November 15, 2018

Photo Essay: The Victorian Atrium That Frank Lloyd Wright Transformed Into a Gilded Birdcage

Living in California, I've seen a few Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residences.

He often didn't get along with his clients...

...and went ahead and did what he wanted to do anyway...

...or stormed out and passed the project off to another architect to finish...

...including, frequently, his son Lloyd Wright.

I had to fly all the way to Chicago to see an early-career commercial project of FLW...

...for which he was commissioned to do a certain thing...

...and he actually did it.

The Rookery Building in the Chicago Loop's Financial District continues the grand architectural tradition of the Victorian atrium, like the Bradbury Building in Downtown LA or the Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan.

FLW didn't design or build it—that was done by Daniel Burnham and John Root and completed in 1888.

It was in 1905 that FLW was brought in to make the "light court" less dark and Victorian and brighten it up a bit (hence the white paint job on the ceiling beams and seams in the glass ceiling).

Much of what you see ow on the ground floor and mezzanine level of the office building and commercial space is his work, with a few bits of the old design peeking through.

That includes the columns, which are just clad in gilded white marble and still contain the original dark iron supports underneath.

Much of the mosaic tile floor has been replaced as part of the 1992 (and most recent) restoration—except for a section that had been hidden under a staircase addition that has since been removed, exposing a preserved patch underneath.

The showstopper of the Rookery atrium is the oriel staircase...

...replete with dizzying geometric patterns and Moorish incised Carrara marble.

At the mezzanine, the staircase appears to float—but as you look up, you can see how it spirals all the way to the 12th (and top) floor.

From there, it's the best vantage point from which to look down into the birdcage.

The Rookery's atrium was initially all about letting light in, in an era when the building was outfitted for both gas and electricity, but neither was very reliable.

Frank Lloyd Wright added bronze chandeliers with prismatic glass that evoke his Prairie style and illuminate the court even when there's not much light to come in from the outside.

In the floor of the wraparound mezzanine, you can still see original glass blocks that allowed light to shine through from the upper light well to the bottom floor.

Yet another revamp was ordered in 1931—this time to make the former Victorian atrium more Art Deco. Former Wright assistant William Drummond replaced the elevator cages installed by Wright with bronze doors with figurative designs of blackbirds (in tribute to the Rookery Building's name), as well as a few other more modern flourishes (some of which were preserved in the last restoration, and others that were reverted).

You have to see it to believe it. It is absolutely breathtaking. And unlike any FLW project I've even seen in person or in pictures.

Related Posts:
Looking Up from the Streets of Downtown LA (Updated for 2017)
Photo Essay: A Desert Trek to Frank Lloyd Wright's Winter Home and Office

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