Masonic Temple by Burnham & Root Built 1892, Demolished 1939

Masonic Temple Entrance, by Burnham & Root. Built in 1892. Demolished in 1949.
Historic Photo Credit: Ryerson & Burnham Archives, Archival Image Collection, Inland Architect Vol. 19, no.5 (IA1905_0978)
Masonic Temple light court and atrium lobby, by Burnham & Root. Built in 1892. Demolished in 1949.
Historic Photo Credit: The (Chicago Daily News Archive – Library of Congress)

Masonic Temple
Architect: Burnham and Root
Location: Northeast corner of Randolph and State Street
Built: 1892
Demolished: 1939

“The Masonic Temple was a true landmark skyscraper, one of the most noted business buildings of the age. Despite its beauty and size, despite its height and innovations, this grand old lady was demolished in 1939 without much battle or notice. At that time, in Chicago, damage was done to America. What shame was visited upon that city and upon us all.

“Arthur Rubloff, founder and owner of the “largest property brokerage and management firm in Chicago and one of the largest in the world,” was the antagonist. A sad commentary on historic preservation in Chicago surfaced and was revealed by the following:

“No hero to preservationists, Rubloff had also been responsible for the 1939 demolition of Burnham and Root’s Masonic Temple Building, at the northeast corner of State and Randolph, to make way for an architecturally undistinguished low-rise building. When challenged on the point, Rubloff would respond that, in his opinion, the only old building in Illinois worth preserving was Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield.”

“Such were the opinions of too many real estate men – and women – then, and unfortunately, still.

“If, according to the accomplished architect Louis Sullivan, the term “skyscraper” was born with the Masonic Temple, then the Temple should have been more highly regarded by Chicagoans – indeed Americans. Here was Chicago’s tallest skyscraper, a record holder, an icon of the Gilded Age, and it was not saved. On the eve of the Second World War, the glory that was the Masonic Temple crashed to the ground. A monument of this caliber deserved a better fate. If it were standing today, it would be regarded as a beloved Chicago landmark. The Masonic Temple would be of the greatest interest to the architectural community, to historians, to many others. Yet, there are few who remember it, and those that do are a dwindling number. Mindless destruction has no place in our cities, and the wrecking of the Masonic Temple appears to have been totally mindless.

“The Masonic Temple’s cornerstone laying ceremony occurred on November 6th, 1890. After almost two years of construction, the Masonic Temple was completed on schedule in 1892. This skyscraper was the home office of the Knights Templars and Masons Life Indemnity Company. Some of Chicago’s Masonic lodges were also tenants occupying the structure’s top four floors; these were private spaces and because of their loftiness were traditionally the most prestigious.

“Upon completion, the Masonic Temple was immediately hailed as Chicago’s tallest building. lt rose shear from the sidewalk, 273 feet to the base of its steeply pitched roof. From that edge it measured another 27 feet to the roof’s ridge, its apex. Standing 22 floors high and exactly 300 feet, the Masonic Temple became the world’s third tallest skyscraper. Only New York’s World Building at 309 feet, and its Madison Square Garden Tower at 304 feet, were loftier. True, the Temple had the most stories, but it is not the number of floors that ranks a skyscraper — its height in feet does; those nine feet belonging to the World Building became mighty important in the race to the sky. What is also significant in the annals of skyscraper history is that the Masonic Temple stood by means of a complete steel frame with a curtain wall exterior.

“Noted world traveler and lecturer John L. Stoddard commented accordingly: “The wonders of Chicago cannot be enumerated or illustrated in any limited space. A volume might be devoted to them. Some of its buildings are noble specimens of architecture, the beauty and majesty of which would be more easily recognized and universally acknowledged but for the veil of smoke which mars to some degree their true effectiveness. Among the famous structures of Chicago, and one of the loftiest buildings in the world, is the Masonic Temple, at the corner of State and Randolph Streets. It is no less than twenty stories high! It requires an effort to look up to its roof, which is 265 feet above the pavement!”

“The “effort” was made and often. The Masonic Temple was both overwhelming and charming. Many of Chicago’s visitors, and indeed its own citizens, were farm folk. Farmers (visiting Chicago to purchase equipment and / or the “niceties” of life to sell grain to merchants, to meet with a lawyer or others passing through by train) witnessed, perhaps for their first time, a skyscraper. And that which impressed them most was likely to have been the Masonic Temple. One can only imagine the awe. Here was a city-unto-itself, a big place. The Temple’s footprint measured 170 by 114 feet, a much larger base than most skyscrapers then. It housed 10 retail stores on the first two floors, a 2,000-seat restaurant in its lower level, and a staggering 543 offices on floors three through eighteen. Above, under the giant gables, were private quarters, double-height spaces for the Masons. Its very top was occupied by a public observatory, a public roof garden and another public restaurant. The building was served by 14 passenger elevators, two of which were labeled “express;” these two were believed to have been the first so designated — anywhere.

“Climbing through the Temple’s core was an immense atrium, an open space that was cordoned off from the surrounding corridors by highly decorative metal railings. The atrium was covered on top with a metal and glass canopy, an elongated-dome-structure that could only be seen from a distance. From the highest location inside one could peer downward to the lobby’s white marble floor. Each elevator lobby, formed by the arcing arrangement of the glass-walled elevator shaft ways, opened toward the atrium and a lovely internal staircase. Each car was also glass-walled, some cars facing directly east – out of the building – to Lake Michigan.

“The Masonic Temple’s exterior, a derivation of the French Renaissance, was as impressive as its interior. 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; which 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.

“With this skyscraper, architect Root employed undulating facades, walls with three-sided-bays projecting only slightly from the “background wall” surface. These rippling bays were so shallow they could have been overlooked, especially if the viewer was at a distance. Their effect though could rescue a building from mediocrity by enlivening what would otherwise be considered a staid, perhaps even boring, container. With the Masonic Temple, these are no less than the gentle waves of a masterpiece.

“The original cost of this skyscraper was $3.5 million, much of it devoted to the tenants’ comfort. In the bowels of the skyscraper were the mechanicals. There were two engines of 500 horsepower each, eight steel boilers to heat the building, six dynamos supplying electricity, and eight large pumps for all the plumbing needs. The electrical apparatus weighed 60 tons and included 53 miles of wire. This was state-of-the-art for 1892.

“On January 15 th, 1891, long before completion of the Masonic Temple, its architect John Wellborn Root died. Root missed the plaudits, the earned praise from the press — especially the architecture press – and the sheer joy and wonderment this skyscraper brought to the public at large. The observatory was the goal of many. ln 1909, all it took was two-bits, 25 cents and you were “above the clouds.” A travel brochure of that time proclaimed, “From this platform on a clear day an extended view of the city may be had.” Some were carried away with the skyscraper and its altitude as evidenced by Edgar Lee Masters who penned that “from the top of which…one could see Council Bluffs, Iowa 230 miles distant. I had to try that out, and Uncle Henry took me to the Masonic Temple.”

“Architect, professor, and architectural historian Francisco Mujica wrote with conviction of the Masonic Temple, “With its 20 stories this was the first really important skyscraper in history. Designs and photographs of this building were reproduced in all countries of the world announcing that the birth of the skyscraper had taken place.”

“With such accolades, and with what seemed to be universal praise for the Masonic Temple – as a building and as a piece of art – it is difficult to understand the opinions of Arthur Rubloff, the tacit approval of the City of Chicago, and the subsequent demolition of this skyscraper. Was there really no alternative but demolition?”

from The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height, By Joseph J. Korom, Pages 173-176


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