Reconstruction of House of Sallusti, Pompeii. (Online)

The skyscraper was first, and foremost, commodity. That is, the commodity of rentable (that is, usable) square feet.  The single reason for its existence was to multiply the amount of usable area of one’s property by stacking one floor on top of another.  The key word in a nineteenth century skyscraper was “usable.”  As interior space in buildings throughout history, up to the advent of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting in the early twentieth century, was completely dependent upon access to daylight and natural ventilation provided by operable windows, there was a natural limit as to how far from a window a person could be located and still be able to reasonably function.  We only need to go back to the Roman house to see how a building must be designed in order to perform “naturally,’ that is without the aid of electricity.  A Roman urban house was planned around the open-air atrium, a central, unroofed space that provided daylight, ventilation, spatial relief, and fresh rainwater for its inhabitants. 

Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. (Online)

This was updated in the Renaissance to a multi-storied exterior space. In essence, a traditional urban building, stretching back to ancient Rome, therefore, was a hollow box: a person would build walls up to, and around one’s lotlines, and then line these walls with usable space that relied on the central opening, the atrium, for daylight and ventilation.  When one looked down from above, a pre-electric city comprised of hollow buildings. 

Birdseye View of Paris, showing the use of lightcourts in 19th century buildings. (Online)


Depth of Daylight Penetration Through a Window (Online)

The maximum distance from a window to ensure effective daylighting is 24′ to 25,’ depending upon the height of the ceiling.  An 11′ ceiling, with the windows pushed right up to the edge of the ceiling could provide sufficient daylight up to 24′ away from the window.  A lower ceiling would obviously reduce the penetration depth of the daylight, reducing the distance from the window that would be provided sufficient daylight to function.  In a paper that Root delivered to an architectural class at the Art Institute in June 1890 on the subject of designing a skyscraper, this is precisely where he stated an architect would start:

“Of course, the first radical question to suggest itself is that of light.  And this will at once dictate certain general and entirely preliminary conditions of plan upon the ground.  Experience has demonstrated that all spaces within the enclosure of four walls which are not well lighted by sunshine, or at least direct daylight, are in office buildings non-productive.  The elementary question is, therefore, how to arrange the building upon its lot that every foot within it shall be perfectly lighted, and all spaces which would be dark thrown out.”

Typical floor plan of a double-loaded corridor scheme for a site with a width of 56.’ (Drawing by Kyle Campbell)

In laying out the floor plan for a skyscraper on a site, a planning module of 32′ was standard:  an office depth of 24′ from the window wall plus an 8′ wide corridor, that was usually lit from the daylight within the adjacent offices by a transom located above the doors, and sometimes the corridor walls themselves.  If the minimum dimension of the site was at least 56′ wide, one could use a double-loaded corridor scheme (24′ + 8′ + 24′) with little wasted area.  A site dimension smaller in size would obviously require reducing the depth of the offices, until only a single-loaded corridor, 32′ would work.  The challenge came when one’s site had a minimum dimension greater than 56.’  As this dimension grew, while the office depth from the window wall had to remain 24,’ the width of the corridor correspondingly increased until the overly wide hallway was simply wasteful in construction costs.  The corridor would become darker and darker as the walls with the transoms grew farther apart.  

Typical floor plan of a single-loaded corridor scheme around an internal atrium for a site with a width greater than 60.’ (Drawing by Kyle Campbell)


As this dimension grew larger than 60,’ it was more economical to line both edges of the site with single-loaded corridors using shallower hallways (24′ + 5′ hallway) leaving a void between the corridors that could act as a lightwell, usually running all the way to the ground floor.  This permitted the daylight from a skylight at the roof to penetrate as deep into the interior as possible. This type of covered interior space, in which the corridors open into the space I define as an “atrium” as opposed to a similar type of space, with the exception that the skylight is located at the ground floor so as to make all of the floors above it open to the exterior, which I define as a “lightcourt” (although the space below the skylight will still be referred to as an atrium.

Building section of a single-loaded corridor scheme around an internal atrium for a site with a width greater than 60.’ (Drawing by Kyle Campbell)

Necessity, therefore, dictated that buildings on larger lots would always be hollow on the inside. The hallways in such a plan would feel like balconies or galleries running around the perimeter of the lightwell.  

Baumann & Baumann, Chicago Chamber of Commerce, 1889. Atrium. Note the windows in the walls lining the balconies to also provide daylight. (Condit, Chicago)

An early American manifestation of the interior lightcourt was the five-story high rotunda in the Boston Exchange Coffee House and Hotel designed in 1806 by Charles Bullfinch.  

Charles Bulfinch, Boston Exchange Coffee House and Hotel, Boston, 1806. (Sandoval-Strausz, Hotel)

As technology improved by the end of the Civil War, the floors of these galleries typically would be made with glass lenses placed in the floor, so that the light could penetrate to the story below each gallery.  

We will see lightwells that were as narrow as three and four feet, for the light from even these narrow slits of space was appreciated in lighting the corridors of a multistoried building, and as wide as 80.’ 

S. S. Beman, Pioneer Press Building, St. Paul, 1888. Atrium. (Author’s collection)
Frank E. Edbrooke, Brown Palace Hotel, Denver, 1893. Atrium. (Author’s collection)

As an example, if one’s site was 65′ square, with streets or alleys on all four sides, a single-loaded corridor scheme hugging the perimeter of the lot would result in a hollow doughnut plan with a 7′ by 7′ lightwell. As the dimensions of the site grew larger, the office depth of the single-loaded corridor still remained at 24,’ so only the size of the lightcourt would increase correspondingly.  The tallest atrium constructed in the nineteenth century was the 20-story high court inside the Masonic Temple in Chicago, designed by Burnham & Root:

Burnham and Root, Masonic Temple, Chicago, 1890. Atrium. (Merwood-Salsbury, Chicago 1890)

A fallacy perpetuated by many historians has been the idea that a lightcourt was “optional.”  In other words, some authors would claim that the architect “chose” to incorporate a lightcourt.  The nineteenth century architect had no such choice.  As soon as the minimum dimension of a site reached around 60,’ a lightcourt that ran from the ground floor to the roof had to be part of the solution.   This did not depend upon whether the building was an office building:

S.S. Beman, Pioneer Press Building. Atrium. (Online)

Or a residential building or a department store:

John P. Gaynor, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1871. The Grand Court. (Lewis, Bonanza Inn)
James McLaughlin, Shillito’s Store, Cincinnati, 1877. Atrium. (Author’s collection)

Any distance more than 25′ away from a window was simply too dark to support any effective human function.  There was no option; the lightcourt was a necessity in a building up to the early twentieth century.  (A sidenote: when John Portman’s Regency Hyatt House first opened in 1967, newspapers and magazines called its interior atrium “futuristic.” This, most likely, was due to the fact that most of these 19th century buildings that had atriums had been demolished to make room for even larger buildings. In other words, an entire generation had grown up having no idea that the interior atrium was a traditional component of a building, having been made obsolete with the advent of fluorescent lighting and air conditioning.)


Sandoval-Strausz, A.K. Hotel: An American History. New Haven, Yale, 2007.

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


The skyscraper was a new type of building without any precedent in the history of architecture.  Nobody appreciated the profundity of this fact better than Root: 

“the vast edifices which have lifted themselves in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities, until they tower heavenward nine, ten, twelve and sixteen stories, containing sometimes three or four thousand people upon whom depend the support of eight or ten thousand souls.  These buildings, the result of commercial conditions without precedent, are new in every essential element.”

The fact that the skyscraper was ‘new in every element,’ however, did not release the design of one or its architect from having to respond to the universal requirements that good architecture has always had to aspire.  Thus, we are initially confronted with one of the primary themes of this period: tradition vs. innovation.  Throughout the nineteenth century, and especially during the early history of the skyscraper, the conflict between new ways of thinking and doing, that is, innovation, and tradition, the way things had “always” been done or thought of, will have an impact on every facet of human thought, action, and existence.  The evolution of the skyscraper will not be able to escape this conflict, in fact as we will see, it was born out of this conflict.

No one throughout the history of architecture has defined the traditional requirements of good architecture more succinctly than Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect/engineer who lived during the first century BC.  He was the author of the only complete treatise on ancient classical architecture, de Architectura, that had survived intact following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, (a copy was discovered in 1414 in the library of Switzerland’s St. Gall Abbey) in which he stated: 

“All (architecture) should possess strength, utility, and beauty.  Strength arises from carrying down the foundations to a good solid bottom, and from making a proper choice of materials without parsimony.  Utility arises from a judicious distribution of the parts, so that their purposes be duly answered, and that each have its proper situation.  Beauty is produced by the pleasing appearance and good taste of the whole, and by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportional to each other.”

This famous quote was initially translated rather “freely” into English by Henry Wotton in 1624 as: “Well building hath three conditions:  firmness, commodity, and delight.”  These three words, commodity, firmness and delight, and all their variations, have been used by architectural theorists ever since as the prime objectives of good architecture.  As an example, all we need to do is to return to Van Brunt’s quote at the start of this chapter: “no part of [the skyscraper] 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.”

The skyscraper was not an exclusively American phenomenon, but it was a new type of building that evolved during the second half of the nineteenth century in which America played a leading role.  Three of the most important ideas that impacted Western society and culture in this period, would also play a central role in the development of the skyscraper. These were, in no particular order of importance or chronology:

1. Technological innovation: iron, steam power (the elevator), electricity (electric light and power), the telephone, and improvements in indoor plumbing

2. Economic growth: fueled by many factors, including the technological growth above, the size of business companies increased, as did the opportunity for real estate investment

3. Nationalism: the period of 1865-1900 was beset with rampant nationalism.  In 1859, Italy was unified; in 1871, German unification was completed, and America was fast approaching the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  By 1876, not every European-American (let alone African- and Asian-Americans) was an immigrant.  First, second, and even third generation Americans had been born in America, and had never visited Europe nor spoke the language of their immigrant forbearers.  For them, the vexing question was “What did it mean to be an American?”  Was there anything unique that made them different from a person who was born and lived in Great Britain, France, Spain, or Germany?  Could there, or should there be an American style of architecture that was different from the European styles that had been adopted by antebellum American architects? 

These three issues can be readily mapped onto the Vitruvian ideas of good architecture:

            economic growth: commodity

            technological innovation: firmness

            nationalism: delight

When one reviews the past histories of the skyscraper, the two central issues that historians have focused on are the development of the structural technology needed to support taller and taller buildings (firmness) and the corresponding evolution of the architectural expression of the skyscraper (delight).  Commodity has been the poor cousin, as most historians have usually just assumed it occurred.  This was not the case, however, for those who had to actually design an early skyscraper, as Root clearly stated over and over in his many talks on the subject, “Art in architecture is merely the expression in solid material that someone has thought about our comfort and delight.”  At a very basic level, these three issues as they pertained to the design of a nineteenth century skyscraper are one in the same: that is, a skyscraper’s exterior expression (delight) at this time was dependent upon its underlying structural system (firmness), that was influenced by the need to provide a maximum of daylight for the interior (commodity).  And this is where I want to begin this chapter, how these three factors, especially in terms of invention vs. tradition, influenced the design of a nineteenth century skyscraper.

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


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)


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.”


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.” 


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.


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)


Burnham and Root, John B. Sherman House, Chicago, 1874. Southwest corner of Prairie and E. 21st.. (Online)

In Volume Two, we saw that Peter B. Wight, after he had moved to Chicago following the 1871 fire to join Asher Carter and William Drake in Carter, Drake and Wight, had brought the twenty-two year old John Root to Chicago in early 1872 and made him the foreman of the office.  Later that same year, as a favor for a friend, Wight had also hired his friend’s peripatetic twenty-six year-old adult son, Daniel H. Burnham as a draftsman.  The younger Root seems to have had a maturing influence on Burnham, and the two young men quickly became good friends, moonlighting together on small jobs. With the economy in full bloom and a promised commission to plan a new suburb procured by Burnham, the two left Wight with his blessing and started their partnership on July 5, 1873.  However, ten weeks into the partnership, the roof caved in on September 19 with the stock market crash.  The projects on their boards dried up, leaving them to fend as best they could during the winter of 1873-74. Root gained some income by playing the organ in Boyington’s First Presbyterian Church, attesting to his innate musical abilities. (Harriet Monroe in her biography of Root related a tale that on one Sunday morning, the impish Root played a theme and variations on ”Shoo-fly” so slowly that nobody had recognized it.) They used their “down time” wisely to sharpen their knowledge of architectural history, by copying details from books and magazines and then quizzed each other until both could identify a detail from which country it was from within ten years of its design.

They survived with a few small house designs until their first major commission proved eventually to be responsible for much of the enormous success of the firm.  In 1874, George Chambers, a mutual friend of both Root and John B. Sherman, who had by then become the general superintendent of the Union Stockyards, had recommended them to Sherman who was looking for an architect to design a new house for his family at 2100 Prairie Avenue.  Root’s design reflected the latest architectural stylings: the Néo-Grec of Hunt and Furness, the English “picturesque” Queen Anne in its overall form, details inspired by Viollet-le-Duc’s just published Second volume of his Discourses, and Ruskin’s constructional polychromy: red pressed brick, beige sandstone, black slate, columns of dark blue granite, black slate roof tiles, and red and beige terra cotta chimney pots. Root added his own residential touch, a steeply-sloped gable roof, for he believed in snow-plagued Chicago, that “in this climate no house standing alone can be good without a visible roof.”

Burnham and Root, Entry Gate to Union Stockyards, 1876. The influence of Frank Furness, following Root’s trip to the 1876 World’s Fair is evident in the corbelled window frame to the left, and the framed segmental arched portals to either side of the main gate. (Online)

During the design and construction of the house, Burnham fell in love with Sherman’s daughter, Margaret, whom he married on January 20, 1876.  The marriage into the Sherman family not only immediately established connections with the stockyards (for which Burnham and Root designed the buildings erected after 1874, allowing the young firm to stay in business during the depression), but more importantly would also establish contacts through Sherman with all of the power brokers of Chicago’s railroads and the Board of Trade.  With Burnham’s marriage, Burnham and Root had moved onto the fast track to success.  

But then Root did Burnham one better, for on January 15, 1880, he married Mary (Minnie) Louise Walker, the daughter of Sherman’s boss, James Monroe Walker who at the time had been the president of the Stockyards since 1873 (by this time Sherman was its vice-president).  After James Walker (1820-1881) had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1849, he joined the Michigan bar and soon became the General Solicitor for the Michigan Central.  This required him to move to Chicago in 1853 where he in addition to his work for the MC, he established a private practice, eventually taking on Wirt Dexter as his junior partner.  In 1855 he also became the General Solicitor for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroads, becoming its president between 1871 and 1876, when he returned to being its General Solicitor.  Root’s joy was tinged with great sadness, however, as Minnie had contracted tuberculosis after the engagement but before the wedding and died on February 22, only six weeks after the wedding.

Nonetheless, Root continued to live with his in-laws for a while. Therefore, Burnham and Root had, by 1880 consummated their relations with Chicago’s upper crust (both young men had rich and powerful fathers-in-law who lived on THE STREET: Prairie Avenue. Walker at 1720 Prairie, just north of where the Glessners will build, and Sherman three blocks farther south at the southwest corner of Prairie and 21st).  They now had intimate connections with both the Board of Trade (whose directors were at this moment secretly planning to vacate the Chamber of Commerce building for a new building they were planning to build opposite the La Salle Street Station) soon to be on S. La Salle Street and Boston’s railroads to Chicago for which the Bostonians were planning the construction of the C. & W. I. station and the corresponding development of Dearborn Street.  They were about to have their cake on La Salle Street and eat it on Dearborn.  As they had married into Chicago’s elite, they were undoubtably invited to the same functions that Owen Aldis attended, where that one fateful Summer evening Root and Aldis found themselves at the same house and the fortunes of Root and Burnham took a quick turn to greatness. Personally, the recently bereaved Root needed just such a challenge that Aldis had presented to him the next day to help him through the grieving process over the loss of Minnie.   There was only one problem as Aldis walked out of Burnham & Root’s office the next day, however: none of these three men knew much about designing a seven-story office building. 

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


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

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.


William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

The plan to bring the C&WI tracks into Chicago inline with Dearborn coincided with the approaching completion of the U.S. Post Office and Custom House. Although originally designed in 1872 following the fire (see Vol. 1) by Alfred Mullet, then the Superintending Architect for the Treasury Department, Mullet died in 1874 and was replaced by William A. Potter who deserves the credit for its final appearance. Potter had stepped down in 1877 and was replaced with James G. Hill who supervised building’s completion. The Post Office took possession of its space on April 12, 1879, while construction continued into early 1880. Fortunately the Federal Government had purchased the entire site that in 1872 was was much larger than what the building’s program required, leaving the perimeter of the lot open as a much needed park. The Post Office was located on the ground floor, with the letter distribution room being located under the building’s huge 83′ x 198′ skylight.

William A.Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. Looking south from Adams Street. Note the skylight (83′ x 198′) at the second floor at the bottom of the lightcourt. (Rand McNally View #3)

With the new Post Office finally generating pedestrian traffic along Dearborn, that is, at least as far as Jackson, where the city’s construction of Dearborn had stopped, combined with the upturn in the national economy and the secret plan to build a new set of tracks into Chicago for the C&WI, the Brookses needed a local agent on the ground who could secretly buy up properties not only for the station, but also for speculative development, before news of the new railroad would go public.  Within weeks of Vanderbilt’s actions, the Brookses had retained local attorney Owen F. Aldis (1853-1925) in February 1879 to manage their Chicago properties.

Burnham & Root, Grannis Block, Chicago, 1880. East side of Dearborn, between Madison and Washington. (Online)

The twenty-five year old Aldis had the requisite New England genes, as he had been born in Vermont into a family whose grandfather and father had both been the State’s Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, had graduated from Yale in 1874 and then studied law at the Columbian School in Washington, DC.  After having completed law school, he was enticed by his new brother-in-law, Bryan Lathrop, a Chicago real estate financier who had just married Aldis’ older sister, Helen Lynde Aldis (1849-1935) in 1875.  (Note that it was pure serendipity, the fact that one of Chicago’s more powerful financiers fell in love with Owen’s older sister, that was responsible for this twenty-two year old Washington, DC lawyer becoming over time in control of over 25% of all Chicago commercial real estate.)  As I documented in Volume One, Lathrop was the nephew of local real estate magnate Thomas Bryan (who had taken over William Ogden’s unofficial role as Chicago’s “First Citizen” as Ogden grew older), who had become one of the city’s more successful and wealthier men. Bryan had groomed his nephew to be his protégé and under the tutelage of his uncle, Lathrop had quickly grown to be one of Chicago’s leading real estate managers, sharing in his uncle’s profitable investments, including life insurance, and in 1878 had succeeded his uncle as the President of Graceland cemetery.

As his uncle had introduced him to Chicago’s business community some ten years earlier, Lathrop was now returning the favor for his new brother-in-law Owen, by inviting him to come to Chicago to work with him.   Aldis’ father, Vermont’s Judge Asa O. Aldis, had helped launch his son’s career in property management by handing over the control of the few local properties he had purchased after the 1871 fire. Aldis had completed his new familial arrangements in December 1878 by marrying Leila Russell Houghteling, the eldest daughter of William De Zeng Houghteling, a prominent lumber merchant, just prior to being chosen to represent the interests of who would become Chicago’s most important commercial real estate developers in the coming decade.


Within weeks of Aldis’ wedding, Vanderbilt had closed the MC tracks to the GT triggering the investor group’s secret campaign to build the new C&WI route into Chicago. Those involved knew they had to move fast before news of their plans became public.  Within a month of Vanderbilt’s actions, the Brookses hired Aldis in February 1879 to be their manager for their Chicago interests, including the Portland Block at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Washington. (As I have not been able to uncover who was their agent prior to their contract with Aldis, I can only assign this important decision to the influence of Lathrop, who was taking over the reins of Graceland at this exact moment and could have wanted to hand the Brookses’ interests over to Aldis.)  We will learn later that the railroad’s investors were planning to locate the station inline with Dearborn, north of Harrison where the Brookses had already obtained the land through Aldis who secretly had used the name of Shepherd’s wife, Clara G. Brooks under the name of “D” before the railroad’s incorporation was publicly announced on June 5, 1879.  Obviously, it was to the railroad’s advantage locate its station as close to the business district as possible in order to compete with Vanderbilt’s La Salle Street station, that would have been only two blocks closer at Van Buren had these plans succeeded.

William Le Baron Jenney, Post-fire Portland Block, Chicago, 1872. Only the first four floors were erected in 1872. (The Land Owner, June 1873)

Meanwhile, Shepherd Brooks had also managed to acquire the lot on Dearborn immediately south of the Portland Block, for which he requested in 1880 that Aldis find someone interested in leasing the site for the purpose of erecting an office building.  Shepherd was more conservative than his older brother Peter and was not the least bit interested in speculating, as was revealed in the final lease agreement.  Aldis located a client in local builder Amos Grannis, who agreed to lease the site for forty years, paying 32 lbs. 3 oz. of gold for the first twenty years. 

Portland Block with two-story addition, 1880. Next to it is Burnham & Root’s Grannis Block, 1880. View is looking south down Dearborn. (Online)
Portland Block with two-story addition, 1880. Next to it is Burnham & Root’s rebuilt Grannis Block following its 1886 fire. The top two floors were rebuilt, which you can compare against the original. (Andreas, History of Chicago)

At the same time, September 1880, the Brookses decided to add two floors to the adjacent Portland Block, whose design followed neither Jenney’s original design nor the new rectilinear language of his Leiter Building, which leads one to speculate which architect Aldis had hired to design of the addition.  Meanwhile, across Dearborn at the southeast corner with Washington, the Kendall Building was also finally acquiring two additional floors that it was to originally have had ten years earlier because:

“there are many young attorneys, architects, artists, physicians, agents and others, who are commencing independent careers, and though it is necessary in order to get business to be centrally located, they cannot afford to pay such rents as are commanded by lower floors.  With the perfected elevator convenience, it makes but little difference if they are located on the 5th or 6th floor, business point, tho, there is a savings in rents.  If the fireproof ordinances are observed, and foundation walls are strong enough, there is no objection to putting on as many floors to any business block in this city.”

John Van Osdel, Kendall Block, with the 1878 addition of three more floors. Note how the horizontal layering of each floor allows the original design to gracefully accept the addition and still look complete. (Andreas, History of Chicago)

At a reception one night in mid-1880, Aldis had made the acquaintance of a relatively unknown architect, John Root (Root -30, Aldis- 27). The pair had hit it off immediately and had made their way to a small room where they could converse undisturbed.  The two bid their farewells around 1 in the morning, Root having had no idea who his new friend was.  From such a chance encounter would grow some of the world’s most famous buildings, for Aldis came away from the conversation that evening “knowing he [Root] was a genius, and the next day I brought [to Root’s surprise I’m sure] him a building.” (And it was just not another “building,” but a seven-story commercial office building!)  Aldis’ commission to design Amos Grannis’ new building (and I think the addition to the Portland Block as they were done at the same time) gave the young firm its first opportunity to design a multistory office building, and would launch Burnham & Root on a trajectory that would see them not only become the largest architectural firm in the U.S., but also play a seminal role in the development of a building type that would soon be called “the skyscraper.”  


Berger, Miles L. They Built Chicago: Entreprenuers Who Shaped a Great City’s Architecture. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1992.

Funigiello, Philip J.  Florence Lathrop Page.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1994.

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.


View Down La Salle Street. The La Salle Street Station is at end of the vista. (Gilbert, Chicago and Its Makers)

The answer to the Dearborn Street question revolves around “Commodore” Vanderbilt, even though he had died two years earlier in 1877.  While on the surface, one would have thought the effects of the depression would have been negative, or at best neutral, to the development of Dearborn, the depression, however, actually allowed Dearborn to acquire the one element that, prior to the panic, La Salle Street alone had possessed and as a consequence, had maintained a natural advantage over Dearborn in the development battle.  The advantage that La Salle Street enjoyed was provided by Vanderbilt’s Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad Station.  Although he had played no part in the location or erection of the pre-fire station, by the time of the 1871 fire, Vanderbilt had acquired complete control over the these railroads and the station, that also explains why it was the only station of the three destroyed by the fire (the IC and the C&NW being the other two) that was immediately rebuilt, and to which the city had recently extended La Salle Street one block farther south from Jackson through to Van Buren Street.

La Salle Street Extension to the La Salle Street Station, 1874. La Salle has been extended to the Michigan Southern Station. This is the reason for this station being named the La Salle Street Station, eventhough the Board of Trade will ask for this block to build a new building in 1881, which will divorce the station from La Salle Street once again, and will lead people today to ask why the station was not known as the Van Buren Street Station. (The Land Owner, July 1873)

The depression had also allowed Vanderbilt, through a series of clever stock manipulations, to buy the Michigan Central right out from under the noses of its Bostonian builders.  This action not only severed the eastern link (the MC) of the Bostonians’ highly profitable Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, its western link to Council Bluffs and the Union Pacific, but also had finally gained Vanderbilt a virtual monopoly of all rail traffic between Chicago and New York.  The only rail route from Chicago to the Northeast that had escaped the Commodore had been the Canadian Grand Trunk Railroad, yet even it had to rely on Vanderbilt’s good will to use the MC’s tracks to enter Chicago. (While the Pennsylvania RR avoided Vanderbilt’s reach, its tracks went farther south through Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, and then up into New York City.  It offered no alternative for the Grand Trunk.)  The Commodore had died on January 4, 1877, leaving his son, William H., a rail empire that controlled virtually all of the traffic between Chicago and the Northeast.  In one last grand attempt to complete the monopoly, William tried in early 1879 to close off the Canadian route by prohibitively increasing the Grand Trunk’s user fees for the MC’s tracks into Chicago.  This one act would have great ramifications on the development of Chicago’s Loop, for Vanderbilt’s total control of all rail traffic to the Northeast was simply intolerable for too many powerful financial interests, and the only solution was the construction of a new railroad (and station) from the Northeast into Chicago.


“The Modern Colossus of (Rail) Roads,” cartoon in 1879 Puck, Vol. VI, No. 44. In addition to Vanderbilt standing astride his rail empire, the image also includes Cyrus W. Field, Pres. of the NY Elevated RR, and Jay Gould, Pres. of the Union Pacific. (online)

The younger Vanderbilt had quickly met his match, for he had not only crossed swords with the Bostonians and Sir Henry Tyler, the strong-willed president of the Grand Trunk, but more importantly, he came into direct conflict with the investments of one of the world’s largest financial institutions, the House of Baring in London, who were quietly financing, in league with the Bostonians, their own transcontinental route from the Pacific and the China trade to the East, in the form of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  The younger Vanderbilt had severed the last available Eastern link in this route, which was simply unacceptable to all those financially involved with building the Santa Fe.  Responding to Vanderbilt’s challenge, Tyler announced that he would, unilaterally, build a new route from Detroit into Chicago. On June 5, 1879, the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad was formally incorporated, destined to become the Chicago entrance for all of Vanderbilt’s embittered rivals: Tyler’s Grand Trunk Western; the Baring’s and Bostonians’ Santa Fe; and even the New York Central’s perennial enemy, the Erie.  The paramount issue faced by Tyler and the other C. & W. I. investors was where to locate the new station in Chicago’s business district.  Its location would not only directly affect the success of the new railroad, but even more importantly, would easily generate huge profits in land speculation immediately adjacent to the new station.  Entire fortunes were at stake upon this decision.

Map of the Grand Trunk Railroad’s new track to Chicago, 1879-80. (Online)

It was quite natural that the final location of the station should be influenced by Bostonians, for much of the financial support of the parent railroads came from Boston.  One of Boston’s leading railroad experts, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., an investor in both the C. B. & Q. and the Santa Fe, and destined to become president of the Union Pacific in 1889, was a grandson of the elder Peter Chardon Brooks, meaning that he was a cousin of Peter and Shepherd Brooks, owners of the Portland Block on Dearborn Street.   There can be little doubt about the fact that these three powerful cousins in Boston were intimately involved in the decision to build the new C. & W. I. station in line with Dearborn Street. The railroad battle between Boston and New York was about to spill over into a new arena: would Dearborn or La Salle Street emerge as the north/south replacement for the Washington Street office corridor?


Stevens, George R. The Canadian National Railway. New York, Macmillan, 1973.


If you were Peter or Shepherd Brooks and planning to build the first new speculative office building in 1879 Chicago, following the end of the Depression, where would you build it?  While the 1871 fire had finally given Jenney an opportunity to design two downtown buildings, the Lakeside Building and the Portland Block, owned by the Brookses, the Bostonians did not return to him as the economy was improving, even though he was designing Leiter’s new building at that moment, to design their first post-recession speculative office building.  This is especially noteworthy because the lot for their planned building was directly south of Jenney’s Portland Block that stood at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Washington.  This fact leaves us with two questions?

1. Why did the Brooks continue to invest in Dearborn while the centroid of the reconstructed business district had shifted to the west and south with the temporary city hall and the relocation of the Custom House?

2. Why did they not continue with Jenney as their architect?

William Le Baron Jenney, Portland Block, Chicago, 1872. Southeast corner of Dearborn and Washington. (Online)


It did not take long for office space construction to return to Chicago, once New York and the East Coast had started to rebound from the depression. The issue in Chicago of establishing the north/south (or railroad) office corridor to replace the original east/west (or river) office/financial corridor of Washington Street that had been stalled by the depression, would be resolved during the upcoming five-year period of economic expansion.  In Volume One, I had discussed how Chicago’s urban structure, that had originally grown in an east-west axis paralleling the river (i.e., Water (W.Wacker)-warehouses, Lake-retail commercial, Randolph-hotel/office, Washington-churches) had rotated 90° to the south, in response to the Eastern railroads that came into town from the south, having to go around the bottom of Lake Michigan.  (In truth, one might argue as some have tried, that because the lake stopped growth to the east, and the river, for all practical purposes, did likewise to the north and west, south was the only way for the city’s business district to grow.  But this argument loses its credibility when one looks at all of the underbuilt sites in the business district that remained in 1880.)

State Street, looking south from Lake Street, c.1869-71. (Wade and Meyer, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

The churches had moved to S. Wabash, the pre-fire wholesale district had moved to N. Wabash, only to move after the fire to Market (N. Wacker), Potter Palmer had made State Street the new commercial strip, while competing interests developed Dearborn versus La Salle as the office/financial district. 

Looking south along Dearborn from Monroe before the 1871 fire. H.H. Honoré’s Real Estate Exchange (1868) is in the foreground, and the Bigelow House (the only photo of this building I have been able to find) is one block south at the southwest corner of Adams Street (where the post-fire Post Office/Customs House will be erected.) (Online)

The Brookses’ original Portland Block of 1857, at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Washington had marked the rotation of the Washington Street office/financial district to Dearborn that was to be reinforced before the fire with the erection of the city’s first skyscraper, the Kendall Block at the southwest corner.  Following the end of the war, H.H. Honoré’s (whose daughter Bertha had married Potter Palmer in 1870) had extended Dearborn south of the pre-fire Post Office and Custom House with the construction of three large office buildings between Monroe and Adams, seemingly in an attempt to parallel his new son-in-law’s development of State Street. 

Looking south down La Salle from the Courthouse, pre-1871 fire. John M. Van Osdel, City Hall-County Courthouse, Additional floor and dome, 1858. (right) Burling and Baumann, Chamber of Commerce, 1865.  (Jevne & Almini, Chicago Illustrated)

However, La Salle Street had the Courthouse/City Hall with the Chamber of Commerce at the southeast corner of Washington (mirroring the Portland Block’s location) at the north end, and it ran south to the one advantage that Dearborn did not possess, the station for the Michigan Southern/Rock Island Railroad. 

W.W. Boyington, Post-Fire Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Station, 1872. Note the company’s name has been updated from the “Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana” to the Vanderbilt “Lake Shore & Michigan Southern.” (Chicago Historical Society)

I documented William Ogden’s personal investment with both railroads in Volume One, so it was no coincidence that in 1871 he began construction of the Nixon Building at the northeast corner of La Salle and Monroe, exactly midway along La Salle between the station and City Hall (seemingly as a parry to Honoré’s Dearborn development).

John M. Van Osdel, Post-Fire Temporary City Hall, the “Rookery,” 1872-1885. Southeast corner of La Salle and Adams. Built around the Waterworks Water Tank that had survived the 1871 Fire, the tank acted as storage for over 8,000 books that were sent by Queen Victoria and Great Britain in the aftermath of the fire. (Online)

The 1871 fire had forced City Hall to relocate to the surviving Water Reservoir at the southeast corner of La Salle and Adams, extending La Salle Street’s prime real estate another three and half block farther south, exactly as how the relocation of the Post Office/Customs House to Dearborn and Adams had provided a similar incentive along Dearborn.  Quite frankly, a chess game could not have been played more masterfully, with the exception that Dearborn lacked a railroad station. 

La Salle Street Extension to the La Salle Street Station, 1874. La Salle has been extended to the Michigan Southern Station. This is the reason for this station being named the La Salle Street Station, eventhough the Board of Trade will ask for this block to build a new building in 1881, which will divorce the station from La Salle Street once again, and will lead people today to ask why the station was not known as the Van Buren Street Station. This illustration was made to showcase a post-fire proposal in 1874 to build a market in the block bounded by Adams, Fifth (Wells), Jackson, and Franklin. Note the post-fire City Hall with its domed skylight providing light for the library located within the old cylindrical water tank, in the lower lefthand corner, above which is shown the Grand Pacific Hotel. (The Land Owner, July 1873)

Boston’s Brooks brothers apparently had decided to cast their lot with Dearborn Street after the 1871 fire, when they chose to rebuild their Portland Block according to Jenney’s design, across Dearborn from where the shortened, post-fire version of the Kendall was being erected.  In Volume One I had documented the suspicious nature of the move of the Post Office two blocks farther south on Dearborn, to the south to the block bounded by Dearborn, Adams, Clark and Jackson Streets, that provided a natural magnet to pull development south along Dearborn and noted that someone had made a bundle by selling this property to the Federal government.  One must at least speculate, based on what we about to uncover, whether the Brookses had inside information or any involvement with this particular transaction.

William A. Potter, Post-Fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, 1874-80. Block bounded by Adams, Dearborn, Jackson, and Clark. (Gilbert, Chicago and Its Makers)
Map of the Loop, 1879. (Author’s collection)

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


As the Leiter Building contained only one-fifth the floor area of the Shillito’s Store, there was no reason to incur the expense of duplicating McLaughlin’s use of iron girders in such a small structure.  (The Shillito’s Store had a footprint of 270′ x 174′ while the Leiter Building’s was a mere 102′ x 82′.  The Shillito’s Store had 567 lineal feet of six-story facade, while the Leiter Building’s five-story facades measured 184 lineal feet, over 85′ shorter than just the front of Shillito’s.) Jenney, therefore, used cast iron columns to support heavy timber beams at each floor.

Jenney, First Leiter Building. First Floor Plan. Iron pilasters at the inside face of the Wells Street piers are circled. The arrows indicate the direction in which the wood joists run. (Art Institute of Chicago)

The floors were constructed in a standard manner, using 3″ x 12″ wooden joists on 9″ centers that ran between primary beams upon which was placed wood decking. (Contrary to the popularly-held legend that wood construction was outlawed after the 1871 fire, wood had been used in Chicago’s buildings some eight years after the fire, and would continue to be so for another six.)    The timber beams ran parallel to the Monroe Street front, meaning that the Wells Street piers would have normally been used to support the ends of the timber beams.  This detail would, however, have required Jenney to increase the cross-section of the Wells Street piers to enable them to support the additional concentrated loads from the ends of the beams, and then to correspondingly increase the required section of the Monroe Street piers for symmetry (that was the apparent solution McLaughlin chose in the Shillito’s store as both sets of piers have the same dimensions).  Doing this, however, would have resulted in a corresponding reduction in the amount of daylight received by the interior (Jenney’s primary concern as already seen in his design of the Portland Block).

Jenney, First Leiter Building, 1879. Construction Detail of Masonry Spandrel and Pier. Note that the iron spandrel beams have a bearing plate that transfers their load to the masonry, not the iron pilaster. Jenney used a pair of plates to connect the webs of the spandrels at either side of the pier to gain some continuity through the joint. Historian Frank Randall stated that these beams were timber, not iron.

To avoid this situation, he placed an 8″ x 12″ cast iron pilaster at the inside face of the Wells Street piers to support the end of the timber beams.  The iron pilaster was not, however, continuous for all five floors, as the thickness of the piers in the fourth and fifth floors was reduced by four inches, with the iron pilasters stepping back with the interior face of the masonry.  (The first person to realize the significance of this offset was historian Charles E. Gregerson.) The floor loads carried by the iron pilasters in these two upper floors appear to have been actually transferred to and carried by the lower three stories of the masonry piers, which seemingly is in conflict with the idea of eliminating the transmission of the floor loads to the masonry piers.  This is evident when one reviews Jenney’s original drawings.  The piers in the Monroe Street front decreased in thickness from 2′-8″ in floors one and two, 2′-4″ in the third floor, 2′-0″ in the fourth floor, to 1′-8″ in the top floor.  

Jenney, First Leiter Building, 1879. Sectional Elevation of Ironwork in Monroe Street Facade. Note three details: First, the spandrels bear on the masonry piers (as detailed above); second, the iron mullions are continuous, i.e., load bearing to the foundation; and third, there are no iron sections in the masonry piers. (Art Institute of Chicago)

The Leiter Building’s two masonry street fronts were constructed in a method typical for the period, not unlike that used in the Shillito’s Store.  The masonry spandrel at each floor level that spanned between the brick piers was constructed on an assembly of an ornamented cast iron window head that was bolted to two seven-inch deep I-beams.  These were supported at each end by the brick piers and at third points by the two continuous cast iron mullions set between the piers Because the spandrels along the Monroe Street front supported the floor joists, this meant that some of this floor load was carried over to the piers (and Jenney may have rationalized that these loads, and the corresponding increase in their cross section paralleled the loads from the iron sections supporting floors four and five caused by the wall offsets).  Not all of the floor loads carried by the spandrel beams, however, were carried to the piers because more than half of the floor loads along the Monroe Street front was supported by the non-fireproofed iron framework of continuous mullions and spandrels.  However dangerous this detail may seem today, it was standard practice throughout the country for more than fourteen years after the 1871 fire.

In summary, the structure designed by Jenney in the Leiter Building was a strange amalgam of wood beams and joists supported by cast iron columns in the interior, and at the exterior by a curious hybrid of iron and masonry.  As the iron framework of mullions and spandrels between the exterior brick piers had no mechanical connection or relation to the iron pilasters behind the Wells Street piers and the timber beams they supported, Jenney cannot be given credit, as he at times is, for conceiving this building as an early essay in iron skeleton framing.  Some historians have claimed that Jenney’s use of iron sections in the Wells Street piers had significant architectural aesthetic consequences; i.e., the “now-slimmer” brick piers permitted a maximum of glass with a corresponding gridlike read in the elevation. This is simply untrue at two levels: first, the Shillito’s Store had no iron sections in its piers, yet it had a maximum of glass (indeed, because the building was taller, the piers were carrying more load) and its elevations were grids; and second, while the Leiter’s Wells Street piers had the iron sections, the Monroe Street piers did not, yet the Monroe Street elevation had a maximum of glass and read as a structural grid. I have to disagree: the insertion of the iron sections had no aesthetic consequence that resulted in an expression of the structural grid. McLaughlin had already proved this not to have been the case.

Nonetheless, Jenney’s use of iron sections along the building’s exterior piers represents the first example of the return of iron sections in a building’s exterior piers since the fires of 1871-4 had shown the futility of using unprotected iron columns in a building’s exterior.  In essence, it marks the start of the slow but inexorable incorporation of iron columns back into the exteriors of multistoried buildings, especially in those erected in Chicago during the upcoming decade.


Randall, Frank A. History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago (2nd ed.). Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1999.        

Turak, Theodore. William Le Baron Jenney. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986.

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


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 not only because it was the largest department store in the country at this moment, but also 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)


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.


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)