the building was completed in the early 1990s.  It was decided to restore the building to its Frank Lloyd Wright period while preserving some elements of Root’s original interior and Drummond’s later work.  A glass roof was also added at across the top of the building to protect the light court roof from the elements.

rookery original column

As part of the restoration project, the single remaining section of original floor was copied.  A section of one of Wright’s marble columns was removed to show Root’s metal columns.

For example, it is Drummond’s Art Deco elevator doors that are seen in the lobby.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s elevators for the Rookery Building have been preserved but you’ll have to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to see them.

rookery elevator

Drummond’s elevator adorned with bats and birds

The public is free to enter the building and walk around the lobby admiring the light court.  Informative interpretive panels are found in this area and the security guard on duty when I visited was a fount of knowledge about the building.  However, you can’t visit any parts of the rest of the building without taking a Chicago Architecture Foundation tour for $7 US.  The tours last 30-40 minutes and are well worth it for anyone interested in architecture.