The architect John Wellborn Root, a Georgia native, became one of the key figures in the nationally significant Chicago school of skyscraper design. He designed one of the most significant buildings in Atlanta, the Equitable Building.
Root was born in Lumpkin in 1850 and grew up in Atlanta. During the Civil War (1861-65) his father, Sidney Root, a prominent Atlanta merchant, sent his young son out of the city on one of his blockade-runners to attend school in England. Later, after finishing school in New York City, Root went to Chicago, Illinois, to join Daniel Hudson Burnham in one of the pioneering architectural firms there. This firm made both structural and design contributions to the late-nineteenth-century evolution of the skyscraper form. Root, in particular, developed ideas about the design and philosophy of commercial architecture and communicated those ideas in the architectural journals of the period. Among the firm’s most notable buildings in Chicago were the Monadnock and Rookery Buildings, both of which are still standing.
In Atlanta the firm designed the Equitable Building (later the Trust Company of Georgia Building) in 1890 for the Atlanta developer Joel Hurt. Although the eight-story building would today not be considered tall, its steel-frame construction and monumental presence made it the city’s pioneer skyscraper. Like the Rookery, the building had a heavy ornamented exterior and an interior light court with a large window area. The clarity of its design stood in sharp contrast to its surroundings. Unfortunately this building, which a Georgia Tech professor once said was the only structure an architect would stop off in Atlanta to see, was demolished in 1971, just as Georgia’s historic preservation movement was getting under way. Its massive columns and name panel now adorn the SunTrust Bank Building (built as Trust Company of Georgia) across from Woodruff Park. The Equitable Building was the only structure Root is known to have designed in Georgia, although there are undocumented reports of others.
Upon returning to Chicago after delivering the Equitable plans in Atlanta, Root contracted pneumonia. He died on January 15, 1891. Only a few months later, on June 26, 1891, Atlantans praised his building with elaborate cornerstone ceremonies.