Title: John Wellborn Root: A Study of His Life and Work by Harriet Monroe
Location: Internet Archive Date: 1896
Harriet Monroe (1860-1936) is best known as the founder and editor of Poetry Magazine in 1912. Monroe was also literary and arts critic, a member of Lorado Taft’s art colony Eagle’s Nest and The Little Room literary group located in the Fine Arts Building. She was also the sister-in-law of the Columbian Exposition’s original architect, John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham’s partner who died in 1891 , two years before the Fair formally opened. Her biography of Root is her only non-poetry publication.
The following selection from Monroe’s book gives us a glimpse of what The White City might have looked like if Root had lived. The architecture may have been more varied and, more significantly, The White City may just have not been white at all…
JOHN ROOT’S conception of the Fair differed much from the White City of memory. If he had lived and his ideas had prevailed, the Columbian Exposition would have been a City of Color ; a queen arrayed in robes not saintly, as for a bridal, but gorgeous, for a festival. These two ideals are both worthy of honor. One was embodied in delicate beauty, to win the praises of the world; the other vanished when a great man died.
For the first I do not need to speak : its noble stateliness made its own appeal. We lived for half a year in the awe and wonder of it, and it lingers in memory, under the sunshine of that gracious summer, as a glimpse into realms unearthly, the chosen abode of perfect souls. For the second I must say my feeble word, remembering the enthusiasm and strength of purpose which this unrealized dream concentrated. That word will be unconvincing, perhaps; because no architectural scheme can be fairly judged until it is completed before men’s eyes, and because any disturbance of our memories of the White City will seem a desecration. But the beauty of the lily is no reason why the rose should not also be beautiful. And all the flowers of memory cannot make it impossible that one unrecorded should be as lovely as these. The difficulty lies in the proving. What eye can behold the perished flower, however marvelous? What hand can delineate the Columbian City as its first architect saw it? Mine is powerless to offer more than a few hints showing the rough outline of his conception.
The fundamental point in Root’s creed as an architect was sincerity : a building should frankly express its purpose
John Wellborn Root
and its material. Thus it would have been impossible for him to design, as the chief buildings of the Fair, imitations
in staff of marble palaces : these could not express their material ; or to adopt a classic motive : this could not express the purpose of a modern American exposition. He wished to admit frankly in the architectural scheme the temporary character of the Fair : it should be a great, joyous, luxuriant midsummer efflorescence, born to bloom for an hour and perish a splendid buoyant thing, flaunting its gay colors between the shifting blues of sky and lake exultantly, prodigally. Edifices built in pursuance of this idea should not give the illusion of weight and permanence : they should be lighter, gayer, more decorative than the solid structures along our streets. To his mind the dominant note in our civilization was its youth, its newness, crudeness : manifestly things were beginning here, beginning with a swift rush and turmoil of creative energies. He wished to show its affluence, its sumptuous conquering enthusiasm. He wished to offer to the older nations a proof of new forces, new ideals, not yet developed and completed, but full of power and prophetic of charm. He wished to express our militant democracy as he felt it,pausing after victory for a song of triumph before taking up its onward march.
Manifestly these turbulent awakening energies could not be presented through any formal and crystallized type of
architecture. The classic type, Root was inclined to feel, had attained its ultimate perfection in Greece, and its motives had been restudied and developed through succeeding centuries until they were scarcely capable of a new vitalization which should express the modern purposes. It was a style for the open-air life and the fair blue skies of Athens, not for wind-swept and storm-beaten Chicago.
Moreover, it was a monumental style, not suitable for holiday structures built of temporary materials. Among all
the tentative sketches of the Fair, or portions of it, which Root threw off from day to day during these busy weeks,
there is scarcely a trace of a classic motive. On the contrary, there is much that is unconventional or even bizarre,
conceived in a lyric mood with delightful freshness and spontaneity. He was much pleased one day when an English artist, trained in the schools, but hospitable to new suggestions, recognized what he was striving for in one of these drawings : ” You ‘ve got an exuberant barbaric effect there a kind of an American Kremlin,” he said ; “lots of color and noise and life.”
A vigorous and masterful panorama of ephemeral magnificence such was the ideal these sketches present. Kremlin and Nishni-Novgorod give suggestions of the turn his mind was taking with regard to form and splendor. This idea of a World’s Fair would not have given the nations a Celestial City it would not have been divine, but it would have been sympathetically and broadly human. Its appeal to the popular imagination would have been, perhaps, the more intimate, potent, and enduring. Root’s sketches adopted usually the Romanesque type of arch and column as a form more pliable than the Greek, a form which admitted the use of American species of flower and leaf in ornamentation. The Fisheries Building, which was designed by Mr. Henry Ives Cobb, was the best example on the grounds of Root’s ideas of Fair architecture. Its frankly playful use of staff, as a medium whose easy plasticity invited an endless variety of gay detail, would have struck him as honest and poetic ; and the delicate, even humorous adaptation of sea-forms of animal and plant life would have appealed to his sense of fitness. Such happy imaginings, however, he would have vivified with color instead of freezing them in white. Color was, to his feeling, a necessity in any architectural expression of a great festival. In this opinion he was at one with the Greeks themselves, who added to the creamy translucency of their marble brilliant accents of color. He was outborne also by the instinct of the people, who loved the Court of Honor best, not when the noon sunshine glared on its facades of opaque white, but when the twilight made them luminous with pink and gold and purple, or the Night, flashing her million lamps, clothed them in mysteries of shimmer and shade.
I am convinced that the people would have responded with joy to an intelligent use of color in the treatment of buildings at the great festival, that it would have added a strong element of beauty and gaiety, and emphasized the
grandeur of noble facades. The Transportation Building, with its beautiful Golden Door, was an interesting experi-
ment in this direction, although Mr. Sullivan’s sumptuous orientalism was scarcely given a fair setting as the only
strong note of color among many classic fagades of changeless white. Problems of out-door decoration have been
studied but little by our decorators, for the best of reasons.
Root had much confidence in Mr. William Pretyman’s ideas on this subject, an enthusiast whose old-world studies did
not make him reject new ideas. During these months they discussed somewhat this problem of out-door color, and
afterwards, when Mr. Pretyman was appointed Chief of Color for the Fair, he experimented in the tinting of staff with thin washes of pure transparent oil-colors, believing that opaque paint of the ordinary kind would harden and artificialize the delicate material, and that white especially would destroy its creamy translucency. In these experi-
ments beautiful results were obtained, but Mr. Pretyman resigned his post too early to carry out his ideas, the only
example of them on the grounds being the little East India House, that delicate opal set in green. Any one who saw
the Fisheries Building, for example, when it was first completed in 1892, and noted the lovely amber tones of the
staff melting graciously into the sunlight, could not fail to feel a painful shock when this seductive bloom was hidden
forever under the heavier white. Somehow the poetry of the building seemed to have gone out of it.
Root’s possible decisions in points of detail are of course a mere matter of conjecture. While he lived all projects were still chaotic, and his mind, as usual, was open to all suggestions. We know only his initial preferences, not his ultimate choice. During these months the scale was still his dominant thought. ” He was thinking of the bones no one else did,” says a gentleman familiar with him at this time. ” He had dug up his mammoth and set it up while others were wondering how big such an animal could be, and when told of its existence, were opening their eyes without being able to measure its magnitude.” Yet he did not neglect the sinews and integument of his giant. During these last weeks of his life he caused experiments with colored tiles and terra-cotta to be carried on at the terra-cotta works ; and his accurate mind a mind which, in the service of clients, hated extravagance and waste was full of speculations in regard to the availability and cost of this material and of others, such as glass, wood, staff. Staff, which had been used extensively in Paris, was not his preference for large structures, though it might have been his choice eventually for a great deal of the work. He would never have used it in imitation of marble, but he would have appreciated its delightful temptations to gaiety of modeling and coloring. Terra-cotta, in rather strong tones, he would undoubtedly have used as extensively as its price would admit. But, whatever the materials, his whole heart was centred upon his hope of an American Fair an architectural scheme which should express exuberantly our young, crude, buoyant civilization, and strike our note at last in the world’s art.