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The Monadnock Building

July 7, 2010

Burnham and Root, CNS 2010

53 W. Jackson Blvd.

Sitting on a vast prairie, Chicago is thought of as a uniformly flat city void of any canyons, hills or mountains. With a little imagination though, Chicago is home to one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges. It doesn’t have a formal name like the Rockies, nor does it have a long geological history – but it inspires awe like the rest of them. Chicago’s highest peak may be the Willis Tower, but its greatest cliff is the Monadnock – everybody’s favorite building in Chicago.

The Monadnock was built as four buildings in two parts by two teams of architects. Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root designed the first and more famous northern half of the building completed in 1891. Owen Aldis, the Chicago manager for the building’s developers, Peter and Shepard Brooks, charged Burnham and Root with designing a simple unornamented box of a building. Aldis rejected the first couple of designs Root put before him as being too ornate. Initially frustrated, Root slowly began to embrace the idea of simplicity and eventually found his inspiration in ancient Egyptian pylons. Like an Egyptian pyramid the building rises simply, elegantly, and entirely free of ornament. Louis Sullivan, a typically critical contemporary of Burnham and Root, praised Root’s design in his description which aptly summarizes the building, calling it “an amazing cliff of brick work, rising sheer and stark, with a subtlety of line and surface, a direct singleness of purpose, that gave one the thrill of romance.”

Holabird and Roche, CNS 2010

Root had died a premature death by the time the Brooks brothers embarked on planning a southern addition to the building, and Burnham was busy planning the World’s Columbian Exposition. Aldis instead turned to William Holabird and Martin Roche to design the second half of the building, which was completed only two years later in 1893. The two halves share a few similarities, primarily being of the same height and color, but they have many more differences – the most important being how they were constructed. Burnham and Root’s half is a masonry load bearing structure, meaning the exterior walls are supporting the load of the building. It would be difficult and likely impossible to build any taller using this method. The walls at the building’s base are 6 feet thick while at the top they have a width of only 18 inches. The Monadnock is the tallest and heaviest masonry load bearing building in Chicago and likely in the world. Holabird and Roche’s approach to the building was entirely different. They designed a skeletal framed building. Though only assumed, the motivations behind switching to the skeletal frame are easy to guess today. The frame allowed for larger windows, afforded them more rentable office space, and facilitated a speedier construction.

CNS 2010

The building is only slightly different today. Originally the two halves of the building were divided between four different parts. Each quadrant had its own separate heating plant, elevator bank, stairs and plumbing. The quadrants were named after mountains in the Brooks brothers’ native New England: the Monadnock, Kearsage, Katahdin, and Wachusett. Though in many ways it still reads as two separate buildings, it’s harder to find any traces of the original four. And the only name that remains is the Monadnock – a name of a mountain for a mountain of a building.


The current owners of the building have a nice website with building plans, amenities, photographs and details on the building’s history. Visit their website by clicking here.

ArchitectureFarm recently wrote up some new interesting insights on the Monadnock Building. Read them here. The author is in the final stages of writing a book on the subject — news to follow on its hopeful publication.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Nye S permalink
    July 8, 2010 8:24 pm

    I first appreciated this building as part of your tour. It’s great. And I think your characterization of it as Chicago’s cliff is brilliant…

  2. Nancy Kullman permalink
    July 9, 2010 10:46 am

    Great description of the mountains on the prairie!

  3. brian permalink
    July 10, 2010 11:09 am

    The owners also require that any business tenants fit in with the aesthetic of the building, using the same lettering on their windows and otherwise keeping that old timey feel. The Intelligentsia in the Monadnock so feels like a coffeeshop from yesteryear, and I just love that. I would highly suggest walking through the building to see the inside.


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