The Rookery Building: Crows and Corruption

The Rookery Building, 209 South LaSalle Street, is a landmark of Chicago architecture and a favorite spot for photographers, tourists, and private events. It also houses major corporations, such as U.S. Bank and Brooks Brothers. Yet, its unusual nickname, which many wish didn’t stick as well as it did, has little to do with the positive presents.

The site of the Rookery originally housed “water works” for the south side of the Loop. It included a large water tank that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This tank became, of all things, Chicago’s first public library. Architects transformed the top of the tank into a skylight roof and placed bookshelves around the interior. At the same time, the city began to construct a new City Hall around the tank. By 1873, this odd structure was complete, and people had begun to call it the “Rookery.”

The large water tank used by water works was turned into Chicago’s first public library in the late eighteen hundreds.

City Hall first acquired the nickname because it was infested with crows. A rook is a crow-like bird, but was also commonly used as a generic term for similar birds, and a rookery is a breeding or gathering place for crows or rooks. Variations of rook also referred to corrupt politics of the eighteen eighties; locals felt that Chicago’s politicians produced as much squawking as a colony of crows. Perhaps, however, the shabby construction of City Hall inspired the name, which can refer to a dilapidated building. In any case, and most likely because of all three, the nickname stuck.

When City Hall moved in 1885, new owners Peter and Shepherd Brooks hired Burnham & Root architects to design a completely new structure for their Central Safety Deposit Company. John W. Root created a sheer masterpiece, combining Venetian and classical influences with steel rods and a floating foundation. He crafted a stunning glass ceiling to make a “light court,” and designed the now-famous Oriel staircase. At eleven stories tall, the structure was one of the tallest buildings in the world.

Given the money spent on this new structure, one can understand the frustration when everyone in Chicago kept calling it the “Rookery.” A colleague wrote to Peter Brooks, “I do not like the name which has been given to the Central Safety Deposit Company building. … Many of our contracts are signed under the name of the ‘Central Building,’ but no human being in Chicago knows of any other name for it, or will repeat any other name, than ‘The Rookery.’ ”

And so the nickname lived on, even as the structure began to fade. By 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to update the lobby. Wright added white marble and geometric designs, but respected the original design. His protégé William Drummond made larger alterations in 1931. This was the Depression era, and financial concerns outweighed artistic ones. Drummond separated the lobby into two floors and covered large sections of the light court.

Decades passed before The Rookery was restored to its original grandeur. L.T. Baldwin III purchased the building in 1988 and hired McClier Architects to revive the original designs of John Root and Frank Lloyd Wright. By this time, the Rookery had gained Chicago Landmark status and joined the National Register of Historic Places. The name, however, remains unchanged.

About the author

Sarah Lahey is a freelance writer with an English doctorate from Northwestern University. She most recently worked as a lecturer at Loyola University.

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