Poetry Foundation Building
[Poetry Foundation Building (2011) John Ronan Architects, architects /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
When poet, author, and resolute publisher Harriet Monroe died in 1936 she left $19,000 to be divided among family members and friends, $5,000 to the University of Chicago, and $6,000 to Poetry, the monthly magazine she had founded in 1912 and edited until her death. When Ruth Lilly, the great-granddaughter of Eli Lilly the founder of the pharmaceutical giant died in 2009, she left behind an estate valued at $1 billion - $100 million of which had been given to Monroe's visionary publication in 2002. This combination of one women's drive, determination and commitment to verse, and another's desire to be a poet, resulted in architect John Ronan having the opportunity to design a dedicated headquarters building for a publication that had spent 99 years renting in places like the bedroom of an old mansion and a library's basement.
[Poetry Foundation Buildling, 61 W. Superior Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
The story begins on December 23, 1860 when Martha and Henry Monroe welcomed their second child - another daughter - into the family. Infant Harriet's father had come to Chicago four years earlier and by the time of her arrival he had begun, what would eventually become, a modestly successful law practice in the city. Like many Chicago families of certain means Harriet was sent to Chicago's Dearborn Seminary before heading-off to continue her education at Visitation Convent, an all girls academy in Georgetown, Washington D.C. After graduating in 1879 Harriet traveled extensively, filling her calendar with a variety of artistically-inclined salons and literary-minded events both here in the U.S. and abroad. She got her first poem published in 1888, wrote an ode that was read at the dedication of Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building the following year, and landed a job working as the art critic for the Chicago Tribune - which paid the bills.
[Poetry Foundation Building, Superior and Dearborn Streets, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Then on January 15, 1891 Dora Monroe Root, Harriet's older sister, became a widow when her husband John of the architectural firm Burnham & Root, died of pneumonia. The architect was in the planning stages of the World's Columbian Exposition when he was taken ill, and after his death, Harriet moved-in to her sister's Astor Street townhouse and began to write. In 1896 Monroe's tribute to her immensely talented brother-in-law, John Wellborn Root: A Study of His Life and Work, was published. Unfortunately her career as a poet wasn't heading in the direction she had hoped it would, and finding herself frustrated by the lack of contemporary publications publishing modern verse, she decided to take action. In 1910 Monroe began visiting the offices of Chicago's leading businessmen in an effort to raise enough money to start her own publication. Determined and unstoppable, Monroe gained a new respect for all the women she encountered who acted as the guardians of their male employer's inner sanctums, and by connecting with these unsung heroes of the business world, gained access to these titans of commerce and raised the $5,000 she needed to start her publication.
[Poetry Foundation Building, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Monroe rented a room in an old mansion that stood at 543 Cass Street just south of Ohio Street which had been converted into office space. Although the former E.B. McCagg home is long gone and Cass Street is now Wabash Avenue, Monroe launched Poetry: A Magazine of Verse from that location on September 23, 1912. For the next 24 years, through sheer force of will, Monroe was able to turn-out a monthly journal that published some of the first works of authors whose names would come to be recognized around the world, and who would go on to win Nobel Prizes. Ruth Lilly hoped that one day she would become one of those people. Although Poetry never published one of Lilly's submissions, she was so touched by the magazine's encouraging rejection letters that she endowed fellowships for young poets through the magazine's Modern Poetry Association. Then in 2002 she shook the philanthropic, poetic and publishing world with her gift of $100 million in Lilly stock. The little poetry engine that could now became the repository of one of the largest financial windfall's in financial gift-giving history. Then in 2011, after 99-years as renters, the Poetry Foundation, which now oversaw the publication of Monroe's magazine, moved out of their basement headquarters at the Newberry Library and into their purpose-built, wholly-owned, 25,000 square-foot, John Ronan-designed ode to Harriet Monroe.
See the house where Monroe lived with her sister and brother-in-law at: James L. Houghteling Houses/John W. Root House.