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Burnham and Root, The Monadnock Building

Burnham & Root, The Monadnock Building, 1885–91 and Holabird & Roche south addition (Kearsarge) 1891–93, 53 West Jackson Boulevard, Chicago, Illinois A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker standing on a very busy intersection looking at The Monadnock Building. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Dr. Steven Zucker] We're standing in the downtown Loop in Chicago, looking at the Monadnock Building. It's now surrounded by much taller towers, but in its day, it was a skyscraper. - [Dr. Beth Harris] I think we forget about all the technology that was needed to build a building more than six or seven stories high. - [Steven] The safety elevator was introduced at the Haughwout Building in downtown Manhattan. This kind of vertical transportation ushered in what we know as the skyscraper. - [Beth] So this is a really interesting building, because it is tall, but it doesn't employ the technology that we know was so important for the development of the skyscraper. And that is cheap steel. - [Steven] So in addition to the elevator, before the introduction of interior steel framework, large-scale buildings were literally structures that were held up when you piled one brick or one stone on top of another. - [Beth] But of course, you have to make sure that you don't build so high that the stones that are on the bottom don't get crushed. - [Steven] And the building that we're looking at has taken that to its extreme. This building is about as high as a brick building could be built. Now, that's not to say that there isn't some bracing in the building. There is some metal bracing that was meant to help with the force of wind; but it's not supporting the building, it's bracing the building. - [Beth] In order to build a building this high out of brick, you would have to make the brick walls very thick, especially at the bottom, in order to hold the weight of all the stories above. - [Steven] And in fact, the walls of the base are more than six feet thick. But this has a negative impact on the rentable space down below. Nevertheless, the architects found a really beautiful opportunity to express the massiveness of the building. And in its original design, they were thinking about ancient Egyptian architecture and the great masses of stone that we see there. - [Beth] In those early designs, there was decoration that recalled ancient Egyptian style. But in the final building, there's really no decorative elements at all. - [Steven] All we're left with is a subtle flare at the bottom and a subtle flare at the top, which is just a suggestion of the architecture of Egyptian antiquity. This is one of the great buildings of the Chicago School of architecture. Architects from across the country flocked to Chicago because Chicago's downtown had been obliterated, and there were tremendous opportunities for architects. What develops is a style of architecture that is credited with inventing the American skyscraper and that would have profound impact beyond the United States, in Europe and elsewhere. - [Beth] We have to imagine an enormous influx of people into the city in the post-Civil War period, a tremendous population boom, tremendous industrial development. - [Steven] At the bottom of Lake Michigan, Chicago was a perfect intersection between the waterways that led to the East Coast and the interior of the continent. - [Beth] This idea of stripping away ornamentation will come to be an important aspect of modernist architecture. - [Steven] And although we think that one of the principal, original architects, a man named Root, although ornamentation had always been important to him, designing a building of this scale that lacked ornamentation allowed him to focus on its masses and to create beauty from its plainer forms, that is, the essential elements of the architecture itself. - [Beth] So there's nothing here that's embellishing, that is a layer applied on top. What we're seeing is the structure of the building itself. - [Steven] And although this is incorporating the older architecture of a self-supporting exterior wall, by focusing on its elemental form, it is a truly modernist building. We've walked inside. The lobby is long and narrow with storefronts on either side, and the space is made to feel even more narrow because the exterior walls are so thick. - [Beth] But there are some lovely decorative elements. - [Steven] There's a mosaic floor, and the walls are lined with Carrara marble. - [Beth] The architect used cast aluminum to create decorative elements that line the stairwell. - [Steven] Which was an entirely new technique and material to be using. And so while the exterior is quite spare, the interior does have a wonderful decorative flourish. (upbeat piano music)