the museum of americana

a literary review

Monadnock on the Prairie — Nonfiction by Joyce Goldenstern

The story linking the Monadnock mountain in New Hampshire to the Monadnock building in Chicago is a circuitous one, but, indeed, the two are connected: the building is named after the mountain and in honor of it. The story begins with Peter Chardon Brooks III and his cautious brother, Shepherd, who inherited a fortune from their thrifty New England family.

The family traced its roots to the arrival of the Puritans in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1630. Their money came from a shipping insurance business (New England Marine Insurance Company) established after the Revolutionary War and from investments in mortgages and loans. The Brooks brothers’ grandfather (another Peter Chardon Brooks) was reported to be the richest man in New England at the time of his death in 1849.

So Peter and Shepherd could easily lead the life of late nineteenth-century gentlemen of leisure. Before he died, Peter, the grandson, told the historian of his Harvard class that he had never worked, that he had no profession. Poor health, he noted, had prevented him from pursuing a career. Whether motivated by modesty or mockery, Peter’s words did not coordinate perfectly with the facts of his life. He, along with Shepherd, had, indeed, worked. They lived the quotidian life of New England farmers, tending to crops and cows, mending stone walls and walkways. In addition, both men, from afar, invested in the development of the burgeoning frontier city of Chicago. They bought land, planned and paid for office buildings, and collected rent. Peter, especially, attended to details. Nothing was too minute for his scrutiny: paint color, faucets, urinals, plumbing, and elevators invited his long distance comments and commands. He was said to have in his study a grid-map of downtown Chicago, dotted with colored pins on which he studied the patterns of speculative office space. Like a chess master, he anticipated competitors’ moves and plotted his own. He knew each block, each corner lot and its potential by heart. Although he seldom visited Chicago, according to realtor and historian, Miles Berger, he cannot be considered an indifferent outsider nor an absentee landlord, for he contributed significantly to the architecture of the city.

The architecture of turn-of-the-century Chicago, called the First Chicago School of Architecture, is a source of pride to the city, having served to shape an American aesthetic and to inspire the minimalist sensibility of the International School of Architecture in Europe some thirty years later. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which decimated the downtown area, cleared the slate, so to speak, and attracted renowned architects from the East and cultivated Midwestern ones as well, some of whom hoped to rebuild the city and define a purely American sensibility of art and architecture. The Monadnock building is often cited as the prototype for the Chicago School—a forerunner of the steel skyscraper which would ultimately replace masonry load-bearing construction such as that used in the Monadnock.


Louis Sullivan, who did not design the Monadnock, but who drew inspiration from it, called the Monadnock “an amazing cliff of brickwork, rising sheer and stark, with a subtlety of line and surface, a direct singleness of purpose, that gave one the thrill of romance.” Montgomery Schuyler also waxed transcendental: “This, one cannot help seeing, is the thing itself.” Not everyone fell in love with the design immediately: some found it merely big, but not graceful. Others spoke of it as expressing business and industry, yet their praise of such an expression struck an ambivalent chord. The building, however, has stood the test of time. Today it is widely considered a masterpiece and still stands sixteen stories, two hundred and two feet high, as the tallest masonry load-bearing office building in the world. Its walls in the basement are eight feet thick and on the first floor over six feet thick. No building built for practical business purposes could afford to have walls any thicker, so its distinction as the tallest of its kind will likely remain.

The building expresses a quiet dignity and a disdain for pretense. It rises from the flat earth with strength and stability and without adornment. Built from pressed brick, molded and shaped, rounded and contoured, it seems more a sculpture than an office building, reminiscent of a stylized Egyptian papyrus plant, with gently flared base and parapet. Dark brown in color, depending on the time of day and year, or the slant and intensity of sun, glints of red or purple emerge.

When the Monadnock was built in 1891, no office worker could be far from a window as electric lights were weak or nonexistent. Originally the lot the Brooks brothers bought was one hundred feet wide, but when the city appropriated land to run Dearborn Street south of Jackson, its width narrowed to sixty-six feet. The architect, John Wellborn Root, of Burnham and Root, turned what might have seemed a limitation into an advantage. The building would be a slab, proportioned on a 3 to 1 ratio: two hundred feet in length and height, sixty-six feet wide, with a center corridor and a row of narrow offices on each side. Glass windows lined both the hallway and the exterior walls; light streamed in from above as well: from an eight foot wide skylight above the stairwells. The narrow width of the building became a glorious way to light the building and circulate air. Walk into the Monadnock. All is light and air!

Root, the artist, and Brooks, the money man, had collaborated before on Chicago buildings, many of which have long since been destroyed. “No money for ornamentation,” read the curt message that Brooks sent Root concerning the Monadnock. Practical and businesslike, Brooks often reigned in Root’s exuberance and creative experimentation. In time Brooks relented: yes, there could be some ornamentation, but no projections because “[projections] mean dirt, nor do they add to the strength of a building … one great nuisance [is] the lodgment of pigeons and sparrows.”

By the time of Brooks’ limited retraction, an idea for a plain building had gripped Root’s imagination: the papyrus, the mountain, some say even an onion, being the source for his ideas of a sculptured building. So it is that practical considerations and limitations can define a problem, stir the imagination, lead to innovations that complete freedom might never achieve. When Brooks insisted on cantilevered bay windows to add extra space, Root did not despair nor demure. They added rhythm and openness to what might have otherwise been a rather severe building. The bay windows have been described as organic, as seeming to swell from the building itself, all of a piece, unified. Their form, like the form of the building as a whole, is tapered and sculpted. Of the windows’ appearance in profile, critic Donald Hoffman found them to suggest “a field of ranked papyrus stalks.”

The papyrus motif is not the figment of some critic’s imagination, but rather an idea consciously cultivated by John Wellborn Root. He not only practiced architecture but also studiously researched its history and innovations, and he, like Louis Sullivan, hoped to define a purely American aesthetic. Though inspired by the stylized preferences of ancient Egyptian art, Root drew a connection closer to home. Like the swampy Nile Valley civilization, Chicago grew up on swampy land. Its name comes from an Ojibwa Indian word meaning “land of the wild onion.” The onion, like the papyrus, grows in marshes and has a shape and profile not so different from the papyrus in its abstract, stylized form. Those who followed Root, and possibly Root himself, drew this connection, linking the papyrus with the onion and making it part of Chicago’s own mythology.

In 1893, the firm Holabird and Roche added a steel-framed addition to the building’s south side. This addition led some to consider that the building should have not one name, but four names, based on the New Hampshire mountains of the Brooks brothers’ childhood and corresponding to the building’s four sections: Monadnock, Kearsage, Wachusett and Katahdin. Each had its own elevator bank and could operate as a separate building—the idea being that each brother’s heirs could claim their own distinct inheritance. But in the end the building became known as one, The Monadnock. After years of decline and defacement in the middle decades of the 20th century, it stands today at Jackson and Dearborn in the heart of downtown Chicago, restored to its original splendor. The building is occupied by small law firms and nonprofit organizations. On its first floor, quaint restaurants, a barber shop, and novelty shops do a brisk business.

For those who live on the prairie, skyscrapers are our mountains. The meaning of the common noun “monadnock” is “isolated mountain.” When the Monadnock was first built, it stood like a tall mountain in a rather isolated part of downtown. With his map pricked with colored pins, Peter Brooks knew that it would not always be alone. He banked on future expansion, higher rents, and full occupancy. A practical man, though not totally devoid of romantic notions, he, like Root, also made connections. “I like Indian names,” he once wrote his business agent. He and his brother also liked their native New England geography. In small ways, they brought their heritage westward to Illinois. Today the Monadnock is part of Chicago historical lore. The name invites questions and mispronunciations, but as the questions are answered and the mispronunciations corrected, we are drawn to our past. As much as the building was created out of a longing for connection and continuity, it also was created amidst abrupt disruptions: Eastern speculation and frontier bravado. Unwieldy growth linked to an illusory independence. A sudden banishment of native peoples and fur traders. A geographical name from the East, not our own. Words from dismissed Indians, easily romanticized tribes, whose languages are no longer spoken.
References Used:

Berger, Miles L. They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City’s Architecture. Bonus Books, 1988.

Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The Monadnock Block. 1976.

Condit, Carl. The Chicago School of Architecture, University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Hoffman, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Inland Architect, various issues.
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Joyce GoldensternJoyce Goldenstern was a volunteer docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation for seven years. Her short story “A Brief History of Barbed Wire and How It Affects and Does not Affect the Life of Hannah Johnson Shoemaker” appeared in the first issue of the museum of americana.