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Rookery a Rare Roost Indeed

Cheers for the restoration of Root's Rookery

Crain’s Chicago Business

August 3, 1992

When Glenn Coleman, my editor at Chicago Enterprise, moved over to join the staff at Crain's Chicago Business he took me with me, so to speak. I convinced him to buy this piece about the resurrection of one of the Loop's grandest old buildings. Edited to the AP style book, unfortunately, but once Crain's paid for it, it became their piece to do with what they wished, so I didn't squawk.  The piece earned me a paycheck and got my name in the papers.


Some great buildings are built before their time. (Check out the glass curtain wall of the 1890s Reliance Building at State and Washington—it anticipated Mies van der Rohe by a generation.) But many more are destroyed before their time.


The Rookery, a landmark in the heart of Chicago's financial district, has survived. With the Monadnock Building, it is the only Loop project by the seminal commercial architecture firm Bumham & Root that still stands.


The 12-story Rookery was the tallest building in the world when it opened in 1888, and one of the most luxurious. (One delirious critic described it as a "romanza of space and movement.") Alas, beginning in the 1930s, the building suffered from the usual sort of "improvements," the most egregious being the covering of the leaky lobby skylight.

Nearly derelict by the early 1980s, the Rookery was purchased by Continental Bank, which cleaned and repaired the exterior in a restoration attempt before liquidating the property in 1989. It was purchased by T-bond futures trader L. T. Baldwin III, whose Baldwin Development Co. financed a full restoration via a joint venture with Dutch partner NMB Vastgoed Funds N.V.


The Rookery's pedigree and polish, combined with its superb location on La Salle at Adams, means that it can command premium rents in a Class A market where competitors include 311 S. Wacker, 181 W. Madison and the new Chicago Title & Trust Building. Since the Rookery's grand reopening this spring, the occupancy rate has climbed to 68 percent, according to Baldwin Development.


That's some achievement. To work financially, as well as aesthetically, landmark buildings must provide not just antique richness but modem efficiency. Accessibility and flexibility are crucial. For example, the peculiarities of the floor plan of the brilliantly restored Monadnock Building (in fact, two different buildings, designed by different architects) left some floors with limited elevator access.


Baldwin has spent an estimated $90 million to acquire and restore a building that cost $1.5 million to build 104 years ago. The company could have built a new 50-story building for that price. But no one could have built a new 50-story building like the Rookery for $90 million.


In 1905, the darkly foliate ironwork with which Root had decorated the sky-lit lobby had become unfashionably Victorian, and Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to remodel the lobby—one of the very few commercial jobs with which he was entrusted in Chicago. Wright clad it in white Carrera marble and gilt that is now restored, save for a single Wright-designed column that Baldwin opened to reveal a section of its original iron predecessor inside.


In addition to restoring these ornamental splendors, Baldwin and Chicago-based architecture firm McClier fitted the building with contemporary plumbing, elevators, ventilation, and security systems. These are changes of which Burnham & Root would have approved. In the Rookery, they designed perhaps the first modem office building, setting a standard in that dubious architectural category that seldom has been equaled since, except in cost.


For example, attempts to restore such gems as Holabird & Roche's Chicago Building at State and Madison have been complicated by the structure's small floor layouts. They limit the roster of potential tenants, since firms today require both more people and more machines than they did 90 years ago.


The Rookery, in contrast, boasts remarkably open floors with 24,000 square feet of rentable space on each level, which make possible 66 "executive class" offices per floor.

Many of the building's older features lent themselves to new uses. The four "shear towers"—ceiling-to-basement masonry towers that anchored the building against heavy winds—have been converted variously into fire stairs, utility closets, and office kitchens. The concrete floors, constructed over tile arches, were trenched to a depth of eight inches to accommodate communications cables, sparing any need to compromise the 10-to-12-foot ceiling heights.


The light court that penetrates the interior of the building is another one-time necessity that has been transformed into an amenity. The mullions of the interior windows are different on each level—a marked (and marketable) difference from newer office buildings, where the only interesting architecture visible above the lobby is the older buildings nearby that can be seen through the exterior windows. As a result, the structure that once was desirable because it was new today is desirable because it is not.


Baldwin officials say they are eyeing another landmark property for restoration, this one in the East Loop. If at first you do succeed, try, try again. ●




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Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

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Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

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The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

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I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

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The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

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An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

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A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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