Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Visit to Chicago: The Rookery Building

Here at the Alice T. Miner Museum, we naturally tend to focus on Alice and William’s life in Chazy. But Chicago was also their home for many years, and was always the headquarters of William’s business interests. In honor of Miner Day on October 22, let’s take a look at one of the places where William spent a lot of time: The Rookery building at 209 South LaSalle Street, Chicago, where W.H. Miner Co. had its offices.

The Rookery in 1891
(Library of Congress)
The Rookery is important not only for its role in William’s life but for its place in American architectural history. Built in 1887-88 by Daniel H. Burnham and John Root, the Rookery is an example of what came to be known as the “Chicago Style.” In the years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a new style of commercial architecture emerged, which combined modern building techniques (metal framing, elevators, plate glass) with more traditional ones (brick facades, elaborate ornamentation). The twelve-story Rookery was a transitional building, which had both an interior steel frame and load-bearing exterior walls made of red marble, terra cotta, and brick.

The central staircase as it appears today
(Wikimedia Commons)
Inside, Root and Burnham designed a two-story central court to serve as the building’s focal point and to provide daylight to interior offices. In the days before electricity became common, getting enough light into large office buildings was difficult. In 1905, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to renovate the court, during which time the space was opened further, and some of the dark wrought-iron decorative elements were replaced with white marble. A second renovation was carried out in 1931, but the building has since been largely restored to its ca. 1905 appearance.

William would have become familiar with the Rookery as an employee of the Hutchins Refrigerator Car Company, which had its offices in the building in the 1890s. When he decided to go into business for himself, in 1897, William rented his own space in the Rookery, Room 355. Though William himself was often on the road, selling his railroad gear, the Rookery remained the company’s headquarters for many years, with the offices under the capable management of Nettie M. Goldsmith and Maude F. Back.

Exterior detail
(Wikimedia Commons)
The Rookery was right in the heart of Chicago’s downtown business district, putting William in close proximity to other businessmen—not to mention seven different railroad stations. It was also close to a number of William and Alice’s favorite places, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Marshall Field and Co. department store, Central Church, and the Palmer House Hotel.

So why was the building called “The Rookery”? The name actually predates the current building, and was applied to the old City Hall building that was on the site prior to the Great Fire. Crows and other birds liked nesting on its exterior walls, and observers naturally drew parallels between the rooks outside and the (c)rook(ed) politicians inside. When the new building was constructed, the old name stuck.

More information about the Rookery Building can be found at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s website. And don’t forget to wish William Miner a happy 153rd birthday today!

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