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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.