Saturday, September 24, 2016


I'm not sure if this falls under the heading of simple lack of knowledge or yet another senior moment but my first memory of the Rookery had nothing to do with my architectural history lessons but instead the photography of Rodney Smith. I've always been a covetous admirer of his work; the quirkiness, the imagination and shear genius of his imagery drew me in from the first commercial photographs I spotted of his work in fashion magazines.
There was one image in particular that drew me in not so much for the fashion that he was so renowned for capturing but for the location. Location always plays a significant role in his images sometimes even overshadowing the fashions themselves. In this particular photo it was the staircase that I became obsessed with. I thought since he was a New York based photographer that somewhere hidden in one of the city's castiron buildings I'd some day stumble on this staircase. It was always at the back of my mind every time I walked into a building in Soho or midtown that I hadn't been into before that that staircase would appear.
Apparently the decades that transpired between Arch History 101 and now had erased any recollection of the Rookery from my brain trust. It was only recently after a trip to Chicago that I was doing some research for a posting on our trip that I googled Chicago architecture and there sandwiched between images of the Public Library and the Sears Tower was a picture of Rodney's staircase. I clicked on it like a sleuth who stumbles on his final clue to trace the photo to its bigger location and there it was - The Rookery, right there in Chicago. All this time I had been snooping in the wrong city. This to me was justification for another trip to Chitown if only to see this staircase up close and personal.
Then came the second revelation. I remembered a conversation I had with my University of Illinois pledge son who has become a major developer in Chicago about how he had worked on the most recent renovation of the Rookery when he was a fledgling architect with McClier Architects. Carl had played an important part on sourcing much of materials important in the restoration. It was only natural to call Carl and ask to meet him in the lobby for a private tour and history lesson.  I knew he'd be more than happy to impart.
So as not to totally embarrass myself I did a little historic research before our tour. I discovered or rediscovered that after the great fire of 1871 a major building boom took over Chicago giving the city an opportunity to come to the forefront in a new era of architecture filled with technological advancements and a new means of construction. The Rookery, designed by the firm of Burham & Root, was one of these buildings. Today, along with its National Registry status, the Rookery is considered Chicago's oldest standing high-rise.
The exterior of the building has been described as a blending of a multitude of styles from Moorish to Islamic that to some seems chaotic but to Chicagoans tells the tale of a city enveloping many cultures and welcoming all.
The interior has an exotic tale all its own where the building has gone from prized jewel to derelict eyesore and then back again. Its most significant renovation happened in 1905 when Frank Lloyd Wright was brought in to refurbish the building.
It was his chore to bring the building into the twentieth century with a more modern appearance. He immediately covered over Root's elaborate ironwork with a more refined marble envelope and adding simpler grillwork along with his signature oversized planters and hanging light fixtures making the Rookery into one of Chicago's most sought after office spaces.
In between then and the most recent renovation that Carl worked on beginning in 1992 the building suffered more episodes of neglect. It was Carl's responsibility beginning in 1992 to reconstruct much of the destroyed interior. He was in charge of replacing all of the missing marble, duplicate the tile floors in the lobby as closely as possible, and reopen and restore the glass ceiling.
They now give tours of the building which is the only way you can get up to see the oriel staircase. There's also a Frank Lloyd Wright gift shop and an unsupervised opportunity to spin around one of the world's most amazing lobbies. If you get to Chicago don't miss this stunning piece of historic architecture and don't try to find the oriel staircase in New York. It's not there.

The Oriel Staircase at the Rookery
Rodney Smith, photographer
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