CHAPTER 4. THE NINETEENTH CENTURY SKYSCRAPER: DELIGHT

Companile, St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice. (Author’s collection)

As Root sat at his drawing board in early 1880, mulling over the ideas he was developing for the exterior for the Grannis Block that Owen Aldis had commissioned, his first multistoried building, his mind would have quickly reviewed prior buildings that he was familiar with, whether they were from the past or the present, including those he had just seen in the latest magazines.  His next project for Aldis would be the 10-story Montauk Block, generally agreed to be Chicago’s first skyscraper, so I am just going to blur these two buildings into one process: the design of a skyscraper.

What should a skyscraper look like, and, more importantly for Root, as an artist, how should an architect design a skyscraper?  (What I mean by design is, instead of just erecting a 10-story building as a contractor might build a factory, an architect must have an artistic/theoretical concept/idea to achieve in the design.  In literature, this is referred to as a theme or plot.)  As a new type of building, the problem of designing an early skyscraper presented a nineteenth architect architect with a quandary.   There was no tradition of designing a 10-story building.  There were no prior skyscrapers, or precedents, that an architect could turn to for inspiration or direction in how to design it.  For an art that by 1880 had relied upon the traditions and precedents of the past not only as the point of departure in the design of a building, but also as the yardstick against which to measure the quality of the final product, one was literally dumbfounded as to where or how to begin, as Root honestly related in 1890:

“Looking at the problems presented by these buildings… we may certainly guess that all preexisting architectural forms are inadequate for their solution, and that no logical combination of those forms can be made efficient without changes so great as to be practically destructive.”

4.1. HISTORIC PRECEDENTS OF TALL STRUCTURES

Going back to the history books to find examples in the known Western world, an architect might find inspiration for the design of a tall structure in the following periods:

1. Egyptian: the obelisk was a vertical structure.

2. Greek: the Lighthouse at Alexandria was reputed to have been the tallest structure in the ancient world with a height estimated between 375′ and 450.’  The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was the other well-known tall structure of the era estimated to have been 135′ tall.

3. Rome: although Rome had built apartment buildings that were 5-6 stories high, the exterior of monumental buildings such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon were treated in a similar manner.  Their exterior elevations comprised of horizontal layers of one-story tall engaged pilasters carved into the marble veneers that were applied one on top of another to their masonry structures.  

Colosseum, Rome. (Online)

Similar to the Egyptian obelisks, Rome also built a number of monumental columns, the best known being the Column of Trajan and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, the height of each topped off at around 100.’

4. Byzantine/Romanesque: the bell towers (campanile) of the new Christian churches were a new type of vertical structure. The best-known being St. Mark’s in Venice and the leaning structure at Pisa.

5. Gothic: the Gothic Cathedral can easily be understood as the first “vertical” style of architecture. That is, instead of stacking one horizontally accented layer of building on top of another, the Gothic nave, directing the eyes of the viewer towards heaven to make a direct connection with God required a dominant, unbroken vertical accent in the building’s interior elevations, that eventually was continued into the building’s exterior. 

Amiens Cathedral. (Author’s collection)

4.2. AMERICAN MAINSTREAM ARCHITECTURE IN 1880

In Volume Two, Section 1.5 I reviewed the state of American Architecture in 1880 and had summarized it in both the East and the West (Midwest), before the parting of the ways in 1884, using my combination of John Summerson’s and Barry Bergdoll’s taxonomies as Eclectic/Pluralistic.  As proof of this, I offered the AIA’s first list of Top Ten American buildings, that included examples of Richardsonian Romanesque, Victorian Gothic, Gothic Revival, and French Châteauesque.  I would categorize the styles then in vogue along their ornamental details as:

1. CLASSICAL: 

British: Neo-Renaissance Palazzo 

Charles Barry, Travellers’ Club, London, 1829. (Online)

French: Neo-Baroque 2nd Empire 

Charles Garnier, Paris Opera House, 1861-75. (Author’s collection)

2. GOTHIC:

British:Victorian Gothic 

George Gilbert Scott, Midland Hotel, in front of St. Pancras Station, London, 1865. (Online)

French: Gothic Revival

Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Entretiens sur l’architecture, volume I, 1863. Apartment building with iron corbels and ceramic tile facade. (Midant, Viollet-le-Duc)

3. ROMANESQUE:

American: Romanesque Revival 

H.H. Richardson, Townhall, North Easton, Mass, 1879. (Online)

German: Rundbogenstil

Rundbogenstil: Friedrich von Gärtner, Bavarian State Library, Munich, 1831. (Online)

4. AVANT-GARDE (as experienced by Root)

British: Peter Ellis

Peter Ellis, Liverpool, Left: Oriel Chambers, 1864; Right: 16 Cook Street, 1866. (Online)

German: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Bauakademie

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Bauakademie, Berlin, 1831. (Online)

French: Henri Labrouste Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. (Author’s collection)

American: Néo-Grec: Frank Furness

Furness and Hewitt, Centennial National Bank, Philadelphia, 1876. (Online)

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

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