1.9. JENNEY’S RIFF ON SHILLITO’S: THE FIRST LEITER BUILDING

James McLaughlin, Shillito’s Department Store, Cincinnati, 1877. (“Cincinnati, The Queen City,” 1901.)

I ended Volume Two with the description of the two most important buildings erected in Cincinnati in 1878.  The Music Hall was the first; the huge John Shillito’s Department Store was the second. In fact, I ended that volume with the Shillito’s building on purpose because it was the architectural bridge from the 1870s to the 1880s, especially to the Chicago School.   In the March 1880 issue of American Art Review, Peter B. Wight published an article, “On the Present Condition of Architectural Art in the Western States,” in which he had to admit that “Cincinnati has always been the best-built city in the West, and can now show more business structures of good construction and appropriate exterior design than either [Chicago or St. Louis].”  The building that Wight had identified as the best example of the principles he espoused and, therefore, can be correspondingly considered to be the first “Chicago School” building was:   

“Shillito’s store in Cincinnati is the most important store building of the kind that has been erected… The style has been used in Chicago in many business buildings of moderate size and cost… A store now erecting on the [northwest] corner of Fifth Avenue [Wells] and Monroe Street is a good example.”

William Le Baron Jenney, First Leiter Building, Chicago, NW corner of Monroe and Wells, 1879. Perspective by Irving K. Pond, 1879. (Online)

It should come as no surprise then, to find one of Shillito’s principal competitors in the West, Levi Leiter, partner in Field & Leiter, emulating the successful design of the Cincinnati department store.  Leiter hired William Le Baron Jenney in 1879 to design a small, five-story loft building for the northwest corner of Monroe and Wells.  Leiter’s commission for this otherwise nondescript building would be the only significant architectural project Jenney would design in downtown during the eleven-year period between the Portland Block of 1873 and the Home Insurance building of 1884. 

Map of the Loop, 1879. (Author’s collection)

At first glance, it is obvious that Jenney had used the Shillito’s building as his model.  In addition to having the drawings of it available in the various issues of American Architect in 1878, Jenney should also have been very familiar with the Shillito’s Building, for he had two brothers who lived in Cincinnati at this time.  Jenney kept the triple-window motif of the Shillito’s Building but simplified the elevations of what is now known as the First Leiter Building (to distinguish it from the second building that Jenney designed for Leiter in 1889) into a single-story base of limestone piers at the ground floor, that supported the upper four floors of repetitive red brick piers and spandrels.  The ornamented top floor and cornice of Shillito’s was replaced with a thin cornice of corbelled brick that was punctuated above each pier by a meager pinnacle.

Jenney’s incorporation of the pinnacles above each pier, unfortunately, negated the chance of this building to appear as an avant-garde red brick box like the Shillito’s Building.  (It was not until a two-floor addition was constructed in 1888 that removed the pinnacles, that the building attained the more fashionable box-like form that legend has misassigned to the 1879 original design.)  

Jenney, First Leiter Building. The two upper floors were added in 1888. Note how the detailing in the cornice inline with the piers has been revised to allow the cornice’s horizontality to dominate the piers’ verticality. (Online)

Jenney also deviated from the Shillito’s model in the articulation of the piers in the Leiter Building.  Instead of allowing the piers to soar vertically without interruption, Jenney used a limestone block that had horizontal projections to articulate each intersection of a brick pier with the brick spandrels.  These two details resulted in a quickly going-out-of-style “picturesque” roofline and an elevation with a tenuous balance between vertical and horizontal (as contrasted to the vertical ascent of the Shillito’s piers).  Similar to his 1872 design of the Portland Block, however, Jenney had chosen a more appropriate horizontal solution for the facade that was planned to eventually gracefully accept the addition of more floors at a later date (that were added in 1880).

William Le Baron Jenney, Post-fire design for the Portland Block, Chicago, 1872. Only the lower four floors above the basement were originally constructed. (The Land Owner, June 1873)

1.10. FRAMED VS. “CAGE” (BOX) CONSTRUCTION

Charles Bage, Benyon, Bage, and Marshall Flax Mill, Shrewsbury, 1796. The cast iron columns support iron beams, forming an iron framework set within the masonry walls. A good example of “box-construction.” (Gayle, James Bogardus)

In the last volume I described the structure of the Shillito’s Store as what is commonly referred to by historians as “cage construction”: an interior iron skeleton framework of columns and beams, that is surrounded by and braced against lateral loads (i.e., wind and seismic) with a loadbearing masonry exterior (that can be either a wall or a pier and beam framework such as was the case in the Shillito’s store).  I have never liked the term “cage” that historians have used to differentiate this type of construction from complete iron skeleton framing, and as a student and even up to today, I continue to find the term “cage construction” to be confusing.  This is because I think the all-iron skeleton framed building looks like a cage on the exterior, while “cage construction” is used to denote a masonry box around the exterior. 

“Frame-construction,” Burnham and Root, Reliance Building, 1890, 1894. Doesn’t this look like a “cage”? (chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com)

Therefore, in this study I will call the construction of a building that is a masonry box around the exterior within which is erected an interior skeleton iron frame “box-construction,” and I will call a building’s structural system that is all iron-framed, where the frame is continued into the exterior plane of the building “framed-construction.”  (Unless, of course, it is a hybrid of the two systems, which will be the case as architects and builders transition from using only bearing walls to only using iron framing.)  Both of these types of construction, nonetheless, rely on iron framing for the interior structure.

James Bogardus, McCullough Shot Tower, New York, 1855. (Silver, Lost New York)
James Bogardus, Santa Catalina Warehouse, Havana, 1858. The brick walls are built on the iron frame. (Gayle, Bogardus)

Historically, we saw in Volume One that James Bogardus erected the first framed-construction structure, the McCullough Shot Tower in New York in 1855.  He employed this type of construction for the first time in a “real building” in Havana’s Santa Catalina Warehouse in 1858.  This leaves me with an enigma, however, because which type of construction, box- or framed-construction, is a cast iron-fronted building that has an interior iron skeleton frame?  

John Kellum and John B. Cornell, A.T. Stewart’s Cast Iron Department Store, New York, 1859. (Online)

In framed-construction, the only columns needed are those that support the interior floor beams. Because the columns in a cast iron front are spaced much closer to each other than they would otherwise be in the interior frame, the cast iron front acts more like an iron wall with windows than a frame with voids between the columns, and so I come down in favor of calling the cast iron front “box-construction.”

John Kellum and John B. Cornell, Sectional Perspective at the Atrium, A.T. Stewart’s Cast Iron Department Store. I chose this image because the cast iron front appears more “wall-like.” (Homberger, Historical Atlas of New York)

The post-Civil War evolution in construction from box-construction to framed-construction was retarded by the Chicago and Boston fires, as we reviewed in Volume Two, that forced the return to exteriors made with only masonry.  One of the major plotlines of my work is to follow the reintroduction of iron structural members into the exterior of American buildings during this period.  And it is with Jenney’s Leiter Building that I begin this story.

FURTHER READING:

Gayle, Margot and Carol Gayle. Cast-Iron Architecture in America: The Significance of James Bogardus. New York: Norton, 1998.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s