CHAPTER 2. THE NINETEENTH CENTURY SKYSCRAPER: COMMODITY

Burnham & Root, Insurance Exchange, Chicago, 1884. Southwest corner of La Salle and Adams. (Hoffmann, John Wellborn Root)

While thirty-year old John Root had been “in the field” for the past ten years, including having been the architectural supervisor for the construction of the country’s longest span roof (New York’s Grand Central Terminal), he had never designed a seven-story building when Owen Aldis offered him the commission for the Grannis Block in September 1880.  Twenty-seven-year old Owen Aldis had even less experience with this typology, as he had only recently been hired by Peter Brooks to manage the Portland Block only the year before.  When put in such a situation, a person can rely on two things: first, an objective study of the problem/s to be solved, and second, a study of the precedents, that is, what people had done in the past to solve these problem/s.  Although its seven stories truly doesn’t qualify it to be called a “skyscraper,” all those involved in the building’s design, construction, and operation viewed it as a speculative office building that should take advantage of the lessons learned from the exploitation of the elevator in this type of building.  Over the course of the next decade, Aldis, Root and his partner Burnham, would develop the “skyscraper” as first invented in New York, into a work specifically engineered for Chicago and as a work of art specific to the United States.  No one has better summarized their achievements than America’s premiere architectural critic at this moment, Henry Van Brunt:

“A ten-story office and bank building, fire-proof throughout; with swift elevators for passengers and freight, a battery of boilers in the deep sub-basement giving summer heat throughout, and supplying energy for pumps, ventilating fans, and electric dynamos; equipped like a palace with marbles, bronze and glass, flooded with light in every part; with no superfluous weight of steel beam, fire-clay arch, or terra cotta partition; no unnecessary mass of masonry or column; the whole structure nicely adjusted to sustain the calculated strains and to bear with equal stress upon every pier of the deep foundation, so that no one shall yield more than another as it transfers its accumulated burden to the unstable soil beneath—such a problem does not call for the same sort of architectural inspiration of a vaulted cathedral in the Middle Ages, but, surely, for no less of courage and science, and in providing for the safe, swift and harmonious adjustment of every part of its complicated organism, for a wider range of knowledge. The one required a century of deliberate and patient toil to complete it; the other must be finished, equipped, and occupied in a year of strenuous and carefully ordered labor; no part of its complex being overlooked, all the details of its manifold functions being provided for in the laying of the first foundation stone, and the whole satisfying the eye as a work of art as well as a work of convenience and strength.  Whether one compares a modern building of this sort with a cathedral of the first class, with one of the imperial baths or villas of Rome, or with the Flavian Amphitheatre itself, it must hold equal rank as a production of human genius and energy, not only in the skillful economy of its structure and in its defiance of fire and the other vicissitudes of time, but as a work of fine art developed among practical considerations which seem fundamentally opposed to expressions of architectural beauty.”

2.1. THE SKYSCRAPER PRINCIPLE: THE EQUITABLE LIFE ASSURANCE BUILDING

Henri-Jules Borie, Aérodômes, Paris, 1867 redesign of his original 1865 proposal. (Design Quarterly, 85, 1972)

Van Brunt’s summation was an elegant accounting of the achievement in evolving the Chicago skyscraper. But to better appreciate what had been accomplished during the 1880s, we need to have a starting point: what did Burnham and Root have in the way of precedents to inform their design in 1880?  Where were architectural design and skyscraper science in 1880? In Volume One, I documented the design and construction of the Equitable Life Assurance Building, what I consider to be the first skyscraper, or at least the first manifestation of what I call the “skyscraper principle.”  However, I also pointed out that in was in Paris, two years earlier in 1865, that Henri-Jules Borie, an engineer and social philosopher had proposed not just an individual tower but had designed an entire utopian urban complex that comprised of not one or two, but twenty-five 11-story towers and two 11-story four-block long monster courtyard blocks.  By 1865 at the height of the Second Empire, the population of Prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reconstructed Paris was exploding as people flooded into the city from the rural countryside in search of work, and it appeared that the ballooning population of Paris would eventually have to be housed vertically.  Marrying the new technology of the passenger elevator to the by then well-understood iron skeleton frame, Borie had designed his Aérodômes, the first skyscraper as a multistoried apartment building, not as an office building, as would be the case in the U.S.

Kendall & Gilman with George Post, the Equitable Building (left center) in relation to the Bowen & McNamee Warehouse (center). Image has been altered by removing the Mansard roof that was added later to the warehouse. (Weisman, Art Bulletin, December 1954)

Following the end of the Civil War, Equitable Life Assurance Company’s indefatigable and single-minded founder, Henry Baldwin Hyde had planned the erection a new building to house its growing operation. In October 1867 eight local architects were invited to submit drawings in a competition for the design of the building. The committee chose Gillman & Kendall’s design of a building that contained seven floors above a raised basement. Seven floors in a commercial building at this time should raise some eyebrows, as the typical limit of floors in such a building, even in Paris at this time, was usually five, or if it was pushed, six. One is also struck by the exaggerated height of the Equitable’s first floor that would only add more stairs to climb for those going to the upper floors. The extra height in the Equitable Building could only have been feasible with the use of an elevator. Although elevators had been incorporated into New York buildings prior to the Civil War, apparently no one prior to Hyde had yet to realize that individual stories, let alone entire buildings could be made taller with the use of an elevator without any physical inconvenience in reaching the upper stories. The building had two elevators manufactured by Otis Tufts that were located across from each other in the building’s stairway, that was efficiently located midway in the floor plates.  Contrary to contemporary practice, the elevators ran not in open caged shafts, but masonry shafts, more than likely a response to Hyde’s concern over fire.  This significantly reduced the light available in the elevators that was provided by a skylight at the top of the shaft, windows in each floor’s door, and a gas chandelier in each cab.  The building had opened in May 1870 and the actions of a new group of people, “the rising generation,” were documented by the Insurance Times:

“It was remarked that the members of the rising generation invariably availed themselves of the “lift,” while many of the adults and aged were content to ascend the stairs by use of the pedal extensions which Dame Nature herself had provided for their locomotion.  Is this a sign of the degeneracy of the times, or of Young America’s innate and practically appreciative adoption of every mechanical improvement?

Another result of the post-war increased demand for office space was the steep increase in the price of Manhattan real estate. The decision to include an elevator was made by Hyde so that three floors of rental space could be included that would help to pay for the increased price of land in downtown Manhattan. (While this was the initial reason for the inclusion of the extra floors, one must also think that Hyde also foresaw the continued growth of his company, with an eventual increase in the need for more office space.) An elevator would also permit the floor-to-floor heights in the building, such as the ground floor, to be increased, therefore, not only would more window area be available for daylighting, but the higher ceiling also allowed the light to penetrate farther back into the interior of the building, meaning that a greater percentage of the lot’s square footage could be utilized as rentable space on each floor.  This interrelationship between the use of an elevator to add more floors to a building that would generate extra income to offset the increasing price of urban real estate is what I refer to as the “skyscraper principle.” 

2.2. WHAT IS A “SKYSCRAPER”?

Can we agree that a skyscraper is simply a multistory building that is taller than the conventional pre-elevator building that throughout history had been limited to five or six stories, because the human body with normal effort, could walk up five flights of stairs?  However, with the advent of the passenger elevator, the number of floors, as well as the floor-to-floor height of each floor, in a building could be increased, simply because access to the higher floors had been divorced from the vertical dimension one had to physically traverse via stairs.  It goes without saying then, that without the invention of the elevator, there could be no skyscrapers.

Kendall & Gilman, with George B. Post Equitable Life Assurance Building, New York, 1868. (Landau, George B. Post)

A skyscraper must also be a “building,” whose interior space has a daily function: residential, office, and/or commercial.  This definition, then, rules out church steeples, monuments, and bell towers.  People do not live in these types of structures on a daily basis, and therefore, do not have to contend with the physical effort to climb to top of these structures on a daily basis.  This does not mean that these types of structures were unimportant in the history of the skyscraper.  Quite the contrary is true, as these structures often provided the inspiration and details for an architect during the process of designing a skyscraper.  As such, these types of structures will be discussed in this study when it is appropriate to do so.  

Therefore, a skyscraper is a multistoried building used by people on a regular basis whose height is taller than the five-six story urban datum of pre-elevator equipped buildings.  Simple as this seems, many definitions over the past century have been developed to describe tall, multistoried buildings.  Some of these were developed by architectural historians to be highly exclusive in order to promote one narrative over another.  One city wanting to claim as having been “the birthplace of the skyscraper,” or an historian wanting to champion a specific architect as “the father of the skyscraper.”  By the very nature of attempting to be exclusive, the result, intentional or not, would leave tall buildings that were constructed earlier than the one being championed by the particular definition, needing to be called a term other than a “skyscraper.”  Some of these invented terms included protoskyscraper, elevator building, and even cage construction (to differentiate from the “real” skyscrapers that had to be iron-framed).  The tall buildings that were constructed before the “chosen one” first skyscraper could be called any term but a “skyscraper.”  That word was reserved for the particular building that the historian was attempting to posit as having been “the first.”  As far as this study is concerned, the Equitable Building, as was first articulated by historian Winston Weisman in 1953, was the first skyscraper.

FURTHER READING:

Gray, Lee E. From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. Mobile, AL: Elevator World, 2002.

Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University    Press, 1973.

Landau, Sarah B. George B. Post, Architect.  New York: Monacelli Press, 1998.

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

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