The Light Court


The site of my cousin’s wedding reception this past Saturday, was inside the Rookery Building in downtown Chicago – a National Historic Landmark.  I had no idea what an architectural masterpiece this building is, however upon crossing over LaSalle St. along West Adams and seeing the ornate masonry exterior, I knew we were in for a treat!

Inside the building, in stark contrast to the heavy-feeling exterior, is the Light Court, a wrought and cast iron frame – a system of iron beams independent of the exterior walls – that feels bright and airy.

In 1888, architects Daniel Burnham and John Root completed the design of the building for the Central Safety Deposit Company.  At that time, electricity was just beginning to replace gas lamps and yet was expensive, unreliable and did not produce enough ambient light.  Burnham and Root designed a central light well to access natural light and air ventilation to the building’s offices – at the bottom of the light well is the Light Court.

In 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to update the Light Court as the elaborate ironwork and ornamentation had gone out of fashion.  Wright’s enhancements included removing much of the iron and terra cotta detailing on the central staircase, balconies and walls, which was replaced strong geometric patterns based on the railings of Root’s design on the Oriel Stairs (an iron staircase which winds down from floor 12 to 2 and projects into the light well).  He encased iron columns in white marble with gilding, and added bronze chandeliers with prismatic glass that still hang today.

To see additional photos of Wright’s renovations, go here.

In 1931, a second renovation was added, by William Drummond, a former employee of Burnham and Wright (during the 1905 remodeling).  Drummond modernized the building by incorporating an Art Deco aesthetic, but most notably adding a staircase that started at the second floor and protruded into the Light Court, as well as replacing Wright’s open geometric elevator cages with solid bronze doors etched with a bird, flora and fauna design.

The third renovation occured after 1988, when L. Thomas Baldwin III purchased the Rookery.  Baldwin hired McClier Architects to completely restore and preserve the historic landmark as well as to bring in modern-day technologies and office amenities.  The restoration combined the original architecture of John Root and Frank Lloyd Wright and added a 12th floor to the top of the building.  McClier brought back natural light into the Light Court (which had been lost over years of maintenance) and had restored the glass ceilings and protected them and the light well with a new roof skylight.  The architects removed Drummond’s lobby staircase and had discovered Root’s original ironwork encased in marble columns.  They left one side exposed for visitors to compare.

Aside from the Light Court, the Rookery Building has 3 additional major architectural features that are exceptional:  1)  the grillage foundation 2) the Oriel Staircase, both designed by John Root and 3) the building entrances of heavy stone arches.

For more information about the history of The Rookery, go here.

images:  therookerybuilding.com and Chicago – Architecture and Cityscape


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