Burnham & Root, 1892
Masonic Temple, State and Randolph Streets, Chicago, photograph c.1895-1915, J.W. Taylor, Chicago. Ryerson and Burnham Archives. Marshall Field & Co. is on the right.
Burnham and Root’s Masonic Temple, 1892, whose life span was only 47 years, was for a time the highest building in the world, and a popular and much-illustrated landmark. It stood at the northwest corner of State and Randolph Streets until its destruction in 1939. The building has been extensively documented and written about elsewhere, so I will limit my own comments, and post some illustrations that I haven’t seen on other blogs or history sites.
Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are from the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, Art Institute of Chicago, available online at http://www.artic.edu/research/archival-collections.
Interior views, Masonic Temple, from The Inland Architect and News Record.
Some colorful descriptions of the building soon after its construction were included in a Chicago Reader article:
Of his first day in Chicago [poet Edgar Lee Masters] 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.”
The building, by the architectural firm of Burnham and Root of Chicago (Daniel Hudson Burnham 1846-1912 and John Wellborn Root 1850-1891), was Root’s design, as was the firm’s earlier Rookery building, which still stands.
According to architect Louis Sullivan, the term “skyscraper” was born with the Masonic Temple. 22 stories high, the Temple rose 300 feet to the apex of its steeply-pitched roof. The original cost of the building was $3.5 million. Inside, an immense atrium, designed to be a vertical shopping center, was surmounted by a metal and glass canopy. The building was unique both in its height and its concentration of business and mercantile uses.
Atrium, Masonic Temple
The Temple’s exterior design was described at the time as Romanesque; Root had admired the architecture of H.H. Richardson, whose Romanesque style had swept the country in the 1880s.
Its exterior walls were of gray granite and yellow pressed brick. It had a distinct tripartite arrangement, that being a clearly defined base, middle section, and celebratory top; with the Temple architect Root took this concept to its ultimate conclusion, perhaps the best example anywhere. In between top and bottom were the clean and unbroken piers that allowed the building to leap into the sky; their upward force was exhilarating. Each of two massive gables, stretching east-to-west, were punctured with a rank of seven smaller gables. Topside decoration was profuse.
Wrote Thomas Talmadge:
I think that he strove here … 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 died of pneumonia in 1891 at the age of 41, as the firm was planning the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and before his Masonic Temple was completed.
Architect Philip Johnson, when designing a building on LaSalle Street across from Burnham and Root’s Rookery building in 1984, had remarked snidely,
“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.”
Geoffrey Johnson claims that “Johnson’s enthusiasm for the Masonic is apparent in his firm’s design for 190 South LaSalle,” the tall building’s roof line echoing the twin gables and pitched roof of the Masonic Temple.
190 S. LaSalle,1987, John Burgee Architects with Phillip Johnson, Shaw Associates. Photo: Chicago Architecture Center
Willis Polk, The Temple, 1901. Drawing, reproduced in Moore, Charles, Daniel H. Burnham Architect Planner of Cities. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921, Vol. 1, p. 219. View east on Randolph St.
Illustration from The Inland Architect
Main entrance; The Inland Architect
State Street elevation (left half), Burnham and Root
Longitundinal sections of upper stories (left half), Burnham and Root
17th story plan, Burnham and Root
Entrance detail; Snead and Co. Iron Works advertisement
The Masonic Temple from State and Randolph, 1909; from a stereo view, photographer unknown. Image: https://calumet412.com/post/29706348053/the-masonic-temple-from-state-and-randolph-1909
Masonic Temple, souvenir postcard, 1900.
Willis Polk, Composite of buildings, 1902. Depicted are: 1. Union Station and Plaza (Washington, D.C.), 2. Monadnock Building, 3. Merchants Exchange Building (SF, original pre-fire design), 4. Masonic Temple (Chicago, IL), 5. Land Title Trust Building, 6. Frick Building, 7. Flatiron Building (New York, NY), 8. First National Bank Building (Chicago, IL: 1903), 9. Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, 10. Union League Club Building (Chicago, IL: 1902), proposed addition, 11. Chronicle Building, 12. Kenosha Public Library, Simmons Library.
The Masonic Temple is considered one of Root’s three greatest buildings in Chicago, along with the Rookery (1888) and the Woman’s Temple (1892). The Rookery is the only one of the three still standing.
The Rookery Building, 209 S. LaSalle St., 1888, Burnham and Root, architects. Photo: Wikipedia; Library of Congress’s National Digital Library Program under the digital ID mhsalad.250063.
Woman’s Temple, Chicago, LaSalle and Monroe Streets, 1892, Burnham and Root, architects (demolished 1926) View from northwest. One Hundred and Twenty-Five Photographic Views of Chicago. Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1902, plate 9.
After its destruction, the Masonic Temple was replaced by a nondescript two-story building on the same site, which still exists in altered form:
Walgreens, Randolph and State; postcard, 1959; the former site of the Masonic Temple
Ironically, there was a Walgreens occupying the same corner in the Masonic Temple building. The more things change….
The Joffrey Center tower, Booth Hansen Architects, 2008, with 2-story Walgreens on the corner, occupies the site today.
An excellent account of the Masonic Temple’s design and construction process, and the people involved, is here:
Johnson, Geoffrey, “The World’s Tallest Building, 1892.” Chicago Reader, September 10, 1987. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/worlds-tallest-building-1892/Content?oid=871104
Other good online sources of information about the building Include:
“Masonic Temple Cornerstone Laid – November 6, 1890”
Connecting the Windy City
“Masonic Temple by Burnham & Root Built 1892, Demolished 1939”
“Masonic Temple Chicago”
 Johnson, Geoffrey, “The World’s Tallest Building, 1892.” Chicago Reader, September 10, 1987. Online article archive: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/worlds-tallest-building-1892/Content?oid=871104
 Korom, Joseph J., The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height. Boston: Branden Books, 2008, p. 176.
 Talmadge, Thomas, cited in Johnson, G., op.cit.
 Johnson, G., op.cit.
 Johnson, G., op.cit.
 “190 S. LaSalle,” 1987, John Burgee Architects with Phillip Johnson, Shaw Associates; Chicago Architecture Center. https://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/buildings-of-chicago/building/190-south-lasalle/