The North half of the
Monadnock was John Wellborn Root’s last and boldest design. Root caught
pneumonia and died at the age of 41, while the building was under
construction. At the time of his death, in addition to running Chicago’s
largest architectural practice, John Root and Daniel Burnham were
responsible for the design and construction of the World’s Columbian
Exposition, which was to open the following year. Root’s death forced
Burnham to concentrate his energies on the Exposition, so when the north
half of the Monadnock rented quickly and its owners decided to build the
south half right away, they commissioned another firm to design it:
Holabird & Roche, the second largest practice in the City.
The two halves of the
building are similar in scale and color, but quite different in style. The
north half is often called a fountainhead of modern architecture because
of its total absence of exterior ornament. Root evidently felt that all
that was needed here was graceful form for the structure itself. The south
half of the building, on the other hand, is a masterful early application
of classical architectural principles to the design of a tall building.
The Monadnock also
marks a historic transition in the development of structural methods. Most
of the buildings that preceded it were supported by their outside walls.
The north half of the Monadnock is probably the tallest building ever
built that is supported primarily by brick walls. At ground level, those
walls are six feet thick. Half of the south half of the building is built
the same way, but the south quarter of the building is supported entirely
by a steel frame, as were most of the tall buildings that followed it.
Today, this is called “curtain wall” construction: the façade doesn’t
support the building, it’s just a “curtain” to keep out the elements.
The Monadnock was
designed so that it could operate as four separate office buildings. Each
section stands on its own lot, and at one time each section had its own
entrance, elevators, heating system and name: from north to south, they
were the Monadnock, the Kearsarge, the Katahdin, and the Wachusett, each
the name of a Union navy ship and also the name of a mountain in the
developers’ native New England.
More historic photos
North half (Burnham & Root, 1892)
South half (Holabird & Roche, 1893)