Monday, April 25, 2011

John Root's 32 East Bellevue Place

John Root's 1887 home for Lot P. Smith
at 32 E. Bellevue (JWB, 2011)

I got this place on Bellevue in my head, and I have been trying for the past three days to make my peace with it.  The story of the men and women who brought it to life are as important to me as the architecture is, and I have been trying to figure out who this Lot P. Smith was.

I didn’t get very far.  The United States census of 1880 shows that he was born in Illinois in 1846, and that at the time was living in Harvard.  His profession was listed as a “purchasing agent for railroad construction.”

Well, he must have done pretty darned well working on the railroad because by 1890 he had been voting in Chicago for seven years and had contracted with Burnham and Root to build a home right down next to the lake on Bellevue, the address listed as 27 Bellevue Place.  Chicago changed its numbering system in the first decade of the last century, so the address is now 32 East Bellevue Place.

And it is magnificent – John Wellborn Root at the height of his powers . . . probably designed somewhere between the Rookery and the Monadnock.

The plasticity of sandstone in the hands of a genius . . . note the pattern
of circle (which is repeated in the dormer)  (JWB, 2011
I struck out on old Lot Smith.  At the time Chicago had a host of publications profiling the personalities that brought the city to greatness.  Smith isn’t mentioned in any of them.

BUT . . . I hit an unexpected turn and ended up with something that I never would have predicted when I began the process.  That’s the fun of digging into the past.

It seems that Sidney Root, John’s father and a resident of Georgia, undertook a series of foreign travels when the Civil War began, seeking to convince foreign governments of the justness of the Confederate cause.  In 1864 John sailed to England with his father on a blockade runner and ended up at a school in Claremont, just outside of Liverpool.  Young John stayed there for three years, and he actually passed the exams that admitted him to Oxford.  But in 1867 he returned home to attend New York University.

Note decorative treatment of dormer at 32 East Bellevue and top of Oriel
Chambers in Liverpool (Oriel Chambers photo from
So . . . it does not seem far-fetched to speculate that a teen-aged John Root, who already had a predisposition toward art and music, saw and never forgot the brand new Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, which architect Peter Ellis designed and which is, at five stories, the first metal-framed building with a glass curtain wall in the world.

If you look closely at the way Ellis finished off his structure, one that was so widely ridiculed that he designed only one more building in Liverpool, and then look at Root’s work at 32 East Bellevue Place, especially at what the AIA Guide to Chicago calls the “decorative detail in the unusual dormer,” you see how much of an impression Ellis’s building left.

Dormer detail at Lot P. Smith House (JWB, 2011)
Nearly a quarter-century after first glimpsing the Oriel Chambers building, Root was still drawing upon it for inspiration.  Finished in 1887, Lot P. Smith’s home is one of the few Root-designed residential buildings we have left and was probably one of the last of his career.  He would die of pneumonia on January 15 of 1891, just 42-years-old.

On that cold night in January Nellie Mitchell, Root’s aunt, broke the news of the young architect’s death to his partner, Daniel Burnham, who had been staying at Root’s Astor Street home most of the week.  “His snatches of soliloquy through that night of despair, before he emerged to new dreams, took the form of wrath,” Mitchell reported, “and he shook his fist and cursed the murderous fates as he paced back and forth between intervals of comfortless sleep on the living room couch.”

Burnham moaned, “I have worked. I have schemed and dreamed to make us the greatest architects in the world.  I have made him see it and kept him at it – and now he dies – Damn! Damn! Damn!” [Hines, Thomas S. Burnham of Chicago. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974]

JWB, 2011
Who knows, given another 20 years of productive work, what glories John Wellborn Root would have built upon his already impressive achievements?  Burnham, when he shook his fist at the heavens, must have felt as much the heavy tragedy of all those works that never would take form as much as he felt the loss of his friend and genius-partner.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have old photos of Bellevue Place. Interested?