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Then and Now: The Rookery

Completed in 1888 by the Burnham and Root architectural firm, The Rookery at 209 S. LaSalle Street was the world’s tallest building at 11 stories. Chicago’s first skyscraper replaced a makeshift City Hall erected in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Combining heavy masonry and steel frame construction, the building exuded strength and permanence, desirable qualities after the Chicago Fire. In contrast, the interior lobby was all light and transparency. The central, two-story light court allowed natural light to reach interior, as well as exterior offices.

Then, 1890

This photo captures the original Rookery Light Court. The metal construction was both functional and ornamental, considered very modern for the time. The building was wired for electricity; a pair of “electrolier” lights adorns the main staircase. The bright, airy space was a gathering place for visitors to the building’s 600 offices and first-floor shops.

  • The site had already been dubbed The Rookery before the building was constructed – perhaps because the site’s water tower drew a multitude of birds or “getting rooked” was a common complaint associated with dealing with City Hall. But the Boston developers who commissioned the building preferred a more dignified name.
  • Designer John Welborn Root got the last laugh when he made sure a set of cackling crows were sculpted into the masonry entrance, and the Rookery moniker stuck.
  • The lobby went through two major renovations, once in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright and again in 1931 by William Drummond. Sometime in the mid 1900s, the Light Court was covered with tar paper to prevent leaking.

Now, 2012

The Rookery is the oldest “tall” building still standing in Chicago. It underwent a massive restoration in 1992 by McCleir Corporation. Led by restoration architect Gunny Harboe. a 12th story was added and the Light Court was restored to recreate Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1905 renovation. Using Root’s design as a guide, Wright covered the ironwork with gold-leaf-incised marble, replaced the stair railings and designed new ceiling chandeliers. He also replaced the electrolier lights flanking the main staircase with his signature circle-in-a-square planters. The spectacular space continues to be a popular gathering spot, not only for architecture lovers and fans of Frank Lloyd Wright, but also as a venue for weddings and parties.

  • The Rookery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated by the city as a Chicago Landmark.
  • The building is currently managed by the John Buck Company. For more information, visit The Rookery website.
  • The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, whose administrative offices and ShopWright store occupy first-floor space, conducts tours of The Rookery Light Court noon Monday through Friday. For more information, visit www.gowright.org.