Wight continued to improve his system, patenting (#191,622) on June 5, 1877, an improved system for connecting the casings to the column. This was apparently first used in the Orient Mutual Insurance Building in New York, designed by Alfred H. Thorp in 1877. The building was said to have been completely fireproofed, using iron beams and Wight’s columns.
The building marked Wight’s penetration into the East Coast market and return to his former hometown as a fireproofing contractor. Here he would find not just competing products made by New York manufacturers, but also outright opposition to the use of all iron columns in building, including those “protected” by his clay tile casings. First, let’s review the development of fireproofing techniques for iron structures in the East.
3.15. THE STATE OF FIRECLAY TILE FIREPROOFING ON THE EAST COAST
While Wight and Loring, inspired by the pioneering efforts of George Johnson, were refining their systems for fireproofing wood and iron structures in Chicago in the 1870s, Eastern manufacturers were on parallel courses towards the same ends. Therefore, it is appropriate to go back in time in New York to Johnson’s patent of a clay tile flooring system of March 21, 1871, and follow the parallel development of terra cotta fireproofing in New York. (As this is a blog rather than a paper book, I can repeat the needed images I have already used.) Johnson had already patented (#87,679) on March 7, 1869, a system of hollow fireclay tile blocks that was used to construct either round or square fireproof grain bins in the elevators.
Although Johnson held the patent, he needed expertise in the manufacturing of fireclay products. My research points to Johnson collaborating with New York’s leading fireclay producer, Balthasar Kreischer. Kreischer (1813-86) had been born in 1813 in Bavaria to a father who was a brickmaker. Following the 1835 New York fire, the twenty-two year old immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of finding work with his talents. Within ten years he had uncovered beds of clay needed to make fireclay for baker’s ovens and bricks to line fireplaces. There was no one more able in New York in 1869 to produce Johnson’s newly-patented clay tiles than Kreischer.
Stimulated by his interest in such systems, Johnson apparently had traveled to Paris in 1870, just prior to the start of hostilities with Prussia, to study the latest developments in fireproof floor construction. Johnson coupled this new information with Kreischer’s experience of clay manufacturing to address the problem of fireproofed floors. The two had patented (#112,926) a hollow tile floor system on March 21, 1871.
Johnson and Kreischer’s system consisted of a monolithic terra cotta piece or pot that spanned between two beams. The monolithic nature of the design is curious in that the majority of patented French systems that Johnson would have seen during his trip, incorporated segmented arches and had been in existence at least five years prior to his trip. The story becomes then becomes suspicious as Kreischer returned to the Patent Office later that same day and patented (#112,930) without Johnson the same system, except that it incorporated a three-piece segmental arch.
We then followed Johnson who moved to Chicago either before or following the 1871 fire, where during the following year he had developed a segmental system of voussoir-shaped tiles similar to the French systems as well as Kreischer’s patented system. These were 9″ deep and formed with side angles of 18° and first used by Van Osdel in the post-fire Kendall Building, making the this the first use of segmented-arch floor tiles that I have be able to find in the U.S. As Van Osdel and Sanford Loring enjoyed a close personal relationship and that Chicago Terra-Cotta, because of its location had not been harmed by the fire, it is probable that Loring produced all of Johnson’s hollow tile units for the Kendall Building. Unfortunately, this system was viewed at the time in Chicago to be overly-expensive and never caught on. Then the 1873 Crash forced Johnson to return to his native New York City. Nonetheless, his influence on Wight and Loring’s later developments cannot be denied, and I wonder if Johnson was happy or not about their work going around his patents. A point we will return to later.
What did Johnson find when he returned to New York after his two years in Chicago? We are fortunate for the research of historian Sara Wermiel that has documented New York’s early history of this industry. Following Johnson’s move to Chicago, Kreischer, licensed his second patent in 1872 to two men experienced with iron construction: Wilson Haven who had worked for both Bogardus and Badger before taking a position with the Novelty Works in Brooklyn, where he met draftsman John Heuvelman. Novelty Works fell into bankruptcy and the two formed a new company, Heuvelman, Haven & Company (HHC) that Kreischer licenced to produce hollow tile segmental arched floors (see illustration above) based on his patent. These were first used in late 1873 in the new U.S. Post Office designed by the Department of the Treasury’s architect, A. B. Mullett.
The other pioneer New York company was the Fire-Proof Building Company (FBC), formed by two brothers, Leonard and Arthur Beckwith. Although born in the U.S., their father’s business had taken the family to France where the two brothers had graduated with engineering degrees from the École Central des Arts and Manufactures (the same school from which Jenney had graduated ten years earlier) in 1868. While they were enrolled, they attended the 1867 Paris’ Exposition Universelle, for which their father was the U.S. Commissioner General. They were able to study the Fair’s construction exhibits that showcased the latest French flooring systems that augmented their education about such systems they had received at the École.
Leonard had become an expert in the French concrete system of Françoise Coignet, therefore, their initial fireproofing products included both those made with fireclay and those made with concrete. Wermiel documented that this was not modern concrete made with Portland cement, but with hydraulic lime of Teil, that they imported from France. They began to contract to make these products in 1872 and formally incorporated the FBC in 1873. To promote their new products, they held a test fire of a house made with walls of their concrete blocks and with their ceiling tiles covering wood joists. (Note: this occurred a year before Wight had run a similar test of his wood gore column casings.) After being allowed to burn for an hour, the fire was extinguished to also test the blocks ability to resist the pressure of the water and the resulting temperature change (contraction). The house survived and the test received favorable publicity.
One architect who took note was Richard Morris Hunt, who at this time had the commission for the New York Tribunebuilding. (Here is where we pick up the story of its interior construction from where we left it in Section 3.4.) Hunt, having been educated at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts, would have appreciated the “French connection” of the Beckwiths. I noted the jarring contrast between the building’s gravity structure of solid masonry walls (5’ 2” thick) at the bottom) and the FRC’s latest technology of its lightweight fireclay block floors. I must assume that the floor tiles used looked like those shown in the center of this 1874 FBC pamphlet.
The fire demonstration must have gotten George Post’s attention as well as he specified FBC’s curved tiles to span between the curved beams in the Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn that he designed in 1873. This was the same building, in fact the same dome, for which Peter Wight designed the interior ornamentation that I described in Volume 2, Section 2.7.
The competition, in which both Post and Wight were invited, for this building was held in 1869. This was two years before Wight moved to Chicago. With Wight’s brother-in-law sitting on the bank’s board, the two made a deal that whoever won would employ the other in completing the project. Post’s early Neo-Renaissance design was chosen the winner and, therefore, he contracted Wight to design the interior. This was in early 1870 when Wight was still in New York, but the project dragged on for three years until construction of the interior began in 1874. If you are anticipating my line-of-thought, 1874 was the year of the second Chicago fire, after which Wight patented his system of wood pieces to fireproof an iron column on September 8, 1874.
By this date (Landau says Wight did the designs in 1873) he must have been working on the details for the inside of the bank’s dome that was to be constructed with FBC’s concrete blocks. This begs the question for some researcher in the future to answer: looking at FBC’s 1874 pamphlet, one sees a system of curved concrete blocks obviously designed to fireproof an cylindrical iron column. So which detail came first?
Landau, Sarah B. George B. Post, Architect. New York: Monacelli Press, 1998.
Landau, Sarah Bradford. P.B.Wight: Architect, Contractor, and Critic: 1835-1925. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1981.
Wermiel, Sara E. “Léonard & Arthur Beckwith: deux Centraliens dans l’Amérique du XIX siècle,” Centraliens no. 627 (Juillet 2013), pp. 53-60. (www.centraliens.net)
Wermiel, Sara E. The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000.
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