Edgar Miller and Holabird and Root

September 13, 2015

Before the summer’s madness surrounding the Burton Place saga, we were happily ensconced poring over documents in the archives, visiting sites of Edgar’s work, and writing about it here on the blog. Let’s try to get back to those halcyon days of academic bliss, if we can.

North Dakota Capitol by Holabird and Root with ornament by Edgar Miller

Most Chicagoans, and many architects from around the world, have heard of the firm Holabird and Roche and Holabird and Root. The firm’s existence stretches from the late 19th century to the modern day, but they are most well-known for their early work, and the work that continued into the mid-20th century. You can read all about the firm’s history on Wikipedia and in the book The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918 by Robert Bruegmann, but in a nutshell, William Holabird and Martin Roche collaborated as partners to much acclaim from the 1890s until the 1920s. Some of the firm's most famous early accomplishments are the Marquette Building, the Palmer House Hotel, and Soldier Field. When the two founding partners died in the 1920s, the firm was taken over by Holabird’s son, John Holabird, and John Root, Jr., who had been with the firm since 1914. Thus, the name change to Holabird and Root. At this point, the firm’s style adopted the forward-thinking art deco architecture of the period. The list of buildings this firm designed and constructed is immense, and many are American landmarks, either officially or unofficially. The Chicago Board of Trade building should be well known to any fan of the recent Batman films.


Chicago Board of Trade by Bob Vonderau

While the firm never achieved the kind of name-brand success in the general public in the way Frank Lloyd Wright did, their buildings nonetheless greatly influenced public architecture across the United States. Certainly, in terms of large buildings, there was no other firm so prolific for so long.

At some point in the 1920s, Edgar Miller became friendly with John Holabird and John Root, possibly through his work in the studio of Alfonso Iannelli but more likely by his reputation preceding him and then a more formal connection through their mutual memberships at The Tavern Club (which was housed, coincidentally or not, at the penthouse of Holabird and Root’s 333 North Michigan Building). From this connection, Miller was hired for many of the firm’s artistic installations on a slew of their buildings dating from the 1920s through the 1940s, including the Palmolive Building, the North Dakota State Capitol, and the Northwestern Technological Institute


Bas reliefs of famous inventors, scientists, and philosophers adorn the Northwestern Technological Institute in Evanston, Illinois

Today, we will focus on the work Miller did for the firm’s Statler Hotel in Washington, DC in 1943. It was one of the only major hotels built during the Second World War, and perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise then that it was built in the nation’s capital, where a disproportionate amount of the nation’s tax dollars were flowing into military and Federal building projects. By 1943, demand for a stately, modern hotel just up the street from the White House would have been high, and at the time virtually no other firm in the country had the reputation that Holabird and Root did for building large, beautiful, and modern buildings.


Statler Hotel in Washington, DC, now the Capitol Hilton

Miller, by this point, was well-respected by the firm and also within the larger Chicago design community. He was well past his hippie days in Old Town remodeling old Victorian mansions into artistic communes. At this point, Edgar Miller was known more as Chicago’s most unique artist and designer, who could be called upon for almost any task, be it architectural installation, graphic design, or painting and sculpture, and to produce something with originality and eye-popping detail.

Miller paints murals in the lobby of the Statler Hotel, Washington, DC (Photo by Hedrich-Blessing)


For the Statler Hotel chain, then at the forefront of hotel design and organization in the US, Miller decorated their entire DC space, from murals throughout the lobby and walkways to bas relief sculptures in the Presidential Ballroom. The murals in the lobby were simply ornamental, depicting patterns of jungle and forest. Throughout the hallways, however, the murals depicted scenes from US history and American expansion across the Western frontier. According to Cahan and Williams’ The Handmade Home (City Files Press: 2009), for the South American Ballroom, the architects told Edgar that South Americans loved heroic art and mentioned that nudity was not an uncommon sight in public parks in Brazil and Argentina. So Edgar, never one to shy away from the provocative, painted two large nudes on the wall of the ballroom. Unfortunately, this did not go over well with the first guests to use the ballroom, the understandably puritanical Sons of the American Revolution, and in front of Miller, the conventioneers taped sheets of paper over the naked women. Miller wrote, “In order not to embarrass the architects, I painted out one of the best things I had done, and I decided not be caught dead as a Son of the Revolution.”



Sadly, now everything Miller did at the Statler Hotel is either covered or removed. We visited the hotel in the spring and tried to track down any art that would have been saved during two renovations of the hotel in the 1970s and more recently in 2012, but unfortunately no one was able to locate any extant murals or sculptural work from the 1940s that might have been preserved. It is a real shame considering the building itself is on the National Register of Historic Places, while the interior has been remodeled to look like just any other generic hotel property. It is currently owned by the Hilton chain.


Presidential Ballroom of the Statler Hotel featuring Miller's bas reliefs (Hedrich-Blessing)

One can only hope that some of the sculptures from the Presidential Ballroom and some murals from the rest of the building were carried off by a contractor, or in the case of the murals, it would not be unlikely if they now rest permanently underneath the newer layer of drywall, only one day hoping to be uncovered by a renewed interest in Miller’s work.



Current state of the interior of the Capital Hilton. So fresh and so clean... and so boring...