January 15: ‘and now he dies–damn! damn! damn!’

2012/01/15 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1891 John Wellborn Root died.

Weather reports from this era are spotty, but what records exist suggest it was a dry January.  In Chicago, that means cold, clear, brilliant sky over the Lake, and windy windy windy.  From the sounds of the architectural press after this date in 1891, the very heavens opened and wept for the loss of John Wellborn Root (b. January 10, 1850).

It’s difficult to see why, given the architectural record.  True, Root was a main player in the formation of the Chicago School, and designed a lot of important buildings–but not necessarily a lot of lovable ones.  One of his great monuments, the technically important but unlovely Montauk Block, was demolished only  twenty years after its completion.  The Monadnock, super-stark and cliff-like, is the darkest building in town and due to its client’s demand for load-bearing walls offered no precedent for the future.  Its lack of ornament is more than made up for by the Byzanto-moorish-romanesque terracotta fantasy of the Rookery that, likewise, was marvelous to behold, but was an aesthetic deadend in 1888.  Maybe it was this variety, the reaching for extremes, the sheer vitality of mind that could do all these things at once, that helped catapult him to the top of the professional heap.  By all accounts he was also a charming, delightful gent who read books and played the violin.  He must have been fun at parties.  That might be just as important in the outpouring of sympathy prompted by the news of his passing.

A book of verse by Harriet Monroe is dedicated to him, and includes a poem mourning him.  The architects of the Columbian Exposition, who had just gathered in Chicago to make their plans, named his death an “unexpeted catastrophe.”  Condolences were signed by such names as Hunt, Post, McKim, Olmsted, Jenney and Sullivan.  Echoing the general sense of loss in professional and public press, the Chicago News (Jan. 22, 1891) honored the young architect’s passing by mourning the fact that although Chicago

will still be great powerful, prodigious; but the hands–the two hands which coud mold its ambition into beauty, its greatness into grandeur–are done with work. . . . one may look over the earth and say that no architect of immortal name in any age did more for his own fame, or for the world of beauty, than he who twenty years ago was a boy and who now is dead.

Maybe the most interesting response to Root’s death is the story related through family legend.  On the night Root died, his partner, mentor and friend, Daniel H. Burnham was in the house, pacing and railing:

I have worked, I have schemed and dreamed to make us the greatest architects in the world.  I have made him see it and kept him at it–and now he dies–damn!  damn!  damn!

For the sake of the story, let’s accept Burnham’s utterances (recorded third had at best) as true.  As such, they are a brilliant memorial not only to Root, whose life was cut short, but also a kind of eulogy for Burnham & Root.  Burnham was deeply saddened by the passing of the young man; he was mad as hell about the death of his firm.  It was another of his “big plans,” one left unfinished at the time of its potential greatest triumph, just as the planning for the Columbian Exposition was underway.  Burnham’s words convey a shocking amount of ego at a tragic family moment, but they also convey a stronger and more honest sense of loss to the world of architecture than all the flowery memorials printed elsewhere.

Image: photo inside the Rookery by John Picken (from this source)


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