Photographing the Rookery Building Atrium

The Rookery, at Adams & LaSalle in the city’s financial district, is one of the most beloved buildings in Chicago. This transitional almost-skyscraper seems like a sturdy fortress or castle clad in dark red stone and heavy details, but venture inside and let the light-filled atrium work its magic on you.

[pullquote_right]Though it wasn’t as modern in its structure, the brilliance of the Rookery is found in its design.[/pullquote_right]The 1880s was a decade of phenomenal growth for Chicago and the time when its skyline first began heading dramatically skyward. As business boomed in the decade after the devastating fire, the need for centrally located office space sky-rocketed, technologies, capital, daring –and talented architects – had come together to create the world’s first skyscrapers. Arguably the first building known as a skyscraper rose in 1885; the Home Insurance Building soared a then-remarkable ten stories. (It was razed in 1931.)

Right across Adams Street from that cutting edge building and the same year, architects Burnham & Root began planning for another remarkable office building. The site selected came with a curious history: after the Great Fire, a temporary city hall was built around an existing water tank (given a glass ceiling and converted into the city’s temporary library), which was home to many roosting birds. The spot became known as the “rookery” – whether for the birds (rooks = crows) or for the politicians is up to debate. Even though the corporate sponsors naturally preferred their name for the new building, “Rookery” stuck (Central Safe Deposit Company hadn’t quite the same ring). John Wellborn Root liked the name, and even had some fun adding birds to the front entrance (look for them on each side).R-for-Rookery.jpg

The Rookery, which opened in 1888, was to be a first-class office building with all the finest amenities (to make the most profit). When finished, it was the tallest in Chicago, and the largest (600 offices) and most expensive commercial building at that time. It featured such modern marvels as plate-glass, electricity (4,500 lights), and hydraulic elevators.

But it was not to be the structurally innovative marvel its neighbor was; the Rookery is a transitional structure. Most of the building is supported by load bearing walls (the old way of construction), with a portion of the south facade supported by steel-frame. The financiers, the Brooks brothers of Boston, were very suspicious of the newfangled steel-frame construction and would only allow Daniel Burnham to experiment on part of the building.

The Rookery was to be a huge building for its time: a twelve-story, massive block. These dizzyingly tall buildings frightened many people: would they fall down? Were the elevators truly safe? To reassure nervous potential tenants, architects often made their own offices at the top of their structures; Burnham & Root would do just that at the Rookery (and this is where the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition would be planned).

Though it wasn’t as modern in its structure, the brilliance of the Rookery is found in its design. John Wellborn Root was a well-educated, Renaissance man who had traveled extensively and knew history. He brought all of that to bear on his design for the Rookery.

wpid-Rookery-Light.jpgWalk into the Rookery from the main entrance on LaSalle and you will begin to see what a work of art Root created. After the fortress-like exterior, and a little journey under low ceilings, the atrium (or, light court) opens up dazzlingly before you. Root was going for a weightless, airy, aviary-like effect here. As one of the first light courts in a commercial building, this space was thoroughly modern for its time, a bold design inspired by the shopping arcades of Paris. If you looked at the Rookery from the top down, it would resemble a square donut – the light court is the hole in the middle.

But before we go any further, one important bit of information must be divulged. You are looking at the work of three different architects here – from three different eras. Burnham & Root, of course, designed the original atrium in 1888. With the dawn of the new century, Frank Lloyd Wright (who had had office space in the building) was called in to modernize the light court (1905). And when further modernization was needed, William Drummund (who had worked with Wright on the 1905 project) added some Deco flourish in 1931. You are looking at all three layers, thanks to an excellent restoration done in 1988-92. The restoration firm had to not only reverse some awful adaptations from midcentury (like the glass vault completely painted and tarred over!), they had to decide which elements of these three designs to keep, which to discard. The light court was returned to its circa 1910 appearance and the elevator lobby to its 1930s appearance.

Most of the dark iron you see is from Root’s original design: the cantilevered staircase, the detail under the main staircase. His original atrium had large iron light fixtures (electroliers), lots of scrolling ornament, and looked quite Victorian. The truss-work and tracery up above is all from the original design.

Can you guess which changes Wright made? He deftly worked with Root’s original and spun the design to look lighter, brighter, modern (and more Wrightian!). The main marble staircase with those signature planters are his. In fact, all of the light-colored marble with gold-leaf is Wright’s design. Wright replaced the railing designs with a more geometric pattern. The pendant lights are pure Wright, too. But take a look at the column on the northwest corner and you will see that the restorers took off part of Wright’s marble to expose the original iron of Root’s column.

An interesting Wright addition is the vertical support that you see above on the cantilevered staircase, connecting it to the ceiling. The staircase had been so perfectly engineered that it needed no such support, but people were nervous about the way it hung out into space, so Wright added that bit of psychological (non-structural) reassurance.Rookery-Cantilever-Staircase.jpg

Drummund in the 1930s restoration had made more changes than we can currently see; they were removed during the restoration. But the elevator lobby was left as he designed it: take a look at the sleek Deco light fixtures and elevator doors.

Unfortunately, no tripods are allowed inside the Rookery and we can’t climb up past the main floor, nor hike up that cantilevered staircase (which leads to an amazing staircase – see photos of it on the Rookery website); these areas are off-limits unless you take a private tour, which the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust and the Chicago Architecture Foundation provide – so worth it!

Photographing the Rookery atrium – despite those limitations – is really quite fun. You’ve got the grand and obvious interior architecture, which presents many opportunities for intriguing angles and views. Walk around and look up and down and all around, back into corners, peek around the staircase…and you’ll find great shots. But you also have less obvious elements. Get up close and look at the bottom of the mezzanine floors; they feature prism glass designed to let in more light from above (a sample is hung in a frame). The mosaic floor has been faithfully recreated, but one original portion remains (by that exposed column); zoom in. Isolate any of the many design elements.

If you take a look online at others’ photographs of the Rookery atrium (a lot of wedding photography!), you will also get some ideas for how to shoot the space. One that inspired me was a shot from the main entrance through the elevator lobby to the atrium, beautifully capturing all three layers of design eras. The atrium is fantastic with HDR. And I have found it looks stunning in black and white, too. Chris’s photographs here are further superb inspiration.

The Rookery atrium is open to the public during business hours (8 am-6 pm) Monday-Friday, and is usually open on Saturdays (8 am – 2 pm), unless there is a rental event. Closed on Sundays. More details at the Rookery website.

Enjoy photographing this glorious space. I guarantee your photographs will impress!

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  • What a beautiful building.

    • Yes. We are lucky here in Chicago aren’t we? Hey spudart-You’re the one that took that amazing image of the Art Institute Lions in the snow, right? Thanks for stopping by!

  • Indeed its a great atrium, and you capture it magnificently!

    • Thanks, Luis. I remember your shot of the staircase. I’d like to see what you did with the rest of it.

  • What an excellent article! I have never been to Chicago, but will definitely make this a must-see if I ever get the chance!

    • She’s good, right? Let me know if you make it to Chicago and I’ll point you to the best places to photograph!

  • Such grandeur these buildings were built with. Heart and thought were diffidently included in structure. Excellent article.

    • Much different than most of today’s buildings. Thanks for coming by, Beverly, to read Wendy’s articles. 🙂

  • Another great post, Wendy. I will have to add this one to my list of places to visit and photograph. After being inspired by your first post about The Chicago Cultural Center, I spent over 4 hours there yesterday photographing. What a magnificent building!

    • I can’t wait to see your images from the cultural center!