Thus the Land was stirring and quivering in impulses, wave upon wave. . . . [Chicago] was pushing its structures higher and higher, until the Masonic Temple by John Root had raised its head far into the air, and the word “skyscraper” came into use. –Louis Sullivan, from The Autobiography of an Idea
On a warm evening in the summer of 1892, Edgar Lee Masters boards the night train for Chicago. He is 22 and one year a member of the Illinois bar, but he’d rather be a poet than an attorney. The train carries him northward, away from his home in Lewistown, and Masters sits awake by the window watching for the exact spot where prairie gives way to city. He comes upon Chicago at dawn, and though he does not know it, the first thing he sees of the city is its red-light district.
When he steps off the train, Masters is hungry and tired. His starched collar has wilted, and his white vest is covered in cinders. His enthusiasm for urban life, however, is unabated, and after breakfast at his uncle’s rooming house at 2128 S. Michigan Ave., he asks to be shown the sights. He is shown them.
Forty-four years pass. Masters spends eight of them as a law partner of Clarence Darrow. He publishes one remarkable book of poetry. Of his first day in Chicago he remembers that he especially wanted to visit “the tallest building in the world, from the top of which, according to an old Polonius in Lewistown, one could see Council Bluffs, Iowa. . . . I had to try that out, and Uncle Henry took me to the Masonic Temple.”
From the mosaic floor of its marble lobby to gabled roofs and glass-domed gardens, the Masonic Temple at the northeast corner of State and Randolph stood 302 feet tall. It was, according to Henry Justin Smith, a managing editor for the old Chicago Daily News, “a wonder of wonders. . . . Everything about the building made the city burst with pride, and gave country visitors kinks in their necks.” In fact, the building achieved a notoriety generally reserved for the Brooklyn Bridge and other “marketable” real estate. Vaudeville comics told the story–and Smith went so far as to claim it was an actual “colloquy” frequently overheard in Chicago’s turn-of-the-century courtrooms–of a cop approaching the bench with several con men in tow. “What’s the charges against these men?” asked the judge, to which the arresting officer would reply, “They took money off a rube, your honor, told him they were selling him the Masonic Temple. And when the rube said he liked the building but not the direction it faced, they said for five dollars more they’d turn it around.”
By 1939, however, the luster had worn off and the Masonic Temple was regarded as just another obsolescent and costly giant. Brick by brick, it was demolished from the top down, relegated to Chicago’s sizable scrap heap of architectural gems. But true giants die hard, as the new building at the northwest corner of LaSalle and Adams will attest. Nearly 50 years after its demolition, the Masonic Temple seems to have been reborn.
In December 1984, when he unveiled his plans for the 190 South LaSalle building, architect Philip Johnson, the 81-year-old dean of postmodernism, called attention to the structure kitty-corner from his own, a hallowed Chicago landmark, Burnham & Root’s Rookery. “We’re very proud that our building will be better than the Rookery,” said Johnson. “Root wasn’t feeling very well when he did that one. His Masonic Temple was a much better building.”
Johnson’s enthusiasm for the Masonic is apparent in his firm’s design for 190 South LaSalle. John Root’s building, completed in 1892, was itself a variation on the Romanesque revival then current, with a grand archway entrance on State Street and arched windows at the 2nd and 16th floors. But in the 13 floors between, the building thrust itself skyward in unadorned gray pillars (offset by rectangular windows) that shocked Root’s traditionalist eastern contemporaries with their brazen barrenness. The building was capped by two gables (also facing State) and high, tiled roofs inset with dormers, a stylistic turn that caused later critics some concern.
While it is by no means an exact copy of the Masonic Temple, 190 South LaSalle (as designed by John Burgee Architects With Philip Johnson) does imitate that earlier structure’s most notable features. From arched entranceways on LaSalle and Adams, its austere pink granite facade, punctuated only by columns of windows, rises uninterrupted to the 38th floor, where arches, topped by high copper roofs and gables, reoccur. (“Obviously, Root has always been one of my heroes,” was Johnson’s reply when asked about the resemblance to the Masonic Temple, “and that is the only reason behind our design for 190 South LaSalle.”) Yet, most obviously in height and color, Johnson’s building does differ from Root’s–in fact, the Rookery is a better stylistic reference–and these differences naturally spark a desire to stand the Masonic Temple and the 190 building side by side and decide which is better. The Masonic’s demolition makes that a rather difficult task, but with 190 South LaSalle and the Rookery as models, the tallest building in the world (and an entire era of Chicago architecture) might again be erected in our minds.
There is no epoch in the history of all the human race that divulges its character except in its style, and above all in the style of its buildings. . . . –Hermann Broch, from The Sleepwalkers
Ritualistically resplendent in bright plumes and multicolored aprons, several thousand Freemasons march east on Randolph until they encounter an even larger gathering of curious Chicagoans at State Street. But led by police and their own sword-bearing Knights Templar, the Masons muscle their way through the crowd until they are arrayed before a temporary reviewing stand occupied by various leaders of their brotherhood, by architect Daniel Burnham, and by a rather insignificant looking brick.
Of course, in comparison to the mass of gray stone and terra-cotta perched upon this street corner, everything appears insignificant–the brick, the police, the mass of Chicagoans with necks bent back and eyes turned skyward. Even the imposing bulk of Mr. Burnham is dwarfed by the stately edifice that towers overhead. It is November 6, 1891, a year to the day since ground breaking ceremonies were held at this same site, and during the next hour that solitary brick–the copestone–will be lifted by crane to the building’s roof, ceremonially signaling the “practical completion” of the Masonic Temple. To the assembled crowd, everything seems in place. There is a suitable amount of pomp and circumstance, there are celebrities, and there is the completed building, the tallest in the world. Few people note the absence of the two men–Norman Gassette and John Root–without whom the Masonic Temple would never have been built.
Norman Theodore Gassette was born in Townsend, Vermont, on April 21, 1839. Ten years later the Gassettes settled in Chicago, and in 1861, when President Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion of the southern states, Gassette enlisted as a private for a three-year hitch with the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Serving with the Union armies of the west–the hard-fighting troops led by Grant and Sherman–Gassette was soon promoted to lieutenant for his valor under fire, and after Chickamauga was recommended for the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel. He returned from the war to study law (while working nights in the post office), later served as deputy county clerk, and in 1868, running on the Republican ticket, was elected clerk of the circuit court. Under the city’s old fee system, Gassette, as ex officio registrar of deeds, was able to amass a sizable fortune–$300,000 according to the Tribune–which allowed him to “retire” from public life in 1872 and form his own real estate company.
In appearance, Norman Gassette resembled Daniel Burnham and the other civic leaders intent on moving Chicago into the 20th century. Broad shouldered and muscular, Gassette carried his impressive girth as a symbol of success. He had large features, the ubiquitous mustache of that era, and a strong and resonant voice that, coupled with his size, made him an impressive speaker. But Gassette’s wire spectacles gave him an atypical, clerical look, and it was known he occasionally wrote poetry. He was also a frequent contributor to the ritualistic literature used nationwide by Freemasons, and claimed an intimate acquaintance with the history of the Masonic order from King Solomon’s day to his own. Gassette had joined a local Masonic lodge after he left the army and advanced rapidly through the various degrees of the secret fraternity, holding such exotic titles as Prelate of the Apollo Commandery and Generalissimo. As Eminent Commander, he organized the grand encampment of Knights Templar of the United States held in Chicago in 1880, and three years later conducted 140 midwestern Masons on a ceremonial tour of Europe. In 1889, as Eminent Grand Commander, he led three full trains of uniformed Knights Templar to their triennial conclave in Washington, D.C., and that same year the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite conferred its 33rd degree, the Masonic order’s highest rank, on Gassette in New York.
At about this time the Freemasons of Illinois initiated plans for a new headquarters. A ten-man Masonic Fraternity Temple Association was formed and Gassette appointed its president. The committee began its task by searching for an appropriate location and soon settled on the northeast corner of State and Randolph. Until 1889, the Windett Building occupied much of that site, a five-story, Renaissance-style building erected after the fire of 1871. The owner of the building, Arthur W. Windett, had mortgaged the property to the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company at the time of construction, and the insurance company had foreclosed the mortgage and secured the property. The company then sold the property to the West Division Street Railway Company, which leased it to the Chicago City Railway Company. Meanwhile, Windett had brought suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County to redeem the property, claiming the insurance company had not properly advertised the foreclosure sale and had reneged on promises to extend his time of payment and reduce the rate of interest on his mortgage. The circuit court decided against Windett, as did the appellate court, and on October 31, 1889, the state supreme court upheld those decisions. That cleared the way for the sale of the property per a contract executed by Chicago transit czar Charles Tyson Yerkes.
Now that it had its desired building site–acquired at a cost of $1,100,000–all the Masonic Temple Association needed was a building. On the strength of its reputation alone, the Chicago firm of Burnham & Root was the logical choice to design the monumental temple envisioned by Gassette and his committee. Formed in 1873, the partnership between Daniel Burnham and John Root had depended initially on commissions for private residences. (One of these homes, designed in 1885 for stove manufacturer Edward A. Burdett, had a gable roof that Donald Hoffmann, author of The Architecture of John Root, found “oddly kindred” to the Masonic Temple’s. The house, which stood on Bellevue Place, has since been demolished.) However, Burnham, the firm’s big-statured, big-talking senior partner, was not content with making only little plans. “I’m not going to stay satisfied with houses,” he told Louis Sullivan when they first met. “My idea is to work up a big business, to handle big things, deal with big businessmen, and to build up a big organization, for you can’t handle big things unless you have an organization.”
While Sullivan was repelled by Burnham’s attitude, the approach worked with Chicago’s executives and entrepreneurs. In 1880 Chicago building contractor Amos Grannis erected Burnham & Root’s first office complex, the red-brick Grannis Block at 21-29 N. Dearborn. According to Burnham, it was with this project that the firm’s “originality began to show.” Soon Burnham & Root was designing some of the city’s most impressive and innovative buildings, including the Montauk (1882)–often called the first skyscraper–the Rookery (1886), and the Monadnock (1891). (The Montauk was demolished in 1902, but the other two buildings still stand.)
The partnership’s position as the leading designer of buildings in the nation’s most architecturally progressive city was solidified in 1890 when Burnham & Root was chosen to plan Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. More specifically, Burnham was named chief of construction, while his junior partner, Root, was named consulting architect. (The latter title carried with it the responsibility of supervising all architectural design work for the fair.) The appointments highlighted the special talents of the two men, Burnham’s as an organizer and public relations wizard, Root’s as an artist and philosopher. It was a division of labor recognized by Montgomery Schuyler–a sagacious turn-of-the-century architecture critic–as essential to Burnham & Root’s success. Schuyler acknowledged Burnham’s “facility of administration . . . the one facility that was absolutely indispensable to the success of a practitioner of architecture in Chicago.” But Schuyler also recognized that “in the partnership of Burnham & Root, the junior partner was commonly esteemed to be the designer of the firm . . . the services in this regard of the senior being for the most part consultative and critical rather than creative . . . ”
Henry Van Brunt, a more conservative contemporary of Root’s–Van Brunt would design the Electricity Building for the Columbian Exposition–generally concurred with Schuyler’s opinion, though with some reservations about Root’s genius. He conceded that “in the firm of Burnham & Root, the latter had charge of the department of design. But Burnham’s influence throughout their whole joint career was undoubtedly very great and very salutary, not only as a restraint to [Root’s] exuberance, and as a power of especial sanity and force in the combination, but as an organizer . . .”
John Wellborn Root had found his way to Chicago via a rather circuitous route. He had been born in Lumpkin, Georgia, on January 10, 1850, the son of a transplanted northern storekeeper who had married into the family of a wealthy southern planter. The boy demonstrated a precocious flair for art and music, a delight in jokes, and a breezy and convivial temperament that defied discipline. By the time of the Civil War, the Root family had moved to Atlanta, though John’s father–a wartime blockade runner–was frequently absent. Though Sidney Root made a large fortune smuggling goods into southern ports, he demonstrated his loyalty to the Confederacy by occasionally acting as a special agent to Europe for Jefferson Davis. He was on one such mission in 1864 as the armies of William Tecumseh Sherman–those same ranks in which Norman Gassette had served–tightened their grip on Atlanta. At the end of August, Confederate soldiers evacuated the city, and on September 2, the 14-year-old Root watched the entry of the Union troops. All summer the boy had listened to terrifying stories about General Sherman, but when “Old Tecumseh” rode into town, Root (according to his sister-in-law, Harriet Monroe) confronted not the fierce, child-eating ogre he had expected, but only a “grim, battered warrior, unwashed, unshaven, shabbily clad from soft hat to dusty boots.”
Union officers were soon billeted in the Root home, while its rightful occupants, like the other citizens of Atlanta, were ordered to leave the city. The Roots found refuge at one of the family plantations in southern Georgia, and in October, John slipped clandestinely out of a North Carolina harbor on a steamer bound for England. He continued his education at Claremont School near Liverpool and had begun studying at Oxford when his father requested he return to the United States, where the war had ended. In 1869 Root graduated from New York University with a degree in civil engineering and two years later accompanied his employer, New York architect Peter Wight, to Chicago, a city devastated by fire. In the offices of Carter, Drake & Wight, Root struck up a friendship with fellow draftsman Daniel Burnham, who gradually convinced him that men of their talent were better off with a firm of their own.
Harriet Monroe met Root at about this time, and she remembered him as a man whose face, whether by its flashing blue eyes or flushed cheeks, easily displayed emotion. He had “a high forehead, narrowing upward; a straight nose, a trifle shorter than average; a fine mouth, its changing outline visible under the thin, light moustache; a firm, strong chin and jaws; and very small, delicate ears, set low and close to the head.” Root was barrel-chested and had a powerful physique, though, from lack of exercise, he was inclined to stoutness in later years. His favorite sports were swimming and sailing, particularly against a rough sea.
Root worked in a variety of styles but eventually found his most fertile inspiration in the work of Henry Hobson Richardson, the American architect best known for his Trinity Church in Boston. But the Marshall Field Wholesale Store, the finest example of Richardson’s attempts to revitalize Romanesque architectural traditions, was built in Chicago in 1885. (This massive building, with little ornamentation other than the stately procession of its arched windows, filled an entire city block at Adams and Wells until it was torn down, still sound, in 1930.) Louis Sullivan, Root’s only equal as a designer, was so impressed by the Field building that he altered his plans for the Auditorium by stripping its cornice down to the bare essentials. Meanwhile Root continued, as one observer put it, his “experiments in Americanizing the Romanesque,” until Henry Van Brunt, while admitting that it was Richardson who “introduced the [Romanesque] revival,” would argue it was Root who “carried it still further toward the point of its establishment as the characteristic architectural expression of American civilization.”
Montgomery Schuyler noted that as early as 1887–a year after Richardson’s death at 47–Root had already made subtle modifications of the Romanesque with his Chicago headquarters for the Buffalo-based Phenix Insurance Company. Schuyler thought its arched entrance on Jackson, between LaSalle and Clark, a “brilliant example” of “an enriched Romanesque. . . . It is equally plain that it could not have been designed except for Richardson, and that it could not have been designed by Richardson.” Inside, Root had left the space of the ninth floor undivided so that hundreds of business clerks might work unimpeded in an open, 9,750-square-foot room. “It was,” wrote Donald Hoffmann, “an astonishing visual document of the dawn of the modern corporation.”
Though Root was necessarily preoccupied with actually designing buildings, he expended considerable effort in attempting to formulate a logical philosophy of design pertinent to the new technology being developed in Chicago. He regretted, however, that the “reasonable” age in which he lived, cut off from the “intuitive” processes of the Greeks and Venetians, demanded such an approach. “Architectural styles,” he claimed, “national or new, were never discovered by human prospectors, however eagerly they have searched.”
Despite these criticisms of the “entirely rational,” Root did seek to articulate his ideas about style. Toward this end, he was aided by the writings of the German architect Gottfried Semper, whose essay “Development of Architectural Style” Root translated for the Inland Architect in 1889. Semper theorized that building styles must develop naturally, like “evolutions in the province of organic creation.” He went on to define “style” as “the conformity of an art object [such as a building] with the circumstances of its origin and the condition and circumstances of its development.” Seven years later, Louis Sullivan condensed this latter sentiment for Lippincott’s Magazine and gave voice to the dictum–“Form ever follows function”–by which he is remembered.
Speaking to the architecture class at the Art Institute in 1890, Root elaborated on Semper’s ideas. He encouraged the students to “permeate” themselves with “the full spirit of the age” if they hoped to give architecture “true art forms.” He urged them to reject “a profusion of delicate ornament”–Root was known to complain that Sullivan “was going to smear another facade with ornament”–and instead seek to convey “the great, stable, conserving forces of modern civilization” through a studied use of “mass and proportion.” Finally, like Sullivan, Root insisted that form must follow function. “We must grant that, to be true, architecture must normally express the conditions of life about and within it. . . . So vital has the underlying structure of these buildings become, that it must dictate absolutely the general departure of external forms; and so imperative are all the commercial and constructive demands, that all architectural detail employed in expressing them must become modified by them.”
The revolutionary “underlying structure” to which Root referred was a framework of steel and concrete that transferred the weight of a building’s materials to its foundation. Until the development of skeleton construction (as this new engineering technique was called), the use of massive foundations and thick, load-bearing walls necessarily limited the height of a building. But with William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building–built in Chicago in 1884 at LaSalle and Adams–all this changed. Jenney’s building not only involved the first definitive use of skeleton construction (though because of building codes, some of the weight of its floors was still borne by the walls); it also represented, in its upper stories, the first substitution in a building of Bessemer steel for wrought-iron beams. Subsequent examples of skeleton construction quickly followed, culminating in 1890 with the Rand McNally Building on Adams between LaSalle and Wells, the first building with no load-bearing walls and an all-steel frame. Demolished in 1911, it was designed, not surprisingly, by Burnham & Root.
In June 1890, the same month Root made his speech to the Art Institute, Gassette publicly awarded the commission for the Masonic Temple to Burnham & Root. Root had actually been working on plans for the temple commission for several months, perhaps as early as March 1890, when his former business associate Amos Grannis was elected an officer of the temple association. With those same aesthetic considerations he had spelled out to the architecture class weighing heavily on his mind, Root struggled with his design for a building that kept growing taller and taller. Gassette had initially envisioned the Masonic Temple as 15 stories tall, but the temple association, having paid a premium price for land at the center of Chicago’s business district, wanted to insure its investment. It added one grand moneymaking scheme after another: a rooftop observatory, a theater, and, most amazing at the time, retail stores not just at street level but on the first ten floors. The association finally announced that the building–with its State Street front measuring 170 feet, its Randolph front, 114–would stand 18 stories, or 254 feet, tall. Its total height would increase by nearly another 50 feet before completion.
Harriet Monroe suggested that Root was not entirely happy with the steel-frame technology that permitted such unfettered ascension skyward. “The Masonic Temple was a problem which Root chafed under,” wrote Monroe, “but to which he attempted to give the most direct solution possible. ‘Skyscrapers,’ elevated out of true proportion to their base, were not at all to his liking; and in this case, two stories were added to the design after he felt that its altitude was already too great.”
The design for the Masonic Temple employed most of the engineering techniques common to the skyscraper of the 1890s. The building was erected on a foundation of interlaced steel rails and I-beams reinforced by concrete. (This “floating” foundation was developed by Root as a means of evenly distributing a building’s load over Chicago’s sandy and marshy soil.) From this base rose the all-steel frame. Diagonal bracing, capable of withstanding wind gusts up to 135 miles an hour, ran across every two stories and in the elevator bays. Each floor rested on terra-cotta arches and the steel columns were sheathed in concrete, precautions that, according to the temple association, rendered the building “absolutely fireproof.”
Over the building’s steel skeleton Root laid an essentially utilitarian “skin”: gray granite on the first three stories, mottled-gray pressed brick through the 16th floor, and a darker gray terra-cotta above. The main entrance, a 42-by-38-foot arch, was on State Street, and deep Roman arches were repeated over the paired windows of the 2nd and 16th floors. Bay windows in the middle floors accented the strong vertical thrust of the rectangular pillars (or pilasters) projecting from the wall. Double-square and venetian windows were used at the 17th and 18th floors, and above these rose the gables and steep roof inset with dormers. Ornamental decoration was minimal, confined to the gables–which incorporated 13th-century chateau designs–and the entranceway, where Masonic symbols like the All-Seeing Eye appeared.
Although Philip Johnson’s 190 South LaSalle building incorporates several conspicuous features of the Masonic Temple, it cannot, by itself, conjure up that earlier building. Its facade, besides being 18 stories taller, is sleeker and more sheer, suggesting an era more technologically perfect than Root’s. The arches at its peak, though they mirror those at its base, do not naturally flow from them. And while Root’s gables may have been designed to evoke a religious response suitable to its chief tenants, Johnson’s handsome gables, imbued with tradition, provide a colorful alternative to the columned facades of today’s LaSalle Street financial district without disrupting its air of sobriety and staidness. (In fact, so well does Johnson’s building match the mood created by preexisting structures that some people have expressed surprise when told the 190 building is new.)
A modern observer must turn his gaze across the street to Root’s Rookery to complete his imagined perception of the visual impact created by the Masonic Temple. The Rookery’s massive arched portals and its molded brick, granite, and terra-cotta exterior reflect Root’s–and other Richardsonians’–tendency to apply the techniques of sculpture to architecture. By varying a facade’s planes, Root avoided the impression of one-dimensionality that often plagues modern buildings. And the arches at the Rookery’s seventh and tenth stories, unlike Johnson’s, not only echo the Romanesque motif expressed at street level but also emphasize the upward thrust of the building. Though the Rookery is divided horizontally into five parts, the arches, and the pillars that define them, carry the building’s facade (and the observer’s eye) skyward, imparting that characteristic loft Louis Sullivan considered essential to skyscrapers. Using this same technique, Root was able to emphatically highlight the greater height and loft of the Masonic Temple.
When the Masonic Temple was completed in 1892, critical reception was cool, particularly among the architects of the eastern establishment. Henry Van Brunt spoke of the temple as if he were describing something indecent, “an extreme example of the daring quality of [Root’s] genius . . . a departure so fundamental from the traditions of decorative architecture that I hardly know how to characterize it. It is a building absolutely committed to what one may call a perpendicular tyranny of pilasters . . .” Yet, though he judged the frank design, which made no attempt to disguise the vertical thrust of the steel frame, to be “absolutely monotonous,” and, overall, the building to be lacking in order and sanity, Van Brunt inadvertently hit upon John Root’s exact intent when he characterized the Masonic Temple as “perhaps the frankest admission of a structural and economical necessity ever expressed in architectural form. . . . For the interruption of these vertical lines there would be of course only the excuse of design; none are supplied either by structure or use. It is probable that in this experiment, which looks like the apotheosis of the elevator in the modern social system, it was Root’s desire to permit an exceptional character of structure to have the fullest and most honest architectural expression once for all.”
Even Harriet Monroe, Root’s most vocal supporter, had her doubts. “One does not feel sure of the strength of the base, which in most of the firm’s buildings is wholly adequate. The thirteen undeviating stories which rise above it are a frank expression of an undeviating purpose, but the eye waits for its reward until it reaches the strong lines of the gables, supporting the steep roof with its dormers.”
With time, critical opinion has tended to shift toward a position antithetical to Root’s contemporaries. Writing in 1939, Thomas Tallmadge could admire the temple’s “tremendous but graceful” gables and appreciate how Root had “abandoned his subtle but nevertheless artificial divisions of stories in the Rookery and expressed the uniform purpose of the stories above the street shops by a soaring shaft uninterrupted by horizontal divisions except at the top.” (It was probably those “artificial” horizontal divisions that prompted Philip Johnson’s observation that the Rookery was a building designed on one of Root’s off days.) But by 1974, Thomas Hines, Burnham’s biographer, was totally disappointed with the culmination of Root’s design for the temple. “Had its first eighteen floors been capped by a flat roof and an appropriately bold cornice, the Masonic building might have been the firm’s greatest skyscraper, but instead the partners placed a steeply pitched, densely dormered, and wholly irrelevant gabled roof at the summit . . .”
It is interesting to speculate why Root did not finish off the Masonic Temple as Hines suggested. After all, he had told the Art Institute class “that no man has the right to borrow from another age an architectural idea evolved from the life of that age, unless it fits our life as normally and fully as it fitted the other.” Given this notion, do not gabled roofs seem incongruous with an era of skyscrapers? Donald Hoffmann speculated that the temple’s gabled “attic–which may have seemed a final flourish of the Queen Anne revival, in monstrous scale–represented Root’s attempt to express the presence of the Masonic bodies, whose mysterious precincts were more than a private residence, yet less than a public place.” A pamphlet prepared by the Masons in 1891 supports this interpretation, acknowledging the stunning impact of the structure itself but encouraging its visitors to “arch the splendid edifice with a mingled bow of love and brotherhood–which were the impulse of its conception.”
Root’s insistence that architectural style spring from the necessities of a particular era is an idea especially pertinent to an appraisal of the postmodernist designers, those modern-day architects who rely heavily on the past for their inspiration. Structurally, Philip Johnson’s buildings reveal no revolutionary innovations. Instead, Johnson’s uniqueness lies in his utilization of such elements as arches and gables, his willingness to refer to earlier architectural traditions that were rejected by Mies van der Rohe and other proponents of the stark International Style. Used haphazardly or simply to conform with current trends, such forays into the past can only provide a sentimental gloss to today’s buildings. Yet by seemingly moving backwards–that is, as in 190 South LaSalle, by evoking Root and, in turn, those architects who preceded Root–Johnson and other thoughtful postmodernists have led American architecture forward into an era that, stylistically, lies beyond the glass-box skyscrapers of the mid-20th century.
There is no building in Chicago which fired the imagination and the enthusiasm, not only of our citizens but of the world, as did the Masonic Temple. . . . The cause of its fame was its height. –Thomas Tallmadge, from Architecture in Old Chicago
On the morning of November 6, 1890, four thousand Masons troop southwards along Michigan Avenue to Congress and then circle back around the city toward Randolph, a two-mile-long parade of men dressed in white aprons, or as black knights with bright red crosses blazing across their chests. Men on caparisoned horses carry banners decorated with regal crests, while several bands play a variety of loud, martial music. People stop to gawk at the parade; some follow in its wake. Traffic comes to a standstill. By 2 PM, crowds make it impossible for the city’s cable cars to travel through the streets of what will one day be known as the Loop.
At State and Randolph, 200 policemen hold back the crowds. A new building is going up and reports of its proposed height have piqued the city’s curiosity. “The Tower of Babel [will look] like a pygmy structure beside it,” claims the staid Chicago Tribune, flirting with blasphemy, and such thrilling conjecture–a signal, perhaps, of a new age–has brought out this surging mass of proud Chicagoans. Every window, rooftop, and fire escape in the vicinity is lined with people. Several wagons try to make their way along State but are swamped by the crowd and made bleachers for the day’s festivities. Everyone is eager to see ground broken for the tallest building in the world. “Chicago,” claimed one editor, “felt it was entitled to the tallest, nothing less.”
A platform has been raised around a polished cornerstone inscribed with the date “A.D. 1890,” and before it stands a derrick wreathed in American flags and decorated with the Masonic emblems of square and compass. Carter Henry Harrison, the city’s four-time mayor, assumes a prominent position at the front of the platform. (It is rumored that Harrison, retired from public office, wants to be mayor again so he can preside over Chicago during its upcoming world’s fair.) Harrison is followed by Masonic officers clad in purple-and-gold aprons, and with jeweled pendants hung about their necks. These men lay a copper box into the hollowed-out cavity of the cornerstone. The box, gleaming like silver where it has been soldered shut, contains the city’s morning newspapers for that day, bylaws and rosters of Cook County’s Masonic lodges, minutes of the proceedings of the Most Worthy Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons, a souvenir medal of the building, and nickel and silver coins of the U.S. from five cents to a dollar.
The Right Worshipful Grand Master, John M. Pearson, calls for the blessing of “the Architect of the Universe,” and then the cornerstone is spread with mortar and lowered into place. A band begins to play, and the Masons, their hands muffled by gloves, clap out a ritualistic tattoo. Pearson strikes the stone three times with an ivory gavel, declares it “square, level, and plumb,” and sprinkles it with flowers. Bystanders snatch up the petals, prompting one onlooker to cry out, “Why not take the stone too?”
With this gibe the crowd disperses, though over the next 18 months onlookers continue to converge on State and Randolph. Regardful of the daily spectacle of the gray facade rising further above the pavement, they speculate about the final disposition of the building’s interior, rumored to be opulent and grand. The temple association has not been reticent about the money it is spending. It readily admits that the Masonic Temple, constructed at a cost of 35 cents per cubic foot, will surpass the record held by Burnham & Root’s Rookery–built for 31 cents per cubic foot–as the city’s most costly building. Such information is boastfully divulged, as are other facts and figures. The public has already been informed, for instance, of the amount of steel, terra-cotta, and fireproofing materials required (4,700, 22,000, and 16,000 tons respectively). There will be 1,328 radiators in the building, and 7,000 electric lights. Pipes for steam, water, and gas, placed end to end, would extend 35 miles, the building’s electric wiring 53 miles. Enough plate glass will be used to cover four acres. And for those who find such quantities too vast for comprehension, the temple association uses a language all Chicago understands: dollars and cents. Bronze and ornamental work will cost $108,000, ironwork $325,000. Sixty-two thousand dollars will be expended on granite, $118,000 on marble, and $107,000 on brick and masonry above the basement.
Chicagoans are also intrigued by the modern machine plant that will generate all the electricity and steam needed by the building. Two engines of 500 horsepower each are installed in an underground vault beside the building, while eight steel boilers of 125 horsepower each are placed under the alley at the rear. This equipment is supplemented by additional dynamos and pumps. Beneath the basement, an automatic injector carries off all surface water through pipes into a sewer.
To pay for all this, Norman Gassette had organized the temple association into a stock company. The association sold 20,000 shares of stock at $100 a share to Illinois Masons, and issued $1.5 million in bonds that would come due at 5 percent interest in 1921. It promised to be a sound business investment for any speculator. (Burnham himself invested, and it is assumed Root did the same.) By the time the building opened, the land had more than doubled in value–at $125 a square foot, it was valued at $2,317,072–while the Masonic Temple, whose construction costs totaled $2,000,000, was evaluated at $2,182,000. The association also expected to take in considerable rents from retailers, business tenants, and Masonic organizations. The annual receipts from the building’s observatory alone were conservatively expected to surpass $75,000. (An 1892 dollar would be worth $12.16 today.)
In the spring of 1892, the building is completed to the association’s satisfaction, and expectant onlookers, numbering in the thousands, finally pass beneath the granite arch on State Street and into the Masonic Temple. They are not disappointed. A colorful tessellated floor–designed in Europe–spreads out across a 4,000-square-foot lobby walled in polished white Italian marble. Around this interior courtyard, the building’s upper stories have been laid out in the shape of a U. Bronze-and-marble balconies circle overhead to the ninth floor; above these an open marble shaft rises to an immense glass dome on the roof. Rays of sunlight pass through the dome and, reflected by the marble walls of the shaft, brilliantly illuminate the interior. The lobby glows like a magnificent jewel.
While its fixtures may be palatial, the lobby’s mood is very democratic. Light and space beckon visitors in, and various avenues of ingress encourage a thorough exploration of the interior. An ornate stairway descends to the city’s largest restaurant, where, surrounded by onyx, alabaster and plate glass, 2,000 diners can sup simultaneously. Other stairways, with marble treads and intricate iron balustrades, ascend between bronze-and-alabaster columns from the lobby to the roof. The most irresistible inducement to investigate the Masonic is supplied by a bank of elevators ranged in a half circle at the far end of the interior court (across the top of the U). It is the most expensive elevator plant ever constructed, and with 16 cars–14 passenger, 2 freight–in operation from 6:45 AM to midnight, it is also the largest, surpassing in size even the Eiffel Tower’s and the World Building’s in New York.
(The lobby of 190 South LaSalle offers little visual correspondence to the Masonic Temple. While its fixtures are equally grand–high, vaulted ceilings covered in gold leaf, and a profusion of marble–without the openness of the Masonic it tends toward the gaudy excesses of baroque architecture. Again, the better analogue is the Rookery, whose graceful and airy lobby, despite frequent remodeling–most notably the darkening of its skylight with waterproof paint–still expresses Root’s conception of a commercial building’s foyer.)
These elevators elicit the oddest statistics from the temple association directors. (What they don’t realize is that electric elevators, successfully employed since 1887, have already begun to render the Masonic’s hydraulic elevators obsolete.) The directors brag that the elevators’ pumping apparatus has a capacity to furnish water for a city of 60,000 people, and that the water used daily could fill a trout pond measuring 240 by 100 by 50 feet. Pumped from the cellar to the roof, the water descends again to the cellar, exerting a pressure of 140 pounds to the square inch. Traveling at nearly nine miles an hour, each car makes a round trip approximately every two minutes. “The term flying is hardly too strong to express the speed of the elevators,” claim the directors, and after a complicated series of calculations, they proudly conclude that the elevators annually make “the enormous journey of . . . nearly five times around the earth.”
While vaunting their speed, the directors also emphasize the elevators’ “absolute safety.” In the unlikely occurrence of a broken cable, a gravity wedge, thrust into wooden guides, will stop the downward course of the car. As an additional precaution, riders are asked to “stand quietly, leaning against the side of the car if they feel the need of support. Exit and ingress should be made quickly, and after careful examination to ascertain that the car has stopped.” Passengers who discover that the view through the elevators’ transparent cages makes them “nervous, dizzy, or faint,” or produces “a sensation of fear and nervous excitability,” are directed by an advertisement to the Nerve Seed Company on the ninth floor.
Prestigious shops, or businesses like the Bankers National Bank, occupy the building’s first three stories. At ground level, on Randolph Street, women can purchase the latest European fashions at Madame Roy’s Imported Millinery or have their hair styled by the Federmeyer Brothers of Paris. (Men’s tonsorial needs are handled on the 19th floor in “the loftiest barber shop in the world.”) In a novel experiment (that will last only three years), floors four through ten are also reserved for retail space. Stores are laid out along 12-foot-wide marble corridors, and to encourage the illusion of avenues lined by shops, floors are not numbered but designated by a name. Adjustable partitions on every floor allow businesses and retailers to vary the size of the space they lease.
Initial tenants include a bicycle store, dentists, physicians, chemists, oculists, financial agents, printers, truss manufacturers, tailors, jewelers, and, in suite 1307, “Warren N. Baker, Capitalist.” On the ninth floor, a company–Barger’s–sells folding beds, settees, and billiard tables. Many of the building’s retailers seem preoccupied with hawking cure-alls and wonder medicines. The Viavi Company peddles a “remedy” that cures “all female disorders” at home, “saving the expense and unpleasantness of a physician’s personal attention.” Professor Wilson’s Magneto Curative Garments are guaranteed to cure nervous prostration, paralysis, varicose veins, eczema, consumption, liver and kidney complaints, rheumatism, gout, and loss of memory. Dr. Pratt’s Pocket Battery is a $5 electrical device designed to cure the same ailments, although in a testimonial, Mrs. M.E. Taylor of Chicago claims the device cured a friend’s neuralgia but “blistered the skin slightly.” Professor G. Birkholz on the 10th floor takes contracts to grow hair on bald heads, while H. Boardman Rising on the 13th promises “a natural cure for corpulency.”
The Masons themselves occupy most of the upper stories of the building with their banquet, smoking, and meeting rooms. Lodge rooms are rented to local Masonic organizations for a fee ranging, in 1893, from $12.50 to $25 per night. The walls and ceilings of several of the rooms, like the Egyptian and Grecian rooms on the 17th floor, are elaborately decorated in styles befitting their names. The Masons claim that all these rooms, like the Oriental Consistory with its 21-foot-high ceilings, are “finished and furnished in a fashion to rival any of the throne rooms of European monarchs.”
On the 18th floor is the Gothic Hall, “intended for the use of Knights Templar as an asylum.” Galleries, accessible by a marble staircase, run the length of the hall. The walls under the galleries are covered in scagliola marble, and the arched ceiling is embellished with heraldic designs. A dais resembling a bishop’s throne stands at one end of the hall, a large pipe organ at the other. The hall’s doorways are particularly wide, broad enough to permit men in columns to pass through three abreast.
The top floors of the Masonic Temple are again given over to the public. Magic lantern shows are presented in “scenic theatoriums,” two 1,000-square-foot rooms fitted with opera chairs. One theater presents “the mutations of ‘A Day in the Alps’ wherein many surprising and beautiful effects produced by electric lighting will be shown.” The other displays a “reproduction in miniature” of the Court of Honor at the Columbian Exposition. But more than light shows is expected of the building that overshadows Chicago’s Rialto. To the west on Randolph are two of the city’s great theaters: the Powers’, which will vanish with the westward expansion of the Sherman House, and Louis Sullivan’s Schiller, completed in 1892 and later called the Garrick; they will be joined by the Iroquois, where 596 people will perish in a 15-minute conflagration in 1903.
In keeping with these theatrical palaces, the world’s tallest building has its own playhouse, the Masonic Temple Roof Theater, a cabaret of sumptuous food, high-class vaudeville acts, and music. Shows are presented nightly at 8:30. There is also a 25-cent matinee. A program note requests ladies to “remove their hats during the performance so as to comply with the ordinance passed by the city council. Those failing to comply will be requested to do so by the usher.”
Charles M. Fischer’s Temple Orchestra begins the entertainment with a march and a popular tune like “Ain’t Dat Scan’lous.” The band is followed by a fascinating amalgam of talent: mesmerists, ventriloquists, bar performers, contraltos, tenors, harpists, magicians, bicycle troupes, dancers, acrobats, Irish comics. Though the theater’s program changes weekly, the Girl With the Auburn Hair is held over for months as night after night she draws appreciative crowds with her virtuous vocalizing of such religious songs as “The Holy City.” Other featured artists include June Salmo, the Golden Mephisto; Josephine Sabel, Chanteuse Internationale; Carrie Weber, the Clever Soubrette; and Press Eldredge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Fun. In 1898, the Four Cohans, with 20-year-old George M. Cohan, perform at the theater.
At the summit of the Masonic Temple is a 12,000-square-foot observatory that rivals, according to one contemporary account, “the abode of the gods.” This “experience of a lifetime” costs only a quarter. Lush gardens and flower-lined walkways have been laid out beneath the observatory’s glass dome, and its plate glass walls can be thrown open in warm weather. On a clear day, four states are visible: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In the evening, the many jeweled lanterns hanging from the dome are electrically lit to create “a dazzling illumination of kaleidoscopic color and beauty.”
In October 1892, thousands of people ride the express elevators to the Masonic Temple’s observatory to watch the dedication parade of the Columbian Exposition as it marches down State Street. The London Times tells its readers that “Chicago is the greatest exhibit at the World’s Fair,” and there is no better place to see the city than from the roof of the world’s tallest building. In his popular 1893 guide to Chicago and the fair, John J. Flinn recommends that a “half day really ought to be given to a study of the Masonic Temple.” (In his book, Flinn actually devotes a good part of two days–of a ten-day tour–to exploring the temple.) Like so many of the building’s visitors, Flinn is particularly taken by the view from the roof. “The great buildings of the World’s Fair look like toy houses. The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building, which is large enough to accommodate the houses and inhabitants of a village of five thousand people, looks little larger than a shed and not much more attractive. The Illinois, Government and Administration buildings with their beautiful and graceful towers look squatty and mean. The great network of railroad lines at our feet resemble silken threads, and the trains moving along the lake shore on the Illinois Central look ridiculously small. The buzz of the great city reaches us here, but it is simply a buzz. We are away from the roar and jumble and confusion of the streets below.”
Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. –epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren, buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London
The citizens of Chicago could not walk the streets of their city in 1891 without encountering the rising facade of another building designed by John Root. The architect’s energies appeared to be inexhaustible, and as an artist he seemed finally to be reaching the full stride of his genius. Three of Root’s most brilliant designs were undergoing construction that year–the Woman’s Temple (the chateaulike headquarters of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union at LaSalle and Monroe streets), the Great Northern Hotel, and the Ashland Block. In addition there was his most publicized commission, the Masonic Temple. “I think that he strove here,” wrote Thomas Tallmadge, “to achieve a ‘commercial style’ based on the Romanesque that might be generally accepted as a formula for the expression of the skyscraper, and he might have prevailed had not the World’s Fair almost immediately knocked the hopes of the Romantics into a cocked hat.”
Root’s efforts on behalf of Chicago’s world’s fair began with his close study of the Exposition Universelle staged in Paris in 1889. Inspired by Ferdinand Dutert’s Palais des Machines and Gustave Eiffel’s 984-foot tower, Root resolved to see similar marvels erected in Chicago. “We have more space, more money,” he said, “and we have the lake; why should we not surpass Paris?” After his appointment as the Columbian Exposition’s chief architect in 1890, Root’s time was split between designing plans for new buildings and soliciting support for the fair. This latter occupation required him to travel extensively, make frequent speeches, and conduct numerous tours of the empty exposition site. In mid-December, he and Burnham named the other architects for the exposition. Many were Chicagoans–Louis Sullivan, of course, was among them–but the rest of the country was well represented by designers from New York, Boston, and Kansas City.
Root begins 1891 with a business trip to New York, where he is disheartened by predictions that Chicago’s fair will “be little more than a cattle show.” After visiting with his father in Atlanta, he returns to Chicago on Saturday, January 10. It is his 41st birthday. He is overworked and tired; he has already promised his wife Dora Louise he will begin a long rest on the 15th. At his office in the Rookery he discusses a commission for a new building, and conducts an informal meeting of the fair’s architects who have gathered in the city for a conference the following Monday. After the meeting, Root indulges himself with a Turkish bath. As is his frequent habit, he entertains at home that evening. When his guests depart, Root, shivering in the frigid air, gallantly escorts one woman to her carriage.
On Sunday, January 11, Root throws a small dinner party. His guests include the fair’s architects and his sister-in-law, Harriet Monroe. Despite her host’s usual cordiality, Monroe finds the climate around the dinner table only slightly less chilling than the “blustery” winter night outside. Other than Root, the architects are generally pessimistic about the outcome of the fair, and gloomily concentrate their attentions on the obstacles that stand in their way. Monroe is “amazed at their listless and hopeless attitude toward the great undertaking which had brought them to Chicago.” Regrettably, “the architects’ enthusiasm for their job was delayed to arise only over the coffin of their chief.”
When his guests leave, Root accompanies them to their carriages, ignoring the effects of the sharp wind and freezing temperature. Shortly thereafter, he is seized by a severe chill, and the following morning awakes with a pain in his chest. Though his doctor fearfully diagnoses pneumonia, Root expects to quickly overcome the illness. He orders a drawing board and various plans to be sent from his office. However, the pain becomes greater and Root does no work. Despite his discomfort, Monroe finds her brother-in-law “serene and gay,” and he regales his nurses with impromptu speeches.
During his final days, Root is overcome by “visions.” At times, he thinks he is flying. Early on the evening of January 15 he whispers to those gathered around him, “Do you hear that music?” His fingers strum the empty air, as if playing an instrument, and in a louder voice, he cries out, “That’s what I call music. Grand.” Hovering by his bedside, Harriet Monroe sees the dying man’s “glowing eyes flame up like a meteor.” With the same suddenness, their light is extinguished.
That night, a sorrowful Daniel Burnham, who has lost both a close friend and an irreplaceable partner, admits “we made all these buildings together, but they are chiefly his, for he it was who did the designing.” The following morning, in its front-page obituary, the Chicago Tribune concurs, calling Root “easily [Chicago’s] most distinguished designing architect, if in deed he had his superior in the whole country.” Without Root’s guidance, Burnham founders. He chooses a New York draftsman, Charles B. Atwood, as the fair’s new chief architect, and together they give the world a beaux arts confection of plaster and white paint that is described by Root’s disappointed widow as “bastard Greek.” Only Sullivan’s Transportation Building, with its golden door–a stunning, multicolored archway modeled after a 12th-century Moroccan gate–approached the “joyous, luxuriant midsummer efflorescence” that Monroe insisted was Root’s original vision for the fair.
Further architectural memorials perhaps seemed unnecessary for a man whose buildings dominated the Chicago skyline. Two days after Root’s death, a Tribune editorial had paraphrased the inscription on the tomb of British architect Sir Christopher Wren: “If you would seek his monument, look about you.” The writer could not know, and privy to such knowledge would likely disbelieve, that only two of Root’s great buildings–those whose design consumed his spirit in his final years–would be standing in 1940. Those close to Root are more provident. When they bury him at Graceland Cemetery, they rear one last monument over his grave, a Celtic cross patterned with graceful arches and other examples of John Root’s designs.
On January 15, 1891, the Masons of the Oriental Consistory had been gathered in their triennial conclave. Informed of Root’s death that night, they immediately passed a resolution expressing their “profound regret” and “deep sorrow.” The resolution, which appeared in the Tribune the following morning, is signed by Norman Gassette. As president of the temple association, the 51-year-old Gassette had been working as tirelessly as Root. He had personally negotiated every contract for construction or materials, and once building began had received the daily reports of contractors.
Two months after Root’s death, on March 20, Gassette comes down with the grippe. Both he and his doctors expect a speedy recovery. However, on the morning of March 26, Gassette, who during the past 12 years has suffered from asthma, experiences difficulty breathing. Doctors discover that Gassette’s throat is severely congested and finally conclude that the only way to save him is to perform a tracheotomy. Before a silver tube can be inserted into his windpipe, Gassette stops breathing. Doctors cannot revive him, and three days later Gassette is buried at Rosehill Cemetery. The burial ritual read over his grave is the standard Masonic text. Its author was Norman Gassette. Family and friends console themselves with the enduring nature of Gassette’s final project. Like Gil Barnard, the local Freemasons’ grand secretary, they assume the granite-and-steel Masonic Temple “will remain for ages as the grandest monument that any man can have.” Fewer than 50 years later, their assumptions are disproved.
It is difficult to explain the premature demise of the Masonic Temple. Certainly it was not due to structural failure. In response to public fears that buildings made with steel or iron frames were especially susceptible to corrosion, a committee representing Chicago’s leading architects and engineers had been formed in 1902. The committee examined several buildings, including the Masonic Temple, where skeleton frame construction had first been utilized. After a close inspection of the most exposed areas of these buildings, the committee found only “slight” traces of rust, which “in all probability were due to initial conditions.” The terra-cotta and concrete that had been used to fireproof the buildings had also served as an excellent protection against rust, and the committee concluded that “all the first buildings constructed with steel frames will endure indefinitely.” Forty years later engineer Frank Randall supports this opinion. “Examinations of the steel work of the Home Insurance, Great Northern, and Masonic Temple buildings, made at the time of their demolition, have confirmed the conclusions of this investigating committee.”
It is possible that the Masonic Temple lost some of its allure when it ceased to be the world’s tallest building, though when that actually occurred is a matter of some conjecture. A count of the number of floors in the building differs from source to source and is variously given as 20, 21, or 22 stories, depending on whether the gabled “attic” is included or not. There is even dispute over the building’s actual height. Several sources list it at 274 feet, but a more common measurement was the distance from the lobby floor to the top of the glass dome on the roof, or 302 feet and one inch.
When the Montgomery Ward world headquarters opened in 1900 at 6 N. Michigan Ave., it laid claim to being the world’s tallest though it was only 12 stories tall. Most of its height came from a pyramid-roofed tower that rose above the main building. (Four more stories were added to the building in 1916 and its tower was remodeled in 1955 by removing the pyramid roof. The building, known today as the Tower Building, still stands.) In 1902, Daniel Burnham’s Fuller–more commonly known as the “Flatiron”–building in New York was, at 286 feet, also touted as the world’s tallest. In Chicago, the Masonic was equaled in height in 1905 with the completion of the 20-story Majestic building (home today to the Shubert Theatre), and surpassed in 1909 by the LaSalle and Blackstone hotels.
In 1913, Cass Gilbert’s 60-story Woolworth Building opened in New York. Not only did it differ stylistically from the Chicago skyscrapers, but at 792 feet it dwarfed the Masonic the way that Chicago building had overshadowed all other buildings 20 years earlier. But none of this mattered to true Chicagoans. Even as the building was being demolished in 1939, Thomas Tallmadge asserted that “no matter what the figures say, the Washington Monument as the highest structure and the Masonic Temple as the highest building held the record so long that they still look it.”
In 1926 the Masonic Temple was renamed the Capitol Building when the Masons moved to their new headquarters, the United Masonic Temple Building at 20-32 W. Randolph. (This building, occupying the former site of the Iroquois Theater, still stands.) The Capitol’s new tenants added false floors at the second, third, and fourth stories that obscured the view of the marble-lined light shaft from the lobby. In 1938, preliminary work began on the State Street subway. There was some concern that, with its floating foundation, the old Masonic Temple might “keel over” when the subway was brought south from across the river. Engineers who closely examined the proposed route of the subway concluded that this fear was unsubstantiated. By that time, however, there was no saving the Masonic. Its owners, confronted with the building’s supposed obsolescence, decreasing tenants, and hard times, resorted to a common Depression-era strategy. They decided it was cheaper to demolish the building and erect a “taxpayer,” a much smaller building that would simply serve to pay the taxes on the property. Visitors to the northeast corner of State and Randolph can still see the nondescript, two-story concrete block of stores that replaced the Masonic Temple. Ironically, it is also called the Capitol Building.
During the final weeks of April 1939, large crowds again congregate around the Masonic Temple. However, there are no brass bands or colorfully costumed Masons as there were in 1890 when the building was going up. The only festive decorations are a red-and-white-striped Mother Hubbard and a discarded apron flapping in the breeze above a wooden shack. This is the headquarters for the wreckers who are preparing to dismantle the Masonic Temple. Already they have installed chutes, safety aprons, and pedestrian canopies, and hauled away truckloads of glass, doors, radiators, and other salvageable materials. This operation goes on around the clock, always before an audience of interested Chicagoans exchanging reminiscences about the building. One man relates how his “dad and mother rode up in the elevators the first day she was opened in 1892. They never got over the thrill.”
By May 1, all the preliminary work has been completed. Huge derricks have been fixed in place on the roof to lower bundles of scrap iron to the street, and big ten-wheel trucks are parked in the building’s costly lobby to await the tons of masonry and bricks. As darkness falls, the boarded-up temple looms over State Street like a sightless giant. Wreckers and observers alike shiver in the unusual cold. It is near 40 degrees, but a 20 mile an hour wind whips out of the northeast. Overhead, in a display rare to Chicago, pulsing lights rend the night sky. It is the aurora borealis, considered an ominous portent by primitive cultures. As they have for 50 years at State and Randolph, necks bend back and eyes gaze skyward. For a brief moment, silence reigns. And then, just past midnight, a dull thud is heard as a wrecker’s pick sinks into the roof and the Masonic Temple comes tumbling down.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Hedrich-Blessing.