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 one of 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.
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 skylit 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 onetime 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 older buildings 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. ●