Arthur Gilman, Equitable Building, Boston, 1872. (Web)

While Post was designing the Western Union, the unthinkable happened when Boston, that was considered to one of the country’s best-built cities, burned on November 8-9, 1872, with a similar intensity to that of the Chicago fire. While many professionals had expected Chicago, “the largest wooden city in the world” to eventually catch fire, almost everyone had been caught by surprise when Boston went up in flames the following year.  With the conscious decision to shorten Equitable’s Kendall Building in Chicago following the 1871 fire, the Boston fire presented the company with alternate opportunity to build a larger version of the company’s pioneering experiment with the elevator that was not lost on Henry Hyde, or his father, Henry Hazen Hyde, who had been the head of Equitable’s Boston branch office since his son had decided to open its first branch outside of New York in 1863.  The Hydes managed to assemble a number of small parcels on the block bounded by Devonshire, Federal, and Milk Streets, across from where the new Post Office was being rebuilt, upon which they had decided to build an even taller building than their original New York building.  Arthur Gilman, who had conceived of the original design for the New York building, was commissioned to design, for all practical purposes what looked like a duplicate of his original 1867 design.

The Hydes increased the number of floors to nine that included a public sight-seeing observatory on the roof, using three elevators to access these.  (A side note: neither of Equitable’s buildings sprouted a tower such as the Western Union.  More than likely, Hyde saw the tower as an extravagance for which his money might be better invested.) In response to the damage wrought by the conflagration, Gilman was directed to employ only solid bearing walls throughout the building, Hyde obviously eschewing Post’s daring experiment with iron framing in his New York Building.  The interior masonry walls supported either brick vaults, leveled with concrete, or iron beams and arches that were filled with concrete, similar to the Gilbert System.  As with the impact that Equitable had created with its first experiment with the elevator in New York, the interior structure in their Boston building that had regressed to solid masonry walls would also be influential immediately following the country’s second major urban conflagration that had occurred within thirteen months of each other.  For all practical purposes, we were back to Square One in the development of skyscraper construction: the Roman Insula (multistoried apartment building).

(Top) Roman “Insula” (apartment building), Ostia, 2nd century, AD. (Online); (Below) Insula dell’ Ara Coeli, Rome, 2nd Century, AD. (Online)


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

With Hunt’s commission to design the New York Tribune’s building coming after the Boston fire as well as Equitable’s new building in Boston, the structure that Hunt employed in the Tribune Building was simply medieval.  It was neither framed nor boxed construction: the entire structure relied on masonry bearing walls; there were no iron columns used in any part of the building.  

Hunt, New York Tribune, 1873. First Floor Plan. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper)

Given the ten floors in the Tribune Building and the nature of the weight of some of the equipment in the composing room on the top floor, the piers in the ground floor started at 5′ 2″ thick, and gradually were decreased in size by 4″ per floor until they were only 3′ 2″ in the top floor.  

New York Building Code, 1892. Typical bearing wall required minimum thickness. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper)

The anachronism of Hunt’s bearing wall structure was completely contrasted, however, by his employment of Leonard Beckwith’s lightweight tile flat-arches in all the floors (see later in this chapter for details). 

Leonard H. Beckwith, Hollow Floor Tiles used in the New York Tribune Building, New York, 1873. (Brickbuilder, April 1897)

One does not have to do the math to understand that walls of 62″ of solid masonry, especially in the premier rent location of the ground floor, could not continue to grow much thicker and still be economically feasible, especially sitting on top of Chicago’s weak soli.  Peter B. Wight would solve this problem during the 1870s, but only after overcoming the resistance to his idea of using terra cotta encased iron sections by those in the insurance industry, of all people, who championed the use of heavy timber instead of iron structural members.

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

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