Brick Buildings We love: The Monadnock Building, Chicago

April 5th 2022

Many historical buildings are known for their ornate decoration and grand statements. Some are impressive in other ways.

The brick building we're looking at today was infamous for rejecting ornamentation in favour of practicality.

And whilst the architectural approach of this American building could be seen as down to earth, its size is anything but.

So far in our Brick Buildings We Love series we've looked at a lot of impressive buildings, although none in America. We thought it was time to change that.

And what better place to start than the Monadnock building in Chicago, the tallest load bearing brick building in the world.

Here's what you need to know about this one-of-a-kind office block.

What Is The Monadnock Building?

The Monadnock building is a 16-story skyscraper at 53 west Jackson Boulevard in the Loop business district of Chicago.

The building is actually made of two parts that were built a couple of years apart. The North side of the building was completed in 1891 by the firm Burnham and Root whilst the south side was added a couple of years later by another firm, Holabird and Roche.

As a result of this, the two halves are slightly different in their physical appearance, but the overall structure is a tall, narrow block. We'll talk more about the design further down.

The name itself actually comes from a term used by American geographers to describe a 'rocky mass' -- which is an apt descriptor of the building's visual appearance.

It's been used as offices since its construction and is still used by companies today, as well as being a distinct architectural landmark in Chicago.

It's one of Chicago's earliest skyscrapers along with other buildings situated nearby including The Manhattan building, The Old Colony Building and The Fisher Building.

A Brief History Of The Monadnock Building

The building was first commissioned by developers in the area now known as The Loop business district, between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

It was considered an odd move to build there, in what was largely rough land with little more than shacks for company.

The design itself also faced criticism, largely for its puritanical and functional aesthetic. Some felt the lack of ornamentation, particularly in the North side, was a sign of heartless commercial purposes. Indeed, Holabird and Roche, the firm that built the south side, apparently took this criticism seriously and added far more ornamentation to their part of the building.

The building avoided demolition during turbulent times and periods of high maintenance by remodelling and modernising the office spaces, lobby and more.

It was sold a few times in the second half of the 20^th^ century, each time being modernised or restored. The biggest restoration project took place in 1979, bringing it back aesthetically to its original condition.

'A Severe Yet Powerfully Expressive Composition'

Whilst the design was criticised at the time, it would ultimately prove influential and come to be seen as 'a triumph of unified design'. One critic called it 'one of the most exciting aesthetic experiences America's commercial architecture produced.'

The building is essentially a vertical mass of purple brown brick but flares out slightly at the base with those bay windows providing extra shape. The North side curves out slightly at the top and the South side has a copper parapet which runs all the way round. The corners of the building are chamfered, providing one of several small features which make for a distinguished structure.

Although at first glance it is a giant block, the consistent and extensive use of glass in the windows which cover the building distract from this. The windows combined with how narrow it is mean that all offices in the building also get decent exposure to light.

Skylights bring light to the open stairwells which were themselves notable for being the first structural use of aluminium in building construction.

Of the many things said about the building, one description from the time communicates its unique appearance; 'Stripped of every vestige of ornament, its rigorous geometry softened only by the slight inward curve of the wall at the top of the first story, the outward flare of the parapet, and the progressive rounding of the corners from bottom to top, subtly proportioned and scaled, the Monadnock is a severe yet powerfully expressive Composition in horizontal and vertical lines.'

The style would go on to inspire what's known as the 'Chicago-school' style of architecture.

What About The Bricks?

One thing is for sure, this is a proper brick building. That it has lasted throughout the 20^th^ century and beyond is partly thanks to the sheer durability and reliability of brick as a building material.

Traditional load bearing walls are almost non-existent in modern construction and even by the second half of this building's construction it was being phased out as a building technique, with steel frames used for load bearing.

You see it's only really the North side of the building that can hold the title of tallest load-bearing brick building. By the time they built the south side, reinforced steel was becoming more accessible and steel frames more widely used in construction.

The building is a case study in the transition between these different styles of construction. Brick still played an important part, but it wasn't relied upon to transfer the load from roof to foundation.

It's unclear what bricks were used in the building, but they retain the imposing brown-ish aesthetic that can still be seen by passers-by today. Similar styles of brick might include the Acera brick or Autumn Brown. Find similar styles here.

As well as brick a large amount of stone was used, including a substantial granite base which supports the buildings full weight. There are also the red granite lintels over the entrances and the copper cornice on the roof.

If you want a more detailed account of the physical details of the building, this is an in-depth read.

A Chicago School Architectural Landmark

The Monadnock building was made a Chicago Architectural landmark in 1958 and named a part of the historic printing house district in 1976.

It still operates as a fully functioning office building today for private companies as well as offering tours.

With a lot of architecture today designed around sustainability, you could say the Monadnock, with its practicality and minimalism, serves as inspiration, getting to the point and making optimal use of the space available.

This building has also stood tall for 130 years and counting, a testament to the quality of the building materials used! Whilst relying on load bearing brick masonry might be a thing of the past, the bricks themselves are unlikely to go out of style any time soon.

For more from our brick buildings we love series, check out our blog page.