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Official Name

Monadnock Building

Address

53 W. Jackson Blvd.

Completion Date

1891; 1893

Neighborhood

Loop

As you pass by the Monadnock Building in Chicago’s Loop, you may not recognize it as a transitional moment in architectural history.

But in this building, the shift can be seen from load-bearing construction to skeleton frame construction. It represents a broad change happening throughout the city during this time.

One building with two facades

Built in two phases, the Monadnock Building functions as one large structure. However, the facades of each phase couldn’t look more different. The Monadnock’s northern half wears a daring, stripped-down facade, while its southern half is adorned in traditionally inspired ornamentation that expresses its metal structure. Each half, in its own way, demonstrates the transition happening during its time.

The northern half, completed in 1891 and designed by Burnham & Root, has exterior walls that layer brick on top of brick, in the load-bearing tradition. But its construction also reveals technical advances being tested at the time. The building’s undulating bay windows are supported by cantilevered steel. The visibly thick brick walls—six-feet-thick at the corners—may support the building's weight at the perimeters, but are aided elsewhere by a hidden steel framework.

“A Noble and Dignified Sentiment”

Though the battered base and projecting bays are reminiscent of bell-shaped papyrus columns used in ancient Egyptian temples, the building's lack of ornamentation bucked trends of the time and hinted at the stripped-down facades that would become popular decades later. In 1892, Louis Sullivan wrote in “Ornament in Architecture,” “I take it as self-evident that a building, quite devoid of ornament, may convey a noble and dignified sentiment by virtue of mass and proportion.” Many believe he was referencing the recently completed Monadnock. It's clear that the building’s design made quite an impression on the architecture community of the time.
 
When the second half of the building was designed by Holabird & Roche just two years later, experimentation and transition could be seen in its structural systems. The brick and terra cotta facade of the southern portion need not bear the weight of the building. Instead, it is hung on a rigid metal frame that transfers loads to the ground.