John M. Van Osdel, Pre-Fire Kendall Building, Chicago, 1871. Southwest corner of Dearborn and Washington. (The Landowner, October 1871)

Hyde was quick to repeat this success with a proposal to build a similar building, based upon what Equitable had learned for its branch office in Chicago, on the site immediately across Dearborn from the Portland Block.  The honor of designing Chicago’s first skyscraper was assigned to John Van Osdel, who started designing the building in early 1871, about the same time that Potter Palmer had commissioned him to design the second, larger Palmer House.  Known as the Kendall Building (note the Equitable name on the flag as well as “Equitable Life Assurance” on the second floor’s spandrel), his design of Chicago’s first planned tall office building reflected the design and incorporated many of the improvements used in the Equitable Building.  The Kendall’s floor heights were correspondingly increased, as can be seen when it is compared to the buildings adjacent to it.  As opposed to the facade of the New York building where the floors were grouped into two-story layers, however, Van Osdel articulated each floor as its own layer, with the result that the building’s scale actually made the Chicago building look taller than its New York sibling.  As such, it was the logical next step in the evolution of the precedent established with the Equitable Building and marked Chicago’s first serious entry into the competition with New York in the development of the skyscraper.  The Kendall’s foundations had been laid and the lower walls were under construction when, unfortunately, the great fire started on October 8, 1871, thereby preventing Chicago from running head-to-head with New York in the further development of this new type of building.  Instead of completing the original design after the fire, the building was completed without the perceived firetrap of the mansard roof, denying it the opportunity to be “tall.” New York would go unchallenged in the race to develop the skyscraper for the next ten years, while Chicago had its hands full just trying to rebuild. 

John M. Van Osdel, Post-Fire Kendall Building, Chicago, 1872. The mansard roof was eliminated in the post-fire version. (The Land Owner, February 1872)


The birth of the skyscraper in New York between 1868 and 1873 was a direct result of needing more income to pay for the increasing price of Manhattan real estate, as no company as of then was so large that it required that much floor area solely for its own operations. In 1891, the Chicago publication Industrial Chicago had stated outright that “This [commercial skyscraper] style began with the Western Union building, New York, in 1873.”  The Western Union Telegraph Company, whose corporate experience during the Civil War had been comparable to that of the Equitable company, had been inspired by the success of Hyde’s experiment with the elevator in his new building.  Therefore, they invited its architects, Arthur Gillman and George Post, as well as Hunt, to submit designs in a competition for their new building.  In August 1872, they chose Post’s design that revealed the quick acceptance of the elevator, for it was essentially an extruded version of the Equitable, with the addition of a tower.  (I had mused in Volume Two’s Section 5.4. that the tower may have been a response to the recent announcement of the tower planned for Philadelphia’s new City Hall.) Equitable had proven the financial wisdom of including rental offices in a project like this to initially generate income to offset the high cost of the land in the short run, and eventually to provide space in which to expand operations as a business grew in the long run.  (This was a more a cost-effective long-term alternative to the addition of more floors to an existing building at a later date.) Western Union, therefore, had increased the number of rental floors in its building to four.  

George Post, Western Union Building, New York, 1872. (Silver, Lost New York)

Post located the space dedicated to the telegraph operators at the top of the building apparently for two reasons.  First, as the telegraph wires were hung in the air from poles, it would be easier to bring the wires into the building at a higher level, without any potential conflict with the traffic in the street.  Second, locating this huge space on the top floor meant that it could be virtually free of columns and walls, as there was no need to extend the building’s interior structure into this space because it could be spanned with deep trusses between the exterior walls.  

George B. Post, Western Union Telegraph Building, New York, 1872. Top floor, operations room. (Online)

Post increased the ceiling height of this space to 23,’ not only to make it feel even more open and airy, but also to make the perimeter windows taller so that more light could penetrate deeper into the space.  The column-free interior of the eighth floor would give the company as much flexibility as possible in locating the desks and equipment needed by the telegraph operators.  The floor below, the seventh, was correspondingly reduced in height and dedicated to the electrical equipment, as well as to the unfettered distribution of the myriad of wires coming into the building.  This type of space, now referred to as “interstitial,” gave workers easy access to all of the wires that could be rerouted in this space under the eighth floor to the appropriate operator’s station. The company’s public business operations were logically located on the ground floor, leaving the five floors between one and seven available for rental offices.  The company needed one floor for its executives and management, so it chose the least desirable/rentable floor, the one in the middle of this layer, the fourth.  Floors two and three were closest to the street (better access), and floors five and six were the highest above the street (better views and smells-horses!). Coupled with the four floors it needed for its operations (and two inserted within the roof trusses) as well as the gratuitous tower, the Western Union Building would be much taller (230’) than the Equitable’s height of 130.’  The skyscraper had begun to grow up. 

Post, Western Union Telegraph Building. Photograph of it under construction, showing the king post trusses that will frame the mansard roof. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper


The value of the “skyscraper principle” was quickly acknowledged, as the New York Tribune followed with its own new tall building.  The Tribune, owned and edited by Horace Greeley, was the nation’s leading Republican newspaper, but Greeley had become disenchanted with Pres. Grant, so much so that he eventually resigned in order to run against him in the 1872 election.  Fortunately, Greeley had groomed his replacement, Whitelaw Reid, who not only took over the newspaper, but bought it outright upon Greeley’s death some three weeks after the election.  Reid, similar to Equitable’s Henry Hyde, was of the next generation coming into power after the Civil War who were not afraid of the latest technology.  As such, he wanted the tallest building in the city to proclaim the newspaper’s position in the country’s politics and decided to do Western Union one better: he wanted a taller building with seven floors of rental offices. 

Richard Morris Hunt, Study for the New York Tribune Building, New York, 1873. (Online)

Richard Morris Hunt won the competition in early 1873 to design the new building.  Similar to the Western Union Building, the Tribune building’s vertical organization was also determined by function.  In the case of a newspaper, the type composers needed as much daylight as possible, meaning they were always located on the top floor to take advantage of skylights.  Meanwhile, the printing presses were dependent on steam power, meaning the presses were always located in the basement, which also minimized the structural impact of the machines’ deadloads and vibrations.  The composers would set the lead type in a metal box and then send the finished box to the basement via a freight hoist.  Again, following Post’s lead, the composing room in the top floor allowed Hunt to take advantage of the roof’s clearspan trusses to open the space as much as possible.  The paper’s editorial staff occupied the ninth floor, directly under the composing room.  The paper’s public contact offices were located on the ground floor, with floors two through eight leased as private offices. To claim the record of the tallest building in New York, its tower extended 30′ higher than the Western Union’s tower to a total height of 260.’  

Richard Morris Hunt, New York Tribune Building as constructed, New York, 1873. (Online)


Landau, Sarah B., and Carl Condit.  The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

(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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s