Following Frank: The Rookery Light Court
After a day of exploration in Oak Park that includes a tour of the Home & Studio, a walk down Forest Avenue, and an afternoon in Unity Temple, your next destination needs to be something pretty special. For a true Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiast, almost any site would be a worthwhile adventure. If you want to move on to other world-famous Wright designs, though, there are really only a handful of options in the Chicago area. For us, that meant a visit to Wright’s most famous renovation, The Rookery Light Court, located in the heart of downtown Chicago.
The Rookery Building sits in a canyon of much taller and more recently constructed skyscrapers. Even so, it holds its own, architecturally. Constructed by architects Burnham & Root in 1888, the red, ornately-decorated facade helps the building stand out from the surrounding structures. Its architectural style adds to its uniqueness, incorporating a variety of classical motifs with a structural design that provides a more modern aesthetic. Without knowing the history of the building, at a glance, I would have guessed that it was designed twenty to thirty years later than it actually was. Even though it clearly leans toward the Richardson Romanesque style, smooth rounded corners and other small design choices give it the feel of an early twentieth century construction, rather than one of the late nineteenth. Of course, the facade is not what The Rookery is known for. Nor is it best known for its original designers. It is the central glass covered “Light Court” that makes the building a destination for architectural fanatics from around the world…and it is Wright’s 1905 redesign of the interior that makes it truly famous.
From the street, there is little indication of what awaits inside. It’s not until you step into the main doors and pass through the outer ring of the building that you can fully appreciate the design of the structure. As you walk into the space, your eyes are immediately drawn to the large staircase, directly in front of you and flanked on each side by Wright’s signature urn planters. From the first floor, the stairs gradually narrow, leading the eye up to the second-story terrace. At this point, the Wright-designed circle-within-square chandeliers again direct your gaze upward, this time toward the impressive iron and glass ceiling. Walking out of the dark corridor and into the light court provides an exaggerated example of “compression and release.” The Light Court actually occupies two stories of an otherwise empty well in the middle of the building. Once you enter the space and look up through the great glass canopy, you can vaguely discern the four ‘inner’ exterior walls of the building, their windows facing out across the expanse, above the Light Court. It is a beautiful design that allows offices on the inside of the structure to receive natural light, while also making room for the renowned central lobby.
Wright’s masterful usage of glass and light as architectural elements made him a natural choice to renovate a space known as the “Light Court.” It is a testament to the beauty of the space that, even though it wasn’t originally designed by Wright, it is often one of the first sites that comes to mind when the any fan of Wright recalls his portfolio. It is featured in many of the coffee table books that provide an overview of his best-known designs. Some of the design elements and materials are not exactly what I would consider to be indicative of Wright’s design aesthetic, however. The light marble panels, engraved and gilded with a Persian design, are not what I think of when it comes to Wright’s work. It is certainly a great departure from the simple linear modernist design that we experienced the previous day at Unity Temple (also from 1905). Still, after looking at other iterations of the Light Court, it’s clear that Wright made the greatest use of the space’s best physical attributes.
The original design by Burnham & Root was much darker than Wright’s. The marble panels cover most of the dark iron work of the original. The light surfaces and gold accents reflect and warm the natural light, making it much brighter than it otherwise might be. Samples of the original iron work are still exposed and, while beautiful in it own right, it is clear that it would have eaten much of the light that entered through the glass ceiling. Unlike a greenhouse, almost no direct light enters the space, due to its location at the bottom of the deep well in the middle of the building. The glass is also frosted, so the light that does enter is extremely soft and diffuse. Wright’s additions and modifications maximize the effect of nearly every photon that is introduced into the space. Still, even though we visited on a cloudless summer day, it was not uncomfortably bright.
Although the Light Court is open to the public, we had actually scheduled a tour with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which maintains a presence in the lower level. I would recommend taking advantage of one of the several tours offered by various organizations, as they allow you access to the second story terrace and the bifurcated iron staircase that hangs above the main entrance to the Light Court, opposite the grand staircase. These areas are normally off limits to the general public. Exploring these restricted spaces provides a closer view of Wright’s lighting fixtures, and also of more of the beautiful original iron work. Once on the landing of the third floor, you can look back down to the light court, though the windows into the central well of the building, or up into an ornate iron staircase that winds farther up the building. We had just s few minutes to enjoy this space, between the elevators and the stairs, before descending to the first level, where the tour concluded.
The Light Court is one of those places that any fan of architecture, let alone of Frank Lloyd Wright, should make an effort to visit. It is a perfect example of transitional architecture, created as buildings were shifting from traditional construction techniques to steel-frame skyscrapers. It is also a demonstration of Wrights flexibility as an architect, working within the constraints of the original design to create his own distinctive contributions and improvements. I hope to revisit the Rookery and the Light Court again, in the near future, this time with the benefit of reflection and additional insight. If you have the opportunity to visit, I would recommend that you allow yourself time to truly absorb and enjoy the space. You will be unlikely to visit another place quite like it.